Friday, April 8, 2011

A Replacement for Suharto’s Iron Fist

An often overlooked consequence of Suharto’s fall was the end of his strategies to stifle political radicalism.

The former strongman took no risk of allowing radical groups to gain ground in society and politics. He unflinchingly persecuted groups and individuals he saw as threats to his power. He enforced the “asas tunggal,” or “sole basis” policy, which forced all social and political organizations to adopt Pancasila, the state ideology, ostensibly to prevent one religion or group from dominating others. Though the policy repressed activism for decades until its end in the post-Suharto era, the same strategy would have prevented the rise of hard-line groups that attack religious minorities today.

Of course, we cannot return to iron-fisted rule like Suharto’s, not only because it runs counter to the ideals of democracy, but also because repression tends to nurture radicalism rather than eliminate it. What we urgently need is to replace the former president’s repressive method with a democratic one.

At present, the government relies on a few pieces of law and regulation that are insufficient and weakened by their inconsistent enforcement. The 2003 Anti-Terror Law, for example only targets people involved in actual terrorism, and cannot be used against those who cause ethnic or religious conflict. Instead authorities use regulations on blasphemy and building houses of worship to prevent religious tensions. Unfortunately, the government often uses these regulations to persecute religious minorities. These edicts are routinely cited by radical Islamists to justify violence against Christians or Ahmadiyah, a minority Muslim sect.

This creates a vacuum in terms of policies promoting religious tolerance and preventing sectarian conflict, and one that comes at a time when religion’s role in social and political life is on the rise.A work published this year called “God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics” highlights the global trend of religion’s increasing political influence. What is remarkable about this, the authors write, is that religion’s resurgence is driven by the very same forces that many theorists thought would lead toward the decline of religion: democratization and modernization. Freedom of expression and information technology does not only help revolutionaries in overthrowing authoritarian regimes like those in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in facilitating the spread of extremism.

It is no surprise, then, that a survey conducted by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace last year found that more than 50 percent of people living in areas around Jakarta objected to living in the same neighborhood with people of different religions or ethnicity.

This suggests the strengthening of what scholars call “strong religion,” a tendency to bolster religious identity by competing with other religions and with secular institutions. Religious insecurity makes people see followers of other faiths as a threat. This makes them more likely to reject the presence and beliefs of others, in part causing the rise of religious violence.

Ironically, many political observers in Indonesia tend to play down the fact that Islam is politicized, citing the poor electoral showings of Islamic parties. But while they may find the idea of establishing an Islamic state laughable, but one cannot ignore the reality of growing sectarianism. Countries like Lebanon and Pakistan have demonstrated the difficulty of making democracy work in a society deeply divided along sectarian lines.

The threat of hard-line Muslim groups not only stems from their aspiration to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, but also their ability to cause conflict by promoting their divisive views. These groups, often unpunished, find strength in promoting hate and causing fear.

The Ahmadiyah issue is a prime example of how sectarian sentiment helps hard-line organizations. Many are sympathetic groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) for advancing the Islamic cause and defending Muslim identity against so-called deviants.

Political scientists suggest that the deepening of fragmentation of society can motivate political leaders to adopt extreme positions that appeal to voters and supporters concerned with sectarian issues. This tack is called “outbidding.”

The extreme stance of Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and a number of governors in proposing that the Admadiyah be dissolved is an example of outbidding.

At present, sectarianism is not deep enough to make the strategy a common policy. The dominance of secular parties indicate that political moderation is still paramount. However, if this growing sectarianism is left unchecked, it can deepen societal polarization and threaten unity. Addressing sectarianism does not necessarily call for the persecution of radical groups, as Suharto had done. Instead, the important thing is to eliminate an environment favorable to sectarian conflict.

To this end, several policies and measures merit consideration.

First, authorities need to create a system to enforce a Criminal Code provision that punishes hate crimes. This chapter makes unlawful any form expression that propagates hatred and disharmony based on religion and ethnic identities. It is ironic that authorities have been more focused on enforcing the derivative regulation on blasphemy than the hate crime provision, its parent law.

Further, policy makers should work with social leaders to encourage the formation of a cross-cutting society, which calls for equality in the demographic distribution of religious and ethnic groups. Development planning and fair employment should discourage the creation of religious and ethnic enclaves.

Such policies may not bring quick results, but unless they are initiated, the country’s growing sectarian conflict could well turn Indonesia’s “religious diversity” into societal division.

By Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf is a doctoral student at Victoria University of Wellington and a lecturer at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gajah Mada University.

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