Sat, 11 Jan 2003

The politics of interfaith relations in Indonesia

Bob S. Hadiwinata, Head, International Relations Department University of Parahyangan, Bandung

Open conflict between the majority Muslims and minority Christians has been rare in Indonesian history. When it does break out, however, it is often violent and brutal.

Economic disparity, ethnicity, class differences, transmigration and control over resources often enters into inter-religious conflicts. There is a perception of a gap between the well-off Christian minority and the mostly impoverished Muslim majority, which tends to be exploited by political leaders.

During Soeharto's New Order government, the ruling elite successfully minimized opposition by dividing potential challengers into religious differences. This "divide-and-rule" strategy, according to the scholar Bob Hefner, proved efficient in reducing the power and influence of political forces outside the state.

Towards the end of Soeharto's era, the struggle for political control between the military and the pro-reform forces had led to a new episode of politicization of Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia.

Public disorder was seen to be able to justify the resurgence of militarism, thus allowing the regaining of political grip by some military leaders. Political instability might further justify an increase of military budgets. And ambitious military leaders could build up alliances with various radical religious groups to establish a new political empire.

The relation between politics and religion can be traced to the 1940s. Debates were not about whether citizen's rights should be differentiated by ethnicity, as in Malaysia, but whether or not they should be differentiated by religion.

In the months preceding the declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945, Indonesian leaders had worked hard to formulate a tentative constitution for the planned republic. The most debated issue was indeed whether the state should impose different rights and duties on citizens according to their religion.

The issue began to evolve when Muslim leaders drew up a draft preamble to the Constitution wherein the state would be based on belief in God with "the obligation to carry out the laws of Islam (syariah) for the followers of Islam".

This draft, also known as Piagam Jakarta, (Jakarta Charter) was refused by the secularists and the non-Muslims, which led to its exclusion from the Constitution. For radical Islamic groups, the failure to enact the draft became a painful reminder of the Muslims' defeat. From then on, Muslims-Christians relations in Indonesia have become very sensitive indeed.

Proponents of the Jakarta Charter lost ground, especially when the political control was in the hands of then President Sukarno, a nationalist-secularist. Muslim interests were subdued, especially since Sukarno dissolved Masyumi, a political party strongly committed to the formation of an Islamic state in Indonesia.

In the New Order era, President Soeharto adopted repressive measures in dealing with conflicts and disturbances in society.

Repression against Islamic fundamentalism persisted until the early 1990s, when Soeharto began to turn to Islam to contest the growing opposition and increasing demand for democratization in society. In the 1990s, Soeharto dropped all pretense of neutrality and actively courted ultra-conservative Muslims who, just a few years earlier, had figured prominently in the opposition. Soeharto's close association with this hard-line community appears to have represented a decisive break with his earlier support for Javanese mysticism and Pancasila pluralism against Muslim organizations.

This radical shift was motivated by his determination to win Muslim support for his re-election as president.

The impact of the politicization of religion on Muslim- Christian relation was indeed dreadful. Islamic radicalism began to grow in the 19902.

The (radical) organizations found more freedom to express their beliefs. Sometimes they gave strong messages to grassroots people that Indonesian Muslims had been out-maneuvered and out- witted by the non-Muslims in controlling the local and national resources and in securing political positions.

In the late 1990s, Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia turned from tense to bloody. An increasing number of political leaders tended to use hatred of Christians in their attempts to mobilize followers. When it involved mobs and thugs, violence became inevitable. The Situbondo and Tasikmalaya cases in 1996, when riots exploded killing dozens of people and destroying Christian-associated property, are clear examples.

In the post-Soeharto era, while the fall of a military-backed authoritarian regime brought new hope to many Indonesians for democracy and tolerance, the future of Muslim-Christian relations is less promising.

During B.J. Habibie's presidency, the legislature ratified a UN convention on the protection of minority rights. This act was welcomed by many minority groups including Chinese-Indonesians, most of whom are Christian/Catholic. When Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur was appointed president, expectations for more tolerant inter-religious relations in Indonesia were higher, given that Gus Dur himself was renowned as a moderate Muslim leader.

However, ongoing conflicts and public disorder, provoked by certain parties to discredit the moderate administration, quickly give way to disappointment and frustration. The most serious threat to Muslim-Christian relations is indeed the rise of radical Islamic groups.

Serving as "defenders of the Islamic faith", these groups attacked those whoever they considered to be the enemies of Islam. Police investigations into the suspects of the Bali bombing now strongly suggest that a radical Islamic group was responsible for various bombings on a number of Christian targets during the year 2000 and 2001.

Political scientist Greg Barton argues that although the appeal for radical Islam are put forward by some genuine idealists who are deeply convinced of the truth of the Islamic doctrine, it is likely that some youthful romantics are more interested in the drama of protest (or violence) itself. Consequently, they can be easily persuaded to target certain demonized enemies who are regarded to be the source of society's woes.

Another issue which may have an effect on Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia is the resurgence of the issue of sharia law. When the central government introduced Law No.22/1999 on regional autonomy, local leaders began to search for local norms and values that would accommodate local identity.

Some of them have dabbled in sharia as a norm that will differentiate local code of conducts from those of the central government. In many parts of several provinces, local administrations have begun to adopt sharia.

Christian minorities responded to the introduction of the sharia in their areas in two different ways.

First, a small minority strongly opposed the implementation of sharia, albeit quietly, as they believe that it may disturb Muslim-Christian relations due to the segregation of people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Second, a large number of Christians are indifferent towards because they believe that the law is confined to Muslims only.

At the present, although the future of Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia remains volatile, there are those who seriously believe that inter-religious dialogs -- especially at grassroots levels -- will eventually lead to good prospects of inter-religious relations.

They believe that getting to know one another is one possible way to develop a tolerant behavior, acceptance and open- mindedness between different religious followers. These days, there are several efforts being made by young Christians to reach out to Muslims to develop religious dialogs at a grassroots level. These efforts will have a long term effect where people from different religious backgrounds no longer see each other with suspicion or hatred.