Lukman Hakim Saifuddin : Tolerance must be reciprocal

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  • Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, Religious Affairs Minister. Tempo/ Aditia Noviansyah

    Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, Religious Affairs Minister. Tempo/ Aditia Noviansyah

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Owners of ‘warung makan’ (small eateries) hoped that they can remain open during the month of Ramadhan, because Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin in his Twitter account recently tweeted that such establishments should not be forced to close shop just to honor those who fast. He stated that those who are not obliged to fast must also be respected.

    Predictably, his statement caused a public uproar. Some tweeps saluted Lukman's view, but many others disagreed with his view. Equally predictable was the media, which refused to entirely support the stance of the United Development Party (PPP) politician. A mere tweet, Lukman wryly commented, twisted by some people, had led to a counter-productive debate.

    This was not the first time that the statements of Jakarta-born Lukman, 52, have caused controversy. Two weeks ago, his name appeared in the news because he allowed the Qur'an to be recited in the Javanese intonation during the official commemoration of Isra’ Mi’raj at the State Palace.

    Lukman is certainly aware that some of his 'contrary' ideas often lead to debates. But right from the start, he was determined to bring Islam relevant to Indonesian traditions. "I am just looking for ways to maintain Islamic values in ‘nusantara’ (archipelagic) traditions," he told Tempo reporters Tulus Wijanarko, Isma Savitri and Erwin Prima, in an interview at the Pondok Gede Haj Boarding House in East Jakarta, two weeks ago.

    Lukman has been striving to introduce a more 'friendly' Islam. Lukman's dream is a life of tolerance among people of different faiths and an Islam that is not quite understood in terms of just black and white. Since he became religious affairs minister last year, he has put quite an effort into drafting a law on the need for a harmonious interfaith community. He hopes the legislation will be able to reduce religious conflicts in Indonesia, although he admits it is not an easy task to draft a law on such a sensitive issue. "It's a long struggle, but it must be started." Excerpts of the interview:

    You're back in the news after tweeting that restaurants can remain open during the Ramadhan fasting month. What is the message of tolerance you want to convey?

    My tweet was altered so that its meaning changed significantly. My responsibility as the religious affairs minister is to invite the majority Muslims to respect those who do not fast. They include those who are not required to, as well as those who for some reason, are unable to, such as expectant mothers, menstruating women or travelers (who are excused from fasting Ed.). Tolerance must be reciprocal. Of course, those who do not fast, no matter what their reasons may be, should also honor those who do fast.

    It doesn't bother you to be attacked because of your progressive and open views?

    Not at all, because tolerance among equals is the responsibility of everyone. The benefits of tolerance must be recognized. The way to do it is to be more proactive in respecting and honoring others, instead of demanding and insisting that others understand you.

    You also created an uproar over reciting the Qur'an in the Javanese chanting intonation. Was that your idea?

    My aim is actually to convey to the public that Indonesian Muslim has a treasure of a culture. In other countries, like those in Europe and Africa, the spread of Islam caused bloody conflicts. But in Indonesia, not a drop of blood was shed when Islamic values were introduced. Yet, regions in the archipelago had previously embraced Hindu and Buddhist values. We can look at the Wali Songo (Nine propagators of Islam in Java, locally revered as saints Ed.), who spread Islam by way of strong Javanese traditions.

    So why did the use of Javanese intonation become such a polemic?

    Actually that particular reading of the Qur'an in Javanese intonation was the second time that it was done publicly. The first time was at the residence of the vice president, on March 26, during the closing of the Asia-Pacific Qur'an reciting contest. However, the event was not covered live by television, so it was not as well publicized as the second one.

    None of the international juries from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria during that event ever found fault with it, let alone banned the Qur'an reading in Javanese intonation. Indeed, its makhorijul or phonetic reading was seen to be proper and correct. That's why I was confident enough to feature it publicly.

    You're introducing this culturization model because you think the public has neglected tradition?

    Not neglected, but it's to serve as a reminder, because with globalization, some of us think that Islam came from the Middle East. So they accept the Middle Eastern tradition as the legitimate one. Yet, anywhere in the world, Islamic values are based on local culture. In India, Egypt, Sudan and China, for example, Islamic values are part of the local culture. So, even in Indonesia, the ancient wisdoms must be preserved.

    But after the uproar, you sounded apologetic.

    I actually did not want to cause a polemic because it wouldn't be productive. This is not an issue of reasoning or instigating debate. Some approved of it, in fact they recommended it, but others banned it. I'm telling you honestly because it seems I've caused some conflict, although as many people regard this as something positive.

    What's positive about it?

    It's good that this issue was raised, so Muslims will be compelled to study their religion deeper because many people claim to be experts in the art of reading the holy book. I feel I'm a layman on this subject. That's why I'm in no position to judge whether it's right or wrong. This is the domain of the ulama (Islamic clerics). I abide by the opinions of the ulama who allow, in fact recommend, that local traditions be preserved. But I also respect other ulama who think otherwise.

    Did you ever think your statements would trigger such public reaction?

    I never thought there would be such a reaction. I've been accused of insulting Islam, some have asked me to repent and that's why I have apologized. But that doesn't mean I should state the event is wrong or not because that's the domain of the ulama. I apologized only because I tended to favor one side [of the issue].

    I asked Yasser Arafat, the man who read the Qur'an in Javanese intonation, who had judged him. He said it was Ahsin Sakho, rector of the Institute of Qur'an Studies, who is well-versed in such things. Pak Ahsin said it was not wrong to recite the Qur'an in that way. In fact, he recommended it.

    The government is currently drafting a law on interfaith harmony (KUB). How will you unify the diverse thinking and beliefs into this legislation?

    That's the [challenge] of Indonesia's pluralism. Which is why right from the start, we were aware that we would not be able to please everyone. But at least we must listen to as many diverse views as possible, especially from groups which in the past never got much attention. It would be good if we can find a solution and if other parties would empathize with their fellow countrymen.

    The underlying principle of the discussions is to motivate as much dialog as possible, for example by including the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, the Setara Institute, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and other civil society organizations. We already heard the views of the FPI on the Javanese intonation issue.

    How critical is the situation in Indonesia today that such a law is needed?

    There have been many complaints, I would say loud ones, from our (minority) fellow citizens. Although they are not the majority, their rights should be protected by the state, because the Constitution says that every citizen is guaranteed his or her right to embrace and follow the religion of his or her own choosing. But the basic question by all is which one? What is religion? This is the point I try to make. That there will be no end to efforts at bringing all the viewpoints together.

    The state also has a responsibility to protect as well as to provide services. But the state lacks the capacity to have the same way of looking at religious issues, so that it's difficult to claim whether its responsibility has been carried out or not. Conversely, the public also finds it difficult to judge whether the state has done its task or not, because the understanding of what religion is remains unclear. If we acknowledge the existence of only six religions, what about the others? (*)


    Read the full interview in this week’s edition of Tempo English Magazine