, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Tue, 08/16/2005 11:42 AM
Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ, Jakarta
The 60th anniversary of Indonesia's independence comes on the heels of a national polemic on issues concerning liberalism, pluralism and secularism. The polemic came to the fore after the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued controversial edicts banning these ideas.
One of MUI's recent edicts condemns pluralism, liberalism and secularism. One of the problems with such condemnations is their vagueness. These three terms can mean a lot. Maybe the MUI was thinking of specific attitudes that may, indeed, be questionable. But by stigmatizing these three terms without further distinction, they open the door to a religious witch-hunt. At the same time they release themselves from the burden of argument.
Let us begin with secularism. Secularism is still a no-speak in Indonesia. Indonesia, so it officially goes, is neither a religious state, nor a secular state, but a Pancasila state. Secular was, and still is, a red cloth for parts of the Muslim community. It is immediately associated with secularism, the 19th century anti-Catholicism ideology in Latin-Europe that wanted to ban religion from public spaces. France is one of the few surviving ""secularist"" states.
But this kind of secularism never has been an option for Indonesia. And it is an outdated model. No less than then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and Jrgen Habermas agreed during their famous dialog on Jan. 19, 2004 in Munich that the democratic state cannot itself produce the basic values it presupposes and should therefore listen to the great cultural and religious traditions of humankind.
But internationally, and in growing measure also in Indonesia, a secular state does not mean enmity between state and religion. It means two things.
First, the state has no right to enforce religious behavior. Whether and how citizens practice their religion is not the business of the state. Second, religions cannot impose their doctrines on the state. State policies are exclusively determined by the democratic will of the citizens, based on law, in respect of human rights.
That does not mean that the state disregards religions. As part of civil society, their values and judgments enter public space and belong to the social reality in relation to which the state determines its policies.
Thus the ""secular state"" today stands for respect for human rights, non-discrimination, tolerance and democracy. Its rejection would mean nothing less than rejection of the civilized democratic state. The secular state, on the other hand, reflects one of the most important insights of the modern world, namely that religious power is only as genuine as the power of conviction. Religious obedience essentially has to be rendered freely.
There is a growing consensus among religions that such a secular state is not just a necessary evil, forced upon them by modernity, but actually the ideal situation for the religions themselves (for an insight into the ""separation of state and Church power"" see Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger, Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs, Freiburg 2005).
MUI also condemned liberalism. Of course, liberalism can mean a lot. It could mean libertinism, economic laissez faire, it also means the great movement that gave birth to the greatest political idea of modernity, democracy based on law and respect for human rights.
Religions often did not like liberalism. It smelled of people putting subjective preferences in place of obedience of faith. But in Indonesia (as elsewhere) liberalism as a religious attitude means firstly openness. Openness to questions, openness to criticism, openness to other points of views, openness to objections. It is a serious attitude that includes readiness to learn.
MUI condemned liberalism as ""free thinking"". Does this mean they want to condemn precisely such openness? Allergy to open thinking and questioning, and its opposite, a dour attitude of ""we already possess the truth and therefore have nothing to learn"", is, of course, not the monopoly of one religion alone. It is a dangerous temptation for religious people in general. It is the fallacy of thinking that since God cannot be challenged, their religious opinions must be absolutely true. Such arrogance has often been the sin of teachers of religion. This is something grave because the essence of religiosity is humility. A truly religious person knows that he or she will never grasp the whole meaning of God's revelation. Therefore he or she is open to questions and never stops learning. Liberalism as openness is therefore an essential religious virtue.
But the most shocking condemnation, in my eyes, is the condemnation of pluralism. Pluralism has always been regarded as crucial to the existence of Indonesia. Her multi-dimensional plurality can only form a unity if this plurality is acknowledged. The state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity) says that much.
There we have to avoid a misunderstanding. The word pluralism has sometimes been high jacked for the opinion that we should acknowledge all religions as equally valid. Thus religions should let go of their respective claims to truth. But such an opinion is not pluralism but relativism.
Relativism is a bogus pluralism because it does away with the differences, and therefore with what is specific to each religion. Religions are only different expressions of the religious nature of humankind. You have the right to believe this, but it is not what religions themselves believe. Relativism is, therefore, the opposite of tolerance since it demands that religions let go of their deepest convictions.
It should be clear that relativism is contrary to the essence of belief: How can I believe something, if I do not believe it to be true and, by implication, that competing ideas are not true? Real pluralists accept that we have different beliefs. They do not try to ""relativize"" their respective teachings, but they are convinced that, in spite of different beliefs, we are united in common values. Such values would be respect for the integrity of every human being, refusal to use violence to solve conflict, justice, freedom of religion, thought and expression, solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. In Indonesia, many of us have made the very happy discovery that we do, indeed, have these common values across our different religions.
Only real pluralists can be tolerant. True tolerance is the cheerful acceptance of the fact that around me there live people with different beliefs. Pluralism safeguards tolerance by institutionalizing the equal rights and liberties of people with different religious beliefs.
A different question, touched by MUI's edict is whether eternal salvation is offered to all humankind or only to one's own religious community? The answer to this question can, of course, only be given by the respective religions themselves.
For the Catholic Church the Second Vatican Council declared that God's salvation is offered without exception to all humans. To say it clearly: You do not have to be baptized in order to go to heaven. In the Protestant Churches there are different opinions. For Islam, theologians such as Nurcholish Madjid and Abdulaziz Sachedina have shown that non-Muslim can nevertheless be ""Muslim"" and therefore go to heaven.
But this is not a question of pluralism, but of inclusivity versus exclusivism (which denies heaven for members of other religions). It is, of course, the right of MUI to take an exclusivist position. Exclusivism once reigned undisputed among the three Abrahamistic religions.
But now it is under strong scrutiny. Hard questions are being asked to believers in a holy and just God. Too many terrible things have been done through history up to this day in the name of religion. Whoever wants to show that there is a just and loving God should be extremely reluctant in assigning anybody to eternal damnation.
Father Franz Magnis-Suseno is a Jesuit priest, he teaches philosophy at Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta.