Thu, 19 Jun 2003

Managing pluralism central to Indonesian democracy

Democracy remains something of a novelty in pluralistic Indonesia. Robert W. Hefner, professor of anthropology at Boston University, talked with The Jakarta Post's Soeryo Winoto on the country's efforts to ensure that democracy takes root here. The author of The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (2001) addressed a one-day seminar on Tuesday on pluralistic democracy and religious tolerance sponsored by the Center for Media Studies of the Jakarta-based Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Question: Is Indonesia heading for a "pluralistic democracy"?

Answer: Well, I wasn't so much saying today that I'm confident that Indonesia is moving toward pluralistic democracy as much as that I think that's one of the options being promoted by the people, particularly a number of people in the Muslim community, but also in the Christian and other religious communities.

Whether the outcome of that will be a genuine and effective pluralistic democracy will depend on the Indonesians themselves.

Are there any real efforts being made by the government toward such ends?

There was a feature of accommodating pluralistic democracy under Soeharto's regime; the basis was the ideological formula of Pancasila. And many of its features many regard as still very praiseworthy ... But many came to say that Pancasila was a forced ideology ... and many feel it's time to open up.

The outcome of the discussion ... is no longer limited to a small elite ... there's pressure for something that's pluralist in the democratic social order emanating from political reality.

Because if the formula (of pluralism) isn't devised to deal with the great pluralism here, the social cost will be enormous. But the lesson people see from (the conflicts in) Maluku, Central Sulawesi, Central and West Kalimantan is that there has to be renewed commitment, and some kind of common platform. A platform capable of bridging ethnic and regional divides, and also capable of uniting people across the differences in religions.

How do you see religious tolerance here so far?

If we compare Indonesia not just with other parts of the Muslim world, but with other pluralist countries, the answer is equivocally positive. Indonesia has a proven tradition of pluralism and accommodation, a historical pattern of openness ... to outside influence ... that was part of Indonesian culture assimilating in a peaceful way -- new educational traditions, new cultural traditions, new technologies ... But I think Indonesia still has a recurring problem that we saw in the 1950s.

We've seen it again in the post-Soeharto period, a tendency of some groups to attempt to go against the traditional pluralism, and it scales up tension between groups so as to reap the benefits of political division for their "fishing expedition" to inflame ethno-religious tension. Most Indonesians are deeply upset ... recognizing that if this continues it would have an extremely negative effect on national unity and national culture.

How and to what extent does politicization of religion affect religious tolerance?

When religion is turned into a political commodity used in a very low way for mundane political ends, the impact on religious tolerance is unequivocally negative.

When religion is used to color positive values like social justice, equality, religion can play a very important role in the public sphere. But to play that role it has to be one channeled in a "high politics" way, not in the way of crude patron-client (relations) ... so every effort must be made to be avoid the politicization of very simple issues and basic issues of faith.

Many say that we now have a "pseudo pluralistic democracy". Any comment?

Is the democracy real? Is it a pluralist democracy?

There's been great progress since 1998. But the ground which had to be covered and which remains to be covered is still great.

Some institutions such the press have made great strides ... But in some areas, such as regional conflicts, there have been setbacks. The setbacks in terms of the management of pluralist differences have also been setbacks for democratization because the key to long term democratization, and long term political stability, is devising some kind of common platform for the managing of ethnic and religious differences.

Indonesia is not going to become less pluralistic because modernization and development brings groups that were previously not integral into the development process ... so that people who were once ignored cannot be ignored anymore.

In whatever democracy we live in we have to begin with the recognition of the central challenge of democracy, the positive accommodation of pluralism ...

And as society becomes more modern, as people become more homogeneous, people want to express themselves, this is a good part of a people coming of age. It's also not easy in the West, it requires time and patience, and a common platform to manage. So from very kompak (solid) groups like Nahdlatul Ulama (the country's largest Muslim organization), we'll see greater diversity ... also in Muhammadiyah (the second largest Muslim organization).

How should political parties promote religious tolerance?

Politics is not just about winning elections, or building parties. It's also about building a culture that transcends a single election and transcends the interest of any single party.

It's about building a framework for accommodating differences in any political order and making sure that those differences are not regarded as something that comes down to a zero sum game -- but something that can be managed within an open and fair competition without making those people who lose momentarily, permanent losers. And the way one has to do that is by structuring basic rights ... so elections themselves continue to consolidate a culture of democracy and pluralism, which accepts the rights of people to differ on basic issues.

Indonesians may now be in a "cultural, social and political" shock, as some scholars say, and trying to live in what they claim is a democratic way. Your comment?

There is no single way. One way is for religious leaders to go back to the religious traditions which emphasize a single creator, a single humanity with common human dignity. That's an important message, a religious message, not a political message -- a "religious humanism" which has its roots in Indonesia.

You can go to a distant kampong and you will find people who at a very elementary level have deep religiosity -- that extends to the recognition of people as humans, and as people who have a certain dignity ... There is a great tradition of that in Indonesia ... among Muslims and non-Muslims.

But there also has to be a kind of frank acknowledgement from political leaders that there are limits in political competitions that we don't transgress because to do so would damage the larger interest of Indonesia and the larger interest of democracy.

One of the greatest accomplishments in social history from 1945 and before 1955 was the sweet dream of Indonesian nationalism. And I know the dream has suffered particularly over the last five years. But it remains a sweet hope for many ordinary Indonesians.

I feel it when I travel in the countryside ... one hopes politicians, rather than exploiting such human resources, would respect and acknowledge it, emphasizing that however one is different on political issues there is a commonality that one is Indonesian. This is a commonality that has to be nurtured and protected, a vital resource that suffered from certain trauma, but with proper cultivation it can play a major role of creating a common platform of political civility.