But Not Here

Indonesia is a religiously plural society. The vast majority is Muslim, but large minorities are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or animist. The Founding Fathers of Indonesia sought to recognize this fact in the national motto Bhinnéka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). Traditionally, among some groups, monotheism has been mixed with animism or some local traditions, of demigods and so forth. The political system has also been pluralistic, but in a skewed sense. During the Suharto era only five religious denominations were allowed; Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, and Buddhist. Each citizen had to be a member of one of these groups. Thus, some local religions such as the Agama Jawa Sunda (West Java Religion) were banned and congregants had to choose one of the five recognized religions.

Over the past ten years there have been more and more cases of religious intolerance. Some religiously motivated vigilante groups have sought to close down karaoke bars, whose activities they deem inappropriate for the holy season, for instance of the Ramadan. Similar groups have violently obstructed gatherings of religious minorities. Such cases are nowadays frequently reported, not only because they have increased in number, but also because the media are freer to publish such cases. Not all cases make it in to the newspapers, however.

Late last year there were many writings about the minority Islamic sect, Ahmadiyah who suffered the same fate as many Christian communities. Some of these cases are presented here. West Java appears to me less tolerant than most other regions in the country. Some of this may be due to the former influence of Darul Islam Indonesia, the movement that struggled to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia. The movement had its main base in the highlands around Garut in West Java. But a historical explanation of course begs the question; why was DII so strong in West Java? Whatever the historical reasons may be, the (mainly Islamic) vigilante groups in the country are a great problem.

The friends I have talked to about this, mainly Muslims, feel very uneasy about the actions of these groups. They do not approve of violence. But there is some hesitation in their criticism of such groups. After all, they say, having a sermon in non-designated building is against the law. And why can’t they (the Christians) go elsewhere to church? There are churches in the neighbouring town (one hour away). Why can they not just go there instead?

Their view is almost a complete mirror image of the general stance of many Danes towards the building of mosques. In principle, there is no problem. For others still, allowing Muslims to build a mosque is seen as ‘bowing down’ to ‘Islamisation’. As the Muslims in West Java speak of ‘Christianisation’, so speak some Christians of Islamisation in Denmark. I wrote an e-mail to the spokesperson of the Citizens Against the Building of a Mosque; a citizen group in Århus, Denmark.

He referred me to the general material of the organisation, noting that some of this material had been charged with not respecting the anti-racism legislation in Denmark. He noted shortly that on his view “A great mosque in Århus would signal a recognition of the message of the Qur’an” which in his view is inhuman, racist and subjugating women. Instead, he thinks we should counter the Islamisation of Danish society by not allowing the building of mosques. At the organisations homepage one may download a collection of articles on what they label “Islamisation”. Thus, crimes committed by non-ethnic Danes or immigrants are reported, along with the main stance of quranic schools etc.

I also checked out the discussion on this recently at the, allegedly, liberal/libertarian blog called Punditokraterne. I think it is fair to say that the majority of comments argued that in principle there should of course be religious tolerance, and Muslims should be allowed to build where they wish as accords with the city plan. But in practice…

On my view, the most sober comment was that of Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard who argued against the liberal-in-principle-but-not-necessarily-in-practice view. Whatever preferences we might have (and his own stated preference is for old Danish churches), we should allow the building of a mosque because of the greater good (the freedom of religion is honoured).

Much of the debate in debate in Denmark has centred on whether people have a rational or an irrational approach to the subject. Those in the liberal camp argue that opponents of mosques are irrational nationalists, even racists perhaps. Those in the ‘nationalist’ camp find it hard to grapple with this. One type of statement is “But we ARE liberal. The Muslims are not. Therefore, curbing religious practice of Muslims is good for freedom.”

The retort from true liberal is that this is a fallacy. The core of liberalism is that guilt and blame are only held individually. Hence, there can be no curbing of religious or other gatherings of a collective whose stated purpose or main activities are not against the law. For some ‘nationalist liberals’, the retort is: “Exactly, Islam as such is a terrorist organization, or at least an organization that seeks to counter democracy”. One example of this is comment in the thread at Punditokraterne, here (in Danish). I think the nationalists may have an understandable, even rational, sentiment, but that they make the argument on the basis of a misunderstanding both empirically of what Islam is (which is not the main point) and ethically of what liberalism is (which IS the main point).

A recent essay by G. A. Cohen will help to bring out the first point; that there may be a rational element in people’s sentiments. G. A. Cohen is a Marxist scholar one of whose primary contributions to scholarship has been to criticize Marxism’s lack of understanding of identity.

In the essay, he defends what he labels small-c-Conservatism. Small-c conservatives, he argues, are people who feel a loss of value when some valuable thing is sacrificed to produce something of even greater value. Thus, if a painting by some lesser artistic genius is painted over by Picasso to produce some masterpiece, small-c conservatives will, however much they may appreciate the new piece, lament the loss of the old one.

I think this distinction applies in part to the problem of churches and mosques. Part of people’s feeling of lament for the loss of churches is that something else, some atmosphere or feeling, is lost. As regards this aspect at least, the uproar against the new is similar to that advanced at the building of the bus station at the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen some years back. A majority in Town Hall decided for a modernist-futuristic building to complement the classicist buildings of the city centre. The result was – at first – very unpopular among citizens. Therefore it has later been decided to tare the thing down and build something more appropriate. This decision has not been effected yet.

Anyway, the narrow point is that the small-c conservative may easily – if the above decision is effected – lament the taring down of the good-old modernist-futuristic thing. In the same way, people will laud and praise the beauty of the Great Mosque in Damaskus and bring home pictures of the wonderful art and architecture of Alhambra in the South of Spain as gems of Muslim culture. They may praise the religious tolerance that used to hold sway in Sarajevo, where places of worship for each of four main religions surrounded the Town Hall Square, and where intermarriages between people of various confessions were widespread. With the addendum: “But.. not here! “ Not in my backyard.

The broader point applies directly to suggestions by some liberals that old churches that are not being used could be sold to other religious communities, for example the second largest religious group in the country; the Muslims. The liberal counts only the value gained by deducting the loss of the old function from the social gain of the new. The small-c conservative will – all other things being equal – be uneasy about this solution. The solution will have to entail some gain in justice, basically. If there is no other way to rectify an injustice (such as limiting access to religious practice) than by offending small-c-conservative sentiments, then so be it.

Although it applies directly, however, the main issue does not seem to be cultural lament at the coming of the new and loss of the old. It is fear of that which is different. People feel a loss of domain, a domain that is partly political. I think the small-c conservatism argument may be a way of making it clearer for them, when they are rightly lamenting the passing of times, and when they should sacrifice their fine sentiments for the greater good of tolerance.

Anyway, my friends keep alerting me to what in their view is the only and true interpretation of the Surat Al-Khafiroun, the Sura on the Infidel:

“Hey, Infidel, I say unto you
Your religion is your religion, and my religion is mine.”

I think their way of putting it is very heartening whenever these various cases of intolerance and fear are reported, whether from Indonesia or Denmark.


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