ASIA/INDONESIA - Religion, ethnicity, fundamentalism and attempts at dialogue in the archipelago of Indonesia

Saturday, 3 July 2004

Jakarta (Agenzia Fides) - An archipelago of 17 thousand islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans Indonesia is one of the world’s most populous countries (215 million), with a millennial culture, more than 250 ethnic groups and mixture of religions to the point that when it became an independent republic in 1945, it took as its motto “unity in diversity”. But Indonesia is above all a stronghold of Islam: followers of Mohammed come close to 90% of the population, which makes it the most populous Muslim country and gives it an important role on the international scene.
How to explain “obligation of religiosity” in Indonesia? The Constitution dated 1945, the year which opened the era of the founding father Sukarno, after Dutch colonial dominion, acknowledged a natural tendency of the people who are deeply religious. Religion is the basis of personal, family and social life and therefore of the state: at school a pupil must pass the examination in religion before he is allowed to take exams in other subjects, from elementary classes to university.
This is why the Constitution sanctions the philosophy at the basis of the state: Pancasila, five principles (panca = five, sila = principles): belief in one supreme God; humanity just and civil; unity of Indonesia; democracy guided by wisdom; social justice. Precisely because of this “ natural religiosity” (which does not mean theocracy: Indonesia is a secular state), a person’s religion is marked on identity papers. This can give rise to ambiguity: for example, it is said that the people of Indonesia are 90% Muslim but according to analysts Muslims are no more than 55%. Many call themselves Muslims because when coming of age a person is required to declare him or herself a member of one of the recognised religions. This means that for the state Animists are registered as Muslims.
Indonesian Islam, digested by the tolerant social character of Javanese culture (Java is the main island with a population of 100 million), is traditionally moderate and has always coexisted peacefully with minorities. An inversion of tendency seems to have taken place in recent years with the emergence and development of groups of Muslim extremists. On the island of Sumatra, for example the government the government has banned foreigners from settling in Indonesian territory, mainly to prevent the arrival of Arab preachers bringing extremism anti-American and even anti-Christian. Fundamentalism is a problem in fact the province of Aceh, on Sumatra, made the headlines after the introduction of Sharia law. There was a wave of fundamentalist protests two years when the US intervened in Afghanistan and more recently with the war in Iraq.
Episodes of Muslim fundamentalist have been registered in the Moluccas Islands, ravaged by two years of civil war 1999-2000 which took on religious colours due to the presence of Laskhar jihad fundamentalist group.
A determinant role therefore falls to moderate Islamic organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (with a total 70 million followers). It is up to illuminated religious leaders like Crdinal Julius Riyadi Darmaatmadja, Hasym Muzadi (Nadhlatul Ulama), and Syafii Maarif (Muhammadiyah) to help the country find harmony and unity. The leaders launched a National Moral Movement busy working at national and international level to promote dialogue, reconciliation and peace.
(PA) (Agenzia Fides 3/7/2004 lines 43 words 438)