If there’s one topic that I’d like to avoid when I write, it’s actually about religion. If you’re like any other Indonesian, religion goes deeply into each of us; it’s embedded into your system of values and how you live and treat others are based on what you believe in. Thus, when one speaks of religion, it is hard to separate between logical arguments and what your faith has told you to do. As we’ve witnessed recently in Indonesia, speaking about religion and practicing it – to a certain extent – if not done ‘correctly’, you are prone to ill treatment from others who are different than you.
So I cautiously ask, does religious tolerance still exist (or has it ever existed) in Indonesia?
I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Robert D Putnam, a professor of public policy from Harvard about religion in America, and he explained how Americans have been extremely polarized in terms of religion, yet they maintained a high level of religious tolerance. You have evangelical protestants, mainline protestants, black protestant, “angelo” catholics, latino catholics, jews, and other faiths, yet when a survey was given to them, most Americans believe that people from other religions can go to heaven -contradictory to their faith. The survey shows that few Americans are true believers, those who believe one religion is true and the others are not, while the majority of Americans believe that there are basic truths in many religions. The key to religious tolerance, as Putnam describes it, is to have personal connections with people from different religions.
Putnam further explains that in the survey, many Americans have warm feelings towards jews and catholics, and the less popular religion are Mormonism, Buddhism, and Islam. The three latter groups are less popular not because they dislike the religion, but it’s because most Americans don’t know many mormons, buddhists and muslims. Interfaith marriages in the US, for example, accounts for one-third to one-half of all marriages there which Putnam argues as a sign for increasing personal connections of people of different religions.[*] If you love someone from a different religion, wouldn’t it be hard to demonize them?
It is hard to not make a comparison with Indonesia. Culturally, historically, Indonesia and the US are very different, so why would Indonesia look at America as case for religious tolerance? Food for thought would be Putnam’s remarks on how personal connections are the key for religious tolerance. However, Indonesia, proudly of her slogan ‘bhinneka tunggal ika‘ (unity in diversity) now rests in a fragile society where fear of apostasy is greater than the feeling for a common sense of identity of being an Indonesian. This fragile society could then be easily exploited by political interests which results to the violent conflicts that we are seeing right now.
This is where the role of the state comes in. America’s constitution sees the separation between the church and the state, and religions in America needs to be entrepreneurial because essentially no religion is sponsored by the state. It is a free market of religion, Putnam argues.
In Indonesia, there’s a grey line whether religion and the state is separated. A misconception of many, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, although the majority of the population are Muslims. It’s not purely secular too in Indonesia, as religious affairs are managed by the state – hence the Ministry of Religious Affairs – which are seated by Islamic political parties, historically. It is also very naive to say that Indonesia is secular, because Islamic groups, which vary in their interests and methods, have always been in a struggle for power, amongst themselves and among non-religious groups.
Personally I question the effectiveness of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. I’m a firm believer that religion should be a choice of the individual. Your right to opt for a religion not sponsored by the state should be protected and whether you opt for not having a religion in the end, should also be protected. The bureacratization of religion, is something that I question and a subject for further research. If such organizations are interventions from the state to “manage religious diversity”, I must honestly say it was not a sound decision when they issued a decree banning Ahmadiyah.
What we’ve witnessed from the Indonesian government, in the end, was the hesitation to choose between the interests of the Islamic groups to ban Ahmadiyah or the interests of the larger Indonesian community that condones such acts of religious violence.
Let it be clear that if the state wants the people to have religious tolerance, acts of religious intolerance should be clearly banned. No groups in society should have the right to use any brute force upon others and the inaction of the state in the presence of such violence means that they are allowing such activities. Any acts of violence in the presence of the state means that the state is weak, because law enforcement is simply not working. How is this not logical?
I am optimistic that on a societal level, religious tolerance is still there. What you need is a common identity, a common value that transcends through any religion, in which you are aware of these similarities than focusing on the differences that you have. In Manado, North Sulawesi, for example, there’s a slogan of “Torang Samua Basudara” which teaches you that everyone is your brother/sister. Simple. When I came to Manado, I’ve witnessed myself how religious tolerance is very high there and the first thing I noticed was that Manadonese really believe in that value.
So what is the common value? That we are all Indonesians? That we are all human beings that are just visitors of life on earth? These common values are developed through your personal connections with people who are different than you. Whatever the common values may be, being different doesn’t mean that they have to be completely at odds with you. Accepting these differences, is what makes a tolerant society in the end.