Sat, 24 May 2003

Draft education bill and civilization in the state

Aleksius Jemadu, Director, Centre for International Studies, Parahyangan University, Bandung

One of the most controversial issues in the education bill concerns state intervention in religious instruction at schools. Article 13 (1), for instance, states that each student has the right to receive religious instruction in accordance with his respective faith. The fact that such a particular right is specifically endorsed by law shows that the state will have arbitrary power to set the modalities of how religious instruction is conducted in schools.

While there is no doubt about the importance of religious instruction for the development of good character in society, people wonder whether there is indeed a positive correlation between an accumulation of religious knowledge at school and good conduct of students as members of society. Moreover, the bureaucratization of what otherwise would be the legitimate realm of the private sector could be misused by state officials for securing their secular political and economic interests. Has the education bill anticipated that possibility?

There is a growing tendency today for the state to resume its control over the public sphere at the expense of universal democratic principles and human rights. Politicians both in the executive and legislative bodies have continued to act on behalf of the state to restrict public participation in finding solutions to the nation's grave problems. For instance, the government's decision to use military force in Aceh may not only increase human casualties but also kill people's initiative to solve their own problems. Endless political bargaining among politicians has rendered the war against corruption ineffective and laughable.

With the collapse of Soeharto's authoritarian regime, Indonesia liberated itself from a political leader who possessed a great skill in abusing religion to strengthen his grip on power. Without effective public control, the bureaucratization of religious instruction will also lead to the same phenomenon of the politicization of religion. If this means that the state has found its way back to the distinctive realm of the private sphere, then something has to be done to rescue the democratization project. We have to avoid pouring new wine back into old wineskin.

In his book titled Civil Islam Robert W. Hefner argues that in addition to the role of culture and civic organizations the growth of a democracy also depends on "the creation of a civilized and self-limiting state". Hefner also points out that "civil society is not opposed to the state but deeply dependent on its civilization". From a democratic point of view it would be a tremendous setback if the legislators in charge of deliberating the education bill fail to stop state intervention, strongly endorsed in the bill.

We leave it up to the legislators to judge honestly whether the education bill will be able to promote a strong civil society or not. Their failure in giving their judgment will trigger disunity in society.