Wed, 31 Mar 1999

Religiously based parties

I much appreciated Lance Castles' article Voting pattern may change in your March 22 edition and was encouraged to learn that the Netherlands is no longer a religiously polarized society. However, I feel that Indonesia is sailing toward the stormy waters of religious politics rather than away from them, and this raises a number of concerns.

From a religious perspective, there is the danger that religious symbols and ceremonies will be abused as tools of personal ambition. From a political perspective, there are several hazards for democracy.

One is the tendency of extremism. This can be seen in the Hindu party of India, the Jewish parties of Israel and the Christian fundamentalist lobby in the United States. Core values like tolerance, compassion and self discipline are common to all religions and most political parties. So parties seeking support among devotees of only one religion tend to emphasize superficial differences rather than shared foundations and pursue social and cultural privileges for members of their particular religion. Whether they exercise power as a majority party, a minority party or merely as a pressure group, they encourage the idea that there are first-class citizens and the rest, and this idea is inimical to justice.

A second danger is to freedom of speech. Many religious people do not respond to criticism with reason and argument. They prefer to cry that their religion is being insulted. This hinders rational discussion of any policies which are claimed to be religiously motivated. In countries like Iran, any criticism of the government's policy or its leaders can be dismissed or suppressed as an attack on the national religious ideology, much as criticism of Soeharto was twisted into an attack on Pancasila.

A third danger is that of sectarianism. This can undermine democracy through instability and also through a monopoly of power. The Shona supported ZANU party in Zimbabwe and the United Malay National Organization in Malaysia, have won every election since independence. Voters belonging to the ethnic majority are reluctant to support the opposition, which is identified with other ethnic groups, while political alternatives from within the ethnic majority are stifled by the need to preserve the status quo.