'We have no monopoly on ethics'
French Muslim scholar Soheib Bencheikh, 45, toured Java recently, giving speeches and meeting key people, including the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI). Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles, became famous for supporting the ban on Islamic headscarves in France. Before giving a speech in Arabic to staff and students at Surabaya's State Islamic University he spoke to The Jakarta Post contributor Duncan Graham. The following are the excerpts.
Question: Isn't Islam and democracy a contradiction? Doesn't Islam say only God can be supreme, not the people?
Answer: Have you ever heard God speaking to you? He speaks through the people. He's left a message to us that must be interpreted by us, the people. Men and women have their own understanding of that message.
Those who say Islam and democracy can't co-exist don't understand either term. There's a great lack of knowledge.
To be a thinking person is to always be searching and constantly having doubts. How can an intelligent human have total belief in any faith?
They can't. The 100 percent believer doesn't exist. Nor is there a 100 per cent atheist. Between the extremes of total belief and non-belief there are many positions -- and these are constantly changing. Today you may have only a few doubts -- tomorrow, many.
The real test for all theologians is to constantly interrogate the self. Last year the MUI issued an edict against pluralism, liberalism and secularism. What's your response?
They're going backwards if they think they're still living in a time when nations were separate and didn't interact.
The idea that the state should be more Islamic is coming from history, not the holy texts.
A secular state protects minorities. If France didn't have liacite (the law prohibiting the state recognizing religion and now a core value in French culture) then Muslims would be at risk from the Catholic majority. This protects everyone -- but many Moslems don't understand the history of liacite.
A secular state also protects by keeping politics out of religion. Politicians try to use religion to further their personal interests. Without religion, political debate can be rational and free of dogma.
Religion without politics attracts only those genuinely interested in faith -- it liberates religion from the opportunists.
In Indonesia the majority follow Islam, and the state demands all belong to one of the government-approved religions.
We should not use force, but respect. There should be no pressure on the conscience -- people should be free to choose or not choose.
All the more reason for a secular government to protect the minorities. Even here in Indonesia you have to be prepared to recognize that Islam is a minority religion in the world.
The reality is a future where there will be no single majority religion.
How do you respond to those who say the Koran is the word of God and cannot be questioned or tampered with in any way?
The book itself isn't sacred -- it's the objective ideas within the text. When we talk about the book we have to think about the language that was used, the context, and the culture at the time -- even the weather!
In Indonesia we've had a preacher jailed for leading prayers in Indonesian.
At the time of the Prophet there was no unified Arab language. The language used in the Koran was that of the Prophet's tribe. From the very first Muslims were authorized to use their own languages.
Some say that although Muslims in Indonesia are in the majority they suffer from an inferiority complex.
Arab civilization was once the highest in the world. It helped lead to the Renaissance in Europe. Now everything has moved to the West. Arab civilization is finished! We need to be part of what's happening in the West -- either that or live in the nostalgia of the past.
It's always easier to blame others for our problems rather than look into ourselves to see what's wrong. We have to recognize that we don't have a monopoly on ethics and morality. If the light goes out in your room is it best to sit in the darkness, or ask your neighbors if you can share in their illumination, or fix the problem?
Export your Indonesian form of Islam to the world. Don't try and import from the Arabs.
You have a moderate form of Islam here synthesized with other beliefs. We should not be afraid to express our ideologies, ask questions of ourselves and through such questioning, develop our thinking.
Modern Islam is sweeping away all traditions -- that's too easy and not convincing. The challenge is to go back to the Koranic text and apply new readings that are applicable today.
Islamic culture is brilliant. If you love others you want to share your culture with them -- and we want to share.
Muslims were wrong to protest against Danes when cartoonists lampooned the Prophet.
This is what freedom of expression means. Even if people are mocking, at least they're showing an interest in Islam and starting to recognize it as part of society.
Could you talk like this is Saudi Arabia?
Yes, because I'm not attacking Islam.
But you're attacking some people's ideas of Islam.
The people most disturbed by the idea of a secular state are politicians who try to maintain power by using Islam. These legislators are hypocrites. This power is temporal.
Islam is not the property of individuals -- it's a message to the world.
(The Jakarta Post, December 8th, 2006)