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Islam, Pancasila and atheism

  • M. Syafi’i Anwar

Cambridge, Massachusetts | Tue, June 26 2012 | 08:00 am

Should Alexander Aan live in exile, could he express atheism without facing hatred and threats of beheading? One might wonder why he prefers to live in Indonesia — a predominantly Muslim country — which was reported by the US leading magazine Newsweek as representing “smiling Islam” more than two decades ago.

Unfortunately, Aan is currently facing “angry Islam”. We might argue that the majority of Indonesian Muslims remain moderate.

However, as Endy Bayuni argued, radical Islamic groups have raised Indonesia’s current political temperature (“Is there room for atheists in Indonesia?”, The Jakarta Post, June 18). The implication is far reaching, particularly in Aan’s case.

Having declared himself a “Minang atheist” and stated “God does not exist” on his Facebook account, Aan triggered revulsion and threats from hard-line groups. An angry mob also attacked Aan, but the police immediately arrested him. Recently, the Sijunjung District Court sentenced him to prison for two-and-a-half years.

Still, local Muslim leaders and clerics in West Sumatra accused Aan of committing apostasy and compelled him to repent. Meanwhile, the FUI (Islamic Society Forum) said he deserved the death penalty, despite his public repentance. Other hard-liners opined that all atheists should be beheaded.

Aan proclaimed himself an atheist out of the disappointment he felt with the role of religion in dealing with the complications of the worldly life. He wrote: “If God exists, why do so many bad things happen to this worldly life?” Thus, he was not only questioning God’s existence, but also offering a discourse.

As a Muslim, he expressed his faith through praying and fasting. But he stopped these rituals after considering religion useless and unable to resolve problems. I would suggest this is a matter of limited understanding of religious underpinnings, which led to a rather extreme conversion to atheism.

The case of Aan, who lives in Pulau Punjung, West Sumatra, reminds me of “the new atheist” ideas propagated among Western communities by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. These radical-secularist proponents denounce religion as not only retrograde but as an evil that has created horrible problems for human beings. They also claim that “God is Not Great” and “God is dead”.

At the beginning, some young and educated people may be interested in their ideas. However, Karen Amstrong, a noted theologian and the author of A History of God sharply criticized the fallacy and supercilious tendencies of new atheist ideas.

To Amstrong, God always exists and human being will always find a way to live with Him in a balanced, compassionate manner (Foreign Policy magazine, November/December 2009).

It is also crucial for the Muslim communities to rethink their views on apostasy. Noted Muslim intellectuals such as Syafi’i Maarif (Indonesia), Abdullah Saeed (Australia), Hasan al Turabi (Sudan), Rashid al Ghannussi (Tunisia), and others have discussed apostasy critically based on Islamic perspectives and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maarif, for instance, rejects strict, legalistic and exclusive perspectives on apostasy.

He argues that the spirit of Islamic teachings is democratic as stated in the Koran, “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q.S. Al Baqarah: 256). Thus, he insists that atheists have the right to exist.

Furthermore, Muslim communities need to discuss atheism rationally and critically. Local Muslim leaders in West Sumatra argue that based on the first principle of Pancasila, “Belief in One Supreme God”, there is no room for atheism.

For instance, the vice rector of Imam Bonjol State Islamic University–Padang, Asrasriwarni, says: “If Aan declares himself an atheist, he must be severely punished or expelled from Indonesia. Pancasila does not tolerate atheism.” (padangnews.com, Jan. 20).

Pancasila is basically a “gentlemen’s agreement” among Indonesia’s founding fathers, particularly “secular nationalist” and “Muslim nationalist” groups. It is a common platform for Indonesian societies; regardless of their religions, ethnicities and ideological backgrounds.

Accordingly, the late Nurcholish Madjid argued that Pancasila should be percieved as an open ideology. The strength of Pancasila lies in its ability to unite all religions that have existed in Indonesia’s pluralistic society.

The weakness of Pancasila is related to monotheism based on certain religious underpinnings. Consequently, Pancasila is often misinterpreted as a closed ideology and one that is opposed to atheism.

History shows the New Order regime developed a mystification of Pancasila, declaring it is a sacred ideology. This regime issued People Consultative Assembly (MPR) Decision No. XXIX/MPR/1966 that banned Marxism/Leninism. Consequently, there is no room for atheism.

However, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid revoked the decree during his presidency. As the guardian of pluralism, he was commited to upholding a rational discourse on atheism.

It is unproductive to pursue horrible and repressive approaches toward atheists and atheism. We should instead pursue persuasive dialogue with Aan. If he is still committed to atheism, no one can force him to change his beliefs.

It would be his own responsibility to be an atheist in the world and the hereafter. So, let’s be rational, objective and persuasive in resolving Aan’s case. Nobody is perfect, let alone a young and ordinary “former” Muslim like him.

The writer is a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation in Cambridge, Massachussetts.


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