By Laode Arham
April 24, 2013
When Christians celebrated Good Friday on March 29 in the Cathedral church of Central Jakarta, the Istiqlal Mosque next door happily provided its parking space for the church’s congregation members. Standing next to each other, it’s hard to imagine why religious groups sometimes struggle to get along. A mosque neighbouring a church is not unusual in Indonesia. In Solo, Central Java, the Al-Hikmah Mosque was built adjacent to the Javanese Christian church. For more than 50 years, congregants at the mosque and the church have had a respectful relationship.
In Manado, North Sulawesi, a monument to five religious traditions in Indonesia – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism – stands on Bukit Kasih (the Hill of Love). Five houses of worship are also built there. These examples of coexistence are a testament to the concepts of democracy and religious freedom in Indonesia as professed by two famous Muslim Indonesian scholars – Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid.
So when a Protestant church in Setu, Bekasi, West Java, known for donating meat to the Muslim community during the Eid al-Adha holiday – which honours the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to submit to God’s request to sacrifice his first born son – was demolished in March because it lacked a permit, it greatly concerned me and many other Indonesians. We firmly believe that democracy and religious freedom are tenets of Islam.
Revisiting the Islamic democratic philosophies of these two influential Muslim figures can help solve discrimination against minorities.
Abdurrahman Wahid – known as Gus Dur – was the chairman of Nahdlat ul Ulema (the largest mainstream Muslim organization in Indonesia) and a former Indonesian president. Nurcholish Madjid – known as Cak Nur – was a prominent Muslim intellectual and founder of Paramadina University and Paramadina Foundation, an Islamic learning center that promotes religious tolerance and pluralism.
Gus Dur changed a number of laws that drastically transformed the authoritarian and discriminatory system established during the 30-year regime of President Suharto (1967-1998) to a democratic one.
Gus Dur is often called the “father of the nation.” He embraced minorities by visiting churches and temples, and maintained warm relationships with minority religious leaders. He made it possible for Chinese-Indonesians to exercise their right to celebrate Chinese holidays. He also founded the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, an organization that focuses on interfaith dialogue, and the Wahid Institute, which promotes democracy, peace and pluralism in Islam.
For Gus Dur, all men are equal under Islam. He envisioned Indonesia as a democratic country where every citizen enjoys equal rights in every aspect. “Not only is democracy not Haram [forbidden], it is compulsory in Islam. Enforcing democracy is one of Islam’s principles, which is Shura [consultation],” he once said.
Similarly, Cak Nur believed in equal rights for every citizen in building places of worship, teaching religious doctrines in the public space and participating in elections or political parties.
Cak Nur, who died in 2005, is still dearly referred to as “the teacher of the nation.” His Islamic democratic ideas are widely accepted by Muslim politicians and call for their participation in secular political parties such as Golkar, the political party that dominated Indonesia’s political scene during Suharto’s 30-year rule, and Demokrat, the winner of the 2009 election that reappointed Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as Indonesia’s president.
Since the 2004 elections, Islamic and secular political parties have been collaborating in a coalition government supporting both religious Muslim and secular candidates. Every Indonesian is able to be a part of the government and to vote for Muslim and non-Muslim representatives. Even though the practice has been challenged by some, leaders from minority groups, such as Jakarta’s Christian Chinese-Indonesian vice governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, have been gaining support among citizens and politicians alike.
National reflection on the true nature of Islam and a proper education of Islam’s democratic values – sourced from the thoughts and books of Gus Dur, Cak Nur and other prominent Muslim leaders – is urgently required to reduce instances of religiously based discrimination and violence.
It is the responsibility of intellectuals, political elites and civil society organizations to work together to provide a country-wide knowledge transfer of Islam’s democratic values to ensure minority groups are free to exercise their rights.
With national reflection and education on these values, I see a more tolerant nation in the future.
Laode Arham is an activist of Islam for democracy, human rights and the countering of violence in Indonesia. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service