Pluralism as a Hard Fact of History

Thursday, February 11th, 2010, 03:59 WIB


First of all I would like to highly appreciate Professor Reid’s comprehensive approach to the topic of our discussion this morning. As an experienced, productive, and prolific historian, Reid is really the man who has an undisputed authority when talking about anything Asian, and more particularly, Indonesian socio-political history. However, instead of searching "religious unity", I prefer to use the term "religious harmony and tolerance, " as I will elaborate further.

Why pluralism?

The term "religious unity, " as employed by Professor Reid, sounds rather pantheistic to me, as if we hesitate to recognize the fact of the unique characteristic of each religion. From the moral point of view, of course, almost all religions share similarities, rather than differences. No religion for instance that tolerates its disciple to steal, to make disaster on earth, to despise others because of their racial-historical background. As to the concept of pluralism, only the shortsighted persons who try to ignore it, because pluralism has been a hard fact of history since antiquity, though in certain periods of history, there have been kings, sultans, presidents, and other authoritarian rulers introducing and imposing uniformity rather than plurality.

But this anti pluralism policy could not last long, because it undermined man’s rights of freedom of expression which is perennial in nature. Not only in dealing with religions, the fact of pluralism is also found in socio-political and cultural expressions. To deny this fact means to deny reality. The one who denies reality is the one who tries to live in a cultural illusive void. Even democracy has different forms, and liberal democracy is only one form as practiced in Western Europe, or particularly in the U.S.A. The democratic political system basically recognizes the principle of diversity, not unity, in its implementation in different parts of the world. Therefore, those who want to impose the system of liberal democracy as the only choice for all nations are no doubt anti democratic, since democracy gives freedom to all people to adjust and articulate it in accordance with the reality of their socio-cultural environments. True democracy always tolerates plurality.

In Indonesia, of course, there are few Muslims who not only out-rightly condemn pluralism because they totally misunderstand it, but democracy for them is alien in Islam. In term of religion, they are in the opinion that pluralism is the belief that all religions are the same, and one can interchange it at will and at any time, like one changes his/her coat. Contemporary Indonesia has also witnessed the polemics on this issue. In my response to the view saying that pluralism is a danger to Islam, I wrote recently: "It has been said that with pluralism one will be free to change one’s religion at will (semau gue). If this truly happens, I will enlist my name to stand up as an avant-garde to challenge it. " Faith is too serious and deep to be played off. This misunderstanding has to some extent created the two poles of Indonesian Islam, but the mainstream as represented by Muhammadiyah and Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) is for pluralism.

In my interpretation of some verses of the Qur’an, human beings should not only live side by side with their co-religionists peacefully, even with atheists, as long as they respect each other, have no intention, deliberately or secretly, to eliminate each other, a harmony and social tolerance should be the bounding norm of the daily life. The social fabric in this small earth planet will be broken down into pieces, if harmony and tolerance suddenly disappear. The Qur’an says: "And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them together. So will you (O Muhammad s.a.w.) then compel mankind, until they become believers. It is not for any person to believe, except by the Leave of Allah, and He will put the wrath on those who are heedless. "

I think the Qur’an is the most tolerant Holy Scripture as far as we can trace in human history, although some Muslims in certain places and periods of time did not necessarily follow the dictum of the Book. Those who claim to have the right to monopolize the absolute truth automatically enter into the category of narrow-minded and parochial people. Pancasila as the philosophy of Indonesian state that opens its door to pluralism has been accepted by the absolute majority of the people. This has ensured that any idea to have a theocratic state in Indonesia is absurd. In term of the problem of the philosophical basis of the state, the political climate in this country has changed dramatically, if compared to the situation in the year of 1945 or in the 1950s during which the debate of the state philosophy was truly lengthy and heated.

The future of pluralism in Indonesia

I share consciously Professor Reid’s optimism that pluralism in Indonesia has "a very secure base of history as well as ideology. " Something that has been deep-rooted in history, would last long for sure, although in certain times a politico-religious authoritarianism attempted to uproot it, but such an effort would undoubtedly end in vain. From this perspective, there is no any solid evidence to fear that Indonesia is no longer conducive place to become a center of inter-religious studies and laboratory. The emergence of extreme radical and militant groups with their suicide bombings seems to me as a temporary phenomenon. Once Indonesia is able to overcome its domestic socio-economic acute problems, religious uncivilized radicalism (terrorism) will have no corner in this country to survive forever. Indonesia is too big to surrender to any terrorist persuasion. In other words, a peaceful pluralism was, is, and will be the future of Indonesia. Otherwise, this nation may move gradually but surely to enter the museum of history. Or, in other words, Indonesia will become non-existent in the map of the world. Of course, there is no one of normal people in this country who ever thinks about this gloomy possibility.

To sum up

Finally, the process of penetration pacifique, tolerant, et constructive as the main characteristic of Islam when entering the archipelago centuries in the past has only confirmed one thing, that is, the peaceful nature of this religion, much more distinctive from what happened in other parts of the world, North Africa or South Asia, for example. Therefore, the problem facing Indonesia is not a religious tolerance or intolerance, but the behavior of few people to hijack God for political and worldly a-moral interests. This phenomenon is not the monopoly of Indonesia, but it may happen in other nations, when religion does not function authentically and properly as the moral guidance for mankind at large.

Jogjakarta, Feb. 8, 2007