Fareed Zakaria: “Indonesia Must Play a Greater Role on Islamic Issues”

Fareed Zakaria came from a multicultural environment. Born in Mumbai, India in 1964, he grew up in the middle of a Muslim intellectual family. His father was a politician and an Islamic scholar, while his mother was editor of the Sunday Times of India newspaper.

At the age of 28, he was made executive editor of Foreign Affairs, an American journal on international relations. Zakaria worked for Newsweek in 2000 as a regular columnist and international editor for 10 years.

Today, Zakaria can be seen on CNN as the host of the program ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’. He is also an editor-at-large at Time magazine and a permanent columnist for The Washington Post. A number of his books are bestsellers, one of them being The Post-American World 2.0, on the clash of world powers and the decline of US influence.

Last month, Tempo reporter Sadika Hamid interviewed him in Bali, in between sessions of the World Culture Forum. Excerpts:

What is the role of culture in driving a country’s economic growth?

Culture does not condemn you to either being bad or good at economic growth. People say that the Chinese culture helped China to grow. But for centuries China grew very slowly, while its culture was the same. Many who wrote about China in the 1950s thought that its culture was bad. It’s the same with India. Now people say that India has this great cultural growth. But when I was growing up in India, everyone thought it was the culture that produced poverty. It shows that it’s not culture by itself, or to put it another way, you can change your culture. It is not set in stone. You may have certain cultural attributes, but if you change the economic policies, the incentives, if you reorient things, the same people who might have seemed poor, become more successful.

Some say Islam produces violence or jihad.

That is too simplistic. People look at Islam and think that it must be a violent religion. But Indonesia is a very good example. Most people, when they think of Islam, really think of a small number of Arab countries. It is very difficult for them to understand that the whole Arab world is only 290 million people out of 1.6 billion Muslims. The first Arab country is number six on the list of Muslim countries. Meanwhile, Indonesia has about 220 million Muslims, India around 150 million, Bangladesh and Pakistan have very large Muslim populations. Islam in these countries, particularly in Indonesia, is peaceful and harmonious. It encourages pluralism, recognizes and respects other religions. So what I come to live with is the thought that culture is the thing you can change, you can mold, you can adapt, in a way that it enriches growth. It is particularly important in non-Western countries because they are trying to find a way to modernize and to accept those elements of Westernization such as science and modernity but they do not want to lose their soul.

How does one become modern without losing one’s soul?

I think the most important thing is not to worry about wanting to be modern and learn from other places, but at the same time, not to be ashamed of where you came from. Even the West a few hundred years ago was not very modern. And if you look at the way they handled things, there were many problems. As a modern person you can look at your country and your culture and see there are so many elements that look so backward. And you can, in some way, think to yourself, I have to turn my back on all that. But you can take from it the spirit, you can take from it the elements you want to take, but take something, because otherwise you are leaving behind something of yourself. Somebody once said, a country without a culture is like a tree without roots. You can, even if the roots do not show, keep some parts of yourself. So, I think Indonesia does it quite well. You are trying to recognize and celebrate the old while being modern.

Some Muslim countries have succeeded in developing their countries by going with democracy and capitalism. But the radicals say that those values are “un-Islamic”.

When people say that certain modern values are not Islamic, you could say just as easily that certain modern values are not Japanese or Italian.

If you worry about where the origin of everything you are doing and not copying, you will not move forward in the world. The reality is, yes, some of these things come from other places but then they spread very quickly. Amartya Sen was giving the example of one concept in mathematics that started in India, went to Arabia and translated into Latin. That is the reality. The interpretation of Islam is different from country to country. If people said that with capitalism, they are nuts! Mohammad was a businessman, a trader. They do not even know their Islamic history. And who appointed them to decide that it is not compatible with democracy? All democracy says is to let people choose their own ruler.

If people want a dictator, they can keep electing him year after year for the rest of his life.

Some Islamic radical mass organizations in Indonesia and Pakistan are growing more intolerant towards minorities. How do you see this phenomenon?

I think this is a very dangerous trend in Islam. It is the globalization of a very particular set of Islamic beliefs and practices. They come out of the desert in Saudi Arabia, out of a very small part of the Muslim world. It is a Wahhabi tradition. It is important to remember that this was a very small isolated desert tribe. Its traditions were not practiced in the rest of the Muslim world as Islam grew from Spain to Central Asia to India to Indonesia. But then, the oil revolution occurred and the oil prices gave Saudi Arabia great wealth so it was able to export its very tiny brand of Islam, all over the world. And that has, in my view, a very negative impact in the world of Islam. In Indonesia, you see that the new Islamic centers are all Saudi-funded and they come with Wahhabi-trained clerics. Those people preach intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

In what way can Indonesia play a bigger role in Islamic issues?

I would like that when people think about what the right Islamic practices are, or what the Muslim world thinks, rather than asking some imam in Saudi Arabia, they would ask some elected politicians in Indonesia. After all, somebody like Gus Dur represents tens and tens of millions of practicing Muslims.

The crazy imams that you find in Qatar or in Saudi Arabia do not represent anyone. They are often being paid off by the government to buy some kind of cheap legitimacy, whereas those in Indonesia are actually being elected by tens of millions of Muslims as an expression of their support.

How does the world view Indonesia today?

I think there is a sense in the outside world that Indonesia has handled the challenge and the danger of jihadi violence quite well, with the combination of hard power and soft power. You were being tough but also allowing for a dialogue and allowing for reintegration. On the other hand, I think that the way that the world is looking at Indonesia now, is not a bad example of anything, but it is not yet a good example of anything. There is a sense that it is sort of in the middle of navigating its waters.

I often tell people that Indonesia is doing well economically, but I am struck by the fact that that is not the general view. The general view is that there are many problems and a lot of corruption. There are great challenges and I think that in Indonesia the most hopeful thing is that it seems to get better. If you look at Indonesia today comparing it to 10 years ago it is better. I think that if you look at Indonesia five years from now, the arrow is moving in the right direction. So I am actually quite hopeful.


The complete version of this interview can be read in this week’s edition of Tempo English magazine.

TEMPO English Magazine
Friday, 27 December, 2013

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