Monday, December 19, 2016

Dangers of using religion as a political weapon. It's a problem that plagues others as well

"The country yearns for a national leadership that can shore up unity imperilled by burgeoning identity politics. Dangerously, identity politics is the politics of division that undermines the shared awareness that we are one nation. It erodes solidarity and tolerance, the essential spirit we need to keep the country's integrity. It breeds distrust, suspicion and animosity that can easily erupt into conflicts. When it comes to achieving the common wellbeing, people of all stripes -- majority and minority alike -- will have to fall and rise together. Bigots who reduce politics to such identities as ethnicity, race and religion are sowing the seeds of division that can spell doom to the nation..."

Strong words against the politics of polarisation and intolerance. Timely, too, when people are encouraged to turn against people in the name of religion and ethnicity. Who is putting it so bluntly -- and boldly? I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in a foreign land, reading a local newspaper, The Jakarta Post. Nor was the local columnist, Pandaya, writing about India. His concern was his own country. After half a century of multicultural peace, Indonesia is in the thick of sectarian politics similar to India's: Ultras in the majority community are asserting themselves against religious and ethnic minorities.

This is a throwback to the early years of Indonesian independence. Despite the universalism of nationalist leaders like Sukarno and Hatta, political Islam was strong enough to enforce a code under which one had to have a religion to gain citizenship rights and only monotheistic religions were officially recognised. In 1952 the Ministry of Religion declared Bali, the home of an indigenous version of Hinduism, as in need of an Islamic conversion campaign. Bali's local government resisted the move so strongly that constitutional provisions were changed. In 1962 five religions became legal. Today Indonesia recognises Islam (87 percent of the population according to 2010 census), Christianity (just about 10 percent), Hinduism (2 percent), Buddhism (1 percent) and Confucianism (0.05 percent).

As columnist Pandaya reminded his readers, "under dictator Suharto's iron fist, we rarely heard of regional elections marred by debates on the candidate's ethnicity or religion". After Suharto, there has been no iron fist. Current President Joko Widodo is too soft and gentlemanly to have a fist at all. So political Islam is polishing up its steel fist. Its target: Jakarta Governor Ahok Parnama who is standing for re-election.

Ahok is a double minority: Chinese and Christian. He has been charged with an offence unforgivable in Islam: blasphemy. What is interpreted as blasphemy is a statement by Ahok that some people had been deceived [by other people] using al-maidah 51 of the Koran. As his supporters point out, he was not blaming the Koranic verse but those who used it to deceive others.

But his opponents wanted immediate action under blasphemy laws, namely, imprisonment of Ahok and punishment. Violent rallies have been held by Muslim groups under umbrella organisations like the National Movement to Save Indonesia. To diffuse the tension, President Jokowi let the police question Ahok as a suspect. His trial began last week, Ahok pleading his case with testimony by seven witnesses and 14 experts. The Human Rights Watch has asked President Jokowi to change blasphemy and other laws that are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Ironically, Muslims were persecuted by Christian army generals during the Suharto years. Determined to suppress political Islam, religious Muslims were denied promotion and even prevented from using the Islamic greeting Salam Alaikum. Some Generals even insulted the Koran. Suharto, a staunch Muslim, encouraged all that because he saw political Islam as a threat to his authority.

Suharto is gone and political Islam is back with a bang. Ahok's record in public life is immaculate and even his enemies concede that he is a great administrator. He is popular too. But religious sentiments have been aroused to such an extent that it is doubtful whether he will win the gubernatorial election next month. His defeat could cast shadows on the presidentship of Jokowi himself.

Communal sentiments are easy to arouse in Indonesia with political Islam remaining strong despite the Suharto Government's efforts to suppress it. Soon after the brouhaha was kicked up over Ahok's "blasphemy", there were reports of a possible coup which the President's office had to publicly deny. The country is "safe, very safe", said Jokowi. As if to prove it, he travelled to Delhi last week. Was his confidence justified? We will know next month.