Sunday, April 24, 2011

Indonesia’s State of Immorality

No need to have a religion to believe in God

One reason why religion holds an important place in our constitutional framework is that it can provide a source of inspiration in building morality in our society. Unfortunately, since the end of Suharto’s regime in the late 1990s a disturbing combination of religion and politics has led to the deterioration of our public civility. In its ugliest form, religion has been misused or abused by terrorist groups to kill innocent people and destroy public facilities. In the hands of politicians who tend to choose shortcuts to attain prominent positions, religious sentiments are provoked to raise popular support.

If we understand religion as the institutionalization of a person’s relationship with God, then religion is just an instrument for our spiritual well-being. When religion is made into idolatry by its followers it may lead to conflict with other members of society, especially with those who come from other faiths. Throughout the history of mankind religious conflicts were not so much the reflection of the true teachings of the concerned religions as the exploitation of religion by power-seeking leaders. As Thomas Erskine said many years ago: “Those who make religion their god will not have God for their religion.”

It is often said that Indonesia is not a secular state nor is it based on a certain religion. The 1945 Constitution stipulates only that the state is based on the belief in the Almighty God. This ought to characterize the behavior of our public officials, but the sad thing about Indonesian politics today is that there is a paradox between the massive invasion of religious content into our laws and bylaws on the one hand and the active unwillingness of our lawmakers to adhere to high morals on the other hand. A lack of morality will eventually lead to poor judgment in determining what is decent and important to the public interest.

Over the last few weeks public attention has been focused on the seemingly split personality of our lawmakers. Despite the massive uproar and demonstrations, the House of Representatives has decided to support the construction of a new legislative office tower at a cost of more than Rp 1 trillion ($116 million). In the midst of rising energy and food prices, many believe that such ambition cannot be justified. On top of that it is difficult to fathom the logic behind the decision to replace the old building with a bigger one when there is no evidence that expanded working space will affect the performance of our lawmakers. The prosecution of an increasing number of lawmakers implicated in corruption and sexual scandals is an indication that the real problem has more to do with the little space they have in their hearts for morality and compassion for the very people they claim to represent.

At the group or commission level some civil society groups, including Indonesia Corruption Watch and the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Fitra), have protested against the “comparative study” trips by the House’s Commission I to Turkey, the United States, Russia and France. The lawmakers argues that such trips are needed to aid the drafting of an Indonesian Intelligence Bill. But those who are knowledgeable about the nature of intelligence issues in Indonesia find it difficult to buy the argument. Why do lawmakers need to go to foreign countries to find information when the real challenge of intelligence in Indonesia is how to monitor and detect the activities of the radical and terrorist groups which constitute the most serious threat to our national security?

The situation at the individual level is no better. Although one cannot generalize from the case of Arifinto, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) lawmaker caught watching a porn video during a plenary session, his example has damaged not only the image of his own political party but also the dignity of the legislative body as a whole.

As Christians celebrate Easter this weekend, they will be honoring a figure who was consistent in his ability to live up to his own moral doctrines. This was true in a leadership role too. By washing the feet of his disciples during the last supper, Jesus Christ wanted to convey to them that leadership was not about position but about willingness to serve. Those who perceive leadership as position will always demand privileges.

Many Indonesians feel betrayed by political leaders in the legislative and executive bodies that only care about their own interests and forget their mission to serve the public. Let us not forget that the strength of a nation in many ways rests upon the moral integrity of its leaders.

By Aleksius Jemadu dean of the School of Social and Political Sciences at Pelita Harapan University.

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