From ASEAN to the World:
The Movement for Shared Civilizational Values

“There are efforts underway — in ASEAN and other parts of the world — to develop and strengthen a conceptual framework that does not regard others as solely good or evil, but views politics in terms of doing what is right and avoiding the greatest evil of all, which is war.”
~ H.E. Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro
Director General for ASEAN Cooperation,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia, 7 August 2023 — The ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference (ASEAN IIDC) showcased the burgeoning efforts of Nahdlatul Ulama, the Government of Indonesia, and the Center for Shared Civilizational Values (CSCV) to revive the ancient civilizational heritage of South and Southeast Asia through an initiative also known as “The Ashoka Approach.”

The final plenary session of the ASEAN IIDC discussed the global ramifications of these efforts. Specifically, Nahdlatul Ulama and CSCV seek to facilitate the re-emergence of South and Southeast Asia as a coherent civilizational sphere and powerful, independent pillar of support for a rules-based international order at a time of rising international chaos and human rights abuse worldwide.

Titled “The Movement for Shared Civilizational Values: Preserving and strengthening a rules-based international order founded upon universal ethics and humanitarian values,” the panel discussion featured contributions by H.E. Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro, Director General for ASEAN Cooperation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Father Martinho Gusmão, senior advisor to the current President of Timor-Leste, Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta; and Shaykh Syed Salman Chishty, a lineal descendent of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti (1143 – 1236) and custodian of the renowned saint’s tomb at Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan, India.

C. Holland Taylor — Special Advisor for International Affairs to the General Chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board and Deputy Chairman & CEO of the Center for Shared Civilizational Values — moderated the panel discussion. Selected excerpts, edited for publication, may be read below.

H.E. Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro was the panel’s first speaker. As Mr. Taylor observed, the Indonesian diplomat “embodies within his very DNA the civilizational connectivity of ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific region. The name Sidharto is familiar to Indians and Buddhists worldwide as ‘Siddhartha.’ Pak Sidharto’s middle name is ‘Reza,’ which is clearly Islamic, but with a Persian flavor. His last name, ‘Suryodipuro,’ refers to the Hindu solar divinity, Surya. Hence, this gentleman’s full name contains elements that are Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu in origin: a civilizational heritage clearly reflected within his culture and physiology…. In your opinion, Bapak Sidharto, how can we foster civilizational interconnectivity within ASEAN, and what would be the consequences for the world at large should this endeavor prove successful?”

Allow me to begin by thanking Pak Holland and Nahdlatul Ulama for inviting me to speak to you today. I have been following your discussions since morning and — while I initially felt out of place as I am not a religious leader — I was listening intently to Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s analysis of where the post-WWII liberal world order is today and how religion can play a constructive role.

It appears to me that religion has always played an important role in state building in Southeast Asia — it certainly has in Indonesia. Southeast Asia has always been a maritime crossroads, bringing in a vast range of influences that mixed freely. We did not lose geo-centricity during this process of mixing, but it shaped the way we look at religion. It made us more tolerant.

When I served as ambassador to India it was most natural for me to be called Sidharto, and it initially surprised me that Indians would wonder at how a Muslim could be called Sidharto. I think this is the result of our region being a crossroads of intense interaction between the nations of the region, and Chinese and Indian civilizations, forging a common Southeast Asian identity.

Southeast Asia remains a crossroads to this day, and I would argue that the prosperity and security of the major world powers depends on access to and access through this region. Under these circumstances, it is a challenge for the region to maintain its unity and centrality. In order to do so, it must forge a unity based upon a common identity and shared history. There is also a desire across the region to avoid repeating the traumas of the Cold War. So I sense from all my colleagues in ASEAN that there is a wish to remain united in the face of geopolitical and geostrategic dynamics in the world today.

Looking forward, the nature of Southeast Asia’s geography will push it, I hope, to develop its own maritime governance of this crossroads, which did indeed exist in the form of regional kingdoms and empires before the colonial period. Indian civilization contributed to this governance, as can be seen in the maritime kingdoms of Srivijaya and Majapahit.

I think this will be the way forward, and I also believe that ASEAN may be able to develop a space that is more amicable to other nations: where they are not forced to choose between position A or position B because of the lack of an alternative….

Given the current geopolitical situation — call it a revival of the Cold War or “dynamic multipolarity” — there is also the revival of a desire among many nations, not least in ASEAN, to take a neutral stance or position. This could be defined as non-alignment but there isn’t really a term for it yet.

This neutrality is not about being neutral towards one side or another, but taking an objective view of the situation. This is where I think religion really plays a role, in terms of morality. We are witnessing a revival of the importance of morality in numerous places across the world today.

There are efforts underway — in ASEAN and other parts of the world — to develop and strengthen a conceptual framework that does not regard others as solely good or evil, but views politics in terms of doing what is right and avoiding the greatest evil of all, which is war. Religion provides the moral grounds upon which this framework of principled neutrality can stand.

I would like to begin by thanking Nahdlatul Ulama for entrusting me to speak in this forum. The subject of my talk today will be how we can move from the concept of human rights towards human fraternity.

Let me first express my gratitude to Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who has provided an integrative approach that explains why the concept of human rights is in crisis today.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, and I quote: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

For almost 78 years, this expression of the spirit of fraternity has almost been totally obscured by the concept of human rights. But, in my humble opinion, fraternity is the oldest fashion in political studies. If we go back to the classics, Aristotle says: “Zoon politikon arises in family connection, fratrius, brotherhood, common sacrifice, amusements which draw men together.”

Again, in 1789 there was the French Revolution with its slogan of liberté, égalité, fraternité. If we look at the course of history, liberté led us to liberalism up to the extreme of libertarianism, while égalité brought us socialism and the extreme of communism. The question arises, “where is fraternité?” It is as if it disappeared from the history of political thought.

I believe, however, that we are now living in an age that will see human fraternity make a comeback. Pak Holland mentioned the Document on Human Fraternity signed by His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence Shaykh Ahmed el-Tayyeb, which recalls and celebrates the legend of Saint Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil’s meeting 800 years ago.

The Catholic Church is now revisiting fraternity, which I believe disappeared from political studies due to the fact that it is strongly influenced by Christian concepts. In the wake the French Revolution, it was widely believed that such religious notions should be put aside in favor of secularism.

I believe that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights resolved the contradiction between religion and secularism by focusing on the spirit of fraternity. Nonetheless, the human rights movement is in crisis, and — indeed — is precipitating multiple “crises of identity.” Human fraternity offers an approach that can resolve this.

Fraternity is a term that appears 26 times in the Second Vatican Council documents, and twelve times in Gaudium et Spes, in which “this sacred synod, proclaiming the noble destiny of man and championing the Godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this destiny of theirs.”

This worldly life is spatium verae fraternitatis, our world is the true realm for human fraternity.

So, how do we implement this human fraternity in our societies? In Timor-Leste we are trying our best to create pedagogia da irmandade (the pedagogy of fraternity), which includes two points:

  1. Education for a democratic culture. This concept is in our constitution. We cannot develop democracy without a democratic culture. Culture will always be in crisis without a democratic approach. Interreligious and intercultural dialogue is one of the most important aspects of this, and I would like to thank Nahdlatul Ulama because many Muslims regard NU as a source of authority.
  2. We need to distinguish between having a religion and being religious. When we focus on institutions we often come into conflict, but when we penetrate to the grassroots we may find people living together in a peaceful, religious manner, accepting their differences.

These are two points that I would like to share with you, and that we may discuss in a more detailed and discerning way going forward.

Shaykh Syed Salman Chishty
Custodian of the shrine of Ajmer Sharif (India)

Greetings of peace. Allow me to express my profound gratitude to Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, the senior leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama, and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for initiating this much-needed dialogue, which is a continuation of the G20 Religion Forum (R20).

This initiative is not only relevant to the ASEAN region and South Asia. It constitutes a message from Indonesia to the world.

Father Martinho Gusmão emphasized the central role that human fraternity has to play in our present era. Ajmer Sharif in India — of which I am a custodian — is a sanctuary frequently visited and widely revered by people from all faiths. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs come to Ajmer Sharif to find a place of peace and solace within themselves.

India is a diverse nation. When you travel through India, every 100 or 200 kilometers people’s language, dialect, food habits, faith, and clothes change. Amid this diversity, however, the values of unconditional love and service towards all creation (“bhakti seva/khidmat al-khalq”) have always been upheld.

According to the teachings of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, we may draw nearer to the Creator and serve His creation by incorporating three attributes of nature into our being, viz., sun-like grace, river-like generosity, and earth-like hospitality. These are the very principles that the Chishti Masters have always upheld — from Kashmir in the far North of India, to Kanyakumari in the South — and which have a deep impact and resonance throughout South and Southeast Asia.

I’m honored to be speaking on behalf of Ajmer Sharif at this ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue Conference. It is crucial for us to come together as a region to foster understanding, respect, and harmony among diverse cultures and faiths.

I have written down some thoughts about how Indic values and India’s message of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“The World Is One Family”) have resonated throughout Southeast Asia — and in particular within the nations of ASEAN — for many centuries until the present day.

Indic traditions of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have played a significant role in shaping the religious landscape of several ASEAN nations, including Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Many ancient temples and other religious structures embody architectural and artistic styles inspired by Indic traditions and holidays such as Diwali Holi and Vaisakhi, which celebrates the birth of Lord Buddha, are observed in many Southeast Asian nations.

Indian arts and culture have also had a deep impact. When we visited Bali and Yogyakarta last year for the inaugural R20 Summit, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Indian traditions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata played out in a unique style, which I had not seen while growing up in India.

Similarly, the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit has played a major role in the development of the unique scripts and vocabulary of several Southeast Asian languages. For example, both the Khmer script in Cambodia and Thai script in Thailand borrow elements of the ancient Indian brahmi script.

Traditional Indian medicine and the healing practices of ayurveda have profoundly influenced herbal remedies and holistic healthcare approaches throughout Southeast Asia.

Another important tradition is the ancient maritime connectivity that has long existed between India and Southeast Asia. The Indian Prime Minister’s office is particularly keen to resurrect this tradition and drive forward trade and commerce, facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and technology between our two regions.

As we move forward together, there are elements of Southeast Asian culture that we Indians need to re-import into our homeland. H.E. Sidharto Reza Suryodipuro mentioned that during his time as ambassador to India people were surprised that a Muslim had a name composed of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic elements. This is the kind of connectivity that we need to revive, rethink, and redevelop.

I would like to share an anecdote from a recent trip of mine to Yogyakarta, where I saw some students practicing for their Independence Day parade to the famous song “Jai Ho,” which was composed by A. R. Rahman for the 2008 Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire. So the cultural impact of India continues to be felt, I believe, throughout the nations of ASEAN.

Restoring the civilizational connectivity between South and Southeast Asia is a significant priority of leaders in both the governments of India and Indonesia, who are seeking to enhance connectivity between South and Southeast Asia and promote our shared traditions and legacy of spiritual unity.

I extend greetings from India, and hope that the ASEAN IIDC will help revive the spirit of Oneness Amid Diversity that we feel in both India and Indonesia. As His Excellency President Joko Widodo said this morning, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika can bring people together and marginalize extremism. We offer dua and pray for the success of this conference.

I would like to conclude my remarks with a poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207 – 1273):

[Recites in Farsi].

Come, come, come.
Whoever you are, come.
Even if you have broken your vows of repentance a thousand times, come.
Our doors are not the doors of despair.
Our doors are the doors of hope, hope, and hope.

And truly, inshallah, we believe that together with one voice in India and throughout ASEAN, we can open these doors of hope to the entire world.

[Applause].

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