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).
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.