God, T-Shirts and Tolerance in Indonesia

By webadmin on 09:15 am Aug 23, 2011
Category Archive

Achmad Munjid

A couple of years ago, the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia began printing mind-teasing slogans like “Tuhan, agama Mu apa?” (“God, what is your religion?”) on T-shirts and stickers. The group’s goal in producing these items with eye-catching phrases was to deliver a serious message.

The organization, known as Interfidei, tries to find clever ways of waking up Indonesians and warning them of the dangers of religious sectarianism and intolerance.

Many share Interfidei’s concerns and have been undertaking similar initiatives for the cause.

Religious sectarianism, which began rising in the waning years of the Suharto era, is getting worse under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s weak leadership. Look at the persecution of the Ahmadis, church bannings and burnings, the strong presence of radicalism and terrorism in the country, the edicts against pluralism by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and so on.

Almost all research and reports evaluating religious life under the current administration come to similar conclusions: tolerance is being eroded.

This past June in Solo, a group of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members forced a young man who was wearing a “God, what is your religion?” T-shirt to take it off in public. He was labeled an unbeliever and accused of committing blasphemy. Predictably, the police sided with the FPI. Rejecting the accusations, the man faces possible legal charges.

Indonesia is not Malaysia, where some fanatics claim that Allah (the Arabic word for “God”) belongs only to Muslims. In fact, this “God’s religion” question is only moderately radical. So, what makes some people so jealous about their God?

There is ample room for everyone to engage in theological debate in order to answer the “God’s religion” question. Such passionate discussions have been going on in classrooms, in private conversations and on the Internet. In my opinion, however, it is more interesting not to answer the question, but to unveil the bigger question behind it.

With even an elementary grasp of theology, everyone should understand that it is naive to identify or even talk about God’s religion. It doesn’t make any sense. The fact that some people are troubled by this nonsensical question speaks volumes about what’s going on in society.

I would argue that this is a symptom of a nervous society.

Amid global economic uncertainties and domestic unemployment, we are bombarded by all kind of commodities, from Chinese cellphones to Korean hairstyles to American junk food. We watch Indian movies, get pitches from Middle Eastern Wahhabis and encounter cybergames and pornography. With corruption on constant display and politicians uninspiring, many people get lost, feel frustrated and become alienated.

This was the situation that gave rise to the FPI a decade ago, and it is still our reality today.

Religion is supposed to create peace and give enlightenment, but in the hands of paranoid people like the FPI, it is turned into an instrument of punishment aimed at various “others” in order to gain some sort of upper hand in this nervous society. For years, the holy month of Ramadan has been turned into an annual ritual of street raids for the FPI in some cities.

Under the FPI paradigm, difference is seen as dangerous. Anything new, uncommon or critical of the familiar is perceived as a threat. The other, especially a minority group, is always an easy target when tensions run high.

Theoretically, it is the government’s responsibility to take care of these things. But unfortunately our current government is too weak even to take care of itself. We were oppressed for decades under the Suharto regime. Now we are ignored by the image-oriented leadership of the current administration.

It would seem that if you are poor and weak in this society, the government can do almost nothing for you. When it comes to seeking opportunity, protection from intolerance, a better education or help from law enforcement, forget it.

Amid all the noise and the crowds of our society, many people feel all alone, as if they were stuck in the middle of big-city traffic.

How should we understand that the brutal killers in the Cikeusik Ahmadiyah tragedy were jailed for just a few months? How can the Bogor mayor ignore the Indonesian Ombudsman and the Supreme Court in the dispute over a church in his city? How can the police allow the FPI in Solo to do as they please over a T-shirt?

I am not writing this to make people feel even more hopeless. There are many groups and individuals, inspired by true religious piety, local wisdom, traditional asceticism or other reasons, who share these concerns and want to work together to overcome this collective confusion.

Regardless of what the government is doing, especially on issues related to religious life, all elements of society, NGOs, educational institutions, religious leaders, intellectuals, artists, activists and ordinary people need to work together to take care of ourselves.

Our challenge under the New Order was to empower civil society against the all-powerful state. Today, our challenge is how to empower civil society in the face of a powerless state.

Together we should stand up against sectarianism and any divisive force that would sow disunity in this great pluralistic nation. We must not let any group abuse the state for its own interest, whether in the name of religion, ideology, the majority or anything else. Our principal values and essential power lies in how we manage diversity in order to allow meaningful and peaceful coexistence for all Indonesians.

The Solo T-shirt incident may seem a small thing but it speaks to us on two levels: first, about the dangers and consequences of religious sectarianism and second, about the need to wake up and combat sectarian divisions using all the tools and media at our disposal.

By taking care of ourselves, by building a stronger civil society and maybe even by wearing a T-shirt, we can help our country.

It is extremely important that every member of every religious community helps one another remain human and live together in peace.

If we do that, perhaps we can understand God.


Achmad Munjid is president of Nahdlatul Ulama Community in North America.