On the point of religious tolerance

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?


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.

[*] Legally, interfaith marriages in Indonesia are bound by the religious institutions that you are under. If your religion says that you can’t marry someone from a different religion, well, you can’t. But some people usually go abroad to marry anyway and come back to Indonesia and be registered as a married couple in the civil registry.

10 thoughts on “On the point of religious tolerance”

  1. I took it as a teaching of good values should be the essence, not religion per se. But sadly since time immemorial, religion had been greatly abused by those selfish peoples for their personal interests at the expenses of the poor peasants. It’s more deadlier than the nuclear weapon.

    1. Kang, if I remember correctly Putnam said that religion, if taken in high dosage, can be toxic to civil life. I agree with you that good values should be the essence, and I’m sure all religion teaches that. Indeed, beliefs can sometimes be deadly if you don’t take some logic into it. I believe spirituality is needed, but you also need to balance it with common sense.

  2. Very few living Indonesians remember or have read their national history with a critical eye, untainted by the state’s propensity to shape its message. One of the lessons that is often forgotten by Indonesians is that Indonesia itself was a compromise among competing interests. An area where this was most problematic was the compromise over the role of religion in the new republic. The issue has been at the center, though often swept under the authoritarian or nationalist rug, of Indonesia’s political life ever since the Jakarta Charter (Piagam Djakarta) was withdrawn at the last minute. The Jakarta Charter was replaced by a compromise, multi-confessionalism and the Pancasila fudge of “Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa”. People forgot that compromises come with ineffeciencies. Those ineffeciencies have since then been exacerbated by the country’s array of religious groups and by ineffective and corrupt law enforcement and administration of justice. At the outset, it is my contention that multi-confessionalism is fundamentally a policy of discrimination, one that is increasingly at odds with an open, tolerant, democratic society. The current problems of religious intolerance in Indonesia is, in part, the result of the confluence of all these issues: multi-confessionalism, a lopsided Muslim majority of 88% of the population, the unresolved compromises that attended the birth of the country, and the inefficient and corrupt law enforcement and administration of justice. The chickens have come home to roost. In summary, the current problems in Indonesia are long in the making. They are historical, they are systemic.

    What is clear is that so long as Indonesians lack the courage and political maturity to put the issue of religion on the public agenda for discussion and debate, unlike the attitude of most Indonesians who treat religion are as a veritable “holy cow” beyond criticism and debate, the country will continue to suffer from religious intolerance and violence. Conflict avoidance is not conflict resolution.

  3. I would encourage you to visit the Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on world restrictions on religion. A key finding is:

    “Among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa region has the most government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least-restrictive region on both measures. Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India stand out as having the most restrictions when both measures are taken into account…”


  4. tell me if you believe that mirza gulam ahmad is indeed a prophet. i just can not believe that you are muslim yourself and yet you still believe that there is still a prophet after Mohammed.

    i can guarantee you that as long as ahmadiyah considers itself as islam, there will always be friction between the mainstream islam and ahmadiyah islam.

  5. Talk about “sacralization of the mundane” A rigid orthodoxy passes for justice, rote repetition of ritual passes for virtue. You continue down this dark alley at your own peril, and at the peril for the good name of your religion.

  6. Separuh Pelajar Setuju Aksi Radikal Berlabel Agama
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    TEMPO Interaktif, Jakarta – Mayoritas pelajar di Jakarta dan sekitarnya ternyata cenderung setuju menempuh aksi kekerasan untuk menyelesaikan masalah agama dan moral. Fenomena ini terungkap dari hasil survei yang dilakukan Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Perdamaian (LaKIP) yang digelar Oktober-Januari 2011.

    ”Yang mencengangkan, sikap radikal dan tidak toleran itu tak hanya dimiliki para siswa, tapi juga guru agama,” kata Bambang Pranowo, Direktur Lembaga Kajian ini kepada Tempo di Jakarta, kemarin.


    1. Grim news indeed, but somehow not surprising. What do these religion teachers teach in school anyway? Who monitors them?

  7. You think the heart of the problem is with teachers? Do you mean to suggest that religious fanaticism is a problem of bad teachers and poor instruction?

    If we accept the proposition that religious experience and interpretation of scripture is primarily or wholly subjective requiring faith, how do we objectively know whose religious experience and whose interpretation of scripture is the “right” one and whose is the “wrong” one? I think a problem with religious people is that they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, religion requires personal subjective interpretation and experience, premised faith rather than reason. On the other hand, religious people expect all to conform to a standard, mainstream interpretation, bound by reason. The problems with “fanaticism” (I put it in brackets because one man’s fanaticism is another man’s orthodoxy) are not, I believe, due fundamentally with poor education or teaching, low education or limited economic opportunities. Ultimately the problem of “fanaticism” resides with the very nature by and modes of thought required by religious belief. There is still not free lunch, you know…

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