On equal terms, please

‘American policy makers should understand religion better and engage with religious communities abroad’ argues the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Zainal Abidin Bagir responds to the report's co-author R. Scott Appleby.
Zainal Abidin Bagir
5 October 2010

The Chicago Council Report, Engaging Religious Communities Abroad, is a must read. It advances a good analysis of the role of religion (religious actors, individuals, organizations) in today’s world, in domestic and international politics, social welfare, and human rights. It recommends that US government officials work to understand these complex relationships better. Furthermore, it calls for an engagement of religious communities abroad through partnership.

It should be no surprise that the report has invited comments on its many aspects. In his recent article on openDemocracy Of fundamentalisms, secular and otherwise R.Scott Appleby responds to a strand of criticism that comes from what he calls the “secular fundamentalists”, who believe that, put simply, engaging religion will do no good, because it is part of the problem. Appleby makes important arguments for taking religious communities seriously in attempts at democratisation. Other than Turkey, his main example, similar arguments can be made for other countries. In Indonesia national and international polls have shown religion to be an active and effective force, for example with the Muslim aspiration for shari'a which plays a central role in their identity. At the same time the surveys also show that Muslims are very committed to democracy. The juxtaposition of shari’a and democracy may be puzzling. Even more puzzling, however, is the fact that Islamic political parties which promoted shari’a as their major agenda always got disappointing results: the Indonesian Justice and Welfare Party, which could barely pass the electoral threshold in 1999 election when its main campaign issue was shari’a, soared in later elections after it took on more inclusive issues such as clean government.

Social scientists are yet to satisfactorily explain these puzzles, but the least we can say is that Indonesian Muslims’ high commitment to democracy is not seen by them as running counter to their Islamic identity. This is, as in the case of Turkey, an argument for engagement with religious communities for democratisation.

From this point of view, Appleby’s main question is, given that not all religious groups are amenable to democracy, who should we engage with? My point about the report goes in a sense, deeper. It is obviously not easy to answer who one should engage with, to put it bluntly - to distinguish 'good' from 'bad' Muslims, and even though the authors of the report ask for caution in using terms such as ‘moderate’ regimes/Muslims, the undertone of the report is one-directional and indeed patronizing when making the distinction between the moderates who are to be “engaged” and the others who are to be confronted. Any such distinction would be based on decisions on the terms of engagement made by the party who wants to engage. A genuine engagement would come from agreement of the terms, not from one party dictating the terms.

The authors are respected scholars, former senior government officials and leading thinkers of religious institutions including several distinguished Muslim representatives. It may be deliberately intended that what they have written is an American report, targeting American policy makers and looking at religious communities abroad through the lens of American national security interests. However, if meant as a departure point for engagement, the analysis should certainly leave much more room for varying perspectives. As a reader who is probably considered part of a ‘religious community abroad’, I would like to see it as an opportunity to achieve a world in which religion is not part of the problem but of the solution, as it should be.

I found fundamental problems with how religion and religious community abroad are represented in the report and many seem to come from the use of American national security interests as the framework. This seems too provincial for an attempted global outreach program. How about using human rights and religious freedom as a framework? Can it be immediately assumed that US national security interests coincide completely with human rights agenda? Despite the authors’ cautions, the chosen framework is problematic for at least two reasons. It presumes that the present security problems posed by terrorists around the world are “religious problems”. Furthermore it does not ‘engage’ religious actors on their own terms, but on terms defined by the subject who decides to engage.

The challenge in today’s relationships between religious communities is to invent new ways of making conversation—it’s about the underlying ethics and politics of making conversation, the language used, as well as the subjects of conversation. First of all, change only comes from within. Whatever change one may expect to take place in a community should arise from the community’s own determination. If engagement by the US, or any other country (be it from government or civil society groups) is the objective, the only viable way is a dialogue. Which means all parties in the conversation are equal, and ready to listen and share. While the United States can surely be commended for the democratic ideals they hold, including the principle of religious freedom, that does not mean that the American (or any other country) experience is the universal norm. Human rights ideals, including the notion of religious freedom, which is central in the Chicago’s Report, are surely not final and absolute, but develop in different societies’ according to the historical, cultural and social- political background.

In this sense, I am afraid religious freedom as institutionalised in the US ‘International Religious Freedom Act’ (IRFA) could be a conversation stopper. As currently framed, the IRFA seems constructed as a mechanism to punish violators—by the US. A dozen countries are on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s ‘Watch List’, another dozen are considered ‘Countries of Particular Concern’. Yet developments in Europe, where some governments have banned or put restrictions on expressions of religious identity are not subject to debate in the Commission's reports. Rather than imagining the promotion of religious freedom as a fixed formula, policy makers should consider it an open process to be developed in dialogue, particularly when examining the tensions between religious freedom and other human rights.

It is exactly this kind of discussion that is taking place in Indonesia at the moment, as apparent during the recent review of the 1965 Law on Defamation of Religion by the Constitutional Court. I would suggest that the failure to annul the law (though actually the Court suggests some kind of revisions of it) reminds us that Indonesians (the society, including religious organizations, human rights activists, and the government) have yet to agree how to define the concepts of human rights and religious freedom, including how to incorporate or internalise them using their own cultural and religious resources, and to understand their implications in the Indonesian context. After all, though the generic idea of religious freedom was ingrained in the 1945 Constitution, it was only after the 1998 democratisation movement that human rights became special articles of the amended Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified.

As it turns out, the paradigm of the Indonesian government’s management of religions is “religious harmony” rather than “religious freedom”. For the sake of harmony, freedom can be limited and diversity reduced when certain groups are considered to be disturbing such harmony. “Harmony” was the tool used by Soeharto’s authoritarian government to suppress any potential conflict by doing away with religious diversity. Despite the democratisation, the much wider space for freedom of expression after 1998 and the changes that took place in many sectors, that paradigm of managing religion does not seem to have changed. Exactly the same language is now used by some Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist religious groups who in the past had bad experiences under the authoritarian government, when they defended the law on defamation of religion in order to restrict - or, in some cases, to get rid of - other smaller groups.

While “religious harmony” may not have a purchase in many other countries, can be an obstacle to religious freedom, and in the past has been used as a political tool for homogenisation, I believe that an Indonesian debate on religious freedom should take ‘religious harmony’ and social cohesion into account. While ‘religious freedom’ focuses on individual rights, ‘social cohesion’ looks at societal interests. The concept of “religious harmony” might still be a tool of government control (making it a fact to deal with) but the essence of complementing ‘religious freedom’ with another concept is that its emphasis on individual rights does not work in many less individualized societies. The ultimate goal may not be freedom itself, but a flourishing of society in which there are many religions which play constructive, civil roles.

To some extent this question of religious harmony and social cohesion is already there in many discussions about religious freedom. We can see this, for example, in the case of proselytism. Freedom to express one’s religious identity can be understood to include the freedom to persuade others, to spread “the good words”. This is especially prominent in the missionary religions of Islam and Christianity. It might not be coincidental that Evangelical Christian groups were among the ones lobbying strongly for the establishment of the International Religious Freedom Act in the US. Yet, many scholars now agree that there should be limitations on proselytism, either exercised by the groups themselves or regulated by governments, because it tends to create conflicts and privileges major world (missionary) religions against the indigenous religions. In a country like Indonesia, in which there are traditional religions which have been discriminated against, pushing “freedom” is not always wise and, instead of promoting equality, at times discriminates against the smaller and weaker groups.

The Engaging Religious Communities Abroad report has created excellent stimuli on many issues and does make some useful recommendations, such as preference for what it calls an indirect approach to deal with religious communities, by focusing on issues such as health and education, and linking up with international organizations such as UNESCO.

The contrasts between freedom and harmony and the critique of them is intended as an illustration of how dialogue should be ready to re-examine such concepts, not take them for granted. The point is to imagine new ways of making more genuine conversations in which the terms themselves are also the result of common deliberation. Engagement should not start after its terms are drawn and parties to be engaged are selected—but the dialogue should start now. To invite a wider spectrum of people and perspectives to the table, to be willing to listen and not be too fixed normatively on the expected results – for dialogue is a commitment to process and presumes all sides to be willing to move.






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