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Understanding Indonesia's changing religious society

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


In the last few years, we have witnessed lots of inter-religious tensions and conflicts across Indonesia, just as what recently erupted between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslim groups in Sampang, Madura.

With the rise of religious intolerance among majority Sunni Muslims, the fate of minority religious groups, such as Christians, Ahmadis and Shiites has come under public scrutiny.

This phenomenon is connected to rapid modernisation, the current experiment in (political) democracy and the increased influence of transnational (religious) movements.

These developments have had a tremendous impact on changing Indonesian society from one of communalistic — with strong, tight religious-cultural affinities — to one that is liberal and individualistic as a multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multicultural nation.

Modernisation, transnational influences and democracy are nothing new for Indonesians. These things have penetrated deeply into society since 1970s. From various different sources and/or from traveling outside their traditional homes, Indonesians have learnt new religious ideas to be adopted and circulated to fellow people.

Efforts to establish transnational religious networks from and to Indonesia have been occasionally supported by foreign governments or non-government organisations.

As we see today, within the Indonesian Muslim community in particular, there exist numerous Islamic groups with strong transnational links to the Middle East and surrounding regions such as the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafism, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired socio-political organisations as well as sects accused of being heretical, like the Shia and Ahmadiyah.

Under the Soeharto regime, the social impact of publicly disseminated, new, religious ideas was limited or controllable. Soeharto's policy to prioritise social-political stability for the sake of economic growth and not to tolerate any societal upheavals caused by inter-religious tensions forced religious activists to conform.

Nevertheless, members of religious groups have been given many opportunities to pursue social activities and religious learning, but not political initiatives to challenge the regime.

Though restrained from propagating their beliefs and from publicly recruiting new members, minority religious groups had been protected under the government-sponsored Anti-SARA (tribal affiliations, religion, race and societal groups) campaign.

There were no significant changes in the religious landscape of Indonesian society.

In the reformasi era of the 2000s, the dissemination of various religious ideas has been contextualised in a new socio-political configuration brought about by experimental democracy.

Having sanctioned equality, egalitarian principles and individual freedom, democracy invited all parties in Indonesian society to participate in the development of the nation.

This new political constellation has opened up new opportunities for religious groups to do so and has attempted to make their presence relevant in public.

One of the results has been the resurgence of religion, particularly Islam, after almost three decades of being castigated for any political role it wanted to play.

The foundations of Islamic political parties, social-charitable organisations as well as some radical paramilitary groups that have mushroomed across the country have illustrated this.

Next, the democratic climate has changed the way both majority and minority groups articulate their religious beliefs, ideas and needs in public.

For the majority, the government has no choice but to accommodate their peculiarities, including recognising their monopolistic religious authority.

In the name of "religious rights", they intervene and either succeed or fail the social, political and economic activities of the whole population by issuing fatwas (edicts) regarding the halal status of certain food products, prohibiting voting for non-Muslim candidates in local/national elections or banning religious sects as heretic.

Importantly, they always impress upon the government to formally endorse their religious causes on the basis of their majority status.

For the minority, the democratic climate is perceived as a legitimate guarantee that it has the same citizenship rights as the majority and therefore expects to be treated equally by the state. This includes the right to propagate its religious beliefs and ideas, form socio-religious organisations and recruit new members.

The situation has led both majority and minority religious groups to cross paths, with an escalation of horizontal conflict as a result. Of course, these conflicts are not solely about religious differences.

Wide socio-economic gaps, political competition and a populace that is unprepared for this societal transformation are also crucial factors.

But the fact that both majority and minority groups have inherited such historical-cum-theological disputes and bloody clashes, which actually occurred in different places, involved different people and happened in different socio-political contexts, cannot be ignored.

As shown in the recent bloodshed in Sampang, the 14 centuries old Sunni-Shiite politico-religious dispute has mutated in local contexts, resulting in contestations for socio-religious influence, and has given people justification to shed the blood of their perceived enemies.

To make the situation worse, the government not only lacks a comprehensive policy to regulate inter-religious differences but also lacks the capacity to do so.

The old fashioned 1965 anti-blasphemy law that privileged mainstream and/or majority groups over other minority religious variants has hindered the state from fairly regulating socio-religious interaction between the two.

This violates the very freedom of religion as clearly stated and guaranteed in the Constitution.

It is very sad to see Indonesian society falling apart due to religious differences when the country is on the right economic track to becoming prosperous.

It is time for every Indonesian to recognise these inter-religious differences, be aware of potential conflict and find the best solution to coexist with each other and work together for the betterment of the nation.

The writer, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Essex in the UK, is also a lecturer in sociology at Yogyakarta State University.


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