Indonesia: Essay: "Organized religion, the liberty of prejudice"

The Jakarta Post
"These clerics are not democratically elected officials, nor legislators. There is no obligation for the state to legitimize their presence or support their activities with state funding."
"Early Muslims called their faith tazakka to describe efforts to refine themselves in its teachings of compassion and virtue. Their belief was not simply centered on a monotheistic canon, but an exegesis to cultivate a caring and responsible self.
Indonesia is awaking to the realization that the "religion of peace", to which 88 percent of its citizens subscribes, has been sullied by intolerance. Liberty has given rise to the freedom to be prejudiced. This year we continued to witness the religious chauvinism which the state has, intentionally or not, helped perpetuate.

Last week's attacks on the Ahmadiyah complex in West Java was another example of how the name of Islam is used to subjugate those outside the mainstream control of the power brokers of the prevailing organized religion. Article 29 of the amended 1945 Constitution guarantees freedom of worship according to an individual's own religion or beliefs. Nevertheless, proponents of alternative denominations are jailed for blasphemy, groups like al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah and Wahidiyah and demonized and liberal Koranic philosophers like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd are harassed into staying silent.

Though Islam has historically never accepted a clerical hierarchy, Indonesia perpetuates the state-funded structure of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), which serves as an Islamic thought police. This is the same organization whose ulemas forbid people of different faiths to marry, viewed a female president as sinful, declared unlicensed proprietary software haram, forbade greeting members of other faiths on their religious days and dammed liberalism and pluralism because, as MUI cleric Umar Shihab said, "liberalism does not accept polygamy while Islam does". The MUI has tried to deflect responsibility by denouncing the attacks on Ahmadiyah, ignoring the fact that it was their edict that created such hatred. There are dozens of Islamic sects throughout the world. Is the MUI so divine as to declare Shiites, Sufis, Zaidis, Alawis or Nizaris un-Islamic? Are they so conceited as to declare that the Aga Khan and the Ismailis are less devout than they are? The state has perpetuated these tyrannical practices by ceding to the MUI on religious matters and effectively purging persons of "non-recognized faiths" by complicating the requirements to obtain civil registration and birth certificates as well as marriage licences. Several laws extend New Order-style powers by allowing state prosecutors to investigate groups that adhere to mystical beliefs.

Indonesia's founding fathers came from diverse backgrounds, ethnically, ideologically and religiously. Hence Pancasila's first principle acclaims theism without a predisposition to any particular denomination or embedding religion in a political infrastructure. We have also forgotten history and seemingly regressed eight centuries to Europe's dark days of the Inquisition under Pope Gregory IX when people were condemned for heresy. Some contend secular-pluralist views are western liberal democratic concoctions, alien to Indonesian values.

Nevertheless even Mohammad Hatta, one of the nation's founding fathers, in a letter to Johannes Post in 1939, conceded that while he did not admire the practices of western democracies, he still hoped "the spirit of democracy will win in the end." There should be an end to the quasi-government sponsorship of religious organizations like the MUI and a reassertion of the separation of religion and state. It is not that moral values have no place in state life but we must ensure the nation is protected from any dogma, religious or otherwise. Indonesia was a nation constructed to serve based on rule of law (rechstaat), and its citizens should be accountable to these laws, not their level of piety.

It is a sad day when Indonesia becomes like Malaysia, which has made it illegal to convert outside of Islam. The split between Sunnis and Shiites in the seventh century was initially not due to theological interpretations, but one of political power and leadership.

The obstinacy of current organized religion is of similar motives. The odium of religious superstructures -- whether the Roman Catholic Church, the MUI or others -- against beliefs outside their domain has to do with a potential loss of power. Power can only be sustained through self-righteousness and by demonizing someone else. These clerics are not democratically elected officials, nor legislators. There is no obligation for the state to legitimize their presence or support their activities with state funding. Mortal claims of authority over divine teachings reduce the transcendental idea of God to an infantile definition. There is certainly a need for keep abreast of new sects in society. But this should be done through a framework which allows them to freely pursue their activities. If necessary, religious movements can be asked to register with the ultimate aim of preventing them from being exploited for criminal activities.

Groups like Ahmadiyah, for example, should only be prosecuted if their actions cause physical harm, destroy property or incite hatred. The validity of their teachings has no value in a court of law. The first and, arguably, most beautiful word in Islam sent to Prophet Muhammad is not jihad, but iqra (read), implying the necessity of intelligence in pursuit of ijtihad (independent and rational thinking/interpretation).

Conservatives contend only clerics and those with scholarly training have a right to engage in ijtihad. But denying the use of our brains, our intelligence is to refuse the defining distinction between evolved humans and our predecessor apes. Blind faith, using religion without intellect, would leave us no better than organized monkeys."

By: Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

26 December 2007