Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Democratic values must beat sectarianism

The political scene is no longer predictable, yet some things aren't really new. Political researcher Mahrus Irsyam of the University of Indonesia looks at the repetition of history in an interview with The Jakarta Post.

Question: How do you see the role of major Muslim forces in the country now, such as those represented by diverse groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah?

Answer: It's not just NU and Muhammadiyah. The rise of Amien Rais, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Megawati Soekarnoputri reflects the return of political history in the period before 1945 independence. This was when the grassroot forces of Islam and nationalists were at the forefront. This was an indication that Islamic groups and the Indonesian Nationalist Party became one in the independence movement and led at government level.

In BPUPKI (the body preparing Indonesia's independence) there was Ki Bagus Hadikusumo, Wahid Hasyim (of NU), for instance.

After the 1950s the Islamic and nationalist groups began to be marginalized; they had become the spear for change. The Indonesian Communist Party came to power and when it was banned they continued to be marginalized under (second president) Soeharto.

Q: Wasn't their marginalization also led by their own weakness?

A: Yes, there was also much friction within them, and also because of political interests... They were only a social majority with so many Muslim-based organizations, but in a large part of political history they were mostly a minority. Nationalists did not have much chance either. To maintain his power, Soeharto marginalized both groups. Golkar and the military were comparatively far more solid.

Now the Islamic groups and nationalists are back again... we see the "traditionalists and modernists" grouping together with the nationalists now reflected in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) and Megawati.

Q: There have been fears of the return of sectarian politics...

A: It will not happen as long as these forces stick to their commitment to reform... There must be a more mutual approach among Islamic organizations and within the Muslim-based "axis force."

The feared weakness of sectarian politics should be overcome by secular thinking; differences among them should be settled by familiarizing democracy.

Familiarizing democracy among Muslims and non-Muslims should be taken up by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The ministry should not only take care of affairs such as pilgrimages and determining the start of Ramadhan -- like Abdurrahman said in criticizing the ministry. Taking care of the nation is more important.

Instead of the suggestion of abolishing of the ministry and making people restless, the Ministry of Religious Affairs should take up a new role in familiarizing democracy among different believers.

With the presence of Amien (who chairs the inclusive National Mandate Party or PAN) sectarian politics is no longer likely. Maybe it remains only among those in the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) or other supporters of B.J. Habibie. Such aspirations will fade away if reform really takes its course.

Q: Do you think the Ministry of Religious Affairs is now up to that proposed new role?

A: It could implement policies while relying on outside experts such as rectors of the state-run institutes for Islamic studies (IAIN) and activists in various (religion based) organizations. Narrow perceptions among Muslims and non-Muslims would then change to tolerance.

Q: How long do you think that would take?

A: We cannot say for sure but in the long run there definitely would be results. (anr)