Friday, February 18, 2011

Religious tragedies in changing Indonesia

If you are traveling through the highway between Cikarang in Bekasi and Jakarta, you will find a big billboard on the left side with an Indonesian state minister on it dressed in green with a dominantly green background. On the top right corner, the billboard reads “Islam Untuk Semua” or “Islam for all”.

The billboard then reminded me of the bloody attack over Ahmadiyah people in Cikeusik, Banten, the arsons on churches in Temanggung, Central Java, and the raid on an Islamic boarding school belonging to a Shiite foundation in Pasuruan, East Java. The minister vociferously conveys negative sentiments over the presence of “other-than-Islam” religious beliefs in Indonesia. With his statements since taking office in 2009, we know that he has no empathy at all with the suffering Ahmadis in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, or in any other locations.

I am quite sure that “Islam for all” in this minister’s mind means not more than Islam as he understands and the way he understands it. There seems to be no room for diversity. There is only one “true” Islam and no other different textual interpretation building blocks. Looking at the expensive billboard tells us that Islam in green is the only one blessed and therefore has to be obeyed.

Still, despite that his guardianship as a public official should be for all different beliefs, his controversial avowals acquaint us with symbolical “Islamization” that he deeply wishes.

Much earlier, in the beginning of the 19th century, in a village in West Sumatra, Tuanku Nan Renceh, started his religious-puritan jihad bloodcurdlingly through murdering his aunt for chewing tobacco leaves. To this raging-eyes man, there should be a rigid religious order in his society with swords acting as unbending guardians. Whoever tried to traverse differently or cross the arrogantly-defined border was a traitor who deserved death.

In the following years, the outraged leader executed more lives in imposing his law: no tobacco and alcoholic drinks; all people had to be attired in white; women must cover their faces; men should be bearded; and etcetera. Every village had its own jurist to decide the verdicts to implement the law.

Tuanku Nan Renceh was then categorized as more extreme than the Wahhabi sect itself in Saudi Arabia.

Yet, more than a century later, Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s first vice president and a devout Muslim, sharply criticized the so-called “Islamic movement” led by Tuanku Nan Renceh and his followers. It was never something Islamic since Islam itself in Hatta’s view meant “peace-building”.

What they had done was more an attempt to legitimize their movement for their own belief.

If we read more, it was linked to a rapid and unstable change in the peasant’s economy (Christine Dobbin, 1992). In the self-regulating highland villages, social order had been determined very materialistically before it was unsettled by the political economy inflicted by Dutch colonialism. There was, therefore, focal social fretfulness.

Coincidentally, Wahhabism, one of the most radical sects of Islam in history, came offering an “imagined” stability with heavenly promises if holy borders were drawn uncompromisingly. To Tuanku Nan Renceh, this choice suited his intention to chastise the “chaotic” society diversely from the more peaceful approach drawn on by his religious teacher, Tuanku Nan Tuo, the one he called “an already worn-out monk”.

Nowadays, pro-violent Islamic radical revival seems to occur in a similar uncertain changing in modern Indonesian politics and economy. More particularly, it is a transitional face of democracy in Indonesia which stands side by side with its unpreparedness as a state (or a nation) to face a speedy change of contemporary world.

What results is the spreading of acute hesitancy, mostly with the ignorance feature, in deciding where the state will head to. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, could never enforce definite and operational policies since he himself is too cautious to sacrifice his political assets: The “assumed” Muslim voters and Islamic political parties. Despite of his last term of presidency, securing the crown for his political group is seen better than risking it with more courageous moves.

In fact, as it is proven by the consecutive defeats of Islamic political parties, Indonesian voters are actually more moderate than they are commonly presupposed. Regardless of the escalating religious conflicts, tolerance still could be experienced in most parts of Indonesia.

Accordingly, we could not also hope too much for the brace of the legislatures or judicative bodies. The failure to review the blasphemy law, which prohibits alternative interpretations of the six officially recognized religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism) proves that their presence in the bodies never equivalently represents the moderate majority.

Back to the story of Tuanku Nan Renceh, it was then the society itself that had him defeated. In history we read that the Dutch army would mean nothing if the unrestful small communities had been settled thoroughly by the irritated Muslim leader.

Here, the society had its own law, that beyond any supra-structural institutions, tried to recover itself sooner or later with its own logic.

What we need, therefore, for today’s world, is continuous empowerment of the people who have been destined to live in multicultural circumstances. I myself believe, for instance, that education with touchable democratic features, in formal or non-formal educational centers, will mean more in the not-too-distance future. Too, if our TV screen is free from hate preaching and ignorant religious programs, our minority fellows will not suffer as they do nowadays. By Khairil Azhar researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.

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