By Endy Bayuni
June 13 2014
Indonesia and Pakistan, the two largest Muslim-majority countries in the world, have been struggling to define the role of religion, or more specifically Islam, since they became independent states in the late 1940s.
The battle is in determining the extent to which the government has the power to interfere in matters of the faith of its citizens, or more specifically, the extent to which religion is considered a public as against a private matter.
This is a challenge not exclusive to Muslim-majority nations. But in much of the Western world, the issue has practically been resolved. Secularism prevails with the separation between state and church almost complete.
Secularism, as the term is widely understood, is not necessarily the right answer for Indonesia, Pakistan or other Muslim-majority nations. In societies where the majority of the people build their lives around their religion, trying to live up to the values and principles of their faith through the observance of religious rituals, secularism has become something of an anathema, a dirty word.
Advocating secularism in the Muslim world would only invite an unwarranted backlash and extensive debates without leading to any solution.
While secularism is not the way forward, these nations still need to define the precise relationship between religion and the state. The way Pakistan and Indonesia have been struggling to answer this perennial question provides an interesting study of contrasts.
In Pakistan, the state plays a much stronger role in managing religion than in Indonesia, and this has been true under democratically elected governments and military dictatorships. Pakistan is an Islamic state by definition and by the history of its inception, but unlike in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is not a country governed by the mullahs.
The debate has been on how much authority the government has in matters of faith. One Pakistan commentator, obviously not happy with the present trajectory of a greater government role in religion, asks: “How much more Muslim can Pakistanis get?”
Indonesia has never been an Islamic state. This was the national consensus reached by its founding fathers at the start of independence, in spite of strong demands from Muslim quarters to proclaim the new independent state an Islamic republic. The compromise was necessary as the only way to convince predominantly Hindu Bali and other territories in the eastern part of the former Dutch East Indies colony, where Muslims are not the majority, to join the republic.
An Islamic republic of Indonesia would have been considerably smaller than the present-day Indonesia.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and no one religion, not even Islam as the dominant faith, gets special treatment. That’s the national consensus.
As another compromise, the Religious Affairs Ministry was created with the chief task of administering public services for the different major religious communities on issues such as marriage and inheritance. It is also tasked with ensuring peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths.
Indonesia therefore is neither an Islamic nor a secular state.
This has never stopped some Muslims from organizing themselves to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state, or making Sharia the law of the land.
Islamist political parties have fought their battles, when possible, through the democratic political processes, including contesting elections. Others wage the battles at the grassroots level.
Unfortunately, a minority have gone underground and resorted to violence and terrorism in the name of Islam.
Fast forward to 2014, in the post-Soeharto dictatorship era, Indonesia has tried to resolve this question of the state-religion relationship through the democratic process.
Endy Bayuni is senior editor of The Jakarta Post. He took part in the recent series of lectures, co-organized by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad and the Heinrich Boll Foundation Pakistan, entitled “Governance, Community and Religion” at universities in Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and Rawalpindi.