Ever since Indonesian autocrat Suharto fell from power in 1998, opening the country to democracy, religious conflicts seem to be taking place with a disturbing regularity. Faith groups appear quick to seize new freedoms in pursuit of their agenda, not only contesting the ground with each other but also applying pressure quite successfully on what is formally a secular state.
As Singapore slowly opens up, will this be our future too? What may be needed to prevent that from happening?
In the years immediately following Suharto’s fall, murderous riots took place in many provinces, particularly in the eastern part of the archipelago. This was in addition to the attacks against the minority Chinese community mostly in the big cities, which I wouldn’t ascribe to religion — it was more a case of some people taking it out on a community that was perceived to have benefitted through collaboration with the Suharto family.
Things quietened down a bit for a few years but lately the temperature has been rising again. In the Straits Times of 29 June 2010, was this report, for example:
Hardliners call for mosque militias
Muslims in Jakarta suburb urged to prepare for ‘war’ against city’s ‘Christianisation’
Several hardline organisations in Bekasi have recommended that every mosque in the area, an hour by car from Jakarta, form militia units, The Jakarta Globe newspaper reported on its website yesterday.
The Muslim groups also called on local Muslims to prepare for the possibility of ‘war’ against what they perceive to be the Christianisation of the city.
The recommendation was made at the Bekasi Islamic Congress held at one of the biggest mosques in the Jakarta suburb.
It came just days after the city authorities took down a large statue made by a Balinese sculptor following protests by the hardline Muslim groups that it was offensive to Islam.
‘All Muslims should unite because… the Christians are on to something,’ Mr Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), told the daily on Sunday.
‘Apparently they want to test our patience. We are planning to invite them for a dialogue to determine what they really want. If talks fail, this might mean war,’ he said.
These groups were expected to forward several recommendations to the Bekasi city administration to create policies that are compliant with syariah law.
In March this year, hardline Muslim vigilantes disrupted the ILGA Asia conference of gay, lesbian and transgender activists in Surabaya, patrolling the hotel lobby, intimidating and threatening attendees. This was part of a pattern of Islamic groups attacking bars and entertainment places. Even more extreme, there have been sporadic firebombings of churches in a number of cities.
At a national level, religious conservatives largely prevailed over the Anti-pornography Law enacted in 2008 and the Blasphemy Law this year.
The Anti-pornography Law was drafted in broad language such that anything “likely to incite sexual desire” would come under its ambit. This, as you can imagine is highly subjective.
Time magazine reported, on 6 November 2008:
“The law is wide open to interpretation and could even apply to voice, sound, poetry, works of art or literature,” says Kadek Krishna Adidharma, one of many Balinese who see the law as an attempt by the Indonesian Muslim majority to impose their will on the rest of the country. “Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable.”
Worse yet, the law legitimises the role of civil society groups in its enforcement. This means religiously-motivated vigilante groups are justified in reporting cases of violation. But where does reporting end and intimidation begin?
Many critics see this is as the thin end of a wedge to impose Shari’a law throughout Indonesia.
The debate on the Blasphemy Law — my understanding is that it’s not a single law but a bundle of old and more recent presidential decrees, legislation and ministerial directives — ended too with a surrender to conservative religious groups.
Despite the country being a secular state in name, Indonesia is quite messy in this area. First, there is a provision in the constitution saying “the state is based on the belief in the one supreme God.” Then six “religions” are formally recognised by the Indonesian government — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. The State is empowered to act against “deviant” interpretations as well as any newly founded religions. The power to decide whether something is deviant too lies with the State, which is thus sucked into religioius disputes.
Liberal Muslims had pushed to remove this power from the State in line with the true spirit of a secular state, but conservatives feared that without the coercive power of the State, all manner of alternative interpretations and new religions might take root. So they beat back the proposed changes.
The religious freedom of small, unorthodox religious groups such as the Ahmadiyahs are now at risk. The secular state is unable to protect their freedom to worship in the way they wish. The picture below, for example, shows a demonstration against Ahmadiyahs.
What is obvious from the Indonesian debate is that involving the State in religious disputes should be avoided. So long as there is a chance that the coercive power of the State can be deployed to aid one side against another, religious groups will focus on putting pressure on the State, with its opponents responding likewise. Religions then become more concerned with temporal power (and seeing it as a zero sum game) than with their spiritual mission, which in turn encourages escalation of religious conflict.
Are we sure that the Singapore government doesn’t do something similar? OK, maybe they don’t get involved in theology, but when they adopt language and “moral positions” associated with one religion over others, are they not in effect doing something similar? So, despite their claim to be the actively working towards religious harmony, this failure to be very strictly neutral, may in fact be encouraging one or more religions to try their hand at influencing the government, thus escalating conflict.
But why is the State seen as amenable to influence? That question leads us to the root of the problem: In the midst of competing religious claims, if a state fails to articulate a clear, courageous secular position, it signals “pushability” and effectively invites religious groups to muscle their way forward.
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More specifically, in Singapore’s case, I fear there are three points of weakness.
The first is our State accepting the notion that morality is largely indistinguishable from religious teaching, and thus in any act of the State where morality is a consideration, it invites religious references. But no two religions agree on what exactly morality encompasses, so inevitably, there will be a contest among religions to speak louder than others, even to the point of trying to discredit each other, with the aim of getting its version of morality accepted as normative.
Secondly, our State applies the “no offence” rule too broadly. As I have pointed out before, it is essentially a subjective measure, and contains a bias in favour of the most thin-skinned, sensitive listeners, however few they may be. By rewarding complainants with action against their critics, we are in reality promoting a race towards heightened sensitivity.
I realise it is difficult, at least in the English language, to formulate a more objective rule, but it should be one that recognises the value of criticism while respecting others’ feelings — within reason. It would be better if we understood the rule to mean no baiting, no goading, no insults that are empty of serious argument. And no incitement to others to do likewise. “Offence” alone is too broad a term, for otherwise no one can ever engage in anything but ossified politeness. There should be a right to “offend”, if it is in the nature of fair comment.
Thirdly, our State’s attention has been focussed too much on the risk of religions fighting each other, neglecting the challenge of religions trying to capture the State. We speak mostly about maintaining common space, urging various groups to get along. And on the whole, we have been successful, but this success, as with our message, is only in the arena of religion versus religion. In the arena of religion versus secular State, the record lately has been poor. One religion has gradually infiltrated the State; testifying to it is the way our ministers and civil servants use references and codewords that spring from this religion’s agenda.
We’ve let our guard down, but more importantly, we never quite built defences in the first place. Our problem is that we’ve never articulated secular values with robustness, precision and in a comprehensive manner; in their absence, religious groups will attempt to articulate values for the State. Nature abhors a a vacuum, and if our secularism is largely empty, we’re just inviting religions to push in.
Being a multi-faith society, a greater complication can then arise. If any one religious group gains traction, inscribing its values onto the State’s blank slate, at some point other religions will respond. This can only lead to religious conflict. In other words, just policing the common space and the “no offence” rule is insufficient in the long term. A secular State must articulate secular values — what do we mean by morality, by equality, by liberty? — and defend them, or else “secular” will end up meaning little more than opening the door to a scramble for influence.