Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Clinton Visit to Indonesia: Islam is a Religion

Newy York, NY, United States,

Indonesia was the second nation, after Japan, visited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her first overseas mission for the Obama administration. This was brilliant and correct. There is broad consensus within foreign policy circles that the Asia rim poses the most complex challenges for the Obama administration.

Clinton, quite properly and naturally, had a center of focus for each Asian nation she visited. In Japan, it was strengthening the two countries’ alliance – with an angry glance over her shoulder at North Korea. In South Korea, the North Korean missile threat brought out the weary phraseology of conflict diplomacy – that the North’s actions were "very unhelpful” and the U.S. was “watching very closely."

That is good enough, though no nation considers itself a "rogue state," and normal human pride, not to mention Beloved Leader pride, raises the question of who gets to decide who's allowed to test missiles, and who not?

The Indonesia stop had a different essential message. "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seeking to reinvigorate Washington's ties with the Islamic world, said the Obama administration will develop relations with Indonesia as part of a U.S. diplomatic push in Southeast Asia," the Wall St. Journal said.

Again, this is a fine direction and an excellent message from the Obama administration, one of urgent necessity and launched in the right place. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country – around 200 million, or 86 percent of the population, are Muslim. A highly blessed confluence of geography and cultural and religious history has evolved into an exemplary vision for Muslim politics and society.

As Mark Duff, religious affairs reporter for the BBC, put it:

The national motto is "unity in diversity."

The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim.

Moderation is therefore built into the country's constitutional framework.

Also part of the wisdom of placing this childhood home of President Barack Obama in the front line of foreign relations is its important domestic implications.

There are now 7 million Muslims in the United States, and another 1 million in Canada. Though still a small percent of the population, Muslims in America are important for a number of reasons: They are a multiform community – multi-ethnic, made up of both indigenous and immigrant communities – and compared to the rest of the population, they tend to be young, well-educated and positioned in solid middle-to-affluent economic demographics.

But perhaps most important is that Muslims in America tend to be religious, with attendance at Jumma, or Friday prayers, at a full 94 percent and mosque participation growing fully 75 percent in five years.

It is foundational to American thinking that religiosity functions as a spiritual and moral force in society. Spirituality and religiosity are helpful for the health and well-being of a country, especially in multi-faith environments with religious freedom.

Yet there is a vital cautionary note that must be recognized by Clinton and Obama. Islam is a religion. The administration’s actions and policy must reflect a deep understanding of the purely religious aspects of relations with "Islam."

To move properly in this arena requires consultation with knowledgeable religionists, most especially those with hard-won wisdom and expertise in interfaith relations. Despite well-meaning intent, these political figures cannot risk confusing political activity such as U.S.-Indonesia relations with religious activity such as improving relations with "the Muslim world."

This distinction is urgent and imperative. Failure to recognize the distinction is fraught with peril. U.S. relations with Indonesia, and with all the world's "Muslim regimes," must include elements that are "purely religious" in nature. Nations and religions and religious belief are different, and people like Clinton and Obama are trained in the former and not in the latter.

Obama is a self-confessed Christian. It is not impossible for him to understand and appreciate Islam, but it is not automatic either. Forging ever-deepening bonds across boundaries of true and passionately held religious faith is hard work and traverses a rewarding if perilous course. Missteps are easy in the world of interreligious relations and can have dire political consequences.

I offer praise for both the fact and the substance of the Indonesia visit. But I urge caution and beseech Clinton and Obama to avail themselves of sound counsel from people who know the difference between international and interreligious relations, and who are deeply steeped through life accomplishments in the latter.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.



Gordon said...

Frank, Again thanks for your timely and insightful posts on important issues.

I would like to add a point about Islam being a religion. There are some Islamists, including some groups in Indonesia, who talk about the idea of an "Islamic State." However, the "state" is a modern administrative construct.

Therefore, to those who support a more fundamentalist view of Islam and reject modernity, an Islamic State should be an oxymoron.

The idea of the dar es salam is comparable to the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God in the Middle Ages. It is a place that exists when the people residing there practice God's will.

The attempt by religions to claim or coopt governments seems to be the desire to control, rather than the desire to submit ones life to God. As such they seem opposed to the goals of religion and a use of religion as a mask for selfish ends.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the conflicts between states that are called religious conflicts, aren't really religious conflicts at all, but conflicts of power using religion as a mask to hide behind.

Dr. Thomas Selover said...

Thank you, Frank, for this well-articulated piece on Secretary Clinton's first official visit to Indonesia. You helpfully remind us that religious communities are, at their widest, both multi-ethnic and multi-national. It is indeed promising to think, as you encourage us to do, that the Obama administration might avail itself of experienced expertise in navigating what we could call the geo-religious landscape. That might truly bring us to a new era.

Youngil Ely Loew said...

Very interesting. I think you make a good point about how politicians often don't see religious issues as religious issues, but instead see them as political issues presented by a certain religion (if I understand your point correctly). For example, I think more discourse is necessary on the Hamas claim that Israel was founded on Islamic land, therefore it is unacceptable for a non-Islamic government to rule over it (if I understand the Hamas argument correctly). I see this as a religious issue more than a political one, yet I rarely, if ever, hear politicians address this.

Anonymous said...

I have gained a great deal from reading this piece on "The Clinton Visit to Indonesia:.."

The thought comes to mind that there may be a challenge for any USA head of state to operate in the capacity you suggess due to what is at least a perception of a need for a seperation of "church & state."

Perhaps you could give some thoughts in this area that would be practically instructive for both Obama & Clinton as well as for the rest of US citizenry that would inevitably raise this concern

Lloyd Eby said...

I agree with Dr. Kaufmann’s points about the importance of Hillary’s visits to Asian countries.

This is a minor point or quibble, but depending on which figures you use, you get somewhat different numbers of the Muslims in various countries. One set of figures I’ve seen puts Indonesia first, India second, Pakistan a close third, and Bangladesh fourth. Another set – derived, I understand, from the CIA’s World Factbook for 2007 – has Indonesia first, Pakistan second, India a close third, and Bangladesh fourth. None of the figures I’ve seen has China’s Muslim population anywhere near that of those first four.

I agree with Frank that Islam is a religion. But that does not necessarily confer goodness or value on Islam because religions can be and have often been curses on human life and sources of harm – they have been such harms at least as often as they have been blessings and sources of good.

It is true that politicians and political figures have different interests in and often lack knowledge about religions, compared to specialists in religion (“religionists” in Dr. Kaufmann’s terminology). But that does not necessarily mean that religionists have any superior grasp or understanding of the salient points and conditions with respect to human flourishing and well-being. For one thing, religionists tend to be over-sympathetic to religion and religious interests. But since religion has been and is often a curse on humanity and an impediment to securing essential human and political rights, a bias in favor of religion tends to make those religionists insensitive to and even opponents of essential human and political rights.

I think that Islam, as it exists as a major force in the world today, does pose a severe and possibly fatal threat (depending on your understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an and the sharia and Islamic notions of human existence and value) to essential human and political rights, as those rights are properly understood. Thus, although I agree that Islam is a religion and that political figures in the US do need to deal with Islamic countries, I do not think that Hillary or Obama any other political figure should necessarily accept the counsel of religionists or any other pro-Islamic partisans in their approach to Islam, Islamic states, and Islam’s political and cultural aspirations. It would be far better, I think, for such political figures to heed the concerns and counsel of secular human rights advocates.

Mohamad said...

Dear Dr. Kaufmann,
Thank you for a step ahead in advising the new Administration in its proper future relation with the Muslim World.

It's important that the Political Secular West recognize that Islam is not a 'mere' religion,with ritual practices here and there. That is only 25% of total Islam.
Islam is a complete way of life,with all components guidelines,regulations needed to govern and deliver security, safety, justice and economic prosperity for it's subjects.

The Islamic State must observe the foundations of Islam in a way that interprets modernity, but not necessarily in Western ways. Non-Western interpretations of modernity does not mean backward at all.

Unfortunately, many in the West tend to think of Islam as backward.

More articles of this sort are needed.

Shrivatsa said...

Your writing reflects and also recognises if not supports overcoming the divide between the religious sphere and the concerns and processes of civil society.

History proves that the alienation of the spheres one to the other has not helped humanity much.

Now, as has always been true the two parts of life need to work together in alliance. I appreciate your your call for that need. Religious wisdom can help political action.

David said...

great work and Blog, Frank!

Potri said...

Thank you for this article.
This moment in history needs this wisdom.


Mary said...

I am going to put the motto "Unity in diversity" on my wall.

As always, you have created an insightful and well written article.

Enrique said...

I really enjoyed your article and the distinction you made was "spot on" as we say down-under. Easily missed by even top experts.

Susan said...

Well written!!

Mumtaz said...

Excellent and thoughtful piece, Frank.

You should have sent it as op-ed to some newspapers. If Clinton had consulted me I would have advised her to see Mohammad Amien Rais, the President of the Muslim World's largest Islamic organization. He was speaker in the previous parliament. He was my classmate at Chicago. Meeting Dr. Rais would have sent a very positive signal.

Anyway, I immensely enjoyed reading your article.


Samvel Jeshmaridian said...

In the social perception, religion very often is being confused with statehood, on the hand and with faith, on the other hand. President Obama has once said that each time when reading The Bible, he is eager to understand what’s there behind the lines of the Sacred Book. In fact, faith, statehood, and religiosity have come across in the mind of this genially thinking person. Viewing Secretary Clinton’s visit to Indonesia as politics of cooperation with Islam can become misleading for US fundamental ideology. As Dr Kaufmann explains to us U.S. Secretary’s visit should be understood as cooperation between two countries (not between two religions) which might grow into cooperation between two unique civilizations.
Samvel Jeshmaridian

Samvel Jeshmaridian said...

In the social perception, religion very often is being confused with statehood, on the hand and with faith, on the other hand. President Obama has once said that each time when reading The Bible, he is eager to understand what’s there behind the lines of the Sacred Book. In fact, faith, statehood, and religiosity have come across in the mind of this genially thinking person. Viewing Secretary Clinton’s visit to Indonesia as politics of cooperation with Islam can become misleading for US fundamental ideology.

As Dr Kaufmann explains to us U.S. Secretary’s visit should be understood as cooperation between two countries (not between two religions) which might grow into cooperation between two unique civilizations.

Samvel Jeshmaridian

Jo Ann said...

I agree with "Anonymous."

What advice, based on your hard-won knowledge in the inter-religious field, would you give to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? What would you tell them? You have the forum. I just hope there is a way to reach them with it, as well as enlighten us.

Can you offer your organization to be of service to the administration?

Jo Ann

edwin said...

I find it fascinating that the world's largest Muslim nation has its founding principles rooted in Hinduism.

The word Pancasila is, after all, derived from two sanskrit words ("panca" and "silla") meaning five principles. Even the coat of arms of the nation depicts Garuda, the "vehicle" of Vishnu.

Thus, it would seem to me that it is quite possible (or likely) that any universality or moderation found in modern Indonesia may, in fact, owe more to the Hindu influence than that of Islam.

But who is really counting?

Greg said...

Frank, excellent and well thought out work, as always. I am very appreciative of your efforts to inform those of means and power but not necessarily of knowledge or expertise, about the ongoing work of those "behind the scenes" who have been laying the groundwork for all of the advancements that have been made in the area of so-called Middle East Peace. Isn't it about time that a special international interreligious coalition was asked to advise on matters of state?

My own personal comment is, I think we need to differentiate between religion as institution and the practice of spirituality in living ones life. It seems more and more folks "who are spiritual" see Religion (the extreme practice of it) as THE problem and thus the "solution" is to get rid of religion altogether.

Of course, I am not advocating this. However, the emotions and anger over this issue should not be ignored. Case in point. Bill Maher's film RELIGULOUS (Religion and Ridiculous)could be one of several shots "fired" in the cause of this rebellion. My interpretation of his film: his own insecurity and legitimate questions of his faith (or lack there-of) due to his confusing childhood experience with religion (we can all relate).

Finally, it is very important to support the President and this administration by giving personal input and through prayer (however one sees it manifested)as I believe we are going through an unprecedented spiritual revolution as well as the louder shouted ECONOMIC REVOLUTION that we see paraded across our TV screens daily. The importance of reflection and public discussion on our spiritual/moral direction as a nation can be no less important.

Just my thoughts.