By Aulia Rachmat and Herdi Sahrasad, published in The Jakarta Post, July 29, 2007.
The role of pluralism is very significant in a democratic country.
Religious tolerance is an essential element of pluralism and therefore it is important that everyone respect each other’s beliefs.
Correspondingly, when a Muslim says “Merry Christmas” to a Christian or a Christian “Happy Idul Fitri” to a Muslim, it is a paying of respect that symbolizes religious tolerance.
To young intellectual Moh. Shofan, ironically, his religious tolerance has ruined his career, leading to a long struggle.
“I will never forget the day I was dismissed as a full-time lecturer at Muhammadiyah University of Gresik (UMG) because I taught pluralism to my students and wrote an article about it in a regional newspaper,” Shofan told The Jakarta Post.
In December 2006 the UMG rector decided to remove Shofan from his position, mainly because of the content of his article, which said Muslims should be allowed to give Christians a Christmas greeting as a means of building religious tolerance.
“I was very shocked at my dismissal. I thought I would have received some appreciation for what I did,” said Shofan, who was born and raised in Gresik, East Java, and now lives in Jakarta.
The dismissal was unfair, said the Muhammadiyah activist. It is not surprised that the 32 year-old intellectual became disheartened at the reality, as his career was being torn apart by the dismissal.
The toil of Shofan’s low-income parents was the only financial resource for meeting his education expenses; they hoped that their son could become the backbone to supporting them and his family after finishing his education. Seeing him as a full-time lecturer at UMG was indeed a blessing.
The hopes of Shofan’s parents and his family have faded, but Shofan believes this is still a blessing. “It was so grim that I was fired because I was teaching and spreading pluralism. But it was also the dawn of my struggle; I believe that bitter life experience can be a trigger for becoming a better person,” the former principal of Muhammadiyah Primary School 2 in Malang, East Java, asserted.
He acknowledged that his dismissal was the reason of his moving to Jakarta. But for a man brought up in an education environment, Shofan’s devotion to education will not fade, as he said that he would continue to educate the community on the importance of pluralism to building a harmonious society.
He added, “being fired from my job for spreading the word of pluralism is a the price to bear, but I will never give up struggling to stand for I believe in.
“I will continue to write about pluralism as a means of educating the community. Our people need to have a better awareness of the importance of living in mutual tolerance within our pluralistic community,” said Shofan, who has four published books and a number of articles to his name.
Tolerance and brotherhood
During his first few months in Jakarta, he met a number of young Islamic intellectuals such as Zuhairi Mizrawi of Nahdatul Ulama (NU), M. Dawam Rahardjo and Budi Munawar Rachman, who share the same mind-set with regard to the meaning of religious harmony and mutual tolerance.
“Not only do we have the same mind-set; they have really supported my struggle to promote pluralism. Together, we have engaged in interfaith dialog with Christian and Catholic priests, as well as with other religious leaders,” said Shofan, who greatly admires the late Ahmad Dahlan (founder of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization) and the late Nurcholis Madjid (a prominent, moderate Islamic intellectual and founder of Paramadina University).
Dahlan was a Muslim intellectual who was very open in understanding other people’s beliefs. “He will not hesitate to take on board the values of other religions if he thinks they are positive and do not contradict his own beliefs,” Shofan said vehemently.
Shofan added that Islam, like other religions, promotes pluralism.
The writer of “The Third Way of Islamic Thought” said, “If a prophet emphasized his followers should respect other religions, I’m convinced that giving a Christmas greeting is not only paying respect to our Christian brothers and sisters in the archipelago, but also a courtesy. I believe Islam promotes such positive behavior. This is part of religious tolerance.”
Islam, says Shofan, has a long history of engaging with pluralistic societies. He said that Muslims should start perceiving today’s world in a different way.
“We live within the pluralism of globalization; Muslims should be able to work shoulder to shoulder with other people regardless of what religion they embrace.
“Together, both Muslims and non-Muslims should be able to build a strong brotherhood to make a better Indonesia; that way we can be better prepared to face today’s globalization.”
Indonesia still faces the problem of religious tolerance. Since the fall of the Soeharto regime, Islamic radicalization has emerged strongly. Radicalism is the engine of Islamic fundamentalism, and its followers often segregate themselves from others who are not of the same religious belief and doctrine.
“This ideology has the potential to endanger religious harmony and mutual tolerance within a plural Indonesian society, “Shofan remarked.
It is important, therefore, that society be aware of the essential meaning of “pluralism.”
“Pluralism is not just relativism; it is the language that is needed by all mankind — regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture and color of skin,” Shofan affirmed.
“Indonesian people need more education on pluralism. ‘There is no compulsion in choosing a religion’ should become the nation’s philosophy for building a better democratic nation.
“Therefore, an open-minded and moderate form of Islam is what over 190 million Indonesian Muslims should follow,” advised Shofan, who has one daughter.