Exclusive Interview with Dr Ahmad Suaedy (Director of the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue)
EUBULLETIN has recently talked to Dr Ahmad Suaedy – the Director of the Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue – who is a prominent Islamic scholar and an activist of progressive Islam. Dr Suaedy touched various issues ranging from the role of Muslim civil society in the democratic transition after the Arab Spring, the future of Islamic political ideology and the emancipation of women in the Middle East and North African region.
EUBULLETIN: Lots of hopes both in North Africa and the West were pinned to the Arab Spring series of uprisings and this could one remind of a similar situation in Indonesia in 1998 when the country’s former strongman, General Suharto, was forced to step down. Can you see perhaps some lessons that the North African countries in transition could learn from the Indonesian experience?
A.Suaedy: This is not only my opinion but also many intellectuals and academics point out that there is a big difference between Indonesia and other Muslim countries in that the former has a very powerful Muslim civil society. So, first, there are a great many Muslim organizations in Indonesia, not only based on the ideological Islam, but mainly those focusing on socio-cultural issues. Apart from the two biggest mass organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nadathul Ulama (NU), there are so many local organizations – almost every area or province has Muslim organizations that carry out, for example, various cultural and educational activities.
Then, second is the education of Islam. In Indonesia, the Islamic education is conducted in a traditional boarding school called pesantren. But pesantren does not provide its students oonly with Islamic education but rather a comprehensive education – these schools are part of our mission to build a dynamic society. Also, these traditional Islamic boarding schools are not supported by the government but by the society. More precisely, they get a very small contribution from the state to develop but most of their budget comes from the people, from the community. I think this is very different from many other Muslim countries, including in North Africa and the Middle East, where Muslim people generally depend on the government because for example the state contributes a lot of money for education.
EUBULLETIN: But what about, for example, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that is not only a Muslim organization but also runs hospitals, schools and orphanages?
A.Suaedy: But the Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been a very politically-oriented organization. This is very different from, for example, Nadathul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah in Indonesia. Even though the former president was a member of NU, he could not use his organization to mobilize the grassroots. By contrast, Mursi, for example, when he wanted to become president, he used the whole organization to mobilize his voters. So, Muslim Brotherhood could rather be compared to a Muslim political party like PKS – Islamist party that calls for a central role for Islam in public life in Indonesia.
EUBULLETIN: Have the Western countries, in your view, played a constructive role in the transformation process in the MENA region?
A.Suaedy: I would like to appeal to the West, namely US and EU, who always get involved in the North Africa and the Middle East. They should try to encourage, to facilitate, the Muslim civil society and the civil society in general to develop. The Western countries should share their knowledge and wisdom how to manage the socio-political development without the involvement of the government and the military in the process of the transformation. Because while the US and EU always use the dictators, the military or lately the Muslim organizations like Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as the instrument to extend their influence, they should also try to ally themselves with other Muslim organizations and civil society organizations in the region. In Turkey, for example, the civil society is very vibrant and colorful – in particular the Gülen movement is spreading a cultural, not only ideological, perspective of Islam. This is very important because these Muslim civil society organizations, like in Indonesia or Turkey, can balance the voices from the extreme fringes of Islam.
EUBULLETIN: And how do you see the future of political Islam in North Africa?
A.Suaedy: A new book has just been published and its title is ‘Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire’ and this book says that Islamic ideology is dead. And the case of Indonesia confirms that this is totally true – Islamic ideology is dead because in the last election in 2009, none of the Islamic political parties fared well. In the MENA region, what we see now is the last period of political Islam. I believe that people there are actually not interested in Islamic ideology while the Muslim leaders are trying hard to defend the idea that Islamic political ideology is very important.
Like in Egypt, for example, the people voting for Muslim Brotherhood originally hoped that the organization would deliver better results – socio-economic betterment for the people – than the previous Mubarak regime. Look at Mursi, who focused on ideology but failed to improve the country’s economy, for example. Egyptian voters are now more interested in a leader who would improve the economy and not focus on any ideology, Islamic or other. So, I think that Egypt will follow the Indonesian path. In the end, the leaders in North Africa must be very creative.
EUBULLETIN: When we talk about socio-political transformation, how do you see the role of women in North Africa in this process?
A.Suaedy: Because of their social structure, Muslim women in North African societies are probably less emancipated than women in Indonesia. But because of globalization, booming social media and many women studying in Western countries, I think that also the women across the MENA region will step by step become more emancipated. In the end, if the men do not open the door, the women will start knocking on this door – this is a natural process that cannot be stopped.