Opinion

Religious intolerance and
Indonesia’s future

The increasingly alarming trend of religious intolerance in recent years should prompt us to ask: Is this the nation Indonesia wants?

Let us be honest, if the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and other Islamic fundamentalists had their
will, no churches and other non-Islamic houses of worship would ever exist in Indonesia. And that would be the end of Indonesia as we know it.

Between 2000 and 2001 alone, there were 108 reported incidents of church destruction in Indonesia, according to the US Department of State in its 2002 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

Tempo magazine in 2006 reported that between 1996 and 2005, about 180 churches were destroyed, burned or closed by force. The recent attack on HKPB church members in Bekasi and the forced closure of more than two dozen churches in West Java have added to the growing list.

Compared to only five similar cases for a half century, from 1945 to 1996, the recent number appears very disturbing.

No society can survive long where religious intolerance is permitted to thrive. As the recent communal conflicts in the Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi demonstrated, when religious intolerance thrives, the communities are destroyed.

This view is also shared by the majority of Indonesians. In a survey carried out by Kompas in 2005, around 70 percent of respondents admitted that religion was a potential factor that could disintegrate the nation.

A comparison of ratings for 37 countries shows that freedom of religion highly correlates with civil liberties (Human Rights and Religion: A Reader. Liam Gearson, editor, 2002).

This is not surprising since religious freedom, which encompasses the freedom for others to practice their religious beliefs and build their house of worship, constitutes the very heart of human rights.

Contrary to what many may think, religious freedom is neither a product of social contracts nor a product of human laws. Social contracts and laws are merely agreements between people. They may last for now but become history tomorrow.

In truth, freedom of religion has its roots in the nature of the relationship between the Creator and human beings. That is, the Creator creates human beings, who mature as they grow.

But the key precondition to grow is to have liberty, which means people must have some degree of sovereignty over their lives, including choosing the path they would want in their relationship with their Creator.

Because rights and freedom come from the Creator, they are inalienably and unquestionably held as truth for all-time. Neither any groups nor government can take them away. Unfortunately, many religious leaders and followers have misunderstood this fundamental concept.

As a result, they tend to believe that the establishment of a single religious belief, often by any means, is considered to be their main duty. And this has led to religious intolerance.

Most of the recent religious intolerance was perpetrated by radical Islamic organizations such as the FPI. But most troubling are the so-called “moderates”.

In a survey conducted by the Freedom Institute and the PPIM, an Islamic social research institute affiliated with the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in 2006, around 41 percent of Muslim respondents said they felt uncomfortable when their Christian neighbors practiced their faith, and more than 51 percent would reject the efforts of their Christian neighbors to build a church in their community.

The same surveys in 2001 and 2002 also found similar results. This seems to suggest that Indonesians are not as tolerant as what we might think.

Given this reality, how can we promote religious tolerance in Indonesia? To begin with, we must first admit that religious intolerance is on the rise.

Next, we must realize that if religious intolerance is allowed to thrive, Indonesia’s future is in danger. Only then can we have the will to promote religious tolerance.

Certainly, the government has a vital role. It cannot continue to be ambivalent toward violent religious intolerance committed by certain groups of people.

By letting mobs get away with violent behavior and failing to provide protection for the basic rights of its citizens to practice their religious beliefs and build their houses of worship, the government only undermines its own authority and credibility.

The proactive Muslim moderates also have essential roles, especially in countering the hostility of people in their faith toward other religious communities.

Any intra-religious differences that could potentially lead to religious intolerance should be first solved within the respective religious community.

Of course it would be foolish for Christians to attempt building a bridge among Muslim groups, and vice versa.

Ideally, the Golden Rule should be enough to settle this problem. If the radical groups and some of the majority believe that it is right for them to intimidate and discriminate against the minority, how would they view the situation if the tables turned?


The writer is an associate professor of economics at Azusa Pacific University, California, US and author of book The Indonesian Dream: A Pursuit of a Winning Nation, published in 2009 (Prima Press, Jakarta), from which some of the article’s content comes from.

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