Opinion

Conservatism and the policy
of building religious
harmony

Having observed the current developments in Indonesia, it seems that the state and religious freedom are now at a crossroads. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali’s recent statement on the attack on an Ahmadiyah mosque in Tasikmalaya reinforces this suspicion.

This is not the first time he has played down suggestions to protect religious minorities’ rights. His previous remarks on sharia-based bylaws and the attack on Shiite groups in Sampang, Madura, demonstrate his mindset in understanding religious harmony. Fortunately, his deputy, Nasaruddin Umar, holds a dissenting position on Ahmadiyah and has underlined the need to protect the rights of minorities.

Still, several governors, mayors and regents have issued or proposed public policies that ignore religious-minority rights. Apart from the Ahmadiyah, policies on restrictions on building houses of worship, prohibiting religious defamation and controlling religious splinter groups have prevailed in the last few years.

On the Ahmadiyah issue, regional leaders have enforced local regulations to formally ban Ahmadiyah from their jurisdictions. They have moved farther than the Joint Ministerial Decree No.3/2008 on Ahmadiyah, which basically “froze” the group but did not disband it. On building houses of worship, Bogor mayor Diani Budiarto’s decision to maintain the seal on the GKI Yasmin church shows that he has deliberately ignored the Supreme Court’s verdict and the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

It is also shocking that the East Java provincial administration plans to issue bylaws on the Shiite minority group, a group it deems as “capable of disrupting peace and public order within the community”. According to East Java Deputy Governor Saifullah Jusuf, the plan is a response to the demand of Sunni clerics and the East Java Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chapter (The Jakarta Post, April 29, 2012).

The local Islamic authorities consider Shia activities as deviant from mainstream Islamic teachings. Their demands are based on the 10 misguided criteria on individuals or groups categorized as “deviant” from Islamic teaching issued by the MUI national working meeting on November 2007. Certain religious leaders and local parliament members have supported the ban.

The implications of these anti-minority policies are far reaching, particularly because most of the policies are a result of two factors. First, the demands and pressure from local conservative groups, mostly concerning alleged religious defamation and a “Christianization” agenda. Second, the policies are supposedly intended to promote “religious harmony” within society, although they undermine religious freedom itself.

The conservative groups often capitalize on the MUI’s edicts for the sake of their own interests and mobilize mass support, which risks provoking sectarian violence. Accordingly, the local administrations accommodate them in the name of regional autonomy, which allows regional administrations to issue public policies aimed at maintaining social and political order, including religious harmony.

Regrettably, their policies tend to overlook the rule of law, human rights and citizenship rights. Moreover, they are mostly based on majoritarianism and local political interests, at the expense of minority rights.

To resolve this complicated problem, it is crucial to remind the religious affairs minister and those local administrations that any statements and policies based on conservative arguments and political pressure could be counterproductive for this plural and diverse nation. If such statements and policies continue, they will undermine democracy and undercut Indonesia’s standing on religious freedom internationally.

It should be remembered that Indonesia is not an Islamic state. Our state ideology is not based on sharia, but Pancasila. The late Nurcholish Madjid, a respected Muslim intelletual, accurately described Pancasila as the best kalimatun sawa, or common platform, for all Indonesian citizens; regardless of their religious, ideological or political identities.

In the broader perspective, as a member state of the United Nations (UN) that ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2005 and respected the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, Indonesia should demonstrate its commitment to protection of citizenship rights and religious-minority groups. Consequently, MUI edicts should be considered non-binding legal opinion.

Furthermore, it is crucial to use civic reasoning in the decision-making process of building religious harmony. As proposed by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, a noted Muslim intellectual and professor of law at Emory University in the US, any public policies or legislation should be based on the sort of reasoning that the generality of citizens can accept or reject. All citizens are allowed to make counter proposals and take part in public debate. Finally, the public debate should be able to avoid exclusive and personal religious beliefs over time.

An-Naim’s ideas could only be applicable if the state and its agencies took a neutral position. More than that, the state and its agencies are bound to Pancasila and not in favor of conservatism and partisanship. If the state could play its role properly, we would be able to see a new breeze of religious freedom in Indonesia.

The writer is a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. In 2007, he was selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as one of five independent experts representing group of Asian states.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.