In your opinion, what is
the essence of Islam?
To be lenient towards others
and understand their value systems, knowing that they are
tolerated by Islam as a religion. The essence of Islam is
encapsulated in the phrase, ‘For you, your religion; for me, my
religion.’ That’s the essence of tolerance.
What role can Indonesia
play in the global development of a peaceful and pluralistic
First, by presenting Islam's
tolerant nature; and second, by ‘mining’ old and new values from
Islam, and sharing these interpretations worldwide.
Why did you decide to
become Libforall Foundation’s patron and advisor?
It’s important to support work
like that. Besides, I’ve known Holland Taylor [Libforall's
founder and CEO] for years. He’d come to my office and we’d
talk about religion and this and that, but he never tried to
force his own views on me. That’s what’s important.
How can Libforall
Foundation help Indonesia and the Islamic world?
By disseminating our views.
As I’ve always said to Muslim visitors from the Middle East,
Islam there is a bit different from ours. How? For example, in
Indonesia ladies can kiss the hands of teachers, whether they’re
male or female, while in Middle Eastern countries, they’re not
allowed. The Qur’an says that if motivated by sexuality, women
should not be close to men. Here, we say that precisely because
of that [Qur’anic verse], if a female kisses the hands of her
teachers out of respect and not out of sexual desire, then it’s
ok [laughter]. Here we differentiate between Qur’anic verses
and prophetic traditions on the one hand, and laws and cultural
practices on the other.
What can individual
Americans do to help prevent another attack like that of 9/11?
That’s a question that I
cannot answer, you see, because the same question bedevils me.
How significant is a man
like Ahmad Dhani, and his music, to Indonesia’s development as
a free and prosperous nation?
Well, of course he tries to
present the cultural manifestation of the quote-unquote “right
Islam”… that Islam is tolerant, that Islam is democratic, that
Islam looks after the welfare of people… not something rigid
like ‘Islam is above everything else.’”
Radical Islamist groups
have attacked Ahmad Dhani and his band Dewa, and accused them of
trying to “destroy” Islam. What is your opinion of their
Those claims are false.
Wrong. Actually those people would like to attack me, but they
don’t have the courage, so they try that on Dhani instead.
As the long-time head of
the world’s largest Muslim organization, you've often sent
members of the Nahdlatul Ulama to defend Christian churches and
congregations from attack. Could you tell us why?
It’s my belief that the
majority should always protect the minority. It so happens that
now Christians are the minority in Indonesia, so I have to
protect them. One way [in addition to having his supporters to
defend churches from physical attack] is by knowing the
difference between existing laws and technical regulations. For
example, whenever Christians want to build a church here, people
from the extreme persuasion will say to the local government
that according to regulations, permission has to be granted by
the majority to build that church.
I explain to Muslims that the
reason Christians would like to build so many churches, is
because they’re divided into a large number of denominations.
Muslims—whether Shi’ites, modernists or traditionalists—can all
pray in the same mosque. But Christian liturgy varies by
denomination, so although they may have a congregation of only
five people, they still need a separate church. So I tell
people that beyond the technical regulations, we have to
remember that our constitution guarantees and permits the
building of churches.
What is the most effective
way to overcome religious extremism in the Islamic world?
By explaining what Islam truly
is, because without that explanation, people will tend to accept
the [unrefuted] extremist view.
What policies should the
American government pursue in order improve its image and
promote a peaceful and harmonious relationship with the Islamic
I think two things at once.
One is by trying to disseminate liberalistic ideas among
Muslims, but without ever mentioning that they’re liberal
(laughter). The other is by helping Muslims understand that
modernity is a blessing for everybody, including Muslims
themselves. We can adopt modern, liberalistic values without
losing our identity as Muslims. This is what’s important. I
myself have been exposed to Western culture, and Westernized to
some extent, in my clothes for example, but I’m still a Muslim.
I refrain from drinking alcohol, or eating pork. This makes me
distinct from Western people.
Do you have any last words
for our audience? Any final message for American viewers?
Well, I think the most
important thing now is just to act on what you believe.
Tolerance, yes, of course. So just make that a reality in your