Islamic scholar and former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab Dr Alwi Shihab believes that there should be a clear distinction between Islam and the various strands of Islamic thought.
Religious leaders and intellectuals must pick the reading of appropriate sacred texts leading to peaceful and harmonious relations among nations instead of inciting anger against each other.
That’s the advice from Islamic scholar and former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab.
“Each religion preserves a canon of warrior narratives to be drawn upon when it feels itself concerned or when it is the victim of injustice.
“But there are just as many that promote peace and harmonious relations. Which do you use?” he asked during a public lecture at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) on Global Challenges to Religious Extremism on Wednesday. Dr Alwi argued that every scholar was a product of his environment and every intellectual thought a product of the time.
He cited Imam Ibn Taymiyah – the ideological inspiration for the Wahhabi movement in the 18th century – who had stated unequivocally in a fatwa: “Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble action.”
However, Dr Alwi stressed that the 14th century scholar was a prolific writer at a time when hostility between Muslims and the Mongols, and the Christians in the wake of the crusades, was at its height.
He said it was likewise in Christianity with Martin Luther who had hatred and bitterness towards Islam because Vienna was then under siege.
He also cited President Sukarno’s inculcation of hate for Malaysia because of past policies of the colonial powers.
Referring to the tragic events of Sept 11, Dr Alwi reckoned there were at least two factors – external and internal – that led to them.
The first was the United States policy towards the Muslim world, in particular on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which needs to be re-visited.
He said current Islamic radicalism was almost anti-nationalist and its proponents see the United States as the prime obstacle to their transnational Islamic vision as it provides repressive regimes uncommitted to the pure teachings of Islam the means to stay in power.
“This explains why Osama bin Laden keeps a close link with both the Egyptian Jamaat-al-Islamiah and Islamic jihad groups intent on eliminating President Husni Mubarak after successfully assassinating President Anwar Sadat.”
As for the internal factor, Dr Alwi said the reform movements in Islam could be categorised into two groups: the Salafi – puritan Wahhabi – which tries to return to the pure teachings of Islam and refuses to submit to Western culture; and the modern one that is trying to merge Islamic and European civilisations.
Dr Alwi said Wahhabism rejected all religious practices adopted after the third century of the Muslim era, philosophy, sufism, shiism and local practices. “The destruction of Buddha statues by the Taliban regime is a clear manifestation of that.”
He said the Islam of these terrorists did not do justice to the civilised and peace-loving part of Islam.
“But it has to be recognised as one strand of Islam. Every religion is like a rope woven from many standards. Within Christianity, there are several violent strands persecuting Jews, attacking Muslims and declaring war against all manner of offenders,” he said, adding that it was human beings and not religion that was violent.
To a question from the floor, he said a strong media was important to portray Islam as a peace-loving religion: “When I was teaching in the United States about Prophet Muhammad, the students told me ‘Your prophet is not so bad!’”
Dr Alwi said extremist views made it more often in the news because moderate views were “not commercial and attractive”.
He said the recent election in Indonesia showed that Islamic parties were losing support to the secular one headed by Muslims and that people raised in an environment of education and tolerance were accepting of diversity.
“Even in Saudi Arabia, they are now mindful of this. The curriculum in school is being changed. They were unaware of the consequences of their good intention of going back to the basics of the religion.
“In Indonesia, you can tell the difference between students from the religious institutions and the secular ones – the former are more tolerant because they have been exposed to the many interpretations and schools of thought in Islam unlike the latter who learn just one.”
Dr Alwi said there should be a clear distinction between Islam and the various strands of Islamic thought. “If you are comfortable with one interpretation, then take it, but do not say that other interpretations are wrong.”