Cleric says Islam compatible with democracy

JAKARTA - Muslim cleric Ahmad Syafii Maarif celebrated his 80th birthday with the launch of his new book about the state of Islam and democracy in Indonesia.

In the book, published by Syafii's Maarif Institute, Syafii argues that Islamic thinking fits well with the country's local traditions.

Titled Islam dalam Bingkai Keindonesiaan dan Kemanusiaan (Islam in the Framework of Indonesian Culture and Humanism), Syafii writes that one of the reasons he wrote the book was his concern for Indonesia's fading pluralism in the face of Muslim majoritarianism.

Syafii said if society failed to honour its pluralist traditions, the country could face conflict.

He said the only option for Indonesia was to become a diverse society that promoted humanist values.

"With this book, I want our diversity to become a blessing," he told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the book launch.

Syafii, who stepped down from his position as chairman of Muhammadiyah in 2005, is a well-known advocate for religious pluralism.

In 2005, he won the prestigious Magsaysay Award for his work in promoting embrace tolerance and pluralism among Indonesian Muslims.

A supporter of an Islamic state in his youth, Syafii discarded the thinking after his encounter with Pakistani Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman while he was studying at the University of Chicago.

Upon returning to Indonesia, many of the radical heirs to the former Islamic political party. Masyumi. were angry at him, accusing him of betraying political ideals and becoming an agent for the US to weaken Islam from within.

In the new book, Syafii revisits some of those allegations.

In the first chapter, Syafii discusses the early arrival of Islam in the archipelago, when Islam was able to peacefully coexist and interact with other faiths and cultures.

The next two focuses on Islam's compatibility with democracy, delving at length on evidence that communities in Indonesia have long practiced democracy.

The book concludes with a discussion of Indonesian Islam, which he writes is tolerant in nature and will always be compatible with humanism, and be supportive of the growth of civil society.

"As a religion adhered to by the majority of people in Indonesia, Islam should consider the sociocultural reality of Indonesia [as a pluralist society]," Syafii writes in the chapter.

Abdillah Toha, from the publishing house Mizan Group, said the book could play significant roles in teaching the public about the nature of Indonesian Islam, which he said was peaceful and tolerant.

"We want to bring back the type of Islam that Pak Syafii frequently campaigns on; the tolerant version of Islam that respects diversity and local wisdom," he said.

Previously, a report by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) on religious intolerance found that new forms of religious intolerance have surfaced in recent years, while old cases remain unsettled.