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American guns and Indonesian intolerance

Publication Date : 08-02-2013


It would be a rough comparison and some people might object to it, but it is interesting to match the gun control debate in the United States to Indonesia’s problem of religious intolerance. Certainly, both cases exhibit differences.

Nevertheless, the similarities they share are striking. Both are related to the Constitution of their respective countries and are politically divisive.

The gun control debate originates from the Second Amendment, which says: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.

Emphasising that constitutional guarantee, gun control opponents argue that the state may not abridge the right of citizens to possess firearms, not forgetting that firearms are also beneficial for self-defence. On the other side of the equation is the fact that firearms are now more deadly than ever.

Leaving firearms unregulated, proponents of gun control argue, is a recipe for gun-related crimes. Indeed, a 2011 study found that the US had a much higher firearm-homicide rate than 23 other high-income countries studied.

Evincing the constitutional guarantee, efforts to control gun possession have died in court.

In December 2012, for example, the federal Court of Appeals struck down an Illinois state law that banned individuals from carrying concealed weapons in public. In the US, some say, it is easier to own a shotgun than adopt a puppy.

In Indonesia, it is harder to buy a shotgun than adopt a puppy. However, it is also harder for women and some minority groups to do mundane things than adopt a puppy. In the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe, women risk arrest if they do not sit on a motorcycle “properly”.

In Bogor, the local administration prevents GKI Yasmin Christian congregation from worshipping despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the church’s favour. In other regions, Ahmadiyah and other non-mainstream Muslim religious groups have found themselves being deprived of state protection as people have accused them of engaging in blasphemy.

What about then the—seemingly—constitutional argument for civil liberties infringement in those cases? One can refer to the second amendment of the 1945 Constitution, particularly Article 28J (2).

It says that individuals’ freedom may be restricted for morality and religious reasons. By arguing that their actions protect morality and religious values, the Lhokseumawe mayor and other local administrations who refuse to protect minority groups can then comfortably take refuge in the article.

Another line that connects the American gun debate and the Indonesian intolerance problem is their political relevance and divisiveness. According to the data from the centre for Responsive Politics, in 2012 alone, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the main gun control opposition body, donated US$1.3 million to Congressional candidates and spent another $2.2 million on lobbying. The controversy over gun control also underlines the Democrat-Republican split, as many gun control opponents are rural voters who are likely to be Republicans.

In Indonesia, religious intolerance is just as, if not more, divisive and as politically relevant as the gun control debate is in the US.

Discriminative and intolerant religious bylaws, while condemned by civil rights activists, attract support from more religious factions in society. The Lhokseumawe’s no-straddle law, as bizarre as it may seem, garnered support from some Islamic parties.

In addition, surveys have also revealed a considerable level of intolerance in society. A 2006 survey by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), for instance, found that 42 per cent of Muslim respondents would object if a non-Muslim house of worship was built in their neighbourhoods. Such a proportion of religiously zealous people could, for electoral reasons, constrain political elites from criticising discriminative bylaws, if not motivate them to issue such bylaws themselves.

Although a clear-cut solution is too ambitious in both cases, some effort to bring order to the endless debate is within sight. Here, given the similarities between gun control and the intolerance problem, we can learn from recent actions taken by US President Barack Obama and apply the lessons to our context.

First, Obama has made it clear that what he intends to do is to bring in sensible measures, such as an assault weapons ban, to control gun ownership and not to abolish the right to bear arms. The Indonesian government could do the same.

The government can emphasise that the goal of protecting minorities’ rights is not to turn Indonesia away from religion, but to make clear which measures of protecting religious values are sensible and which are not.

Just as self-defence does not require one to own an assault rifle, common sense tells us that protecting religious values does not require one to forbid women from straddling motorcycles, hinder other religions from worshipping, or burn the homes of Ahmadis.

Preservation of values can be manifested by the state facilitating interfaith dialogue, funding religious education institutions, or training religious studies teachers, while still enforcing the law and ensuring that no citizen harms another.

Second, it will demand of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono courage to affirm the sensible, and outlaw the unreasonable, expressions of religious-value protection.

Yudhoyono might draw criticism if he affirmed the state’s commitment to protection of Ahmadiyah and other non-mainstream religious groups. It might also cost him politically if he pushed for more women-tolerant bylaws in sharia-ruled Aceh. But so it is the case with Obama.

Even before being presented to Congress, the gun control proposal already drew heavy criticism. The NRA even personally attacked Obama’s family by bringing his daughters into the debate.

Obama seems not to be faint-hearted in the face of opposition. He is already in his second-term, just like Yudhoyono. After the inauguration, he reportedly stayed on the podium for a while and looked at the crowd, “I’m not going to see this again.” Neither will Yudhoyono. Both gentlemen have their last chance to make a change.

Obama’s gun control proposal will mark his legacy: a safer society. Yudhoyono can also use his last year in office to leave a much-hoped for legacy for posterity: a more tolerant society.

The writer is a Fulbright student studying social psychology at Loyola University, Chicago.


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