Indonesian scholar fights for religious minority rights

"There is freedom of religion in this country, but unfortunately religious freedom tends to be a source of conflict among Indonesia's religious groups," Dawam Rahardjo says.

By Yosita Nirbhaya for Khabar Southeast Asia in Jakarta

April 30, 2014
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Scholar Dawam Rahardjo won the 2013 Yap Thiam Hien Award for championing the rights of Indonesia's religious minorities. An economist by training, Dawam headed the All-Indonesia Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) from 1995 to 2000, and currently leads the Institute of Religious and Philosophical Studies (LSAF).

  • Islam in Indonesia is fundamentally non-radical, says Muslim intellectual Dawam Rahardjo. [Yosita Nirbhaya/Khabar]

    Islam in Indonesia is fundamentally non-radical, says Muslim intellectual Dawam Rahardjo. [Yosita Nirbhaya/Khabar]

In an interview with Khabar Southeast Asia, Dawam recalls challenges he has faced as an advocate of tolerance, and shares his thoughts about religious freedom.

Khabar: What does freedom of religion mean to you?

Dawam: Equality and tolerance are two main keys to religious freedom. Indonesia is more than 80% Muslim but it has diverse religions and beliefs. This is captured in its constitution, "believe in the divinity of God".

There is freedom of religion in this country, but unfortunately religious freedom tends to be a source of conflict among Indonesia's religious groups.

Khabar: If freedom of religion exists in Indonesia, why is there religious conflict?

Dawam: It is because of the lack of communication between the religious groups.

There is a separation between them that often leads to misunderstandings, so it is important to build an open, respectful dialogue. That is what I have been fighting for all this time, by myself or through my organisation.

However … my outspoken approach has drawn threats and intimidation. I was fired from Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organisation, for defending the Ahmadiyah group, whose practices were denounced in 2006 as deviant from Islam.

Khabar: Recently, religious conflict tends to happen in Java. Why?

Dawam: Religious conflict in West Java targeted the Ahmadiyah group while the religious conflict in East Java has targeted the Shia group the past few years. Saudi Arabia, which is dominated by Sunni Islam, is funding a number of local organisations to influence the Muslim community and limit the ability of both Shia and Ahmadiyah to grow.

The Indonesian government is not brave enough to stop those interventions because Indonesia is dependent upon Saudi Arabia for the Hajj to Mecca and the employment of Indonesian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

Khabar: What does the world need to know about Islam in Indonesia?

Dawam: There are many interpretations of Islam, ranging from fundamentalism and conservatism to liberal and traditional. Islam in Indonesia is not radical.

The fundamentalist group is in the minority, but they are brazen enough to speak out with their actions. However, sometimes we have to wonder whether they understand what they are doing, because some of them are being paid to join demonstrations, and they do not understand why they are there.

Khabar: What is the root of Indonesian radicalism?

Dawam: Radicalism is triggered by poverty. Fundamentalist groups allegedly pay poor people to perpetrate religious attacks to alter public perception.

Those poor people do not support the issue being protested; they just care about being paid. If the economic problem were fixed, the growth of radicalism would slow down or even stop. But that is a big homework assignment for the government.

Reader Comments
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    • Nahason
      June 26, 2014 @ 03:06:02AM
    • A wise person would usually convey their opinions with theoretical arguments that are comprehensive, not narrow. We must set our sights far ahead, not behind. Community and equality must be maintained through tolerance and positive thinking among the people. The founders of this nation were far wiser and smarter for formulating the 1945 Constitution and Pancasila as the foundations for the country. For Indonesia to progress, one thing must be done first by the leader, and that is upholding the 1945 Constitution. Why is that so hard? This is so that the interests of particular groups/faiths will never take priority. Two finger salute.
    • yusri abdi
      May 27, 2014 @ 11:05:57AM
    • Religious freedom must be maintained, but not for the Shia movement which has appropriated the principle and manipulated it to change it or to make people convert to Shia.
    • gading
      May 21, 2014 @ 10:05:00PM
    • But when we talk about culture and history we must remember that back in the days of Sriwijaya and Majapahit (the largest kingdoms that have ever existed in Indonesia) the Hindus and Buddhists lived side by side. So, Indonesia, from a historical standpoint, must also respect Hinduism and Buddhism, please understand this.
    • Gus Ud
      May 4, 2014 @ 06:05:03AM
    • The thing that creates conflict in our society: when political and economical interests start using religious slogans.
    • asamson
      April 30, 2014 @ 10:04:20AM
    • Let's not get into too much theory. If you wish to fight for minorities, it's easy, restore Islam to be in line with the culture and history of this country, that is, the sultanates (the bloodline of the Prophet who are righteous, trustworthy, who spread the word of Allah and intelligent). The non-Muslims will automatically be protected because it is fair and wise. Islam is complete and included within are education, social values, virtue, economy, strategy/politics etc. Do not equate religion with social, political, moral and economic principles but rather it encompasses everything. Islamic professionalism is not the professionalism we know today which caters to desire and human rights which follows human laws and human desire. Human rights should adhere to the culture and history of the country which is Islam, etc. The system in this country can be summed up in an analogy: it is a person who is human from their neck to their toes but has a robot for a head made by the US which can be either replaced every five years or kept through democracy (a plot) of quantity in order to get rid of the true leaders who have certain traits and have been ordained by Allah SWT. We should select leaders from those who have been approved by Allah from our hearts and we can elect the best leader through democracy of quality. Therefore, we can have a true leader and not one with a robot head that cannot feel the pain and suffering that happens from the neck down because the head and brain is created by humans (the US).

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