“What do you mean by liberal Islam?”

Exclusive with Dr Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab

[Does] liberal mean rational Islam? [Does] liberal mean you are discarding the text? Or you are trying to interpret the text into a modern understanding, coping with current conditions?


DR Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab is a prime example of Indonesia's political legacy post-President Abdurrahman Wahid: he is not only a politician, but an intellectual to boot. Abdurrahman was himself a leading scholar before being elected to lead Southeast Asia's largest democracy, and the world's largest Muslim country. 

Alwi is currently the President of Indonesia's Envoy to the Middle East. He was the republic's minister of foreign affairs from 1999 to 2001, and the minister for people's welfare from 2004 to 2005.

He earned his first PhD from the University of Ains Shams in Cairo, Egypt in 1990, and a second PhD from Temple University in the US in 1995.

He has gone on to teach in various US universities, is a member of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, Georgia, and was bestowed an academic award from the Egyptian government.

Alwi was recently in Malaysia to deliver a public lecture on the global challenges of religious extremism, with a special reference to Southeast Asia. The talk was organised by the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.

The Nut Graph spoke exclusively to Alwi on the recent legislative elections in Indonesia, Islamic laws, and the oft-demonised liberal Islam moniker.

TNG: In the legislative elections in Indonesia, the Islamist parties were effectively sidelined by the voters. What is your analysis? Was it really a rejection of Islamist politics, or was something else at play here?

Dr Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab: I do not discount the argument that people are not very much inclined for Islamic parties. But there are many other factors. I always say that to win elections, either parliamentary or presidential, you need to have three components — three Ms. [First] is media, the second is money, the third is momentum. There is no ideology here. Because in Indonesia you cannot [see a] big mark of ideological differences. We are all Muslim. Golkar is the old party. The head of Golkar is Muhammad Jusuf Kalla, [who] is actually the advisor of Nahdatul Ulama [and] who is very Islamist.

So, you know, the differences are, you have Muhammadiyah, you have Nahdatul Ulama, and they almost represent two big parties: Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, Parti Kebangkitan Nasional Ulama; and [there is also] Partai Matahari Bangsa, and they are not doing well. Because they lack the two other components — they lack media and they lack money. And therefore, the new emerging parties are scoring well. Prabowo (Subianto)'s party (Gerindra) is no different from Golkar's ideology. But momentum here [is] on the side of the president (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) because people like him, [therefore] many voters vote for the party of the president. It's an indication that Indonesians would like to see continuity.

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