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September 7 2015 09:30 | National History Museum

Contribution from Siti Musdah Mulia

Siti Musdah Mulia

Representative of the “Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace”


The major problems faced by people with religion in this era of globalization is religion-based conflict and violence, both internally as well as between congregations of different religions. This has awakened the realization in human beings all over the world, including Indonesia, of the urgency for a new set of values that stem from the principle of respect for human dignity and act as the common ground to create a more humanistic and democratic civilization. These universal humanitarian values were finally actualized in the concept of Human Rights.

The Human Rights concept leads us to a moralistic demand on how to treat other human beings. This moral obligation is basically the essence of all religious teachings. For all religions teach us the importance of mutual respect and honour, without distinction or discrimination whatsoever. All religions basically require that humans become more human. This is needed mostly to protect vulnerable people or an oppressed  group (in Islamic term called al-mustadh'afin) from cruelty that usually comes from those in powers or from majority groups.

One of the important principle of human rights is religious freedom, and in Indonesia’s context, the principle of religious freedom is clearly founded on the 1945 Indonesia’s Constitution and it several national laws. It is also very important to note  that religious freedom can only be enforced in a society that upholds principles pluralism and actively conduct inter-religious dialogues. Pluralism is the willingness to recognize differences and accept diversity as a natural force in life to subsequently be committed to build solidarity and cooperation for the sake of peace and harmony. Pluralism must be built upon a principle of love, caring, compassion, equality and the recognition of human dignity. Pluralism urges for the fulfilment of human rights.

It is hard to deny that World War II has left a terrifying mark on civilization. This has awakened the realization in human beings all over the world of the urgency for a new set of values with universal impact that are more accommodative towards humanistic values. The universal values that stem from the principle of respect for human dignity and act as our common stepping stone to create a more humanistic and democratic civilization.

After a long journey through the course of history, these universal humanitarian values were finally actualized in the concept of the Basic Human Rights.  Human Rights is a concept of modern political ethics based on the central idea of respect and honour for humans and humanity.

The Human Rights concept is entrenched in respect for humans as worthy beings with dignity without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, gender, nationality, language, or religion. As dignified beings, humans are entitled to some very basic rights, such as the right to life, to voice an opinion, to associate freely and to embrace a religion or faith. The values of Human Rights teach us that these rights must be protected and venerated. On the other hand, they also remind us that, on the other side of our rights, there are some basic obligations than all humans must observe, as individuals as well as citizens.

Human Rights teach us the principles of justice, equality and freedom for humans so that there will no longer be discrimination, exploitation or violence against human being in any form whatsoever and that the fundamental rights of human beings should not be restricted or constrained in any way whatsoever. However, we also need to note that no freedom for humans is absolute. This is because in practice, freedom is always restrained by freedom of others. Respect and honour for human dignity that is the fundamental basis for Human Rights should prevent human beings from thinking and behaving in a greedy, selfish, exclusive and individualistic way.

In contrast, Human Rights encourage humans to be more considerate of common interest and welfare towards a more democratic, just and prosperous life. The Human Rights concept can only be implemented in countries that adopt a democratic system instead of an authoritarian or totalitarian one. It is interesting to note that efforts to enforce Human Rights go hand in hand with democratization endeavours in various countries all over the world. Freedom House reports that until 2000, 120 countries adopted an electoral democracy.  And this means that more than 58.2% or half of the world population can already elect their own government, although most of them have only reached the stage of electoral democracy, like Indonesia.

The Human Rights concept leads us to a moralistic demand on how to treat other human beings. This moral obligation is basically the essence of all religious teachings. For all religions teach us the importance of mutual respect and honour, without distinction or discrimination whatsoever. All religions basically require that humans become more human. This is needed mostly to protect a vulnerable individual or a group from cruelty that usually comes from those in powers or from majority groups.

The importance of religious values

Despite the many assumptions on how the influence of religion will decrease with the advance of civilization in line with the strengthening of modernization and secularism,  a study by Jonathan Fox came up with a different conclusion.  Daniel Broom even went so far to say that religion is the fundamental factor in the construction of a civilization.  The reason is that religion is an inevitable consequence of the natural process of selection. That is why religion is still needed in every human being’s life.

Such a statement of religion’s influence on civilization has actually been proven by Huntington. It is not surprising if human life will always be faced with conflicts between civilizations instigated by religious conflicts which he also calls civilization conflicts.  Huntington in particular referred to Confucianism and Islam as two civilizations that hinder the process of democratization.  Certainly this thesis contains many weak points, such as was declared by Fukuyama.  But, the Freedom House study corroborated Huntington’s thesis. And also the study conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institution concluded the same thing.

In general, religion is conceived as a belief system, practice and philosophical values that concern it self with sacred teachings, understanding of life, and salvation from problems arising out of human existence.  Religion is a social phenomenon, but can also be perceived as a psychological phenomenon.  There are two known definitions of religion from the sociological perspective. The first one is that religion is defined from its social role, as was suggested by Durkheim (1992), who says that religion is a belief system and rituals relative to what binds people together into one social group. The second defines religion as a set of cohesive answers to the dilemmas of human existence, which is birth, illness, and death that makes the world meaningful, as was proposed by Max Weber and the theology expert, Paul Tillich.

The religious patterns
A number of studies have revealed that society’s religious patterns can be divided into two categories: authoritarian religious pattern and humanistic religion. This typology is derived from Fromm’s theory on freedom. Fromm says that freedom for human beings is a paradox. He further elaborated: …the structure of modern society affects man in two ways simultaneously: he becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, and he becomes more isolated, alone and afraid.

The fundamental essence of authoritarian religions is absolute submission to God. The principle strength is in obedience, and in contrary, disobedience is the biggest sin. With the ever venerable God in the back ground as has been embraced by authoritarian religions, human beings are perceived as helpless, worthless and dependent in all aspects. This attitude of submission to authority is considered as a straight path for humans to liberate themselves from isolation, aloneness and self-limitations. In this submissive process, humans discard their freedom and integrity as individuals with the promise of benevolence in the form of salvation and nearness to God. 

The problem is that obedience to God in its implementation takes the form of obedience to religious organizations’ leaders. So in reality they are obedient to human beings who claim to be the representatives of God, and more often than not, not to God Himself. It is not surprising that the followers are highly dependent on their leader and very loyal to the organization. Authoritarian religions give birth to cult of personality and fundamentalism.

In contrast to the authoritarian model, a humanistic religion perceives human beings in a positive and optimistic way, and considers them as the important human beings who have freedom of choice. Given this freedom of choice, humans can choose the religion they consider as true. Humans must develop their capacity for reason in order to understand themselves, the relationship between humans, and their position in the universe. Humans must recognize the reality of the truth in regards to limitations, and to their power at the same time. 

In humanistic religion, belief is based on critical reasoning and human conscience, not by blindly believing a religion’s authority.  Also, a humanistic religion reflects joy and optimism. In contrast, the authoritarian group delivers a sense of fear, pressure and guilty feelings. Consequently, the nature of a humanistic religion is to allow human beings to be themselves and that is the real essence of religion.

In practice, it is highly possible that both authoritarian as well as humanistic religions have the capacity to mobilize the masses, but the question is, where does that mobilizing ability come from? From orders of the commanding leader and group pressure or does it stem from an awareness that comes from inside the individual? And since authoritarian religions never really liberate their followers, any changes or socio-political system resulted is never free and democratic. As a result, religious leaders tend to behave in an arbitrary fashion and their followers have the tendency for anarchism, violence and oppression against others. All of which is carried out in God’s name. 

Also, the typology of religiosity can be differentiated based on extrinsic and intrinsic religiosity. The first model, according to Allport tends to turn religion into an instrument in achieving a specific narrow and short-term goal. In regards to inter-personal relationships and relationships with communities of other religions, extrinsic religiosity tends to trigger excessive religious prejudice, sentiments and fanaticism. A number of paradoxes in religious life such as those taking place at home recently, can be explained through such a point of view. At the extrinsic level, religion tends to be used as an instrument to achieve and assert the interest of certain elites and communities. That is known as politicization of religion.

On the contrary, intrinsic religiosity puts emphasis on a sincere and genuine recognition of equality and unity among human beings. Allport says, to embrace a religion in an intrinsic way is to contemplate religion in depth within a framework of comprehensive commitment and driving integrative motive. 

In regards to how humans embrace religion, Walter H. Capps favours intrinsic religiosity. He concludes that the essence of religion is founded on the fundamental values contained therein. In view of the contemporary problems faced by society in the recent past, one of the most urgent to reconstruct and actualize is humanitarian values which are a concern of all religions on this earth.  In other words, religion is for the benefit of human beings.

Actually, Muslim experts from the 12th century have expressed such a viewpoint since long before this. Al-Ghazali, an Islamic Sufism from the 12th century perceives religion through emphasis on humanitarian objective values which, in the Islamic term is called maqashid al-syari`ah. He further described the values contained in the maqashid al-syari`ah into five human rights principles which he calls al-huquq al-khamsah. These five basic rights are the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, the right to religious freedom, the right to property and the right to reproductive health.

The al-Huquq al-Khamsah concept further brings us to the importance of perceiving humans as legal subjects in religious teachings as was asserted by Ibnu al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah, a fiqh expert form the Hanbali school of thought. He affirmed that the Islamic syari’ah was actually established in the interest of human beings and for universal humanitarian purposes, such as benefit, justice, blessing, equality wisdom. These are the principles that must become the reference in creating Islamic laws and must also become the inspiration for every law maker. Any deviation from these principles means a deviation from Islam’s aspirations of the law. 

A similar statement was presented by Ibn Rusyd, a renowned philosopher of Islam, who said that the principle of humanity is the foundation of the numerous syari’ah determined by God.  Izzuddin ibn Abdissalam, an expert on Islam from the Hanbali school of thought, went so far as to conclude that the teachings of Islam as a whole are fully aimed at benefiting human beings. 

In the context of a democratic Indonesia built upon a civilized civil society, it is high time to disseminate humanistic as well as intrinsic religious values that uphold views of a humanistic, pluralist and democratic nature. If a nation promotes religious views that are based on humanistic and intrinsic principles, this will in turn result in government programs that are humanistic and intrinsic as well.  In contrary, when they are based on an authoritarian and extrinsic religion, the programs produced would destroy all that is not in accordance with God’s will in the eyes of the state leaders, and this in turn will end in violence. It is ironic that such violence is perpetrated in the name of religion, or in the name of God. This is appalling!  An authoritarian religion with extrinsic characteristics will promote anti-pluralism, anti-democracy, and anti-human rights ideas.

The struggle for religious freedom

One of the characteristics of a modern democratic state is the principle of religious freedom. It is interesting to note that religious freedom is one of the most basic rights that human beings are entitled to. That is why religious freedom is stated in all historical documents on Human Rights. Among others, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  Rights of Man, France (1789), Bill of Rights of USA (1791) and International Bill of Rights (1966). 

We need to understand that the phrase of religious freedom stated in international human rights documents does not stand alone but is linked to other freedoms, such as the freedom of opinion and conscience found in the forum internum domain and is considered as absolute freedom.  In the normative sense, religious freedom contains eight elements, namely internal freedom, external freedom, non-coercion, non-discrimination, rights of parenthood and guardianship, institutional and legal status freedom, allowed limitations for external freedom, and non-derogability. This means that freedom of religion or of belief is an internal dimension and is placed in the forum internum of an absolute nature and is non-derogable in any situation whatsoever, be it during war or civil emergency situations and at any time whatsoever. 

However, the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in social life, such as spreading religion, to perform worship rituals and to build places of worship which is included in freedom to act is not of a non-derogable nature, but is regulated by the law. Such a limitation or regulation is aimed purely at protecting citizens, not as a form of discrimination or the likes. Protection here involves five matters: public safety, public order, public health, public morals, and protection of rights and freedom of others. Thus the main objective of regulatory or limiting measures is to protect or to prevent threats to humans, which include threats to life, integrity, health or property of human beings.

In other words, such restriction is not aimed at discriminating an individual or a group, but is purely for the good of human beings. That is why measures to limit freedom of religion must be stipulated in a law so that society is aware of the limits set on their rights. For example, the freedom to establish a place of worship can and may be regulated by a law if it is desired that the state regulate such matters, provided that such regulation is based on values of justice, equality and are not discriminative. There is, however, the possibility that it be regulated by the civil society, namely religious groups and organizations by way of a consensus through deliberations. This condition can be found in civil societies that are rational and self-governable, at the central as well as at the regional level.

Furthermore, according to the Human Rights perspective, freedom is defined as the power or capacity to act without coercion; without obstacles or restraint; the power to exercise choice of one’s actions vis-à-vis the state, often perceived as a fundamental freedom,  that reflects an absolute and dire need for the preservation and protection of human dignity in a society organized as a minimum and acceptable type of freedom.  It is from here that the four freedoms  by F.D. Roosevelt became known, namely: freedom of speech, religious freedom, freedom of expression and freedom from fear.

In Indonesia’s context, the principle of religious freedom is not only founded on Human Rights international instrument, but is also founded on the 1945 State Constitution and several laws such as Law No. 7 of 1984 on Eradication of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Law No. 9 of 1999 on Human Rights, Law No. 23 of 2003 on Child Protection, Law No. 23 of 2004 on Eradication of Domestic Violence, and Law No. 12 of 2005 on the Ratification of the International Covenant on fulfilment of civil and political rights of every citizen without exception.

What are the factors that must be included in the principle of religious freedom? Taking into consideration the constitution and those laws, religious freedom must be perceived as the freedom for each citizen to choose and embrace a religion and belief, and the freedom to worship according to their respective religions and beliefs. Religious freedom should also be understood, as carrying out missionary work or to sermonize with the provision that all those activities to spread religion do not employ violent, misleading, deceiving or coercive means, whether directly or indirectly.

In the same manner, it should not exploit ignorance and poverty or degrade human dignity therefore it should not be done by giving aid in whatever form, distributing food, granting scholarships or humanitarian funding to children and impoverished families or providing free health services with the provision that the recipients must convert to a certain religion.

Religious freedom should also include freedom to convert into another religion. Every citizen has the right to choose any religion that he/she believes promises earthly and heavenly deliverance. Therefore, converting to another religion should be seen as a process of seeking and finding new awareness in worship. In view of today’s needs where global humanitarian demands require deep respect for human dignity, any values, including religious values that restrict religious freedom is considered unfitting for human benefit. More over, it does not fit into the principles of democracy.

The importance of pluralism and inter-religious dialogue
Religious freedom can only be enforced in a society that upholds principles pluralism and actively conduct inter-religious dialogues. Before I continue, let me point out that many people are very often mistaken on the meaning of pluralism.  So, what is the real meaning of pluralism? Professor Diana Eck from the Harvard Divinity School explains that pluralism is not the same as plurality or diversity. Diversity is natural plurality, it is basic, colourful, splendid, and given in nature. In other words, plurality is merely recognizing religiosity. While pluralism is a process of engagement to create a common society built on the foundation of pluralism and diversity.

The phenomenon of “religious plurality” can be found everywhere, especially in cosmopolitan cities. This is a phenomenon where people with different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds can congregate, chat, and eat and drink together in a café or restaurant. However, without engagement, intensive dialogue or constant contact between one community and another, plurality will never become pluralism. Pluralism is not plurality. Plurality is benevolence from God and it is given. In contrast, pluralism is a common achievement from differing religious and cultural groups to create a common society.

Pluralism is an energetic engagement with the facts of religiosity or with diversity. Pluralism is an interpretation of plurality or an evaluation or diversity of culture and religion. Pluralism is a process of active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Pluralism in one level is higher than tolerance. Tolerance does not require knowledge and understanding on “the other” while pluralism requires both: knowledge as well as understand of religious and cultural traditions of communities of other religions.
In conclusion, pluralism does not mean that one has to discard one’s identity and commitment towards a certain religion; neither does it involve reconciliation of various religious teachings. The core of pluralism is a strong commitment towards building a synergic relationship with one another to create peace and harmony in society.

Being a pluralist does not mean not recognizing the existence of religious differences because difference is natural, intrinsic and given (sunatullah) which in inevitable. However, religious differences become the source for a healthy religious relationship, one that unites and not thus viewing it as a divider that threatens certain religious and cultural identities.

Religious pluralism may be established through, for example, two means. First, a sincere and intensive dialogue. It is not that dialogue between religious congregations has never taken place; it has in fact been too frequently conducted. But most dialogues stop at the elite level, meaning it only takes place among religious figures and leaders at the national level, and only at the Capital city. Ideally, dialogue should not only take place among the elite, but needs to reach down, to the “grass root” level. Dialogue should be conducted among all elements of society: youth groups, women groups, entrepreneurs, culture figures and educators. More over, marginalized groups need to be invited in the dialogue process. In addition, the dialogue material should be focused on efforts to build peace, welfare and for reconciliation process.

Second, participatory activities. This strategy needs to be made possible following dialogue. Through it, congregations of different religions are given the chance to obtain experiences in living and working together. Such experience, for example, could take the form of a jamboree or humanitarian or medical aid provided for victims of disasters. 

Living or working together experiences will open their minds and make them realize that what they have so far adhered to is not fully dissimilar. Some of these participatory activities may ultimately end hostilities, prejudice and stereo-typing towards other groups. Through a religious dialogue, democratic Indonesia with its motto of Unity in Diversity may hopefully stand the test of time until eternity.

A modern democratic system places importance on religious dialogue and develops pluralism that leads to mutual love and care among the citizens and to a neutral and fair attitude on the part of the state leaders.  A democratic system does not distinguish citizens based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and belief. There is no differentiating between the majority and minority. All citizens are guaranteed equal standing and ensured of receiving equal legal justice. A democratic society is always concerned with human rights through the implementation of humanistic and intrinsic religious teachings that gives primary importance to religious dialogue based on the principle of pluralism.

A democratic condition always ensures social justice for all the people; a high level of fulfilment of civil liberties, included therein the religious freedom and believe for the people according to their respective faiths; a high level of public participation and fulfilment of political rights of the people; and a high level of prosperity and welfare of the people.

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