Alwi Shihab and the Pursuit of Pluralism

by : Tasa Nugraza Barley

The past few years have seen a dramatic shift toward religious fundamentalism and intolerance in Indonesia. The Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy recorded 28 attacks on Christians and violations of their right to worship in just the first seven months of last year, up from 18 for all of 2009 and 17 in 2008.

It is a worrying trend, and one that many people have blamed on a lack of strong leadership from Jakarta. While President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made a number of calls in support of religious tolerance, little seems to have been done to translate those words into substantive action.

At least one man, Alwi Abdurrahman Shihab, has had the courage to say that things can be different. In his new book, “Examining Islam in the West: Addressing Accusations and Correcting Misconceptions,” Alwi argues that the ongoing conflict between Islam and Christianity shows that followers of both faiths misunderstand what their religions actually preach.

The book, which was launched at the Dharmawangsa Hotel in South Jakarta on Monday evening, is largely the result of Alwi’s discussions with fellow Muslim and Christian scholars both in Indonesia and abroad.

The former foreign minister described the book as his humble attempt to “iron out the negative image of Islam as a violence-laden religion” by presenting the “real” face of Islam and its relationship with Christianity.

A former lecturer in comparative religious studies at Harvard University’s Divinity School, Alwi is a leading international scholar on the interaction between Christian and Muslim communities.

His interest in religion runs in the family. Alwi was born in Rappang, South Sulawesi, in 1946, the youngest of three sons. His father, Abdurrahman Shihab, was a co-founder of Alauddin State Institute for Islamic Studies in Makassar. His brothers, Quraish Shihab and Umar Shihab, are both well-known Muslim scholars.

Alwi spent his teenage years in Cairo, where he completed high school and continued his education at Al-Azhar University. After graduating in 1968, he returned to Indonesia to study at the institute co-founded by his father. In 1990, he earned a doctorate in Islamic studies from Ain Shams University in Cairo.

He later completed a second doctorate at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions, in 1996.

From 1999 to 2001, Alwi served as Indonesia’s foreign minister, and was the coordinating minister for the people’s welfare from 2004 to 2005. He is currently the president’s special envoy to the Middle East and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Alwi’s new book is the English version of his 2004 book, “Membedah Islam di Barat” (“Dissecting Islam in the West”).

His goal with both of the books, Alwi said, was to help establish better relations between Muslims and Christians.

“The book is meant to be a meeting point between the two beliefs,” he said. “We need to build harmony between Muslims and Christians, because the two religions actually come from the same root.”

Alwi said that when he was teaching in the United States, he discovered that many Americans knew almost nothing about Islam.

“Through my lectures, many of those who didn’t understand became sympathetic toward Islam,” he said.

Alwi said the negative image that many people in the West have of Islam is baseless, both theologically and sociologically. Thus, “they need to learn about the real Islam,” he said.

Rather than viewing one another as enemies, Alwi said, Muslims and Christians need to forge a new relationship as friends. “I think it is time for us to leave behind the medieval mentality,” he said.

And Indonesia, as the country with the greatest number of Muslims, should take on a greater role in creating a bridge between Islam and the West, according to Alwi.

However, he conceded that the first step should be creating a common ground within the Muslim community and putting an end to the various divisions.

“The way Muslims understand jihad, for instance. There are camps that offer explanations about jihad and cite verses from the Koran to convince their followers about the validity of their theories,” he said .

Ultimately, Alwi hopes that by looking toward the future, rather than dwelling on the conflicts of the past, people of different faiths will be able to forge a relationship built on mutual respect and harmony.

Posted on December 19, 2013 and filed under Blog.