Interfaith tolerance challenges Indonesian Islam, democracy

Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Interfaith tolerance challenges Indonesian Islam, democracy
Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Prefecture — During the heat of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, which successfully toppled the respective autocratic regimes of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, some incidents in Indonesia appear to have dimmed the prospect of democracy on this side of the Islamic world.

In Pandeglang, Banten, the Ahmadiya community was attacked by mobs that caused at least three people to die and others to get injured. In the same week, just a couple of days after the Ahmadiya incident, three churches were destroyed by angry mobs in Temanggung, Central Java.

Ironically, these incidents happened in the middle of World Interfaith Tolerance Week. The rise of Islamism in the world’s biggest Muslim democracy reminds us of the warning from Farag Fouda, a prominent Egyptian progressive intellectual: Will the Islamic world pursue the path of enlightenment, or follow the path of orthodoxy and fundamentalism?

The responses to this issue of violation of religious freedom, sympathy and solidarity from people from all walks of life have been tremendous. In various online platforms, most notably Facebook and Twitter, intellectuals, public figures and laymen have expressed their solidarity toward their Ahmadi and Christian fellows.

This spirit has also moved a number of concerned citizens to immediately stage some demonstrations at Jakarta locations, including in front of the Presidential Palace. All of these street actions are driven mostly by the online activism of the middle class.

Unfortunately, the mindset of “blaming the victim” is still prevalent among a large part of the population, including public officials. It is not uncommon to hear some pejorative comments directed toward the Ahmadiya community, despite the discrimination and injustice that they have endured for a long time.

Fatwas or religious verdicts declaring Ahmadiya teachings as heretical were first issued by MUI or Indonesia’s Council of Religious Clerics in 1980. Recently Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who comes from the Islamist Party (PPP) also supported the banning of Ahmadiya teachings and practices.

Because of these fatwas, regulations and even statements from religious and state authorities, vigilantism conducted by the Islamic fundamentalist groups and other political thugs seem to find support.

In democratic polity, citizens’ participation is one of the most fundamental elements in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, democracy should not be understood merely as the will of the majority but also as the aspiration of minorities, including the Ahmadiya community. Thus, democracy should also be realized as the protection of minority rights, since majoritarianism alone will lead to the tyranny of majority. As a consequence, tolerance is inherently important in building a healthy democracy.

To make democracy flourish, it needs to be protected from anti-democratic and intolerant forces, because freedom cannot protect itself.

Sadly, these anti-democratic groups and associations are often protected by some particular political elites or public officials, politically or financially, for shortsighted, pragmatist interests, such as to garner more votes in elections — a proof of historical remains from the authoritarian era.

These violent acts toward Ahmadiya are not the first. They add to the long list of violent acts committed by state and society in Indonesia. It is not surprising that some observers on Indonesian politics, such as Henk Schulte-Nordholt (2002), argued that this is a continuation of the genealogy of violence in Indonesia.

Moreover, it is an indisputable fact that Ahmadis, Christians and other minorities are part and parcel of Indonesian society. They have been a part of Indonesia’s social fabric even before the state came into existence officially.

In fact, these minorities have contributed a lot in the process of nation building. Regardless of different interpretations of these incidents and allegations about who is the true mastermind, to respect and protect their rights to live and freely exercise their religious beliefs are the duty and obligation of the state and society. It is true that these minorities, particularly the Ahmadis, have doctrines significantly different from mainstream Islam, but that does not validate any hostilities and even killings toward them.

What we need rather is constructive theological debates and dialogues in the framework of tolerance and appreciation toward diversity, as stipulated in Islam and other religions.

As next step to addressing the current problems of lack of religious freedom and tolerance in Indonesia, several steps should be considered:

First, the state should not be absent in defending religious freedom and minority rights as enshrined in the Indonesian Constitution and Pancasila, the philosophical foundation of Indonesian state. Attacks and killings in the Ahmadiya community in Banten and churches in Central Java are another example of state failures to protect its citizens.

Second, there is a need for “securitization” of this issue. Various proofs and analyses have led to the conclusion that these incidents, considering numerous factors, are possibly orchestrated for short-term political and economic interests. Therefore, it is important to bring this case into the proper legal process.

Third, Indonesian Muslims and the Islamic world in general need to do theological and historical reflection in response to Ahmadiya and other “post-Islam” religions, such as Bahafi and indigenous religions. It is necessary to have greater understanding and tolerance despite the differing views, even if such view is considered as heretic.

Last, democracy should be translated not only as electoralism but also as protection for civil and political rights. This case basically is a litmus test for the prospect of democracy, freedom and justice in the Islamic world

Iqra Anugrah, a master’s candidate at the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is active in various Islamic and student groups (twitter: @libloc). © 2011 Project Syndicate (