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KH Ahmad Mustofa Bisri: The moderates must stand up!
Ahmad Mustofa Bisri, also known as Gus Mus. TEMPO/Budi Purwanto
Tuesday, 17 January, 2017 | 15:00 WIB
KH Ahmad Mustofa Bisri: The moderates must stand up!

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Kiai Haji Ahmad Mustofa Bisri, 72, feels like an oasis amid the heated debate over religious intolerance in the country. After all, he preaches a progressive and moderate Islam, a legacy of former President Abdurrahman Wahid. Take the case of religious blasphemy against inactive Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), for example, Bisri doubts that Ahok's speech in which he quoted the Al-Maidah Article 51 of the Qur'an, was blasphemous. "If it is considered blasphemy, Muslims should also be affected because many of them have insulted other religions," exclaimed Mustofa Bisri, a patron of the Raudlatut Thalibin Pesantren (Islamic boarding school), at his hometown of Rembang, Central Java. 

Bisri, better known as Gus Mus, said the Ahok case revealed how intolerant organizations reveling in (the free speech atmosphere) are increasingly gaining ground in Indonesia. Yet, Indonesians are not ready to face diversity. "They get upset over something small but different," said Gus Mus, whose father founded the Raudlatut Thalibin Pesantren.

Last week, Gus Mus spoke with Rofiuddin from Tempo at his modest home in Rembang, for a special interview. This former chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, shared his views on a number of issues, from the current wave of online hoaxes to criticism of the MUI or Indonesian Council of Ulama (Islamic clergy) and the crisis of intolerance. "Moderates should stand up," he stressed. 

The three-hour interview, not far from the chanting of students reciting the Holy Book from the nearby pesantren, was frequently interrupted by guests dropping by, whom Gus Mus always took time to greet. Excerpts:

Are Indonesians becoming more intolerant? 

For a long time, we lived in very restrictive conditions, then suddenly, we were free. (The shock) happened because the freedom faucet was suddenly turned on, and we were unprepared. It's like a bird in a cage, suddenly finding the door open and the bird is so exhilarated that it flies all over the place, knocking things over.

 

Are you saying people are not ready for democracy? 

All this time, Indonesians were never taught to value differences. During the New Order, all farmers had to plant only one variety of paddy, and told people to paint their houses yellow. This made people incapable of being different, so that when something different comes along, no matter how small, people become upset. Yet differences are a must in a democracy. Those who in the past had ambitions but were unable to raise it, now see their chance. So, anything people say is today justified, because of democracy, even though people are not used to differences of opinion. Meanwhile, there are people who use democracy to do whatever they want. And their excuse is, "This is a democracy, anything goes."

 

And this is how radical Islamic groups were able to grow. So, how to deal with this problem?

The moderates must stand up. They should not remain quiet. The media must propel leaders with moderate ideology, not just think of money and ratings. The media should also not give space to the 'bogus ustad' (Islamic scholar). Today, there are so many fake ustad and fake ulama (religious leaders). Ordinary people would just nod (in agreement), never checking their backgrounds first, where they studied, who their kiai (superiors) were and which boarding schools they went to. People only look at their looks and their images. If such clerics are given the stage, of course people will be influenced by what they say. Today's media are like poets during a time of ignorance, opinion makers. In the past, Ahmad Shiddiq, leader of NU from 1984 to 1991, said journalists acted like zuama (leaders), because they set opinions.

 

Yet, the Islamic groups succeeded in forcing the blasphemy case against Ahok.

Where is the blasphemy? If Basuki's actions were seen as a religious blasphemy, many Muslims should be affected, because many Muslims also insult other religions. They can be counter-sued and there would be a follow-up counter-suit and it would go on and on. So, the source of the blasphemy must be clarified and we should not be deceived. I wonder, who was the first to bring up the issue of religious blasphemy?

 

Weren't the November 4 and December 2 rallies convincing enough to show that Muslims were angered by the case?

You mean those (non-Jakartans) who took part? They had no business being there. They were just tagging along. They claimed they were there for the reward, that they were on a jihad to defend their religion. Defend religion from what? That's not clear.

 

So the objective of those demonstrations was not clear? 

The masses were angry, but they didn't know about the religious blasphemy. Someone planned that. I imagine a (scenario) whereby a santri (religious student) was set up to be a kiai, and his associates would kiss his hand and the congregation would follow. Only after kissing his hand would people ask whose hand they had kissed. Another example is someone crying thief at a market. Then, without first seeking the truth, others would follow in beating up the accused. They never stop to think that Ahok was just campaigning to run for governor and that he needed the votes of Jakarta residents, the majority of whom are Muslims. Would he have insulted Islam then?

 

Prior to the December 2 rally, you said that conducting Friday prayers on the street was heresy. Why did you say that? 

I said that because during the time of Prophet Mohammad, his associates, and his followers never did that. Someone used the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) to justify that action, with the excuse that the mosque was unable to accommodate everyone, thus forcing people to spill into the streets. Yes, that may be, but that's only because people were brought in from many outside areas.

 

With such a viewpoint, would you be willing to testify as an expert witness in Ahok's blasphemy trial?

I will not go because I'm not a resident of Jakarta. Get a Jakarta person to do it. The problem is connected to the regional election in Jakarta, so why drag out someone from Rembang? Politicians often justify their methods to achieve something. That's why I don't like politics. And worse, they manipulate religion for their own needs.

 

Why has the country become so chaotic lately, particularly over religious issues? 

We are not aware that we are being pitted one against another. We must reject whatever reason is given, and we should not tolerate it because it's very dangerous. I can understand it if a foreigner was doing it, but if they are fellow Indonesians pitting one group against another, that's worrisome. I remember a photograph in which I was placed face to face with Rizieq Syihab. It was not balanced because my congregation is in the millions (laughing).

 

So, these agitators are ignoring Indonesia's diversity? 

The nation's founders, with great difficulty, held intensive consultations to ensure that our diverse population is able to live in peace. But the people who came later never studied our history, believing they were not Indonesians. That's why I always say, we are Indonesians who are Muslims, not Muslims who happen to be in Indonesia. Many pesantren leaders who don't know the meaning of nationalism but love Indonesia, say it very simply: Indonesia is my home. This is where we live, where we prostate and where we will be buried. It's like the struggle described by Hasyim Asy'ari, who said: we fought for Indonesia, breathing Islam. People who destroy their own homes are crazy, illogical.

 

If this is allowed to go on, can Indonesia implode, like what happened in the Middle East? 

The conflict in the Middle East is about material assets. If the Middle East did not have oil, there would be no conflict. Iraq, Libya, and Syria have been destroyed because they were not vigilant. Indonesia does not have oil, but we have gold and other resources. If we are not vigilant, others will deplete our wealth and slowly destroy us. (*)

 

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



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