YI: But with the ASEAN Charter being unable to accommodate all this, what can be done?
Rizal Sukma: Here, I beg to differ with our government, because as the largest country in Southeast Asia, why should we follow what countries like Laos or Burma say as the parameter for regional cooperation? We need to take the lead in order to push for more meaningful cooperation and more meaningful initiative in ASEAN. If other countries disagree with us, so be it. We don't have to worry about being different from the rest of ASEAN, because the principle of ASEAN so far, is that basically they will follow the countries that set the lowest limit the least common denominator. So that means, the tyranny of the conservative. Because when we try bring in an agenda to ASEAN where everyone says, look you're the biggest country but please don't enforce it (your values). But why should we allow ourselves to be imposed upon by other countries which are more conservative?
YI: Let's talk now about your membership in the Muhammadiyah, the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia. You are a member of Executive Board. Now, some people are worried that Islam in Indonesia is becoming more conservative. What do you think?
Rizal Sukma: I don't see conservative in the sense of becoming more Islamic, for the lack of a better term. What we are seeing in Indonesia is actually an increase of what I call personal piety. That is common in many societies, especially when people have to deal with the challenges of modernity. Then one needs some kind of spiritual guidance. That is why in Indonesia we see more and more women wearing headscarves, more and more people going to mosques. That is a reflection of personal piety. So it's not a political movement. You can't see that as an indication of a resurgence of political Islam. This misperception on the resurgence of political Islam in Indonesia is also helped by the fact that since reformasi in 1998, we also see a lot of noise made by some groups demanding that Indonesia be changed into an Islamic state, and by attacks from terrorists which misuse and abuse Islam in their activities. So in general, Indonesian society is still the way it has always been, which is tolerant and so on. The problem, in my view, is number one, law enforcement, number two is actually, the classic problem of the silent majority. Both the conservatives and the radicals make a lot of noise, that's perfectly legitimate in any democracy but of course, if they threaten, or use violence, that's where the state should come in. That's not happening in many cases, like the attacks on the Ahmadiyah (sect). The state just did not take any action, even though in the criminal court it's very easy. If you carry weapons, like a knife, in public, you should go to jail. It's simple as that. In fact, the Muhammadiyah has appealed many, many times for the government to take the law enforcement seriously and then arrest and take action against those who use violence in this kind of cases. But until today we don't why the government has refrained from doing that.
YI: So, the seeming increase in conservatism is not an increase in the influence of Wahabism?
Rizal Sukma: I'm not sure about that. I don't believe Wahabism can penetrate into Indonesian society because Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. There are only two main strand of Islam or school of though, one is the Nahdlatul Ulama and the other one is the Muhammadiyah. These two organizations share very important similar characteristics, which is tolerance and open to differences, even more so within the Nahdlatul Ulama because of the history of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the nature of the coming of Islam into the country, where Islam melded nicely together with local cultures. Even the Muhammadiyah, in 2004 launched a program we call the cultural dakhwah taking into account the local context, the local situation, within which all these teachings of Islam should be implemented. So, I don't see that it's easy for Wahabism to penetrate well-established bodies of religious understanding in both Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama. But my worry is one vulnerable sector in society that can be infiltrated the universities. Students, aged 19 to 22 years are still searching for some kind of identity. That has become some kind of battle, competition for ideas among various groups in the Muslim community. We also face challenges in our universities, such as in Malang, where we face intense competition from these Islamic groups.
YI: And how do you deal with that?
Rizal Sukma: We have to revitalize the Muhammadiyah Youth Movement and then try to tell all students that the main function of students is to study but at the same time to interact with society. And so called traditional student societies like the Muhammadiyah Students association, or the HMI, Indonesian Muslim students association and so on should be the main vehicle for interaction between the students and society, because these are the groups that represent mainstream Indonesian Muslims. It is also important to emphasize that what we call moderate forces in Indonesia --we prefer the term mainstream-- area represented by both the NU and the Muhammadiyah but there are also groups which fear they are no longer represented by these two mainstreams, so this is actually the challenge for both organizations, because these marginalized forces need to be brought into mainstream activities.
YI: Historically, Islam-based political parties have not done well in elections. Does PAN, the National Mandate Party affiliated with the Muhammadiyah have a special strategy for the upcoming 2009 elections?
Rizal Sukma: I don't think so because the official line of the Muhammadiyah is to allow its members to vote for any party. In fact, some of our leading members have been actively involved in helping Megawati's PDIP to establish the Muslim Wing. And actually, many of our members are parliamentarians from Golkar. So, the policy is basically to keep the same distance, or closeness. That is the way we put it.
YI: So a separation between religion and state?
Rizal Sukma: That has always been the case, especially among Indonesian society. You will recall that when Pak Amien Rais wanted to run for president, he realized that by campaigning under the Muhammadiah alone, he would never win. So that is why he created PAN, the National Mandate Party, which is a much broader and plural political party. It's not based on Islam, because in Indonesia, it has always been very clear in the minds of the people that politics and religion to be kept separate, even though the religious moral values should always be involved in political behavior. This is more about political ethics that might be derived from Islam. But once a cleric joins politics, he usually loses his audience. There are many cases like that. A very famous cleric could draw hundreds of thousands of followers when he gave a sermon, but once he joined a political party, the members were reduced to hundreds. That's a very clear indicator. Furthermore, Islam-based political parties combined together never achieve more than 25 percent in 1955 (the first general elections).
YI: Where do you see Indonesia going in the next decade? Will it be able to deal with the challenges of globalization?
Rizal Sukma: I think we are a survivor. Look at what we have done since 1945, not to mention overcoming the severe economic crisis of 1997. Many talk about the disintegration of the country, about the Balkanization of Indonesia. It never happened. In fact, people were skeptical about democratic consolidation in 2002 and again in 2003, when there was so much communal violence. Nevertheless, we went on to tackle that important task of democracy, the elections of 2004. Not a single person died in those elections, only four people died of accidents. So, I'm sure that we will be able to face those challenges. The problem is whether we can move from this muddling through approach into a more coordinated solid approach in dealing with those challenges. So today, we still face the challenge of having a coordinated and integrated informal policy to all the challenges brought about by globalization. So even we muddled through we survived, but in the next 10 years, we need to move beyond this muddling through, because if we get stuck in this muddling through, we will just have the muddle and not going through. I think the problem has been created by the extreme plurality of the Indonesian political system, because Indonesia has one of the most competitive political system. There are many forces, many groups competing for different agenda. That makes it hard for any government to come up with an integrated approach in dealing with all the problems.
YI: Are you optimistic about the future for Indonesia?
Rizal Sukma: I am optimistic because of the process of democratization. We lived under an authoritarian ruler for 43 years. Any scholar would say that it would be difficult for any society to move from authoritarian system into a democratic one. But we managed to prove that we could do it. We ended the transition period, and now we begin the consolidation process in democracy. That shows that if we want to do it, we can.
YI: On that note, Rizal, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.