True secularism, Indonesian style

Indonesian Ulema Council had asked restaurants to cease functioning in daylight ‘to respect those who are fasting’

Update: 2015-06-30 07:54 GMT
An Muslim man reads the holy book of Quran at a mosque during the second week of Ramadan in Jakarta (Photo: AP)

I spent the first half of the Islamic holy month of Ramzan in the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia. It was an eye-opening experience, in contrast to more conservative parts of the Muslim world. Traditional piety and devotion was, as expected, evident in homes and mosques. But there was no excessive encroachment of public places for fasting rituals and symbols.

Unlike in theocratic Islamic nations, where the state machinery allies with the mosque and imposes strict restrictions and codes on personal behaviour to make religiosity overwhelming, Indonesia’s secular republic strove to emphasise that Ramzan’s observation must not hamper the syncretic identity of the country. An archipelago where 95 per cent of the population is Muslim was at pains to ensure that the remaining five per cent should not feel elbowed out as second-class citizens.

Two major policy debates were in play during Ramzan, revealing how a model Muslim-majority democracy can promote harmony and national unity. The first was on whether food stalls should remain shut during day hours when fasting is on. The Indonesian Ulema Council, which is the top clerical body and is government funded, had asked restaurants and catering outlets to cease functioning in daylight “to respect those who are fasting”. It was less a demand and more an appeal. But the pluralistic administrative authorities shot down the request by arguing that “those who were fasting should also respect non-Muslims who were not.”

The capital city Jakarta’s deputy governor came up with an ingenuous idea to accommodate the Ulema Council without jeopardising secularism: “Food stall owners could pay respect to those fasting by placing curtains at their stalls — this way the stalls could remain open and those who were not fasting would not find it hard to get food.” For a country where discretionary spending on eating outside home is rather high, it was an economically and socially sound solution to what can become prickly and politically sensitive in more religiously charged Islamic nations.

The second discussion that made headlines during Ramzan was about calls to prayer and chanting of sermons over loudspeakers from mosques. The Indonesian Mosque Council campaigned forcefully to “reduce noise pollution” which caused disturbance at unearthly hours to those who were resting or sleeping. Orders went out to mosque managements to minimise microphones and “avoid blaring the sounds of Islamic teachings” as “Muslims should respect followers of other religions”.

In true Indonesian character of persuasion, opinions of enlightened Muslim theologians were cited to spread the message that “Islam doesn’t teach us to disrupt or bother other people but rather to respect the privacy of others.” As a non-Muslim foreigner waking up in the mornings in the cultural heartland of Java, Yogyakarta, the call to prayer from the local mosque landed on my ears like a lullaby rather than a jarring mechanism to roust me out of bed.

What is more, the hymns at dawn in local Javanese dialect sounded so much like Sanskritic Hindu mantras that I could have been in southern India and not southern Indonesia! One has to see the spectacular Ramayana ballet performed by Javanese Muslim dancers at the majestic Prambanan temple dedicated to Lord Shiva or the ubiquitous statuary depicting scenes from the Mahabharata in densely-populated Muslim cities and towns to appreciate this interreligious fusion.

One of the reasons why Indonesia has fared extraordinarily well as a genuine liberal democracy with relatively low levels of social friction is the concept of “acculturation” between Islamic rituals and local beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists. Nine famous Muslim saints, known as the Wali Songo, who spread Islam in Java in the 15th and 16th centuries accepted pre-existing forms of faith and mixed them with matching Islamic precepts.

Muhammad Faisal of Youth Laboratory Indonesia credits this softer Islamic heritage for laying a basis where “the young Muslim generation today can absorb and practice its religious norms not in the way of the radical groups in West Asia, but as a tolerant Islam that mingles with local traditions.” All this is not to claim that Indonesia is a paradise that has sorted out contradictions between Islamic notions of politics and social order and secular concepts of government. Since the fall of the military dictatorship of General Suharto in 1998, concern has risen about a “conservative turn” in Indonesian Islam marked by advent of the overtly Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and Salafist and terrorist outfits such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Despite crackdowns by security forces, the shadowy presence of an umbrella organisation for jihadists, Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), and estimates that at least 500 Indonesian youth have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State (ISIS) are ominous signs. The current slowdown in the Indonesian economy to below five per cent of GDP growth may induce more frustrated but digitally well connected youth to embrace violent influences from hardline Arabic societies. Smith Alhadar of the Institute for Democracy Education (IDe) in Jakarta warns that Indonesia is unprepared in the Internet-saturated era to counter the “creeping power and attractiveness of ISIS ideology.”

In securing Indonesia’s unique legacy of eclectic Islam, much rides upon the shoulders of Indonesia’s charismatic and anti-establishment President, Joko Widodo. His clarion call for a “mental revolution” to “reform the populace’s mindset” is still work in progress. The vices that Jokowi, as the President is popularly known, is seeking to banish include not only corruption, greed, lawlessness, selfishness and opportunism, but also “intolerance of differences.”

Jokowi’s championing of a new law of religious freedom makes it easier for minorities to build their own places of worship and also extends protections to atheists. Yet, in the maelstrom of Indonesian democratic politics at present, Jokowi is viewed as a weak President who lacks the backing of the old military and party elites and is hamstrung by a hostile Parliament packed with his opponents.

Jokowi’s honeymoon after his dream election victory in July 2014 is over, with the economy sliding and concomitant fears of a fresh wave of Islamist radicalisation, Civil society activists who waged sustained struggles to keep Indonesia humane and open to all faiths and ethnicities have not given up on Jokowi. The world should not either, because in his success lies the greatest hope for the unlikely combination of Islam, secularism and democracy.

The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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