SINGAPORE - A strong Islamic figure in government is what Indonesia needs now to help unite the people, amid the rising tide of religious conservatism and radicalism, said prominent Muslim scholar Ma'ruf Amin, who is the running mate of President Joko Widodo in the upcoming election.
Dr Ma'ruf, in an interview on Wednesday (Oct 17) ahead of a public lecture on the Islamic principle of "Wasatiyyah" or moderation organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said he agreed to be the running mate of President Joko to help promote tolerance and religious diversity.
"An ulama must always be prepared to help safeguard the country, whether he is inside or outside the government. If we are asked to join the government, it is a duty to accept the role as it's part of our responsibility," said the 75-year-old.
Dr Ma'ruf is chairman of the country's top Islamic authority, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and former supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world's biggest Muslim organisation.
His choice as President Joko's running mate in the April 17, 2019, presidential election has raised eyebrows in Indonesia, with concerns raised over Dr Ma'ruf's conservative Islam stance on issues.
But others see the pick as a shrewd move by Mr Joko to cover his flank from Islamists and Muslim conservatives.
As the April 17 election looms, mainstream political candidates have been sprucing up their Islamic credentials to secure the support from conservative Muslim voters.
Dr Ma'ruf said while Mr Joko - who is seeking a second term - is seen as a "pluralist" and nationalist, he is also a "good Muslim" with a good understanding of Islam, and one who carries out his religious obligations and gets along well with scholars.
"But he tends to be the target of religious groups. But after he teamed up with me, such issues have become muffled. Now the focus of the election is the economy," he said.
The pair will contest Mr Prabowo Subianto, a retired special forces commander, and running mate Sandiaga Uno, a businessman and former deputy governor of Jakarta.
Since throwing his hat into the ring, Dr Ma'ruf has had his fair share of grilling by conservatives.
Last month, he was accused of "dancing and prancing around" to dangdut folk music as Mr Joko and himself kicked off their election campaign in downtown Jakarta. He swiftly quashed the accusations so people did not get the wrong idea, he said.
"They're just trying to create a rumour to attack me but did not succeed. I was not dancing, but merely clapping along. They must be blind," he said, with a laugh.
"But I had to straighten it out otherwise people will think that's the truth," he said.
While Dr Ma'ruf is highly respected as a cleric, analysts say he may be too old to help Mr Joko run the country.
Political expert Syamsuddin Haris of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences told The Straits Times he may not be equipped to fill Mr Joko's shortcomings, such as resolving human rights issues and nurturing Indonesia's potential in science, technology and innovation.
Dr Ma'ruf said matter-of-factly: "Yes, I am not young, I am old."
But he said he had accepted the role so he could serve the country and the people. "Like an old man planting a tree... I plant the tree not for myself, but for the generations after me. My life slogan is, if I am hurled into the sea, I must become an island, and if I am hurled on the land, I must become a mountain."
The elderly scholar is not new to politics and governance, having been a key member of the Presidential Advisory Council during the administration of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
He vows to help Mr Joko in reducing the poverty gap and income disparity and continue with infrastructure projects such as the development of airports and ports. Indonesia, a country where Muslims make up 90 per cent of the 260 million population, will also go big on halal issues, he said.
Plans to build a port and industrial zones to process halal foods and products are underway, and he welcomes future collaboration with Singapore as one of the country's biggest investors.
As chairman of MUI, Dr Ma'ruf has received criticisms for supporting controversial regulations, including the pornography law and the joint ministerial decree banning activities of the minority religious group Ahmadiyah.
"The Muslim community only wanted to protect Islam from being tainted so it was necessary to spread the right teachings," he said.
However, some people could take advantage and may use the fatwa to "discriminate and criminalise".
"I have said then that I am against violence and such acts of anarchy. The right way is through education and dialogue," he added.
Dr Ma'ruf was also a key witness in a blasphemy trial which led to the jailing of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, who is both Christian and Chinese.
But Dr Ma'ruf said he was called to the stand to address the religious aspect of the blasphemy charge, and is opposed to the massive and violent rallies led by Muslim hardliners against Mr Basuki, an ally of Mr Joko.
"Once the case has been processed, it is over. If the demonstrations continue, it is no longer a law enforcement issue but it's for political interest. And that is something I disagree with," he said.
The cleric stressed that Indonesia is a plural country - with diverse religions and cultures - and will not support the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, with the government recognising six official religions - Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman-Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
"What is important, if elected, I will become the vice-president for everybody, not only for supporters. Muslims and non-Muslims, everyone, must be given space to express their views," he said.
But until the polls, he is focused on "building synergy" with Mr Joko which he believes is key in governing a country smoothly.
He said: "It's like playing badminton. If your teammate is in front, you must move behind, if he stands left, you stand right, side by side. There's synergy where we help each other and we don't clash. I'm confident we can do it."