Democracy and Religion in Indonesian Diversity

Democracy and Religion in Indonesian Diversity

On 17 April 2019 General Elections took place simultaneously choosing the President and Vice President as well as national provincial and regency legislators and national senators throughout Indonesia. Indonesian citizens abroad were also given the opportunity to vote before April 17. Two pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates were elected by Indonesian citizens. Since the first day after the elections, with the Quick Count method, it has been known that the candidate pair of the incumbent president, Joko Widodo and his Islamic cleric candidate for vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, won the presidential election. The General Elections Commission announced the winner on 22 May 2019, based on manual count method. So do the elected legislators and senators.

Indonesia achieved independence in 1945, and its political system was based on the principle of democracy, which separates power from the three related institutions of the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. And while about 87% of the country population (about 270 million) are Muslim – Indonesia has the largest Moslem population in the world – the founders of the nation refused to establish Indonesia as an Islamic state, or based on Islamic sharia, even though they accepted the principle of belief in the one and only God as one of its five ideological principles (Pancasila). In Indonesia, modern democracy was adopted in the third principle of Pancasila, the democratic process is emphasized through deliberation and representation. Indonesia formulated its aspiration to become an independent, united, just, and prosperous nation. Unity of the nation was based on the celebration of diversity and equality of rights as formulated in the national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” – “Unity in Diversity.”

Identity Politicization

The strengthening of identity politicization, especially the politicization of religion, emerged in this General Election. In 2017, the election of the governor of Jakarta, the capital city of the country, was won by a pair of candidates who were championed by the politicization of identity, especially Islamic religious identity. This development is troubling to many people who are aware that as a country whose population is ethnically diverse with their respective cultures and religions, the politicization of identity threatens the unity of Indonesia, which is built on the principle of unity in diversity. It can be noted that the Islamist radical groups emerged as a continuation of the struggle for an Islamic state since the period of the nationalism movement before Indonesian independence in 1945, and recently empowered by transnational Islamic movements with their agenda of Khilafah, a system of the Islamic world under one government with sharia law.

Indonesian democracy was also undermined by transactional politics which was manifested in money politics. The people do not elect candidates by considering the superiority of their integrity and capacity, but because they buy their votes.

Another concern is procedural politics. Democracy (= government by the people) relies on the participation of all citizens in various political activities, such as in general elections. The essence of the people’s participation is mandated for the executors of power to uphold justice and works for people’s welfare, as expressed in the famous Latin slogan, salus populi est suprema lex (people’s welfare is the highest law). But it was allegedly procedural democracy that happened. Unlike the substantive democracy, the emphasis of procedural democracy is only on the outward appearance of the formal functions of political institutions such as electoral procedures, parliamentary councils, etc., but they do not seriously care about justice and the people’s welfare.

Indonesian Plurality

The basic reality of Indonesia is ethnic, cultural, and religious pluralism of people who inhabit the vast archipelago. Pluralism is an understanding that not only recognizes but also accepts differences as a necessity of life. In politics, the notion of pluralism is the recognition and acceptance of the principle of unity in diversity. The Five principles ideology (Pancasila) became a foundation of the nation as a common home for all, in supporting peaceful co-existence of different traditional cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles. Democracy enables pluralism to be dynamic in togetherness in differences.

Indonesian unity in diversity can be described with Indonesian food called gado-gado (Indonesian salad). On a plate of gado-gado different food elements are put together: various vegetables, eggs, tempe, etc. All of these elements are combined with peanut sauce, which makes each element still true of its own identity, but with the sauce, all of them are unified as gado-gado. Without Pancasila, Indonesia is made of diverse ethnic groups, each of which seeks its own way, but with Pancasila, plurality becomes unity.

As part of Indonesian society, the church is grateful for the diversity that exists, ranging from the plurality of tribes, customs, languages, cultures, religions, and beliefs, as God’s gift. Plurality calls for the basic attitude of pluralism, namely the willingness to tolerate, respect differences in beliefs and outlook on life, and seek dialogue and cooperation. Religious pluralism and belief should foster and provide a way for followers of religions to rediscover their basic vocation: fighting for the peace of God of Life so that this earth becomes a “home” – a proper place to live together – specifically to overcome the problems together such as the problem of injustice, poverty, environmental crisis, conflict, and natural disasters, as well as secularism and consumerism.

The Church realizes that as a pluralistic society, there are potential vulnerabilities that always threaten the common life order. Churches, therefore, are trying to foster relationships and cooperation with all groups, especially religious groups. The collaboration was developed in the framework of strengthening the unity of Indonesia as a Pancasila State and the joint responsibility of building a civilized Indonesian society.

Christians and Politics

Christianity of Nestorianism arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in the 7th century, but no traces of Nestorian Church remain. Modern Christianity was introduced by Roman Catholic priests in the 16th century, then by Dutch Calvinism in the 17th century. In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, which entered Indonesia established centers of powers – Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic Sultanates – Christianity did not develop as a center of power. The colonial government did not support the expansion of Christianity. In many cases, the mission in the 19th and 20th centuries was limited to the interests of the colonial power and the economy. Indeed, since the mid-19th century, a group of Protestant churches formed and integrated into the administration of the colonial government, but were limited to the ritual ministry of the church and were not supported to do Christianization. For the sake of colonial interests, churches were not encouraged to take part in political affairs.

But in the Indonesian national struggle to be independent of the colonial government in the early 20th century, Christians participated in politics. It was Christians who rejected the original plan in the concept of the Constitution for Indonesian independence by enacting Islamic sharia for Muslims, and finally, ideology was reformulated with a neutral religious basis for all. Then, a Christian political party was founded in 1945, but many Christians joined secular nationalistic political parties. Indonesian Christians recognize the Indonesian Republic as a gift from God, a vast country which was founded on the basis of Pancasila. Christian political ideals were not to establish a Christian state, but rather to strive for Christian values, such as love, justice, peace, and prosperity to be manifested in society.

Notes on Christian and Muslim Relation

Indonesia has long been known as a tolerant and harmonious pluralistic country, even though it has a majority Muslim population. But it cannot be denied there are discriminations against minorities. One can find data in the recent reports of both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Ahmadis and Shia of Islamic groups are attacked and considered as pervert groups by fundamentalist Muslim. As are LGBT people. Many Christian communities are prohibited from establishing or renovating their places of worship. There are certain areas, such as Aceh, and some places in West Java and in South Sulawesi, that claim to be special regions of Muslims so Christians and others cannot build their places of worship there. Indigenous people with their native religions are also targets of intolerance. The Indonesian government recognizes only six religions – Islam, Christian, Catholics, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Christians of both Protestants and Catholics make up about 10% of the population (25–30 million).

Conflict between Islam and Christianity has happened since the colonial era, especially when Christian missionaries began to spread the Gospel in the archipelago in the 19th century. There are accusations that Christianity is the religion of the Dutch colonizers. Political factors are related to the historical background of the encounter of Islam and Christianity in the West, which included the series of crusades in the 11th to the 13th centuries and colonialism to Africa and Asia after the discovery of the sea route to Asia in the 15th century.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often misunderstood as if Christians support Israel just because the US does. The communion of churches in Indonesia openly express their support for Palestine and criticize Israel, hoping for peace in the Middle East.

At the national level, the Indonesian government holds the Pancasila ideology of diversity and religious freedom. But at the lower level, a number of provinces and regencies have established local regulations compatible with Islamic law (sharia).

In addition to politics, economic factors have also played a role in the Islamic-Christian conflict since the colonial era, and are associated with special treatment for Chinese groups (about 3% of the population) that have developed to dominate the economic sector. Even though not all Chinese are Christian, they are considered part of the Christian power. In several anti-Chinese riots in several places in Indonesia, the church buildings were also damaged. Strong anti-Chinese sentiment developed in fundamental Islamic circles due to the surge in imported goods from China and a large number of Chinese companies investing in Indonesia and bringing Chinese workers to Indonesia in the context of free trade zone agreements.

Closing Remarks

In closing, it can be noted that in Indonesia there have been interfaith movements since the 1970s with the aim of developing mutual understanding among religions, both institutionally and in society. The late President Abdurrahman Wahid was among the advocates of this movement. In theology, the interfaith movement supports inclusive or even pluralistic theology of religion. One has the rights to stick to her/his own faith while at the same time respecting the different faith of others as a divine way for her/him, while respecting the freedom of everyone to choose and practice a religion, spread the truth of her/his religion, and even to convert.

Significant progress has been achieved in this movement, including the emphasis that claims of the religious truth are internal affairs of every religion, but our shared responsibilities are to work for justice, peace, community welfare, and environmental sustainability. Churches are encouraged to engage in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Dialogue and cooperation between religious communities includes a common agenda to counter radicalism critically, wisely, honestly, and openly.

The Interfaith movements also struggle with the growing strength of radical groups in the political arena in Indonesia, especially by justifying the politicization of religion. Therefore, interfaith activists continue to try to convince people that democracy is the best choice for Indonesia, as a country with a population of various cultural and religious diversity. In a democracy, the function of religion is not in the mobilization of mass religious emotions, but in developing moral principles of religious ethics that prioritize justice, peace, and people’s welfare and environmental sustainability.

The author, Zakaria J. Ngelow, is the director of Oase Intim, a Christian institution to promote contextual theology and empower local ministries, based in Makassar, Indonesia.