Indonesia: Pluralism and the Fatwa Against Pluralism

Indonesia: Pluralism and the Fatwa Against Pluralism
Diana L. Eck
I spent ten days in late August in Indonesia at the invitation of the U.S. State Department, giving lectures and participating in public forums in connection with the translation of A New Religious America into Indonesian (Amerika Baru Yang Religius, published by Pustaka Sinar Harapan). My visit came at a time of intense public discussion of pluralism in Indonesia and as Director of the Pluralism Project it was a wonderful opportunity both to participate in the discussion and to learn about the shape of these issues in another multireligious democracy. In late July, the Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia,
MUI) issued a fatwa denouncing pluralism, secularism, liberal forms of Islam, along with
interfaith marriage and interfaith prayer. Yet in mid-August, Indonesia celebrated sixty
years of independence as what many would call a pluralist, multireligious, multicultural
state. While Indonesia is often referred to as the world’s most populous Muslim nation, it
is not a Muslim state. It is, rather, a state based on the Panchasila –the basic principles or
values of belief in God, common humanity, the Indonesian nation, democracy, and social
justice. Ten days in Indonesia gave me another glimpse of the many challenges of a
multireligious democracy.
The distinction between religious pluralism as viewed from the standpoint of a particular
religious or theological perspective and religious pluralism as viewed from the standpoint
of civic life was all too often blurred in the discussion, as it is in the United States. After
all, the MUI speaks to the Muslim majority, but not to the Constitutional issues of
Indonesia’s state. However, in Indonesia (more than 80% Muslim) as in America (more
than 80% Christian) there is a strong presumptive normative consciousness of the
majority. The issues addressed by the Pluralism Project in the American context made for
a timely dialogue connecting our work with that of colleagues in Indonesia.
The three book-launch events in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, in Java and Padang in Sumatra
were extremely well organized three hour events that included half hour responses from
two Indonesians scholars and then at least an hour of open-mike public discussion. The
respondents included some of the public intellectuals most actively engaged in the
discussion of pluralism in the Indonesian context, including Azyumardi Azra, the Rector
of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Irwan Abdullah, Director of the Center for
Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and
Shofwan Karim of the Muhammadiya University in Padang. The open discussions were
fascinating and lively too. While I found an almost universal anger at American foreign
policy, which didn’t surprise me, there was also great interest in the American people, in
the discussion of religious pluralism, and especially in the development of Islam in
In addition to the public forums, I also had the opportunity to meet in smaller seminar
settings with students and faculty at Atma Jaya University, a Catholic University in
Jakarta; UIN, the State Islamic University in Jakarta, and the Center for Cross-Cultural
and Religious Studies at Gadjah Mada, the only graduate program in religious studies in
Indonesia I also met with Syafi’i
Anwar of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, a research center that shares many of the
goals of the Pluralism Project. Indeed, developing a relationship with other university
departments and research centers that are working on the issues of religious pluralism is
part of the current international initiative of the Pluralism Project.
The motto of the Indonesian nation is, in some respects, like that of the United States:
“Bhineka Tunggal Ika,” or “Unity in Diversity. The diversity of Indonesia was fully on
display in August, as the nation celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence. The
diversity of cultures and arts was celebrated the first day I was in Jakarta with an
enormous parade of people from all the provinces of Indonesia through the center of the
city, past the Sunday crowds at the curb, past the reviewing stands of government
officials. They were dancers, musicians, and artists, wearing brilliantly hued traditional
dress, body paint, feathers, leaves, and flowers, representing the culture, music, and
dance distinctive to their region.
An Independence Day supplement to The Jakarta Post was titled “Living Diversity” and
included articles on the ongoing struggled to discover what “Unity in Diversity” really
means in Indonesia. One of the lead articles was by Azyumardi Azra, the Rector of the
State Islamic University, calling for a rethinking of religious pluralism from the Islamic
point of view, looking closely at the Qur’an as a text that “establishes the legitimacy of
differences, diversity, and pluralism.” There were also personal stories of pluralism,
written in the real lives of Indonesians, such as the story of a woman whose mother is
Balinese Hindu and father is Muslim who is married to a man who is Chinese Indonesian
Catholic. Their child, little Nayanda, was born with a Muslim prayer whispered in her ear
and Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim grandparents looking on. And there were heart
breaking stories of the devastating communal violence between Muslims and Christians
in Poso in Central Sulawesi and in Ambon in the province of Maluku, stories in which
neighbors have become enemies overnight. The editors entitled their own comment
“Pluralism: Beyond Unity in Diversity.” “We all need to build the bridges that somehow
connect us in spite of our differences,” they wrote, “If we want to go one step beyond
unity in diversity, pluralism is the way forward.”
While the fatwa condemns “pluralism,” it also seems to have an understanding of
pluralism which views all religions as essentially the same, equally valid and with
relative truths. The Fatwa Commission chairman Ma’ruf Amin, was quoted in The
Jakarta Post (July 29) as saying, “Pluralism in that sense is haram (forbidden under
Islamic law), because it justifies other religions.” Maruf added that people should be
allowed to claim that their religion is the true one and that other faiths are wrong.
However, he stressed that the council accepted the fact that Indonesia was home to
different religions and that their followers could live side by side. “Plurality in the sense
that people believe in different religions is allowed,” Ma’ruf explained. “As such, we have
to respect each other and coexist peacefully.” In one sense, then, the fatwa condemns
attitudes and ways of thinking it defines only vaguely and negatively –such as pluralism,
secularism, and liberalism. It is not surprising that many respected Indonesian leaders
have responded with stinging critique to the fatwa, including former president
Abdurrahman Wahid, Azyumardi Azra of the State Islamic University, and Ulil Abshar
Abdalla of the Liberal Islamic Network
In my own view, of course, pluralism is not at all premised on the equal truth or validity
of all religious perspectives and traditions. It is not premised on the idea that all religions
are the same, not at all. The language of pluralism is not the language of sameness, nor is
it simply the language of difference, but it is the language of dialogue. Pluralism is not
about erasing differences, but about engaging differences in the creating of a common
society. The language of pluralism is the language of traffic, exchange, dialogue, and
debate. From a civic standpoint, it is the language any democracy needs in order to
survive. From a religious or theological standpoint, it is the language of faith, held not in
isolation from those of other faiths, but in relation to them.
Another set of discussions and conversations focused on the ways in which “religion” is
recognized by the state in Indonesia and in the U.S. In the U.S., there is no officially
recognized religion, aside from the recognition of the Internal Revenue Service for tax
purposes and the multitude of ways in which ceremonial civic recognition has become
more complex and inclusive –such as Muslim invocations in legislatures and Iftar fast-
breaking meals in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Indonesia, in the compromises
worked out at the time of its independence, recognized five religions — Islam, Hinduism,
Buddhism, Protestant Christianity, and Catholic Christianity. This arrangement has led to
countless issues that even a government Department of Religious Affairs (Agama is the
term used) has not been able to solve. Is Confucianism a “religion?” Javanese traditional
practice? Must a Sikh be officially a Hindu? What about the Ahmadiyyas who call
themselves Muslim but are the focus of another fatwa of the MUI, which insists they are
not? What happens when a Muslim marries a Catholic? What “religion” is listed on the
child’s national identity card? Is it possible not to have a “religion?” As I often told
Indonesian audiences, we have no Department of Religion in the United States
government, but we do have Departments of Religion in virtually every college and
It is not only, of course, that religion can be, and should be, a subject of study, but
religious pluralism is also an important subject of study. How is it that complex,
multireligious societies negotiate the issues of religious difference? This brief and very
stimulating visit to Indonesia made clear to me that the issues of religious pluralism can
benefit from comparative study.

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