Pluralism Key to Trump Identity Politics


JANUARY 07, 2017

Jakarta. Pluralism has become today's jargon, a utopia to some, yet a deviant concept to many others.

However, it is the key to trump identity politics, which has been harming plurality in Indonesia, according to Achmad Munjid, a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University's Center for Cross-Cultural and Religious Studies and its English literature program.

Munjid told the Jakarta Globe on Friday (06/01) that pluralism, or rather multiculturalism, is a positive attitude towards diversity.

"People no longer see differences as a negative aspect that must be avoided," he said. "It is an opportunity to learn about, recognize and appreciate each other."

The terms plurality and diversity are often mixed up. Therefore, to say that Indonesia had pluralism all along is misleading, though the country was founded on the same concept.

"We have been living in plurality or diversity of races, religions, as well as ethnic groups. Plurality has been around us for a long time and pluralism is a perspective to treat it, Munjid said.

"Pluralism is not a totally new concept. Our 'Bhinneka Tunggal Ika' slogan is actually the seed of pluralism. It's just that we haven't come up with the right formula to practice it to overcome today's problems," he added.

Indonesia seems to have a long way to go to even comprehend the concept, if not drift away from it.

Part of the reason there is hesitance to practice pluralism is the false perception of it. Fanatic religious groups often define it as generalizing all religions, which is considered against their teaching.

He also added that generalizing religions has a closer link to be defined as relativism, not pluralism.

"But it shows how rather than pluralism, multiculturalism is a more suitable term, pointing out a way of accepting differences in cultures, including religions," said Munjid, who is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tolerance Just the First Step

Intolerance has painted a bleak picture of Indonesia in the past few years. According to the 2016 Social Progress Index released by the Social Progress Imperative in late June last year, Indonesia ranked 120th globally, in the bottom 20, in terms of tolerance and inclusion, which include religious tolerance.

Ironically, tolerance is only the first step of becoming a multicultural society.

"Tolerance is just the minimum requirement. What follows is acknowledgment. After that comes appreciation," Munjid said.

The former president of the North America branch of Nahdlatul Ulama argued that what most Indonesians have now, is only half-hearted tolerance, putting up with others only to the extent of what feels convenient.

He said people tend to "cancel" their tolerance once others do something that is not in line with what is to be expected by the community.

"Tolerance means having the will and capacity to live with others who are different from us, even if it is painful or irritating, as long as nobody's business is harmed," he said.

Regarding the second step – acknowledgment – he said it is still sporadic. It comes naturally to some, yet others do it only when they feel like it.

Munjid gave as an example the difficulties experienced by non-Muslims to build places of worship, even though the constitution protects their rights.

"I believe that our treatment to others, especially minorities, is an indicator of whether we have a healthy multicultural society or not. If we treat them unfairly, then we have to get checked," Munjid said.

Roots of Identity Politics

Pluralism is key to beat the xenophobic attitudes that have reached alarming levels as they permeated into politics. Today's headlines and social media posts are filled with conflicts rooted on ethno-religious sentiments, whether about the election or the bid to impose religious law.

Hardline Muslim groups are constant practitioners of identity politics. Munjid argued that their actions are not only closed-mindedness but also exaggerated political insecurity caused by past repression and a sense of urgency to solve problems the government has yet to address.

During founding President Sukarno's so-called Old Order, the practice of "Nasakom" (nationalist, religious, and communist ideologies) was proven to induce a high social cost. Therefore, the New Order regime repressed any political activities based on religious movements, including Islamic parties.

"Therefore, Muslims were only allowed to perform rituals, not to participate in any kind of political activities," Munjid said.

It was not until the 1990s that former President Suharto made an alliance with Muslim groups after losing the support of the military. Once the Reform Era arrived, uprisings by Muslim groups escalated everywhere, carried out by members of the already expanded middle class.

This was not only a response to the newfound freedom, but also fueled by insecurity of not having much control and being trapped with other values they considered bad influences, such as Western liberalism.

"There's this insatiable feeling that their role is not yet big enough for the country. Seeing the myriad of issues the government has yet to solve and the country's political instability, they looked for ways to take out the desperation to do something," the former Fulbright scholar said.

The issues faced by this country, ranging from economic inequality, lack of access to education, to imbalanced law enforcement, are complex and need long-term efforts.

Thus, hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which Munjid claims is dominated by the less-educated, often act as vigilantes. They often sought "concrete" problems that could be solved with instant solutions, such as sweeping raids on night clubs and bars, acting like shariah police by destroying places they consider unsuitable in accordance with their values and beliefs.

"Like a pendulum that had been pushed too far off to one side, it swung back hard to the other. Who used to be marginalized for years now have revolted," Munjid said.

However, he expressed optimism that Indonesians are not as radical as portrayed by those groups, because beyond them lies a silent majority.

He therefore encouraged more interfaith and intercultural dialogs, which have been initiated but need to spread to every part of the country, to show greater strength against the new radicalism.

"I forgot who said this, but being religious means being interreligious. We can't be religious without getting to know others and learning from them," he said.