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Houses of worship are an important topic of discussion for many people, as the recent debate over them showed. The impression was that people put more importance on the buildings themselves than on practicing the good deeds taught inside them.
The heated debate revolved around drawing up new rules on church or mosque construction to replace an antiquated joint ministerial decree. If any issue reflects the nation’s progress, it is this one. After 61 years as a free nation we are still fighting over rudimentary matters of religion.
Reality is following close on the heels of the debate. In Jakarta, some housing developments are being tailored to a particular religious group, an upsetting trend. Already our schools are strongly divided along religious lines. Wealthy schools in the cities further divide the rich students from the poor.
Our penchant for symbolism and intellectual banality has never waned. Ceremonies play an important part in our lives, while statements in bad taste by certain segments of the elite are rampant.
We are fond of surface values, of appearances rather than substance. A recent study by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) finds that people are less tolerant of a neighbor with a different faith, simply because of the religious difference. This is especially so when one religious group dominates a residential area. People don’t bother to find out what kind of person their neighbor is. There is also relatively high opposition to the construction of houses of worship of different faiths, according to the study. It is a sign that an attitude of “holier than thou” and “us versus them” prevails.
The institute also finds that the Muslim majority disapproves of efforts by minority groups to defend their rights by, for example, holding rallies. LSI rightly states that this hinders democracy.
Our gender bias is equally disturbing. According to the survey, we tend to resent homosexuals and transvestites even more than people of different faiths. But LSI is too polite in airing some of its findings. It should have been more explicit in pointing out the rise of religious conservatism. This is clear from the higher rate of support among the 1,200 respondents in all 33 provinces for such groups as the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defender Front) and the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesia Mujahidin Council), which are often perceived as radical, than for the more moderate Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islam Network).
The greatest enmity, according to the study, is focused on those formerly imprisoned as communists. This is a disturbing reminder that the mystery of the 1965 putsch, blamed on the communists, has yet to be unraveled. Thousands of communist detainees, jailed for years in the late 1960s under inhumane conditions and often without trial, are now free. Yet they still face discrimination.
The recent Ahmadiyah case reminds us that foes can be found even within one religion. Ahmadiyah members, regarded as heretics by mainstream Muslims, are being beaten and evicted. Thousands live as refugees in their own country. Some are applying for asylum overseas.
This low tolerance toward our compatriots reflects our failure to create a nation where people can live peacefully. It is tragic and deeply saddening that seeking differences among us appears to be almost second nature, even at the cost of weakening ourselves.
We divide ourselves not only along lines of political ideology, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, and region of origin, but also by kampong or village of origin and by the universities we attend.
People seem to have excessive energy for finding differences, for dividing and weakening themselves, eroding social trust until it almost disappears. We seem to lack the urge to seek a common ground where synergy can take place.
The many religions people practice, the hundreds of ethnic groups, the rich culture and languages adorning our nation appear to be more of a liability than an asset. This has to change, once and for all, because it subverts the character of our country and would have seemed like a nightmare to our founding fathers when they envisioned this nation 61 years ago.
Time is short but we have impeccable social capital in our hands. We believe that the tradition of tolerance and respect for each other’s faith is still the underlying foundation of our social and political culture. It is a gem that has stood the test of time throughout the archipelago. It explains the nation’s resilience in the face of many past crises.
It will take strong and inspirational leadership, however, to revive this tradition amid ongoing economic crises. We must do it, lest our precious treasure slip quietly from our hands.