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Indonesia: In a democratic state, religion belongs in the private domain

by Ignas Kleden

Tuesday 24 June 2008

(The below article was published in: Jakarta Post, 24 June 2008)

Religion is no place for the state in a democracy

by Ignas Kleden, Jakarta

In a democratic state, religion belongs in the private domain, to the extent that it is beyond the jurisdiction of public authorities. This principle notwithstanding, Indonesia has a ministry of religious affairs, which might be understood in terms of its specific historical development. However, the power of this ministry is limited to political management and legal administration of religious life.

The state’s power in relation to religion in this country is required to protect the rights of every religious group to carry out their religious obligations and to pursue their religious ideals. In the period of time prior to reformasi, the state even claimed the right to determine which religions were allowed to exist and develop in Indonesia; namely Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

One might legitimately raise the question as to why the state should have this entitlement to decide on the religious aspirations of its citizens. In the Indonesian context, this might be a backlash of the bitter experience of 1965 in which the atheistic spirit of the Communist Party supposedly jeopardized the state and the nation.

This implies the state can take action toward and against certain religions that are proven to endanger the state’s sovereignty, to do things against the Constitution or to violate the security as well as the freedom of citizens. Such entitlement can be justified because it is still within the scope of the state’s power of political management and legal administration of the religious life of its citizens.

If we try to apply this principle to the case of Ahmadiyah we certainly have problems. Do Ahmadiyah followers jeopardize the state’s sovereignty? The answer is obviously no. Do their activities transgress the Constitution? It has to be proven. Do they endanger the security and freedom of other citizens? We have to make some distinctions in answering this question.

Some followers of mainstream Islam, and especially the followers of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), might say Ahmadiyah members do not disturb the freedom of other people, but they do bring about commotion and disorientation among mainstream Islam followers owing to their different interpretation of the Koran.

On the basis of this allegedly problematic situation, FPI people required the Indonesian government to disband Ahmadiyah and to deny their right to existence in Indonesia.

The response of the government has been made known through the joint ministerial decree that basically consists of both a warning and an instruction, addressed to Indonesian citizens and to the followers of Ahmadiyah. With regard to the former, they should not show any support for interpretations and activities that are similar to but deviant from the basic teachings of Islam.

With regard to the latter, as long as Ahmadiyah followers confess to be Muslims, they should terminate the interpretations and activities that deviate from Islamic teachings, especially the doctrine about a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad.

A big question concerning religious freedom is why and on which ground the government meddles in the internal affairs of a religion and in the way people express their faith.

If the difference in theological and exegetical interpretation is supposed to disturb other Muslims, this should be a matter to be settled within and among religious groupings, but by no means by government officials. The government is expected to intervene if quarrels and debates lead to physical conflict and the use of violence.

Government authorities cannot solve such disputes because, first of all, they do not have the required and acknowledged erudition or scholarly expertise pertaining to the ongoing disputes. In the second place, they are not entitled to interfere in theological matters that become, as it were, internal and domestic affairs in the private domain. As a comparison, the public authorities cannot decide what the citizens of Jakarta should have for their lunch or dinner, because this is purely a private matter.

The consideration that the resulting controversies have disturbed the religious composure of other people cannot become an excuse for the government to take sides in such debates at the cost of others, because it would become a bad precedent for interreligious relations and also for the proper attitude of government toward religious groupings.

Let us imagine, for example, that one day Catholic people complain that the teachings of some Protestant churches tend to disturb the religious composure of Catholics in Indonesia, or the Hindus complain that the teachings of Buddhism have shaken their usual equanimity.

Let us further imagine that those who feel disturbed insist on the dissolution of those religious groups who are supposedly bringing about spiritual uneasiness through their teachings, and ask the government to take action against these groups. What is the government supposed to do?

If one takes the dissolution of Ahmadiyah as a precedent, the government would be expected to do the same thing in a comparatively similar situation. However, if that were the case, the government, as the main implementer of state power, would have ignored its main duty to provide its citizens with security and to protect their freedoms in leading their religious life.

The point is: state authorities and government officials in particular should refrain from making political decisions on the basis of merely pragmatic reasons and for the sake of only ad hoc purposes. Such decisions might be good in solving a pressing problem at hand, but groups can take advantage and eliminate their political competitors, in the name of religion, using the hand of the government, though possibly without the government’s intention or knowledge.

Let us get back to basics. The obligation of the state is to protect all citizens, while the obligation of a democratic state is to prevent any kind of curtailment of the freedoms of its citizens in any field of life.

The writer, a sociologist, is chairman of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID).