Mon, 23 Dec 2002

The politics of Muslims-Christian 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. Violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in Maluku, Kalimantan and Sulawesi perhaps represent the most brutal episode of Muslims- Christian relations in Indonesian history.

Economic disparity, ethnicity, class differences, transmigration and control over resources often enters into inter-religious conflicts. In Indonesia, perception that there is a gap between the well-off Christian minority and the mostly impoverished Muslim majority has caused much of the trouble between the two religions. Political leaders tend to exploit this situation in order to mobilize supporters around religious issues.

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

Towards the end of Soeharto's era and its subsequent transition to democracy in 1998, the struggle for political control between the military (who wanted to remain in power) and the pro-reform forces (who wanted to remove military influences from politics) had led to a new episode of politicization of Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia. Hard-line military leaders backed the formation of radical Islamic organizations and para-military groups to perpetrate communal conflicts. For a number of military leaders who are subject to public scrutiny, the preservation of conflicts are important for at least three reasons. First, public disorder and rampant violent conflicts can justify the resurgence of militarism that allows them to regain their political grip. Second, political instability may justify an increase of military budgets that will institutionally strengthen the military. Third, ambitious military leaders can build up alliances with various radical religious groups to establish a new political empire. This may explain the formation of many radical Islamic organizations with (unofficial) military backing during recent presidential administrations.

The relation between politics and religion in the modern Indonesia context can be traced back to the 1940s. The question that has animated citizenship debates in independent Indonesia was not focused on 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 Indonesian 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 on which leaders faced difficulties to strike a deal 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 Muslim's defeat. Because many of the secularists came from a Christian background, some extreme Islamic leaders considered the exclusion of the Jakarta Charter as the Christian's anti-Islamic campaign. From then on, Muslims-Christians relations in Indonesia have become very sensitive indeed.

In Sukarno's government, the issue was revived again through the debate in the Constituent Assembly that pitted the proponents of an Islamic state against an odd alliance of military conservatives and left-leaning popular nationalists committed to secularism. The proponents of the Jakarta Charter had lost ground, especially when the political control was in the hands of President Sukarno, a nationalist-secularist, who announced the decree to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. Since then, Muslim interests have never resurfaced, especially when President Sukarno dissolved Masyumi, a political party strongly committed to the formation of an Islamic state in Indonesia.

In the New Order era, President Soeharto (a retired army general) adopted repressive measures in dealing with conflicts and disturbances in society. For him, any extreme movements - may they be left or right in their ideological leanings - were dangerous to the country's political and economic stability. His focus on economic development had prompted a stringent control over any extreme Islamic movements. His military-backed government adopted a non-compromising approach in handling Islamic extremism. Many extreme activists were jailed or even executed as was the case with the prosecutions against suspects of the bombing of the Buddhist Borobudur temple and Bank Central and the killings of Muslim demonstrators in Tanjung Priok and Lampung.

Repression against Islamic fundamentalism persisted until the early 1990s, when Soeharto began to turn to Islam in order 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 the president's determination to win Muslim support for his re- election as president. He was also certain that this tactical shift could help him undermine the growing democratic opposition by splitting it along religious lines.

The impact of the politicization of religion on Muslim- Christian relation was indeed dreadful. Islamic radicalism began to grow. A number of new organizations representing the extreme views of Islamic teaching were formed during the 1990s. These 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. As a result, Muslim anger and resentment grew, especially toward people from any other religion. This situation was somewhat exacerbated by conflicts in the Balkans where the Christian Serbs slaughtered many Muslim Bosnians - including women and children - in their attempt at ethnic cleansing. In cursing this tragedy, some Islamic leaders in Indonesia often made fiery, provocative statements containing anti-Christian sentiment.

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 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 Gus Dur was appointed as Indonesia's fourth president, the expectation for more tolerant inter-religious relations in Indonesia was even higher given that Gus Dur himself was renowned as a moderate Muslim leader with strong commitment to the promotion of democracy and religious tolerance.

However, ongoing conflicts and public disorder, provoked by certain parties to discredit the moderate administration, made the expectation 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 the so-called "defenders of the Islamic faith", these groups attacked those who they considered to be the enemies of Islam. Police investigations into the suspects of the Bali bombing makes it evident 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 involved in such activity 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 shariah 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 shariah as a norm that will differentiate local code of conducts from those of the central government. In many parts of West Sumatra, Madura and West Java, local administrations have begun to adopt shariah. Frustrated by the failure of the country's law to restore order and to fight corruption, people began to support the implementation of shariah in their areas. Christian minorities responded to the implementation of shariah in two different ways. First, a small minority strongly opposed the implementation of shariah, 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 the implementation of shariah because they believe that the law is confined to Muslims only. For this group, as long as they are allowed to practice their religious beliefs without any hindrance, there is no reason to oppose the implementation of shariah.

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. In Yogyakarta, INTERFIDEI (Inter- faith Dialog in Indonesia) had started its activities from the mid-1990s. Similar efforts are replicated in other cities, such as the JAKATARUB (Jaringan Kerja Antar Ummat Beragama or inter- religion working group) in Bandung.

Although the immediate effects of this dialog on inter- religious relations in Indonesia may not yet be great, these efforts (particularly when they are replicated and scaled up to the national level) will have a long term effect where people from different religious backgrounds are no longer seeing each other with suspicion or hatred.