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 Oct 21, 2012 10:12 PDT 

From Joyo

op-ed: Indonesia’s Interfaith Dialogue and the Reality Of Religious
Minorities’ Neglected Aspirations

October 18, 2012

The Jakarta Globe
Aleksius Jemadu

Over the last few years Indonesia has been quite active in promoting
interfaith dialogue as a mechanism to address the issue of religious
conflict in society. Not only has it become a policy priority of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but on many occasions the Indonesian
government underlines the importance of such practices. In fact,
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono touched on that issue again when he
gave a speech at the UN General Assembly recently.

However, it is not yet clear whether or not series of interfaith
dialogues that have been organized by the government have had any real
impact in terms of religious tolerance in our society. The question
becomes all the more relevant if we juxtapose the government’s
enthusiasm for interfaith dialogue with the reality of unresolved
issues — like the future of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor. This
congregation has been repeatedly disappointed by empty promises made
by government officials. Or look at the fate of the Shiite Muslims who
still live as refugees in the temporary shelter in Sampang, Madura, or
the basic rights of the Ahmadiyah followers who are forced to live
under constant fear and intimidation by the radical groups throughout
the country. No wonder the Indonesian government has been criticized
by the US government and international human rights NGOs for its
failure to protect the basic rights of various religious minorities.

While we have to appreciate the government’s initiative to provide a
forum where religious leaders can get to know each other and exchange
views in a constructive manner, there is also the suspicion that
interfaith dialogues will only serve certain vested interests of the
political elite. The government’s apparent reluctance or
powerlessness in curbing the anarchic and violent activities of
religious radicals has tarnished its legitimacy and reputation not
only in the eyes of its own people but also of the international
community. Because there is so much political risk in getting tough on
the radical groups, the government has chosen to play it safe by
organizing or sponsoring various forms of interfaith dialogue.

Thus, instead of addressing the root of interreligious disharmony in
society, the government has used interfaith dialogue as a political
disclaimer that it has done its job to mediate between different
religious groups.

In the lead-up to the 2014 general elections, it is expected that
political parties will be tempted to mobilize religious sentiment in
order to increase their popularity. During Soeharto’s rule it was a
normal practice to pit one religious group against another to weaken
opposition against the government.

Political scientists have tried to explain why any transition from an
authoritarian regime to democracy in many developing countries like
Indonesia is always characterized by a significant rise of
interreligious disharmony or even conflict.

One explanation that is quite relevant for Indonesia is given by
Michael Brown in his 1996 book titled “The International Dimensions
of Internal Conflict.” He says tough competition for political power
and economic appropriation in new democracies has created
opportunities for pragmatic politicians to mobilize religious
sentiment in order to secure power domination or change of the status
quo. Thus, the root of the problem of religious conflict has much to
do with the standard character of our political leaders who tend to
politicize religion for short-term gains and refuse to take the
trouble of working hard to win people’s sympathy.

If the government does not go beyond the sponsorship of interfaith
dialogue and at the same time neglects its constitutional obligation
to protect the rights of religious minorities, then we have to
question the real motive behind such policy. There is a good reason to
believe that the proclamation of this interfaith dialogue policy in
government’s policy documents is not free from the operation of
power and domination. It is as if interfaith dialogue is all that is
needed to maintain the cohesiveness of our nation.

Defending the rights of minority groups may not be an attractive
option for our political leaders if they only think about how to gain
as much electoral power as possible. However, in the long run, as the
voters become more enlightened such politicians will be selected out
in the process of electoral competition. Regardless of their numerical
significance, each one of the religious groups in society should be
treated as legitimate seekers of justice and fairness. Otherwise the
principle of unity in diversity upon which we build this nation would
become meaningless.

Aleksius Jemadu is dean of the School of Social and Political Sciences
at Universitas Pelita Harapan (UPH) in Karawaci.

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