Interview with Prof Nurcholish Madjid

Photo: Nurcholish Madjid (right) with current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono (Photo by Tempointeraktif)

Nurcholis Madjid is a towering figure, the frontrunner of pluralism and tolerance. He’s admired by many Indonesians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He encourages secularism, i.e. partition between politic and religion (Islam); supports pluralism and diversity among all cultures, communities and faiths. He’s also a controversial figure as far as Indonesian Muslim hardliners are concerned. Yet, when he died yesterday (29th August 2005), all corners of communities, including the Muslim hardliners come to him and offer their condolences with high respect he highly deserves. Below was his interview with Liberal Islam Indonesia network a couple of years ago on democracy, Bush and the World. (fatih)

Prof. Dr. Nurcholish Madjid:
It’s a Nonsense, Bush will Liberate the Iraqis

The US invasion of Iraq last week eradicated America’s most valuable assets: democracy and human rights. America lost its legitimacy as the champion of democracy. The democratic principles pioneered by the American founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson evaporated in the hands of the current “unsophisticated” American leader.

Last Thursday (27/3/2003), Ulil Abshar Abdalla from Utan Kayu Islamic Studies (KIUK) interviewed Prof. Dr. Nurcholish Madjid, known as Cak Nur. Cak Nur recently joined a group of Indonesian religious leaders on a journey around Europe and Australia and meet with Pope John II to oppose the US led war against Iraq. Here is the interview:

Cak Nur (Nurcholis’s nickname), what is your comment on the US and British invasion of Iraq?

Although this invasion had been predicted before, that America would keep on taking the unilateral action by neglecting the UN, this aggression is still shocking. Although the world’s opinion is strongly against the attack upon Iraq, President George W Bush keeps on maintaining his agenda. It is really shocking in the worst sense.

We know that America’s aggression has not only agitated many Muslim countries, but humiliated several European countries as well. Does it indicate a world splitting apart?

There is a barely visible tendency toward it, since we know that the Americans are supported by the Anglo-Saxon or the English speaking nations such America, British Kingdom and Australia, but also involves Spain and Portugal which are non Anglo Saxon countries.

But the fact is that the extreme view is even coming from countries like France, Germany, Russia and China. The thesis “after the fall of Soviet Union the dichotomy between the West and the rest” now has to be re-examined in terms of a “West –which is represented by America alone, that is, as against many Western countries. Maybe that resistance is in a lenient form, an inner self and a sound mind or common sense. But in this context, America is really facing the whole world; America against all, even against its own people.

Formerly, Alexis de Tocqueville had admired America as the inspiration and source of democracy. The fact is that Bush does not want to hear his peoples’ aspiration. What is your view on this?

You mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville. He himself said that what happened in America on the other hand was not the creation of a democracy, but of a majority dictatorship — because the winner (in the election) takes the majority position, that is, the winner takes all. So because now the Republican Party holds the power, everyone depends upon the Republicans, even though the actual difference between how many people really voted for the Republican rather than the Democratic Party is problematic.

We remember then that in terms of the popular vote, Bush was actually defeated by Al Gore. He (Bush) only won in terms of the electoral vote, and that was through the manipulation of the state of Florida governed by Bush’s own brother. So, in short, Bush’s win in the election 2000 was nepotistic.

Bush is a deeply problematic president. In America, the people commonly say that Bush is an idiot. In Nelson Mandela’s language, “Bush is a man who cannot think in an orderly way.” Bush’s character also has an element of self-inferiority.

Daniel S. Lev has said that Bush is not someone who thinks in a sophisticated way?

Yes, that’s a softer way of saying it. But the academic circles in the universities in America do not even pity Bush. They do not reluctantly say that Bush is an idiot. Bush’s overconfident manner reflects an over-compensation for his inferiority complex. It is as if he wants to assure himself and other people that he is a great man and did not have any problems with the last election. His target is the 2004 election in which he would be validly chosen as the president. In this case, a superpower is made to look ridiculous in being led by a nepotistic idiot.

Isn’t it a paradox of democracy as forecasted by Socrates that a democracy can position an idiot as the leader? Doesn’t Al Maududi criticize democracy on this basis?

That’s right. And (this case) is not the only one. But it should be questioned also. Doesn’t its alternative deliver situations like the King Nero case — the ruler of Rome. He was epileptic, but he was the king’s successor because he had genealogic legitimacy.

It should be remembered that it is not the first time for America to have a virtually illiterate president. America even had an illiterate president: Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s a fact. This isn’t so absurd as in the Indonesian case. The rising view at the moment says that president must be an academician or at least have an under-graduate degree. There is no such requirement in this world. Even an illiterate, if the people elected him, could become president.

Returning to the war problem. What is your strongest motive against this war?

There are gradations in this matter: high and low. The highest motive is against the unilateralist tendency of a state, the USA, which is now the only superpower. Consequently, the world becomes uni-polar. It is very dangerous when we look at the phrase that “the power tends to corrupt; and the absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely as well.” Usually this phrase is observed on the national level. But actually in the international-global level, the phrase power tends to corrupt is true as well. America currently is powerful and this power is corrupt. Just as in the national level checks and balances mechanisms or control and authorization are needed, so are they needed on the international level. America should not be left without opposition.

America always considers its action to be based on the noble objective of liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. How do you see this?

Surely everyone claims to have good intentions. As I have frequently conveyed, the common problems of society, the state and so on could not be speculated upon merely in terms of good intentions. It is not enough. It should be accompanied with the authorization mechanism. In surah Al Ashr it is said that merely faith and righteous deeds are not enough. There must be tawâshu bil-haq (criticism by the legal method); there should be checks and balances, since the sense of performing righteous deeds is very natural. Everyone seems to perform righteously. But it should be proved through the special context of checking and balancing mechanisms.

Our world has become uni-polar now, there are no more checks and balances, so how do we face that sort of world?

First, since check and balance is the natural law in the human’s social life, it means that it (check and balance condition) would certainly re-appear. Second, that uni-polar sense is measured only by physical power, military power, economical and so on. In that perspective, America indeed is the most dominant. But if we look from the more moderate aspect, which is actually universal, the inner self, America actually has been checked by the whole world that is represented by various elements, even the church for example. The pendulum must always move towards equilibrium.

It was Pope John Paul, the world’s highest leader of the Catholic Church, who reminds Bush of this. Additionally, the Protestant church is involved in this case. Even in America, NCC (National Council of Churches) is against this war. The Pope even wants to go to Iraq to prevent the attack upon Baghdad. But due to the risk, and his bad health, that plan was cancelled.

Several days ago you visited Rome with inter-religious leaders. What did the Pope say?

Yes. He was ready with a typed and published statement. It means that he had an affirmed conviction, a similar conviction to ours, that is the rejection of the military invasion of Iraq. It is not because he adapts to us, or we adapt to him, but because we share the same prior outlook. It was blissful to meet him.

The photograph of the Indonesian group visiting the Vatican is being disseminated here.

Yes. I am delighted. I heard that the picture was being disseminated to the whole country and that the photo which displayed the chief of NU, Muhammadiyah, and other religious leaders, was widely disseminated.

How do you see the Muslim world’s response to the war, especially Indonesia’s? Are you worried that the war would be seen as a religious war?

Yes. It is really perturbing. Yet, it is a war over worldly considerations. But, the divine impact will become principal. It means that if a superpower state executes a unilateral action, the result is injustice. Injustice is not merely a worldly matter.

Then, if rejection of the war is dropped to the lower level, what a disaster if a superpower state claims the license and legitimacy to aggress or intervene upon other weaker states. The world order would be damaged. And it is America, as mentioned by Alexis de Tocqueville, who becomes the destroyer. Actually, democracy is a sort of guarantee upon the existence of freedom and order. So, with this American action, there is no balance, but brute force and conquest.

Many people say that democracy is relevant only for the national politic to be the balance of power. But it does not fit into the context of international regulation. How do you see this?

That’s right. But the balance of power is another democratic notion. Therefore, one of the relevant terms of jargon in democracy is the strength of checks and balances themselves. Other aspects are freedom of press, freedom of thinking, civil liberties. Freedom of opinion, corporate freedom and the right to gather are others.

On the global level, it should be like that. It is manifested by the presence of balance of power politic. Unfortunately, people are too hasty to consider this theory, which dates back to the 1950s, — as “off solid.” But as the current American administration is operating along the principles of a single power syndrome, the checks and balances principle turns out to be significant. Therefore, when people cannot respond to America by force, — they should struggle with other means. What must be done now is to demonstrate.

Countries like France, German, Russia and China, provide the best examples of the possibilities open for opposition. This sort of soft opposition in the heart of demonstrations which we are seeing now could be improved by transforming it into a stronger or harder form of opposition. Harder not in terms of violence but in the sense of how to have a greater influence on events.

In fact President Bush is ignoring the global demonstrations, isn’t he ?

Indeed, no matter how hard the opposition to America is, even though represented by countries like France, German, Russia and China, it is still –from the economical aspect— far from its balance. The budget of American defense or military is greater than the military budget of the whole countries in the world. So it is a natural imbalance. Ultimately , what is at stake is the human conscience and we are seeing that expressed in the form of demonstrations.

So, is the world unbalanced?

Yes, it is unbalanced. But wait, — because I believe in sunnatullah (law of nature determined by God) — the reverse pendulum effect will appear later. Surely, there must be a reverse pendulum, God’s law for every human. For instance, when David succeeded in taking over Jerusalem by killing Goliath (David versus Goliath), al Qur’an explains –in the last verse—about the common law regarding human history. The common law is:” if God discarded one human for another human, the world would be destroyed. But God has an unlimited sympathy over the universe.” So, one of God’s methods of protection, God’s love for humans, is the existence of checking and balancing mechanisms which ensure the balance of power.

For example, why haven’t we undertaken the nuclear doomsday. Because whenever one nation such as America creates the nuclear bomb, there will always be someone who tells Russia, and then there is an escalation and competition such that each party dares not to use it. That is the natural sytem of checks and balances which saves the world.

This is how we should look at the world today. America is like Durno, the antagonistic figure in Javanese shadow puppet shows, one who is adigang-adigung-adiguno, that is, one who behaves as he pleases.

Cak Nur, the act of “sweeping” foreigners is spreading. This seems to be a manipulation of the Iraq issue for xenophobic purposes. How do we face this?

That is certainly an improper attitude. They (foreigners) are innocent, why should they become victims? It is really improper. Let’s return to the moral of war as taught by the prophet Saw, including the sahabat (prophet’s companions). For any expedition, there is always message: don’t kill women or children; don’t disturb the elders; don’t destroy buildings; don’t cut the trees; don’t kill the cattle unless they are to be eaten. Those moral principles should still be valid. So, when we sweep, what is the ethical point?

So in short you mean: “don’t attack non-combatant circles?”

Yes. That includes the prohibition of destroying cars or buildings. These are prohibited actions in Islam — haram! Destroying the treasures of anyone is haram. As a result of these principles, when the prophet came to Mecca, he emerged as a noble human. He forgave his former cruel enemies and liberated them “Antum thulaqâ’ (all of you are free).” Even Abu Sufyan, who became the Prophet’s biggest enemy was given amnesty.

Later in history, whenever the prophet expanded his territory it was always called an act of liberation, al-fath; not an act of conquest, al-qahr. Thus we recognize the terms fath fâris, fathus syâm, fath misr. And indeed, history proves that everywhere they were liberating people. That is Islamic power through example.

We know that Saddam’s regime is not a good regime, just as the war against Iraq is not a good war. How can we see this war against Iraq proportionally?

As I said earlier, I see the existence of a hierarchy in this case. In the highest part of the hierarchy, the American war, we see a unilateral action at the global scale by a superpower state with a single ruler syndrome. The second part of the hierarchy is a big and powerful state’s invasion of a small sovereign nation state. Third, there is Saddam Hussein who is a dictator in the worst sense. But is one state justified in interfering in another state’s internal affair in order to liberate its people from a dictatorship through measures that also destroy humanitarian values?

Sometimes the objective justifies the action, but then what allows the objective? Isn’t the action itself? So, if the action is wrong, the objective is destroyed in the process. Given that Bush has good intentions as he claimed, but the means to achieve those ends invalidates both.

Bush’s current claim seems to remind us of Thariq bin Ziyad when he entered Spain. In that time, Islamic troops also claimed to be freeing the people as well. What is your response?

Yes. But that was very peaceful and welcomed by the people of Spain. Therefore, with the small number of troops, they won everywhere.

Several polling in Arabic newspapers do not believe that this American invasion of Iraq is for the liberation of the Iraqi people. What is your response?

No, it indeed is not for the purposes of liberation. So, Bush’s scheme has indeed destroyed his objective. This is because what has emerged now is the more dangerous portrait of Bushism rather than Saddamism, instead it is Bush, the man of Bush, and the Bushman itself.

America makes an excuse that it is hard to force change upon a tyrannical regime in Iraq?

Yes. Actually what happened to Sukarno and Suharto was a matter of waiting for the opportunity. Disintegration was inevitable. What happened with the Shah of Iran for example? Imagine, currently the fact is being reversed. Formerly, the Shah of Iran was defended by America. When the Iranian people desired the regime change, America denied it. That time America was not doing anything, and eventually that which was dear to it was destroyed as well. So it just a matter of time, for Saddam Hussein as well.

Washington often claims, that the invasion of Iraq is an entry-point to perform a wider reformation in the Middle-East region. What is your view on this?

That’s bullshit! If it is regarding the verbal intention, essentially the Camp David treaty between Jimmy Carter with Israel and Palestine was more meaningful. That was an excellent treaty. If only it was being executed, all would be o.k. But whenever Palestine performs its part, Israel prevents the treaty from being carried out. That always occurs. So, actually Israel does not want the Palestinian problem to be solved. Because their target is go to Yesra’El, which includes Syria and Jordan even including Medina. That is the fundamentalist Jew’s view.

It means, they want to return to a biblical geography?

Yes, Israel is a state based on religion. Ironically, it is supported by the country –which is said—to reject religion. Isn’t it insane?

Several Middle-East countries supported this American action. What do you think about this?

It is in the lower level or hierarchy. So if we make a priority of first-second-third, it might be in the fourth level. It is due to the fight against Saddam Hussein, since Saddam is the worst dictator in the world at the moment. Just imagine that formerly, when Iran was in the weak condition, Saddam stabbed it from behind. And then he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Several versions mention that Iraq’s action was also due to American provocation?

Yes, there is such an interpretation. But there is still the question of why he could be provoked? If he has a high awareness that Iran should be supported because both of them have a common target to destroy their common enemy, whatever it is, Israel or whatever, actually he would prioritize that consideration. On the contrary, he fought and took over other Arab countries. Isn’t that so?

What would you like to say to close our conversation?

This world is indeed full of injustice. Justice is God’s law for upholding security at the national and international level. Ibnu Taymiyyah is famous for his quotation of Ali who said: inna AlLâh yuqîmud daulatal ‘âdilah wain kânat kâfirah, walâ yuqîmud daulatadz dzâlimah wain kânat muslimah. So, Allah would constantly support the just state even if it was kafir (infidel) but did not support injustice, even if it were against Muslims. And also: ad-dunyâ tadûm ma‘al ‘adl wal kufr, walâ tadûm ma‘adz dzulm wal Islâm. The world would resist as long as it is just, and it would not resist in injustice even though Islam accompanies it. This is the real objective law.

(Translated by Lanny Ocatavia, edited by Jonathan Zilberg)

Courtesy: Liberal Islam Indonesia

Indonesia Moderate Muslim Icon Dies at 66

Noted Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid passes away at 66

JAKARTA (JP): Noted Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid died on Monday at the age of 66.

Cak Nur, as the intellectual was known, had been admitted to Pondok Indah Hospital in South Jakarta on Aug. 15 in a critical condition.

Cak Nur’s medical problems first became ill after he cast his ballot in the first round of the presidential election on July 5, 2004. He had withdrawn his presidential bid after many of hiscolleagues advised him not to run for election on a Golkar Party ticket.

Cak Nur later underwent a series of operations and medical treatment in Indonesia, China and Singapore before Pondok Indah Hospital in South Jakarta discharged him in March.

After having a liver transplant at the Taiping People’s Hospital in Guangdong, China, Cak Nur underwent three more operations to deal with the effects of the transplant.

After a month in China, Cak Nur was air lifted to Singapore’s National University Hospital, where he spent six months having an infection treated.

After being discharged from Pondok Indah hospital in March, Nurcholish underwent physiotherapy after having been confined to a hospital bed for almost a year.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said on Monday the nation had lost a very important figure.

“The President feels Cak Nur made a great contribution to the Indonesian people,” presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng said as quoted by Antara.

Cak Nur, who was born in Jombang, East Java, on March 17, 1939, to a family with a background of Muslim boarding schools, got his doctorate on Islamic thought at the University of Chicago, Illinois, the United States, in 1984.

Majid was known for coining the slogan, “Islam yes, Islamic political parties no,” during the rule of president Soeharto. The slogan reflected his view that religion should be kept separate from politics.

Cak Nur is survived by his wife Omi Komaria, 56, and two children — Nadia Madjid, 35, and Ahmad Mikail, 31.

He will be buried later on Monday after being laid out at Paramadina University. (**)