In the past few months, the nation has been besieged by cases linked to religion. They range from blasphemy, which tend to emerge intermittently, to banning the public worship of certain faiths and the celebration of religious holy days, which led to the rejection of Tengku Zulkarnain, deputy secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), when he attempted to arrive at Sintang, West Kalimantan, two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, as the influence of hardline mass groups like the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) grows stronger, moderate Islamic organizations like the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, seem to be distancing themselves from the government. Understandably, the public wonders whether the religious affairs minister is doing his job.
Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin claims he opposes hardline organizations. “As far as I understand it, Islam does not teach violence,” said Lukman, son of Saifuddin Zuhri, a religious affairs minister during the Sukarno era. Lukman said that his ministry cannot do much to reduce the turmoil arising from the blasphemy case, given that it is a legal and not a religious case. “I cannot be involved,” he said, “just from the sidelines.”
The minimal involvement of his ministry has led to rumors that Lukman, 54, will be on his way out when the next cabinet reshuffle is expected to take place in the next few days. “I have nothing to lose,” he said, in the midst of issues swirling around him. Two weeks ago, the quota for Indonesian haj pilgrims was raised by 10,000, totaling 221,000. This is expected to reduce about three years of the waiting time for would-be pilgrims.
In the visitor’s room of the religious affairs ministry in central Jakarta last week, Lukman welcomed Tempo reporters Sunudyantoro, Sapto Yunus, Raymundus Rikang and Reza Maulana, for a special interview. For over an hour, Lukman gave his take on a number of issues, such as the growing intolerance towards religions other than Islam, the plan to require clerics and preachers to be certified, and his views about the title habib. During the photo session, he refused to wear a turban, saying he was not worthy to be wearing one, although it is usually worn by ulemas (clerics and religious scholars).
After the Defend Islam protests, cases of intolerance seem to be on the increase. What’s at the root of it all?
This is a complex problem. There is a heightened expression of religiosity. The blasphemy case is just the trigger. The November 4 and December 2 demonstrations were expressions of democracy, which is why people dared to show it off. The non-violence of the December 2 protests should be seen as something positive. This is populism wrapped in religion. But don’t forget, all this is not happening in empty space. There’s the context of the regional elections, political rivalry, economic competition and outside ideology, like the caliphate. Everything is influencing (one another). We must sort it out carefully. Negative action, like radicalism heading towards extremism and rejecting different beliefs, must be treated firmly.
What is the government doing about the situation?
The religious affairs ministry is creating a program to ensure our Indonesian identity is not destroyed. We have given our religious instructors a picture of how to respond to the intolerance phenomenon. The ministry’s employees are also being counseled not to adopt an extremist ideology. We have also paid considerable attention to social media, because the public’s media literacy level is still low. Yet, social media can be a weapon against those spreading ideas and information that go against the Indonesian identity. We also provide orientation on issues of nationhood to teachers at religious and education institutions, as well as in mosques.
Why do you include mosques?
Because anyone, whatever his background, whom we are not acquainted with, but who is self-confident, can take the podium and preach, or give a sermon. We are currently making an inventory of mosques whose preachers spread radicalism. We also hold discussions with Islamic mass organizations and scholars on the need for certifying preachers.
Will the government form some kind of preaching standards?
The minimal qualification of a preacher must be approved jointly by religious leaders. We don’t want to be accused of being a repressive regime which restricts people from speaking. Another thing that must be considered by those in authority is to issue certificates for (qualified) preachers.
How do you view preachers having trans-national outlooks, like the Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Mujahiddin?
The philosophy we want to instill is how religion must be grounded according to the place where it is developing. Although we are different, we are united by our Indonesian-ness (identity). So, I am an Indonesian who happens to be Muslim. If I was a Christian, I would be an Indonesian who is Christian. So, being an Indonesian is the main thing. Let us not allow this Indonesian-ness to break apart in the name of religion.
What about hardline Islamic organizations which often spread hatred?
Anyone can voice their aspirations, but it should be within limits. That’s why the ministry has drafted a Bill on Religious Protection. Some of its chapters, for example, have provisions on hate speech. How is it possible for a religion to teach its supporters to attack and denounce other faiths?
That Bill could be rejected by many people.
Our problem in this very diverse Indonesia is that we seek moderation between two extreme poles, from the most liberal to the conservative. Of course, it’s not possible to please everyone. No country has ever regulated religious life as Indonesia does. We are not a religious state, like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Vatican. But we are also not a secular state, which just leaves religious issues to the individuals themselves. No country regulates its religious life by law. This is a unique feature of Indonesia that needs to be put in order.
Is there a middle way?
The key word is moderate religion. Any one of the religions in Indonesia is basically moderate. Hindus in Indonesia are not extreme like those in India. That goes for Buddhism, too. None of them kill in the name of their religion.
Referring to how the Defend Islam protests were managed, some people say you should have influenced Islamic groups. How do you respond to that?
I accept and respect that assessment. However, I am the religious affairs minister while the Defend Islam demonstrators explicitly announced they were for law enforcement. It had nothing to do with religion, so it was not my domain to enter. I could watch from the offside because the police were involved.
But shouldn’t the religious affairs ministry be mentoring Islamic groups, including those involved in mass protests?
I opened channels of communications with them, especially before the demonstrations. But to demonstrate was their right and we must respect that, even though my own aspirations differ. So long as they don’t turn anarchic, we must honor that.
They even spread rumors that you were about to be fired. Is that true?
I don’t know about rumors of a reshuffle. In my view, there is nothing to lose. If you have been following me (from the start), my being a minister was accidental (laughs). I was meant to be a minister for only four months under the cabinet of Pak Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, I never thought to be re-appointed.
The executives of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah criticized the government for not embracing Islamic groups. Shouldn’t that be the task of the religious affairs ministry?
There’s some truth in that criticism. We hear it and accept it as part of our introspection to reform. The NU and the Muhammadiyah have a long history and they have been contributing since before independence. Essentially, we ensure that together we can develop a moderate religion.
What made the communications between the government, the NU and Muhammadiyah go sour?
It was not the communications that didn’t go smoothly, but it was more because I was restraining myself, given that the protesters demanded law enforcement, not a religious issue to be solved.
What about organizations like the FPI? Reportedly, you are uncomfortable with the habibs of that organization.
I met them twice to establish a dialog, but no results can be expected overnight, particularly as those protests were complex problems. It not only involved the (alleged) blasphemy by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, but there is a long history over the deadlocked communication between Pak Ahok and this group. The issues just accumulated, which led to his Thousand Islands speech. So what is involved here are issues on religion, society and, perhaps, even personal issues.
In your opinion, to what extent does the title ‘habib’ add to the authenticity of an ulama?
Habib is an honorific, a title, not a degree, that is given to a person because his heritage shows lineage to the Prophet. As such, habibs have the responsibility and moral obligation to defend religious values, such as having a noble demeanor, a soft heart, a sense of forgiveness, be full of caring, is peace-loving. Habib Zen Smith, the leader of the Rabithah Alawiyah (an organization which records the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), has emphatically declared that no one is worthy of taking that honorific if his behavior goes against that of the Prophet.
According to my limited religious knowledge, I have never found a hadith or a description where the Prophet became angry at anyone or rebuked another person.
As such, does Rizieq Syihab with his behavior, deserve the title he carries?
Let’s not go in that direction. My opinion should just go so far (laughs).
What about charges against Rizieq for insulting Pancasila?
An additional clause-hubbul wathan minal iman-translates as love of one’s country is part of one’s faith. In other words, the quality of one’s faith can be measured by how much one loves one’s country. The embodiment of this is by honoring and upholding the country’s ideology and symbol. So, if a Muslim behaves otherwise, his or her faith or religion can be questioned.