4 September 2010

The tyranny of the majority

Jakarta Post Editorial - September 1, 2010

"The greatest threat facing the US is the tyranny of the majority," penned
nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in
America. He could just as easily be writing about Indonesia today,
especially after Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali announced his
plan to ban Ahmadiyah, a religious sect with more than 200,000 followers.
He said the presence of the sect, whose existence predates even this
republic, is an affront to Islam, the country's predominant religion.

His statement is a clear display of raw power in the name of the majority.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's silence in the face of what is a clear
a breach of the constitution is indicative of his own complicity.
Tocqueville's warning is upon us. This country, founded upon religious
freedom, that claims to pride itself on the diversity of its people, is in

The basis of Suryadharma's action against the Ahmadiyah is a 2008 decree
that forbids Ahmadiyah from propagating its teachings, including its tenet
that Muhammad was not the final prophet, as mainstream Muslims believe.
Despite the case never having gone to court, the decree was drawn up based
on the 1965 Blasphemy Law to curtail the group's activities. But if this is
a pretext used to ban a religion or denomination, then other religions and
minority groups in Islam in this country have plenty to worry about.

The action against Ahmadiyah is based on the Religious Affairs Ministry's
interpretation of a faith. If this is the case, the question is where does
it stop? Mainstream Islam has interpretations about God and truth that are
different from other religions: Is Jesus God or a prophet? Was Jesus
crucified or was it someone else? Did Abraham slaughter Ismail or Isaac? If
Muslims find idolatries offensive, should shrines and statues of Buddha be
demolished? Is Muhammad the last prophet of Islam? Going by the reasoning
used to ban Ahmadiyah, any of the above different interpretations and many
more could one day be deemed by majority Muslims to be heretical and
offensive, and used as ground to ban a religion. No minority religion or
sect is safe in this country.

The tyranny of the majority in Indonesia comes in the form of religious
persecution. It is a reflection of increasing intolerance on the part of
majority Muslims towards religious minorities. Why else is the action
against Ahmadiyah taking place now, after decades of peaceful coexistence?
Other religious minorities are also feeling the brunt. Christians, the
largest among the minorities, are finding it difficult to build their
churches and many existing ones are being vandalized and their followers

Suryadharma, a politician by background and chairman of the Islamist United
Development Party (PPP), was completely out of line when he encouraged
citizens to act as watchdogs to the activities of Ahmadiyah followers. On
the ground, his statement has been interpreted as a green light to harass
and attack the sect's followers. Suryadharma should be fired for using his
Cabinet position for his own political objectives, and for encouraging the
use of violence against other citizens.

For years, many people have questioned the wisdom of having a full ministry
in charge of religious affairs. The late Abdurrahman Wahid, when he was
president, pondered about disbanding the ministry but refrained. Religious
affairs are managed quite effectively by religious leaders, and their
relations are being managed through interfaith dialogues. The problem
begins when the state starts interfering, interpreting the substance of
religion and inevitably takes sides.

Between disbanding Ahmadiyah for violating some obscure governmental decree
and disbanding the Religious Affairs Ministry, whose minister is in clear
violation of the Constitution by promoting religious intolerance and the
tyranny of majority, we know which course Indonesia should take. God be
with us.

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