Editorial: The tyranny of the majority
The Jakarta Post
“The greatest threat facing the US is the tyranny of the majority,” penned nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. He could just as easily be writing about Indonesia today, especially after Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali announced his plan to ban Ahmadiyah, a religious sect with more than 200,000 followers. He said the presence of the sect, whose existence predates even this republic, is an affront to Islam, the country’s predominant religion.
His statement is a clear display of raw power in the name of the majority. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s silence in the face of what is a clear a breach of the constitution is indicative of his own complicity. Tocqueville’s warning is upon us. This country, founded upon religious freedom, that claims to pride itself on the diversity of its people, is in peril.
The basis of Suryadharma’s action against the Ahmadiyah is a 2008 decree that forbids Ahmadiyah from propagating its teachings, including its tenet that Muhammad was not the final prophet, as mainstream Muslims believe. Despite the case never having gone to court, the decree was drawn up based on the 1965 Blasphemy Law to curtail the group’s activities. But if this is a pretext used to ban a religion or denomination, then other religions and minority groups in Islam in this country have plenty to worry about.
The action against Ahmadiyah is based on the Religious Affairs Ministry’s interpretation of a faith. If this is the case, the question is where does it stop? Mainstream Islam has interpretations about God and truth that are different from other religions: Is Jesus God or a prophet? Was Jesus crucified or was it someone else? Did Abraham slaughter Ismail or Isaac? If Muslims find idolatries offensive, should shrines and statues of Buddha be demolished? Is Muhammad the last prophet of Islam? Going by the reasoning used to ban Ahmadiyah, any of the above different interpretations and many more could one day be deemed by majority Muslims to be heretical and offensive, and used as ground to ban a religion. No minority religion or sect is safe in this country.
The tyranny of the majority in Indonesia comes in the form of religious persecution. It is a reflection of increasing intolerance on the part of majority Muslims towards religious minorities. Why else is the action against Ahmadiyah taking place now, after decades of peaceful coexistence? Other religious minorities are also feeling the brunt. Christians, the largest among the minorities, are finding it difficult to build their churches and many existing ones are being vandalized and their followers attacked.
Suryadharma, a politician by background and chairman of the Islamist United Development Party (PPP), was completely out of line when he encouraged citizens to act as watchdogs to the activities of Ahmadiyah followers. On the ground, his statement has been interpreted as a green light to harass and attack the sect’s followers. Suryadharma should be fired for using his Cabinet position for his own political objectives, and for encouraging the use of violence against other citizens.
For years, many people have questioned the wisdom of having a full ministry in charge of religious affairs. The late Abdurrahman Wahid, when he was president, pondered about disbanding the ministry but refrained. Religious affairs are managed quite effectively by religious leaders, and their relations are being managed through interfaith dialogues. The problem begins when the state starts interfering, interpreting the substance of religion and inevitably takes sides.
Between disbanding Ahmadiyah for violating some obscure governmental decree and disbanding the Religious Affairs Ministry, whose minister is in clear violation of the Constitution by promoting religious intolerance and the tyranny of majority, we know which course Indonesia should take. God be with us.