The deadly Banten clash between right-wing Muslims and followers of the Ahmadiyah sect may have shocked many, yet in light of what had been brewing between the two groups, it should come as little surprise. It serves as further evidence, in a country where obtaining an ID card or opening a new bank account requires stating your religious affiliation, that Indonesia is a nation unhealthily obsessed with religions.
This obsession goes back a long way, at least five centuries ago, when the Majapahit empire crumbled in the face of resurgent Islamic kingdoms.
The religious conflict escalated as the fight for Java’s soul continued into the 16th century with the older Shiva-Buddha followers either converting to Islam or retreating into the last bastion of Majapahit, the island of Bali.
It must have been such a chaotic time that everyone seemed to be caught off guard when European nations, bent on colonialism, suddenly appeared on the horizon.
The various new Islamic kingdoms, failing to maintain the unity that Majapahit had before them, one by one capitulated to the Portuguese and then the Dutch.
As the powers of the Islamic aristocracy waned, the religious obsession continued unabated well into the Dutch colonial days, especially as the religious factions found a new common enemy in European-educated Marxist intellectuals such as Tan Malaka.
It was then when the first modern Indonesian political landscape was formed, a marshland divided between nationalist, Islamic and communist groups.
Before the declaration of independence, the flame of discord reignited when our founding fathers discussed what were to be the nation’s guiding principles.
When Sukarno presented the five principles of Pancasila, heated arguments erupted, especially concerning the article about divinity, which later became “belief in the one and only God.”
At first, Sukarno formulated this article almost as an afterthought — it was originally “ketuhanan yang berkebudayaan” (divinity based on cultural traditions), and as the last, not the first article of Pancasila.
Faced with pious protests from the religious factions, the last article in the end became the first, but not before its wording became another source of bickering.
The Islamic faction at first demanded that the article contain an injunction for Muslim Indonesians to adhere to Shariah law but the others objected.
The word Allah was rejected by the Hindus because of its bias toward Semitic religions, and hence dropped in favor of the more native word of “tuhan.” The Muslims, as even voiced by today’s right-wing Islamic groups, have resented this ever since.
In complete non-repentance, further wrangling occurred when it was time to design the country’s Coat of Arms.
Sultan Hamid II of Pontianak first submitted the Garuda Yaksa, an ancient native symbol of a Vishnu-incarnate king, to the consternation of the Islamic faction which rose up in arms, claiming that the symbol was too mythological and biased toward Hinduism.
In the end, a compromise was patched and the current design of Garuda Pancasila took shape.
The “divinity” article of Pancasila, represented by a five-pointed star, took central position in the center of the shield on the eagle’s chest, superimposed on the other four.
During his presidency, Sukarno also had to juggle the potentially explosive fireballs of religion.
Caught between secularism and religious fervor of the populace, he even tried a compromise when he expounded his Nasakom (Nationalist, Religious and Communist) doctrine, again emphasizing the need for the three major forces to work together for the benefit of the nation.
But it was not to be.
The 1965 Communist purge — or coup, depending on one’s point of view — saw the bloody persecution of communists, socialists and other secularists by religious groups.
We may now see Nahdlatul Ulama as a moderate Islamic force but back in 1965 several organizations under NU such as its youth wing Ansor, took part in the purge.
Some one million Indonesians lost their lives. President Suharto probably realized the extent of destructive power religion could unleash, and decided to regulate it.
Enforcing Pancasila with rigor, he suppressed hard-line Islamic groups with determination unmatched so far by today’s administration.
When Reformasi swept Suharto from power in 1998, the aftermath was predictable.
It was as if, after being silenced for more than three decades, all the pent-up forces of Islamic right-wingers rematerialized with a vengeance.
It is thus ironic that our democracy has made the reincarnation of such an anti-democratic group possible.
Henceforth, it has sought to redefine Indonesia, aided by successive governments eager to avoid offending the Muslim constituents.
Since Reformasi, we have seen more and more Indonesian women take up the jilbab (headscarf).
We have seen acts of terrorism committed in the name of religion. The entertainment industry has to fake non-existence during Ramadan just to please the whims of the fanatical.
Pancasila, our final vanguard against religious extremism, is on its last legs. Perhaps, six decades ago, when our founding fathers decided to superimpose the religious star on the other four symbols on the Garuda shield, they unwittingly sealed our fate.
The move has proved to be sadly prophetic.
As the country’s history shows from time to time, religious matters continue to override other issues.
Religion has turned out to be a force of fragmentation, as well as obstruction against our own desire to realize the other four fundamental principles: Just and Civilized Humanity, Unity, Democracy and Social Justice.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.