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What SBY can learn from Soeharto
Publication Date : 06-09-2013
We who are concerned about the state of religious freedom in the country are likely enduring what the character Gil Pender suffers from in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: a mental disorder called “the golden age syndrome”.
We tend to believe Indonesia was once more tolerant. This situation, however, changed soon after we deposed Soeharto and embraced democracy, paving the way for Islamists to thrive after decades of suppression. In other words, when it came to ensuring freedom of religion, things were seemingly better under Soeharto. He had many shortcomings, but he was at least a strong leader, a critical trait that is so conspicuously lacking in the current president.
I do not know if that is true. But such a claim begs a few questions: How could there be freedom of religion under an authoritarian government? How do we know no one was persecuted because of his or her beliefs during Soeharto’s years when the default policy was a media blackout for any incident involving SARA (ethnic, religious, race and inter-group relations)?
The truth is, things could actually have been worse under Soeharto, and our denial of the painful present has blinded us and made us think that everything was “better” when the smiling general was still around. We are perhaps deluded, just like Gil when he time-travelled to hang out with the Fitzgeralds.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, despite his shortcomings, has done the right thing by sticking with democracy and not being tempted to become a second Soeharto. But there is one thing that Yudhoyono could still learn from the country’s longest-serving president, apart from being stronger and less wishy-washy. That is to pick the right man to lead the Religious Affairs Ministry.
It is frustrating to see that even as he approaches the end of his term, President Yudhoyono is still unable to realise that he has appointed the wrong person to lead the ministry. He should know by now that Suryadharma Ali is the perfect candidate for the worst religious affairs minister of all time.
Soeharto, meanwhile, always picked the best people to lead the ministry, which, despite being widely perceived as corrupt, actually played a critical role in keeping religion away from politics.
The ministry is the continuation of the Kantor Urusan Agama or Shumubu, which was established by the Japanese administration to curb the influence of political Islam at that time.
A few years after taking office, Soeharto appointed Mukti Ali to fill the post. Mukti was a respected Muslim scholar who championed pluralism and was responsible for catalysing the Islamic reform movement led by Nurcholis “Cak Nur” Madjid and Ahmad Wahib in the early 1970s.
Prior to his downfall, Soeharto’s choice was M. Quraish Shihab, then rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), a center of progressive Islamic thought. He was an expert on Koranic exegesis and known for his broad knowledge and moderate views on Islam. He was once accused of being a Shia for being sympathetic to Shia teaching.
Between Ali and Syihab, there were Munawir Sjadzali and Tarmizi Taher, both of whom were known to be progressive Muslims too. Munawir was also the founding chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).
Suryadharma actually graduated from IAIN Jakarta, the same university attended by Cak Nur, but he became a businessman soon after his graduation and then built his political career with the United Development Party (PPP). Unlike his predecessors under the New Order, Suryadharma has never been regarded as an ulema with progressive ideas. He is first and foremost a politician, who might know a little about religion or could not care less about it.
We have the right to question whether Suryadharma really understands the idea of religious freedom after he said the purpose of reconciliation between Shia and Sunni followers was to “enlighten” the former, or to bring their views closer to their Sunni neighbors. We are also justified in accusing him of politicizing the Shia and Ahmadiya issues ahead of the 2014 elections, as members of those minority groups continue to languish in the face of intolerant hardliners, who have been given voice by the minister’s political party.
In the past few days, the minister has become a target of mockery on social media for allegedly being angry when his speech at a mosque in Tasikmalaya, West Java, on Monday was interrupted by a call to prayer or azan. The faux pas overshadowed the much more controversial fact that, according to media reports, Suryadharma was at the mosque to grant 1.2 billion rupiah (US$109,200) to 880 former Ahmadiyah followers who had renounced their faith and “returned” to Islam. Is this some kind of a bribe?
Human rights activists recently called on Yudhoyono to disengage the minister from efforts to address religious conflicts because as a state official he had failed to remain impartial. The minister always seems to act like he is the minister of Islam, or even worse, the minister for his own version of Islam.
It goes without saying that weak law enforcement is what triggered the rise of religious intolerance. That is a truism. We may forgive Yudhoyono for having trouble eradicating corruption from the National Police that has been too deeply entrenched within the institution. But he could at least pick a qualified religious affairs minister to serve all the people regardless of their faith to minimise the damage. Indeed, there is no guarantee that a progressive minister would solve the issue of intolerance immediately, but at least he or she would not make the problem worse, as Suryadharma has repeatedly done.
Yudhoyono may have appointed Suryadharma, previously the cooperatives and small and medium enterprises minister, simply to keep the PPP within his ruling coalition. But the many cases of state-sanctioned intolerance against minorities have caused a great deal of damage to his reputation. The President should know that Suryadharma is responsible for that.
There are still a few months left before Yudhoyono ends his term. There is probably still time for the tolerance award-winning President to learn from Soeharto, his authoritarian predecessor, and do the right thing to save his and the nation’s image as a tolerant country: show Suryadharma the door.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.