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Jakarta Post

Ethnicity is futile. It's time for Indonesia to move towards civic nationalism

Jakarta   /   Sun, September 22, 2019   /   08:01 am
Ethnicity is futile. It's time for Indonesia to move towards civic nationalism Students of SMP 1 state junior high school in Ngargoyoso carry flags in Sumilir Valley. (JP/Maksum Nur Fauzan )

The discrimination against Papuans has yet again brought the issue of ethnicity and nationalism into the spotlight. But what is nationalism, especially when faced against the backdrop of ethnic diversity in Indonesia?

Human societies first began with ethnic nationalism. It upholds the principle of jus sanguinis (the law of blood). The nation is largely defined as having a common ancestry. This means that the most important factor in nationality would be the origins of one’s parents and ancestors.

Civic nationalism, also known as liberal nationalism, is a form of nationalism in contrast with ethnic nationalism. Under this paradigm, nationality is not based on ethnicity or religion. It is based on a person's willingness to follow the shared principles and values of the nation. French scholar and early civic nationalist Ernest Renan's characterized the civic nation in "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?" as a “daily referendum”, people make the conscious choice of living together based on free will, forming a society.

A contemporary example of ethnic nationalism would be China, which has a longstanding tradition of ethnic nationalism. They characterize the Chinese nation as “Descendants of Yan and Huang”, two of the earliest emperors in ancient Chinese folklore.

As early as 1909, the Chinese Nationality Law declared all overseas Chinese regardless of place of birth were citizens of China.

In a hit Chinese song titled “Descendants of the Dragon”, there is a verse which says, “Black hair, black eyes, yellow skin are forever descendants of the dragon”. While it is unarguable that these three traits are notable characteristics of the Han Chinese ethnicity, this is also the official narrative of the Chinese state when it comes to nationality.

Opposite examples would include Singapore, Australia and the United States. Their citizens are members of their respective nations not merely because of hereditary factors; emphasis is placed on shared values.

Basing nationality on descent is an outdated and arbitrary one. Ethnic nationalism is exclusive and determines one’s nationality based on something which is out of anyone's control. In academic philosophical terms, this means that one’s descent is “morally arbitrary”.

We do not have a choice in what family we are born into, or what blood flows in our veins; but we do have a choice in what kind of person we want to become, what nation we find ourselves closely aligned to.

While it is rare for anyone to feel particularly attached to a nation without hereditary influences (the “American dream” being an exception), blood ties to the people of a nation is often a conducive factor towards one’s sense of belonging, but it should not be the sole determinant.

For a modern republic like Indonesia, everyone and anyone who appreciates the nation's culture, abides by its values, and are loyal to the country, should have the right to become a national.

Another prominent example in history based on ethnic nationalism would be Germany. The rise of German nationalism could be associated with Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who played a significant role in unifying the German states. Extreme German nationalism was taken to a new level by the Nazi. They began to see those not sharing the same blood as aliens, purged and persecuted them and the rest is history.

In some sense, the narrative of Vladimir Putin’s Russia also show traits of ethnic nationalism. In his 2005 Annual Address at the Kremlin, Putin claimed that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century… Tens of millions of our citizens found themselves outside the Russian Federation.” Perhaps it is this form of ethnic nationalism, coupled with a revisionist agenda that led to Russia’s aggressive behavior and its eventual annexation of Crimea.

The above histories may have been oversimplified in the interest of being concise, but they suffice in showing how ethnic nationalism may potentially translate into something ugly.

As a nation rooted in diversity, ethnic nationalism could hardly be the future for Indonesia.

With over 300 ethnic groups scattered across the archipelago, Indonesia could be called a multinational state. Before Dutch colonization, different corners of the archipelago had little in common with each other - they had different ethnicities, languages and cultural practices. In the early days of the Republic, holding the hundreds of peoples and thousands of islands together proved to be an enormous challenge.

While previous empires such as Srivijaya and Majapahit may have covered large swaths of territory in Nusantara, the truth is that this model based on imperialism could hardly be appropriate for a modern republic.

Sukarno famously announced his visions for Indonesia as “one homeland, one nation, one lingua franca”. The adoption of Indonesian language as the official language, instead of Javanese, is a reflection of the founding fathers’ determination in shaping an “Indonesian nation”. Gradually, people stopped confining themselves to their own ethnic identities and came together to recognize each other as members of one nation.

Sadly, up till this day this idealistic vision has not been fully achieved yet. Over the past few years there has been numerous incidents of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted. The conflicts regarding Papua is a major manifestation of the conflict between an ethnic majority and a minority. These incidents show that there is still a formidable portion of the population stuck with a narrow view of ethnic nationalism.

It is not the state alone that bears the responsibility in achieving democracy and equal rights for all. All citizens have a role to play as well. They may choose to embrace each other as their own kind, or to exclude and discriminate against those who do not share the same blood, religion or native language. At the end of the day, one cannot alienate and marginalize other communities of the nation, and still expect patriotism on their part.

It is only when people begin to look past ethnic and religious lines that Indonesia can truly be as one.

If the majority of the country continues to discriminate ethnic or religious minorities, this would only lead to further division of the nation.


The writer is a former Jakartan and research assistant on Southeast Asian politics at the University of Hong Kong. He interned at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.