The Tip of the Iceberg (The Weekender)
11 May 2011
These days, it’s hard to say whether the nation is on a cruise that has run into choppy seas, or whether our ship is a version of the RMS Titanic about to ram into a huge iceberg that will send everybody plunging into icy waters.
If the latter is true, then the iceberg is religious intolerance with nine-tenths of its somber reality hidden beneath the water. To extend the metaphor, the Titanic scenario calls for an urgent sense of crisis, while the choppy cruise script calls for the captain to remain calm.
The reality may be that we are navigating between icebergs of religious violence captained by a leader whose forte is to remain outwardly calm while the ship of state runs headlong into crisis.
In the big picture, this is what Indonesia is facing. We have been plagued by numerous issues since the beginning of time, now made visible by the climate of free media and free speech. The twin problems of corruption and violence still form the prevailing vicious circle, now as in the Soeharto era. Certainly, corruption is no longer centralized and top down, and violence has been transposed from vertical state violence to horizontal conflicts in a quasi-democratic setting. But whereas the twin evils are eroding the nation, religious conflict could split it asunder.
Indonesia got a golden opportunity to make a new beginning when Gus Dur – as Abdurrahman Wahid is popularly known – won the presidency by a miscalculation of the Middle Axis (poros tengah). This Axis was a cynical ploy by some political parties to withhold power from front-runner Megawati. “The Princess and her Mentor”, my headline read in a column for Newsweek magazine. The theme was that although it was a fluke of political maneuvering, the leadership pair could work.
Megawati holds broad mass support from secular nationalists, while Gus Dur led the largest Islamic group in the nation, if not the world. The two were like brother and sister in the last 10 years of resistance against the Soeharto New Order. As the title of the column implies, Sukarno’s eldest daughter was like a princess receiving a political education from Gus Dur, who was seen as her mentor.
Politics is never predictable, so who could predict that not only would the Middle Axis break down, but also the Wahid–Megawati team split up in the political turmoil. Gus Dur would not be subjugated to the political parties in the Parliament, and Megawati could not or would not resist her supporters’ clamors for her to claim the presidency.
All that is history, and now the political map is not quite the same. But the short-lived Wahid presidency left a lasting legacy. Of the many changes Gus Dur promoted, religious and ethnic pluralism stands out. It is embedded in a cradle of peace and moderation that abhorred violence and religious extremism. No mean feat for the leadership of a religious faith, because it required commitment to separation of state and religion.
Most Indonesians do not forget this legacy, but a fringe minority uses the new culture of freedom and tolerance to test the boundaries of discipline that remain in the new political system. By all accounts the national leadership has failed to hold together national discipline and allowed extremists to run rampant. The rudderless tendency is exacerbated by opportunist politicians profiteering from weak national leadership.
The incidents have been coming with increasing frequency and intensity. The suicide bombing in a mosque in late April was only the latest terrorist attack in West Java, where minority sects and churches have also been hit by a recent wave of violence.
In the latest of a string of attacks on the Ahmadiyah group, a mob wreaked havoc at a religious gathering and killed several people. They were allegedly part of a group that set fire to houses, schools and mosques belonging to the Ahmadis who, unlike mainstream Muslims, do not believe Mohammed was the last Prophet.
The increasing attacks on religious minorities show a major deterioration of the situation. The national leadership’s inability or lack of will to confront the crisis is potentially catastrophic. The human rights group Imparsial has recorded dozens of cases in West Java where Ahmadiyah followers were forced to convert to mainstream Islam. Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but rights groups say violence against minorities, including Christians and Ahmadis, has been escalating since 2008.
The response by the central government is disappointing to say the least. The Religious Affairs Ministry came up with the ridiculous excuse that the budget allocation for religious harmony programs was “too small”. I never heard before that religion is dependent on budgets.
While the leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) keeps calling for religious tolerance, some members of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization appear to be moving in the other direction, putting up banners decrying the presence of minority faith groups.
Hope rests in the civil society and traditional groups such as the 40 million-strong NU, which is considered a defender of pluralism. With pressure closing churches and Ahmadiyah mosques, recently the number of churches holding services within malls and office buildings has increased. Ordinary people have also become aware of the Titanic running adrift. They still need to call on the media to pressure the Parliament and President to act.
After all, the captain also went down with the RMS Titanic.