“Our ideal is that all people should appreciate the religions as a grace and not a threat”

 On 17 April this year Indonesia elected its new president.Ever since the country adopted democracy in 1998, it has been a clear example of the separation between religion and State. However, the political situation in Indonesia depends totally on the inclusion of Islam, and this is a key question in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Any change in policy could endanger the stability of a country that continues to suffer periodic attacks by Islamist fundamentalists.

The accommodation of Islam, the religion of 87 percent of the Indonesian people, within the (future) Indonesian state was in fact a key question from the very beginning of the national movement. Indonesia solved this question in an admirable way in 1945, one day after declaring independence, by introducing the concept of Pancasila, the ‘five principles’ on which Indonesia based herself[1]. Pancasila was the national consensus that Indonesia belonged to all Indonesians, thus that all Indonesians were equally in full measure citizens of Indonesia.

Maria Lozano, of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) interviewed Father Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit of German origin who now has Indonesian nationality, having lived in the country since 1961. In the interview, Father Magnis-Suseno, who has a profound knowledge of the religions in Indonesia, explains the situation in the country after the elections and expresses optimism about the spirit of national unity, defended by the democratic system in the country based on the doctrine of Pancasila.

 Since you’ve been living in that country for almost 60 years, would you please tell us how the country has evolved since your arrival ?
The most obvious development was, of course, the rise of Islam as the most important factor in Indonesian politics. The doctrine of Pancasila meant that Islam did not demand a special position in the Indonesian constitutional framework. In the first 20 years, under President Sukarno, nationalism was the decisive orientation of Indonesian politics. And for the first 20 years, under the New Order system of President Suharto (1966-1998), Islam was kept on a short leash. But at the same time Suharto promoted Islamic piety and practice (as an antidote against communism). Only during the 90s were people with strong Islamic identities given positions in Suharto’s system.

All this changed after the democratic opening following the fall of Suharto in 1998. While politicians with strong Islamic identities were leading Indonesia to become a Pancasila-based democracy – which it is to this day – Islamic extremism used the democratic opening to come out into the open. New, Islam-based political parties were founded (they were only moderately successful, together never getting more than 33 percent of the popular vote). In all political decisions, however, “Islam” had to be taken into account. The Islamic mainstream, represented by the two big civil society organizations, NadlatulUlama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, came under pressure from radical and extremist movements (like HizbutTahrir) which demanded a more shariah-based Indonesia. They were often accommodated through local regulations based on shariah. Muhammadiyah and NU clearly stated as their position that a Pancasila-based democracy was to remain Indonesia’s definitive political organization. But it was also clear that whatever happened in Indonesia had at the same time to be acceptable to Islam.

Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ from Jakarta, Indonesia, during a visit at ACN International Headquarter, 29th September 2014.

Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ from Jakarta, Indonesia, during a visit at ACN International Headquarter, 29th September 2014.

In this context, how do you interpret the results of the most recent elections?

The support of mainstream Islam for the moderate politics that have been the sign of Indonesia’s leadership for the last 20 years is the great stabilizing factor. It is clear that Indonesia’s future will be determined by Indonesian Islam, but the results of the last elections give hope that the moderate, Pancasila-based form of Islam will be decisive. This means that Indonesia’s democracy, based on human rights (as rooted in the amended constitution after 1998) and with a high degree of religious freedom, has an excellent chance of being consolidated in the future.

Does this mean that the re-election of President Jokowi is good news for the stability of the country?
Jokowi has received a mandate as President of Indonesia for the next five years. This means that Indonesians – not only those that voted for him – expect first of all a continuation of his careful, ideologically low profile, inclusive leadership. They expect that economic growth will continue. They hope that he will do still more to end poverty (now at an all-time low of 9% of the population) and provide the conditions that the 50% of Indonesians living just above the poverty line, in a very different world to the upper 40%, can improve so that their children may hope for a better future. They expect moderate pro-Islamic policies that make Muslims feel that he holds them close to his heart, against slanders that he is anti-Islam, communist, etc. His vice-president, Mar’uf Amin, a Muslim cleric, should guarantee this. They want him to continue his inclusive policies, giving minorities security and confidence, thus fulfilling the hope of the religious minorities that tolerance and freedom of religion will strengthen.

How are Catholics and Christians living in Indonesia?
Under Indonesia’s first President Sukarno (1945-1967) there was almost complete religious freedom, thus Christians faced no discrimination. On principle this did not change under Indonesia’s second President Suharto (1968-1998). In 1967 there were some attacks against Christian churches in South Sulawesi that were quickly suppressed, but this led to strict regulations making the building of churches much more difficult. Attacks against Christian churches in five cities in 1996 and 1997 foreshadowed growing internal tensions in Indonesia. The democratic opening after the fall of Suharto (1998) brought lingering intolerance into the open. It also marked the entrance of radical Islam into public awareness, with a terrorist bombing at the great Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta. At Christmas 2000 more than 30 bombs exploded within 60 minutes at churches across the country, from North Sumatra to Lombok, spanning 2000 km, which were never really investigated

Overall, Christians are still completely free, they live, communicate and worship without difficulties as small minorities on Java, Sumatra and other places, they still baptize people from other religions, including Muslims. But the building of churches is difficult and there have been some terrorist attacks on churches and other instances of intolerance.

How are relations with the other religions?
The remarkable fact is that relations between Catholics and mainstream Protestants and mainstream Muslims have never been as good as they are now. 60 years ago we Christians had practically no relations at all with “real” Muslims. But this began to change during the 70s. Now relations between Christian and Muslim intellectuals, between most Catholic bishops and their Muslim counterparts, between many parishes and parish priests and local Muslims leaders have become close and trusting. When facing difficulties we can directly speak with Muslims. After the terrorist attacks in Yogyakarta and Surabaya Muslim students immediately came to the churches and helped clean the floors of blood and debris. At the Christmas and Easter Masses many churches are protected by Banser, the militias of NadlatulUlama, the biggest Muslim civil society organization on earth. One of the reasons is that mainstream Islam itself feels under attack by extremist and radical ideologies and regards us as allies.

Indonesia, March 2014 - Holy Mass in Lopa village, Flores island. Priests making a sign of the cross on peoples' foreheads. Ash Wednesday.

Indonesia, March 2014 – Holy Mass in Lopa village, Flores island. Priests making a sign of the cross on peoples’ foreheads. Ash Wednesday.

Does that mean that there is also an interreligious dialogue?
The interreligious dialogue in Indonesia is quite intense. Both between intellectuals and religious leaders. This interreligious dialogue is not about our respective religious teachings, but about how we can overcome lingering intolerance, how religion, state and politics in Indonesia should relate to each other within our constitutional framework, how to face religious – mostly Islamic – extremism, about the misuse of the existing anti-blasphemy law, about the situation of religious communities not belonging to the six officially recognized religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism) – such as the Shiites, Achmadis, the local and indigenous religious communities; about our ideal that religions should be experienced as grace by all (rahmatanlilalamin) and not as a threat, that hatred and violence should have no place in religion.

People sometimes speak of “Islamic populism”. What does this phrase mean?
Islamic populism came first out in false circumstances in 2017 when a careless remark by Basuki Cahaya Purnama (Ahok), the Christian Governor of Jakarta who is of Chinese extraction, was falsified and made to appear as if he had insulted the Qur’an – which provided his enemies with the hoped-for opportunity to mobilize Islamic feelings against him. Ahok lost the subsequent local elections and was sentenced to two years in prison (he has now been released). But with Ahok in prison, the populist bubble lost steam. Maybe a so atypical figure as Ahok was culturally 100 years too early for Indonesia (remember, the US needed 160 years before the first Catholic could become President). By naming a soft Islamist as his vice-presidential candidate, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has succeeded in softening up Islamist populism. Several attempts to revive it did fail and in the last elections populism did not play a role. If Jokowi succeeds in accommodating pluralist mainstream Islam, he will hopefully succeed in isolating Islamic radicalism and solidify a pluralist, human rights-based democratic development.

Do you know what happened to Ahok? Is he still in prison?
Ahok was released from prison last January, three months before his two years’ sentence was over. His release went almost unnoted. His has joined the PDIP, the party of Jokowi, lead by Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputeri, but, listening to good advice from his friends, has completely kept out of public view (which was important for Jokowi before the elections). There is no sign yet, whether, or how he might re-enter politics after Jokowi’s victory becomes official (which is not the case until May 22). Ahok has still a strong, dedicated following, particularly among young Indonesians.

[1]Belief in One God; A just and civilized humanity;Indonesia’s Unity;People’s power, or: orientation to the people, (i.e. Democracy, led by the guidance of wisdom in common deliberation/representation); Social justice for the whole Indonesian people

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