, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 09/09/2005 8:56 AM | Opinion
Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta
For six decades, Indonesia has been struggling with the question of where to place religion in state affairs as well as what role the state should play in religious affairs.
As a nation that professes to be religious, or where religion plays an important role in daily life, most Indonesians cannot accept that theirs is a secular state. Neither can they fully accept the notion of a theocratic state, because this raises the question of which religious tenets guide them.
Indonesia, as its leaders stress, is neither secular nor theocratic. Calling it a Pancasila state clarifies little for the outside world. And the government position on the relationship between the state and religion is thus left unsaid.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, but the archipelago also comprises pockets of non-Muslims who play a proportionally larger role in politics and the economy. The minority religious communities have been part and parcel of this republic since the independence proclamation of 1945.
The 1945 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to practice one's beliefs. The Ministry of Religious Affairs comprises bureaucrats of different faiths who are more concerned with religious observances than the substance of religions. The state officially recognizes five religions -- Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism -- meaning that every citizen must follow one of these five religions, at least on paper and for ID purposes.
That much the nation seems to agree on.
But within these parameters, there is a raging debate on exactly what role religion should play in state affairs, and conversely, what role the state should play in religious affairs. Now, more so than ever, the debate is pulling Indonesia in both directions. We can either be secular or theocratic, but apparently not in between.
It was thus heartening to sit in on a lecture on laicit, which is the French answer to this dilemma, at the Maarif Institute for Culture and Humanity this week.
France too agonized over this issue for over two centuries before finally settling it once and for all in 1905 through laicit a concept that is unique to its own history, and for which apparently there is no equivalent English translation, according to Jean-Marie Mayeur of Paris-Sorbonne University, the sole speaker at the lecture.
The issue of the role of religion in state affairs is now more or less settled in France. Like Indonesia, France does not see itself as completely secular because the state does have the power to intervene in religious affairs ""in the name of public interests.""
Visiting Indonesia at the invitation of the Jakarta office of the Ecole Franaise d'Extrme-Orient and the French Embassy, the presence of Professor Mayeur could not have been more timely. The secular versus theocratic debate in Indonesia has reached the point where there is really nothing new or more worthy to add -- each side sticks doggedly to its position.
The French experience could, hopefully, break this impasse.
The French constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to practice one's faith. The state has the duty to protect that freedom and right, but the constitution also has a caveat that permits state intervention, if and when religious practices are deemed to be undermining public interests and order.
The French constitution therefore guarantees and protects the right of Muslims, mostly migrants from its former colonies, to hold and practice their beliefs. While the state has no obligation to subsidize the building of worship places, city municipalities are obliged to facilitate their construction.
The 2004 law banning Muslim girls in state schools from wearing head scarves was a test case for laicit because this amounted to state intervention. The law was widely condemned by the Muslim world, including many in Indonesia, but France defended its interventionist decision, citing the public order/interests clause.
Prof. Mayeur recalled that many teachers in state schools refused to accept girls wearing the jilbab and some were prepared to engage in a strike over the issue, thus disrupting the learning process. Previously, under a 1938 ruling, school principals had the power to impose such a ban, and some did so. What the government did in 2004 was simply to make it a national law, because of the changing circumstances by then.
Before the ban, there were about 1,500 girls in French state schools who wore head scarves. After the ban was imposed, most of them complied, and the 47 who refused have since moved to private schools, which are not subject to the ban.
While the 2004 ruling on jilbab received much attention from the Muslim world, the fact that some municipalities in France have been providing financial assistance to Muslim communities to build mosques has been little publicized. French Muslims thus receive preferential treatment from their government, in violation of its own policy of not subsidizing the activities of any religious organization.
This interventionist policy was prompted by fears that many mosques in France had been built with financial assistance from Middle Eastern organizations, which could bring the radical teachings, particularly Wahabism, to Muslims in France.
The laicit thus appears to have survived the test of time as France deals with issues coming from its growing Muslim community.
But France reached this position not without trouble.
Laicit as it is practiced today is the result of more than two centuries of debate, at times tinged with violence, over the question of the role of the church in state affairs. The Catholic Church, which ruled when France was still a monarchy, fought a losing battle for over 200 years to keep its power and influence.
Previously, the state only recognized one religion, Roman Catholicism; those who followed other religions, including Protestantism and Judaism, were not considered citizens.
After the French Revolution, the state recognized some but not all religions. Only after 1905 did the constitution guarantee freedom of religion -- literally meaning any religion. The state has the duty to protect this freedom, and the right of the people to practice their religion.
Laicit had its origins as an antireligious movement, but its acceptance among the predominantly French Christian public and the churches came in 1949 when it dropped its hostilities to the church, and accommodated the role of the state in religious affairs.
Indonesia today is going through what France experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries as it tries to define the precise role of religion in state affairs and the extent to which the state can influence religious life.
The chief lesson of France's two centuries of struggle is clear: No single religion can hope to dominate the state in a nation that has more than one religious community. And Indonesia is far more diverse in the religions of its people than France.
A lot of time and trouble, and possibly even lives, would be saved by ending this debate once and for all, and by Indonesia adopting its own version of laicit.
No longer would we lack assurance when answering that awkward question of whether Indonesia is a secular or theocratic state.
The writer is Chief Editor of The Jakarta Post.