Sat, 25 Mar 2000

In Search of religious harmony in Indonesia

By Harkiman Racheman

MEDAN (JP): Though the all-accommodating Abdurrahman Wahid was democratically elected as the fourth president of Indonesia, it has not seemed to help end riots with religious overtones.

Sporadic interreligious riots reflect "social banditry" traceable to religious feelings, which has shattered the image of friendly, tolerant Indonesians.

Though considered ordinary crimes triggered by the socioeconomic gap, those outbursts cannot be divorced from complex perceptions about each other's religion.

The expression that "all religions teach people to be good" has now become a statement with multiple interpretations.

A deliberate reinterpretation of collective religious consciousness, especially that which denies the nation's ethnic, social, economic, political and cultural diversity, has led to various upheavals here.

Religious diversity must be reaffirmed and, subsequently, defective interreligious relations must be readdressed.

Public figures should reeducate the populace to accept interreligious harmony as the only solution.

Harmonious relationships among followers of diverse creeds seem to operate merely at a normative level. Interreligious tolerance is still taken shallowly to mean noninterference, mutual indifference and a serious lack of reciprocal solidarity.

Such "harmony" will only lead to people withdrawing from honest, tolerant and productive interaction.

Interreligious harmony, in this restricted sense, is sheer politicking; it is pretension based on mutual suspicion and fear. Such skin-deep relations will never generate a real spiritually enriching experience.

Strangely enough, it is this very paradigm which has been passed on in a top-down manner to citizens to prevent interreligious conflict. The policy in Maluku to reconcile the warring factions, which includes banishing the two parties into impenetrable seclusion, is a self-explanatory example.

No wonder that tragedies in various parts of Indonesia, often worsened by interreligious hatred, continue to triumph.

These incidents should teach us the importance of improving interreligious relationships into ones that are more relevant to a pluralistic society.

However, it first has to be understood that, unlike in private circles of respective religious groups, a blasphemous interpretation of others' faiths cannot be tolerated. Any attempt to trespass upon others' religiousness would immediately lead to multireligious disintegration, because different beliefs would naturally have a vested interest.

However, much can be learned to prevent such disintegration. The masses, among them the ignorant, can now learn how to respect and value each other's presence by referring to nationalism.

While fanatical religious teachings preach the priority of the afterlife, nationalism as an expression of self-sacrificial love can motivate people to develop the country regardless of differences.

Nationalism is embodied in the 1945 Constitution and Pancasila ideology. Harmonious interreligious coexistence must be the responsibility of a democratically elected powerholder who has secured the mandate to maintain "unity in diversity".

Authorities have to guarantee that every citizen, of whatever religious background, shall not be discriminated against for any reason.

Religious harmony should thus reflect a government-sanctioned symbiosis between groups of broad-minded nationalistic believers of different religious values, based on a real sense of camaraderie.

Religious harmony should reflect everyone's sense of spiritual maturity, rather than shallow tolerance. Every believer should realize that the raison d'etre of all religions is to help heighten spiritual consciousness, bringing one closer to a private communion with the Ultimate Reality. This understanding should end attempts to make relations among different believers a source of animosity, riots and wars.

It is thus essential for the government to impose a code of ethics for our multireligious society. Such a formalized agreement would regulate and define acceptable cross-religious behavior.

A law which stipulates all the do's and don'ts may help people in the streets demonstrate their obligation toward each other's religious rights and, more importantly, to warn them against abusing these rights.

Believers should be able to translate the very essence of their faith into an all-inclusive social context. This is essential to help maintain objective law and social order, allowing the country to function.

The emergence of the world's religions at different times shows the coexistence between institutionalized religions is natural. Former minister of religious affairs Tarmizi Taher was being sensible when he suggested it was a dream to expect a homogeneous religious society in this century.

The writer graduated from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Based in Medan, he currently is a freelance writer and university lecturer.