Sunday, June 17, 2007

The challenge to the right of faith: Quo vadis?

Back to Home Page

The challenge to the right of faith: Quo vadis?

Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ

2005 has been a bad year for religious freedom in Indonesia. More regencies introduced regulations based on religious law, thereby disregarding the legislation that stipulates that religious matters are the exclusive prerogative of the central government. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) declared the Ahmadiyah organization as a dissenting Islamic movement in July. As a consequence, armed mobs forcefully closed Ahmadiyah's compound with police mostly only looking on.

In the mean time, the closing down of "illegal" places of Christian worship by local Muslim groups, often backed by white-garbed members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), has escalated. The Alliance of Anti-Apostasy Movements (AGAP), threatened that they would shut down thousands more churches lacking proper permits.

Most disturbing is the attitude of the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. On the imposition of religious law it keeps its mouth shut. On the attack on the Bogor headquarters of Ahmadiyah the President commented, that anyway Ahmadiyah had already been outlawed long ago. Thus the violence against their properties was their own mistake? Other minorities found no consolation in this cavalier attitude.

In a similar vein, the minister of religious affairs declared that the closure of those churches was a nonissue, since they had no permits and therefore were not churches at all. Later on the government agreed to revise the infamous decree from 1969 which had made the building of churches almost impossible. This decree is the reason why so many congregations have to worship in improvised places. But first drafts of the new decree gives the impression that getting the necessary permits will become even more difficult.

There are two challenges the government cannot endlessly run away from facing: The first is its duty to uphold the law. The second is the protection of one of the central elements of freedom of religion, freedom of worship.

No self-respecting government can indefinitely allow mobs to take the law into their own hands. But this government is doing just this. It has long been recognized that the precondition for the general recovery of Indonesia is the restoration of the sovereignty of the law. But our government does not seem to have the guts to do it. The violence against peaceful Ahmadiyah has brought shame on our present government.

By letting mobs get away with violent behavior the government will only undermine its own authority, weaken the function of the police force and corrupt the judicial order. It also encourages people to become even more intolerant toward minorities. What is the use of cracking down on terrorism, but letting one's own minorities become more and more terrorized?

Freedom of religion features prominently in Indonesia's Constitution. Article 28 states unequivocally that "every person is free to embrace a religion and to worship according to his or her religion...", while Article 29 declares that "the state guarantees the freedom of every individual... to worship according to his or her religion and belief."

These stipulations leave no room for maneuver. Ahmadiyah may deviate from orthodox Islamic teachings, and MUI has the right to say so, but the government has the constitutional duty to guarantee their right to worship.

The same holds for all religious minorities. It is the first duty of the government to uphold the Constitution, thus, in this case, their right to worship. This duty implies the task of educating the people to become tolerant of minority rights. It also implies that in case an official house of worship cannot yet be used, a religious congregation automatically has the right to use other places, of course in a way that is not disruptive to public order. Any new regulation must proceed from the goal of safe-guarding the freedom of worship of every person.

There are wider ramifications. Religious freedom is still respected in today's Indonesia, if not without limitations. Most Indonesians still hold on to the tradition of religious tolerance. All the mainstream religious organizations in Indonesia, including MUI, have repeatedly declared that they do accept the existence of other religions.

But for how long? By appeasing intolerance and sectarianism the government undermines its own authority. It also endangers the ongoing healing process in regions of religious conflict that have been successfully pacified.

Besides, the latest spree of violence raises the question whether what we are facing is purely local. There could be groups that are testing how far they can go in imposing their own law upon society.

The destruction of mosques of Ahmadiyah congregations and the threatening of Christians who have done nothing other than hold a religious service once a week should, of course, not be connected with terrorism. It should be stressed, however, that geographically, the most widespread terrorist outrages up to now in Indonesia were the Christmas bombings in 2000, where, the police failed miserably to persecute the perpetrators.

But there is a subcutaneous connection between violent intolerance and terrorism. Using violence to enforce religious views upon others creates precisely that climate of an intolerant majority that breeds a mind-set that legitimizes violence against others on religious grounds. The transition from suppressing religious minorities to killing people in the name of God is not so difficult to make.

A government that does not have the courage to enforce the Constitution, that allows mob violence to dictate the law in the streets, indirectly supports the spread of attitudes that, in the end, will create a mind-set that falls more easily prey to terrorist ideologies.

Thus what will be the future of religious freedom in Indonesia? Will the government find the courage to oppose street intimidation as resolutely as it now suppresses terrorism? It is high time the government makes clear that Indonesia is and will stay a country based on Pancasila where the freedom of worship is guaranteed as one of the most sacred fundamental rights.

The writer, a Jesuit priest, is a professor at Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta.

This Website is designed for The Jakarta Post by CNRG ITB.
All contents copyright © of The Jakarta Post.

No comments: