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The Thinker: Losing the Faith
Robin Lee Santoso | November 02, 2010
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s speech against the persecution of minorities last month received much acclaim. Speaking with an eye to the recent string of clashes between Islamic extremists and members of the Ahmadiyah sect, he voiced his strongest statement on religious extremism to date, saying mosques should provide “comfort and peace to everyone, and not encourage provocation.”
But how can we reconcile Yudhoyono’s condemnation with the many laws that condone the oppression of Ahmadiyahs?
A 2008 joint ministerial decree still prohibits Ahmadiyah mosque leaders from preaching in public.
When a West Java Ahmadiyah mosque was attacked in August, government officials shut it down for weeks and even entertained the idea of relocating it.
With only 100,000 members in a country of 240 million, Ahmadiyahs are virtually unable to build new mosques, as a 2006 joint ministerial decree requires the approval of 60 households before such construction can take place.
And the list of restrictions goes on and on.
This indicates that Yudhoyono is preaching to the wrong audience.
Aside from the fact that Ahmadiyah’s violent attackers are Islamic extremists and not members of the mainstream Baiturrahim Mosque, Yudhoyono overlooks the laws that sanction oppression.
If Yudhoyono wants to eliminate the persecution of minorities, he must revise our discriminatory religious ideology.
Indonesia’s religious ideology singles out and protects five religions — Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism — above others.
The perks of being approved includes protection by the 1965 Blasphemy Law, which bans religious groups that “distort” or “misrepresent” the central tenets of the official faiths.
In practice, the Blasphemy Law is distorted to preserve the Islamic status quo.
Without an official definition of what constitutes “orthodox Islamic beliefs,” lawmakers have filled the void with their own definition, to the exclusion of the Ahmadiyahs.
This took place despite the fact that Ahmadiyah members consider themselves part of the Sunni tradition of Islam.
When I spoke to one Ahmadiyah spokesman this summer, he explained in detail how all their claims were based on verses of the Koran.
Although the Ahmadiyahs differ in their interpretation of some Koranic verses, these differences are secondary to the faith’s central tenets.
Yet they are still being stripped of their basic rights.
There was a time when the Catholic Church persecuted the believers of Protestantism.
Need there be a repeat of history?
The intolerance bred by the nation’s religious ideology goes against the country’s democratic aspirations.
Lawmakers should not have the freedom to choose what beliefs are orthodox, or who gets to keep their rights.
The Constitution mandates the government to uphold the basic rights of every citizen, regardless of gender, race or religion.
What’s more, Indonesia also protects approved religions from proselytizers, and this law often becomes a pretext for persecution.
It is used to silence minorities.
Ahmadiyah leaders, for example, have been instructed not to preach in public, and their members are prohibited from sharing their faith with others.
This is unacceptable, given our country’s democratic aspirations.
True, believers need some protection from the government.
After all, one cannot have religious freedom if one constantly faces physical or intellectual threat.
But the government needs to make sure that it does not give some people rights at the expense of others.
It rather should focus on protecting the basic human rights of all people, in order to create a safe environment for self-expression.
Indonesia’s religious ideology flies in the face of other parts of the Constitution, which grants every person the right to choose and practice his or her chosen religion.
The recognition of five religions came at a time when communism threatened the very integrity of the Constitution.
With that threat behind it, the country needs to recover its spirit of giving the people equal freedom to believe what they please.
To achieve this, Yudhoyono needs to revise the Constitution’s biggest barrier — a religious ideology that fuels persecution.
Just hours after the president’s comments last month, an Ahmadiyah mosque in Bogor was torched — again, to the surprise of no one.
If Indonesia maintains its current religious ideology, these events will continue to be the norm, and eloquent speeches won’t change a thing.
Robin Lee Santoso is an American graduate student focusing on religion and human rights.