He may only be known to a small circle of Indonesia experts in Germany, but Franz Magnis-Suseno plays a key role in building religious bridges for inter-faith dialogue between East and West.
Born in 1936 in Silesia, Magnis-Suseno went to Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim country – as a Jesuit priest in 1961 and it ended up becoming his new home.
He began by learning the culture and language of Java - and later the national language Bahasa Indonesia – and became so engrossed with the different cultures of the island nation that it became second nature to his Western, occidental thinking.
His immersion into the culture made him, like no other, a unique narrator and mediator of European culture in Indonesia and Indonesian culture in Europe.
"His intention was to understand the thinking and behavior of Indonesia and make it understandable to others," says sociologist Heinz Schütte in his recently published biography of Magnis-Suseno: "Dialogue, Criticism, Mission."
Critic of Indonesian politics
As a Catholic priest, philosopher and activist intellectual, Magnis-Suseno was deeply involved in the politics and religious debates of his adopted homeland, Indonesia.
In 2013, for example, the American Appeal of Conscience Foundation bestowed its World Statesman Award on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The foundation defines its mission as an effort to promote peace and tolerance between religions and their leaders. The prize was awarded to Yudhoyono for the president's advancement of religious tolerance.
Magnis-Suseno protested strongly in a letter to the foundation, calling the award "a disgrace." "The prize discredits every pretense of moral principles you profess with your institution," he wrote. The Jesuit underscored his objections, noting that President Yudhoyono had sorely neglected the protection of ethnic and religious minorities during his more than eight years in office. The prize was awarded anyway.
Schütte writes in his biography that Magnis-Suseno, like many Muslim clergy and leading intellectuals in Indonesia, is deeply disappointed in the country's political class. These people view them as absolutely corrupt. The clergy accuses them of ignoring social problems and endangering democracy.
Conviction and curiosity
The unshakable belief in his own convictions while, at the same time, respecting the lives and views of others helps to explain Magnis-Suseno's influence in Indonesia and indeed serves as a model of inter-faith dialogue. The Jesuit priest always was in pursuit of understanding but without trying to plaster over differences or maintaining that only he possessed the truth, notes Schütte.
Magnis-Suseno sees himself as "a missionary with a message who wants to win over people" while respecting the identity of others. "He accepts others, takes them seriously and respects their being different, but remains a Catholic and a Jesuit," says Schütte.
The inter-faith dialogue that Magnis-Suseno has practiced for decades with leading representatives of Islam is always aimed at the rational common ground shared by religions. This is also the primary focus of the philosophical University of Driyarkara in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, founded by the Jesuit and at which he still teaches.
The dialogue is effective because Magnis-Suseno confidently expresses his own positions, while reaming curious about the perspective of others. This ability is the basis for real inter-faith communication, Schütte stresses in his biography, and can be traced back to his school days in Bavaria.
Radikal Islamists in Indonesia are well organized. Here, they are protesting against the 2013 Miss Muslim World contest
From 1957 to 1969, Magnis-Suseno studied church dogma - in Latin - at the Pullach Jesuit Academy near Munich. He also learned Russian and studied Communist philosophy. He still has great respect for Karl Marx for whom religion was "opium for the people."
Just this year, radical Muslims publicly burned Magnis Suseno's Indonesian books about Marx. He pilloried the book burnings on television and in newspapers. It was easy for him as a German to draw parallels to fascism.
Not long afterwards, the instigators of the burnings went to Magnis-Suseno to talk to him. They left his house, each with a personally signed copy of one of Magnis-Suseno's Marx books.
The incident shows that dialogue is difficult but feasible. A Jesuit colleague in Schütte's biography describes Magnis-Suseno as an optimist. "Franz believes in the possibility of rational exchange."
His self-confident openness is accompanied by an almost superhuman straightforwardness. No crisis, no self-doubts appear to have ever shaken him. Schütte calls Magnis-Suseno a man with a calling: "His life is in Indonesia. His occupation is for Indonesia and this coincides with his calling."