Religion is like a penis. It’s fine to have one, but when you take it out and shove into other people’s faces, then that becomes a problem.
We close the year 2014 with a joint celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (which was the celebration of the pagan sun god) and the eve of the imminent 2015. In Indonesia, sadly, several have been denied their freedom to conduct the former. Christmas day, a supposedly joyous day of celebrating the birth of the Messiah, was marred by incidents of blatant religious intolerance. In Bogor and Bekasi, two churches were banned from conducting Christmas services, supposedly due to collaboration from the local Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) and intolerant pressure groups.
Still regarding Christmas, earlier this month, the annual debate was once again refueled. The motion: are Muslims allowed to say “Merry Christmas” to fellow Christians. The outcome? A flurry of intense, social media-generated arguments showing how marvelously Indonesians excel in bigotry. Social media figures, such as the recently infamous Jonru and Felix Siauw, and the notorious pressure group, Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have urged their followers not to even think of saying “Merry Christmas” as it would mean acknowledging the birth of Christ, which is akin to blasphemy. Of course, this debate has been going on for the last 6 years without any sign of coming to a halt, despite more tolerant and educated religious figures, such as Prof. Quraish Shihab and even the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), asserting that it is quite fine to say “Merry Christmas”.
In a country where former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was awarded for religious tolerance, the facts on the field are contradictory. Religious intolerance is rising dangerously, and we have ourselves as a nation to blame. My discussion will focus on two aspects: the government-level and the individual-level.
First, let us blame the first party people love to blame when shit hits the fan: the government.
First, there exists a law, a piece of paper from 1965 known as the Blasphemy Law. This law basically makes it criminal to conduct actions that can possibly violate the sanctity of a religion. The only thing is: it is very vaguely worded. It works both ways however. If used ideally, the law is a perfect mixture of state and faith in a Rousseau-ian sense. The state guarantees followers of a religion that they will be safe from external influences that could possibly endanger the existence of their religion. A Jew is safe to practice their own religion as so far that it does not infringe on a Muslim’s rights to practice their own. Also, given the anti-defamation element, it protects the Jews from facing denouncement from the Muslims. A perfect blend of Rousseau’s first and second types of religion.
Sadly, it remains an ideal.
The law can also work for a majority religion seeking to withhold power. Since the law is vaguely worded, it can be interpreted to criminalize almost anything that goes against an established religion. Below is Article 1 of Presidential Act no. 1/1965 quoted verbatim:
Setiap orang dilarang dengan sengaja di muka umum menceritakan, menganjurkan atau mengusahakan dukungan umum, untuk melakukan penafsiran tentang sesuatu agama yang dianut di Indonesia atau melakukan kegiatan-kegiatan keagamaan yang menyerupai kegiatan-kegiatan keagamaan dari agama itu, penafsiran dan kegiatan mana menyimpang dari pokok-pokok ajaran agama itu.
Of course, I do not have the authority to translate the document, as a slight change in wording could have disastrous ramifications. Note that a “religiously deviant act” (in bold) is not well defined in the law. This could lead to an avalanche of interpretations, especially from the majority religion, which is Islam. Hindu rituals not in accordance with sharia? They have defiled Islamic beliefs and can be criminalized. At the far end of the extreme spectrum, one could imagine living in a dystopic Indonesia with ruthless Islamic rulers. All because of one piece of legal product that is not well-defined and clear enough.
Second, the government has failed in curbing the causes of religious intolerance: mass organizations that advocate bigotry and violent shows of force using religion as a facade. The FPI has been around for quite a while now, and still, the government has failed to take action against these club-wielding barbarians. They are no different than zealous Crusaders invoking the name of God to justify mass violence. Year after year, the news reports violent actions and controversial statements coming from this particular mass organization. In 2014 alone, the FPI has had their episodes. They have repeatedly denounced the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama (colloquially known as “Ahok”) and have gone at lengths to elect an “opposition governor” from their ranks as they do not want Jakarta, an Islam majority-city, being led by a Christian. Their notoriety is most prevalent nearing Ramadhan, or the fasting month. Under the facade of “respecting Muslims”, they often conduct brutish raids in broad daylight on small food stores and kiosks. And yet, despite the annual orgy of evidence, the government has spent countless hours debating on a legal justification to disband the mass organization.
As a fledgling democracy, Indonesian politics have yet to develop a mechanism that can effectively separate faith with state. Case in point, the existence of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. While the state was intended to be secular, as Sukarno had wished in the Five Principles, the Communist purges in the 1960s turned the entire secular idea on its head. Atheism was attributed to Communism, coming from Marx’s controversial quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Islam, the majority religion, made its way to the top. History lesson aside, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is infamously known for (ironically) corruption scandals involving scripture distribution activities, is not supposed to exist as it would imply a degree of state control over religious matters, which are supposed to be in the private realm. Religion is not a matter of the state; what I believe in should not be the state’s business. I do not want the government declaring that my worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Illuminated Goddess of Madoka is illegal just because a bunch of old clergymen in the Ministry of Religious Affairs say it’s heresy.
Moving on to the social aspects. I see that there are at least two issues here: the rise of hardliners and a sort of laziness in thinking. I’ll elaborate.
First, the rise of hardliners. Of course, this is a well-established fact. With the recent presidential elections, Muslim hardliners have enjoyed more media exposure than ever. Unfortunately, the voices of more moderate Muslims are being drowned by the raucous hardliners. These hardliners are motivated by a myopic understanding of the holy books and fueled by leaders bordering on militant in their goal to dominate aspects of social life under the banner of their religion. While on the other hand, educated Muslims moderates are faced with the fear of being branded heretics by these hardliners. The more tolerant voices are drowned in the cacophony of hardliner propaganda, which often resort to countering moderates with their own baseless accusations of heresy.
Second, laziness in thinking. A majority of Indonesians only have the equivalent of a grade-school diploma and even fewer have tasted tertiary education due to restrictive financial situations. As such, religion is often peddled to these unlucky people with promises of instant salvation in an afterlife. Hardliners attract the poor with dreams of paradise while indoctrinating them at the same time. Part of the indoctrination process encourages ignorance and rockheadedness, while another breeds contempt for those of other faiths. They are taught to blindly hold on to what their doctrines say, even if they are wrong morally and ethically. Anything that harms their beliefs, or perhaps just questions, is automatically viewed with contempt. When their beliefs are challenged, they resort to either slander or violence, showing incapability of engaging differences in a civilized manner.
In sum, Indonesia is mostly a religiously intolerant country. But it would be a great injustice if I really meant that statement. No, the people are tolerant. These mass organizations that spread religion-based hate are not. The government also holds part of the blame for not being able to quickly respond to these violent elements of society. Yes, in democracy, everyone has the right to organize. But it should be done responsibly within the corridors of accepted laws. As for the people, laziness in thinking can only be countered by individual education. We could come full circle again and blame the government for being unable to pay attention to poverty and education, but that conversation has been overused.