Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Nationalism, Minority Rights and Citizenship in Indonesia
As many as 170,000 Indonesians were forced to flee their homes in 2012 because of ethnic and religious tensions, according to a Global Overview of forced migration published by authors with the US Department of State, the UNHCR and the Research Institute Without Walls.
That is an indication of how Indonesia's dynamism means that while it is growing into a major economic power, it is also struggling to deal effectively with issues such as ethnic conflict, religious intolerance, corruption, and inequality.
The country's diversity, including at least 14 major and minor ethnic groups spread across 17,000 islands, has been and still is being squeezed into something that is recognizable and manageable across all corners of the republic.
Ethnic and religious conflict remain a significant hindrance to nation building. State responses to minority claims on rights and mass homogenization have swung between military repression, accommodation, coercion and even transmigration.
Some of these strains stem from nationalist projects of the late strongman Suharto's New Order regime (1966-1998), when aggressive nation building was a key theme and often involved violent military force against non-conformist subjects.
Citizenship has changed meaning over time and is no longer as rigid as in the New Order era, yet at this point Indonesia is neither convincingly plural nor multicultural.
The legacy of forced homogeneity is difficult to shake off, as are the pressures that manufacture conformity. Contemporary nationalist projects adopt differing approaches toward diverse ethnic and religious groups. Some approaches are constructive, others are not.
The social and political situation for minorities continues; particularly as recent events illustrate that the capacity for violent conflict in Indonesia has not been restrained.
Nationalism remains a persistent theme but it is an artificial solidarity that masks divisions and hinders solutions.
The state philosophy, Pancasila is meant to capture the principle of 'unity in diversity'. It is a euphemistic mantra for an explosive environment of inclusion and exclusion that often results in human rights abuses and a contingent notion of citizenship that entails highly unequal social contracts.
East Timor is a comparative success story, having gained self-determination, but only after a protracted and bloody civil war. Acehnese and Papuan autonomy has been accommodated to a certain extent.
However Aceh can now subject the Indonesian citizens that live in the province to controversial Shariah governance that elsewhere in Indonesia would undermine basic human rights as well as cause democratic backpedalling.
Papua is still swarming with Indonesian military due to sustained movements for sovereignty. Deadly clashes in the restive provinces between pro- independence members and military are commonplace.
Unresolved issues lead to disputes even though Aceh for example is far more comfortable with its current situation than Papua is. A fracas this week over whether the Aceh regional flag is unlawful because it too closely resembles the former GAM (Free Aceh Movement) flag, showed that Indonesia will not easily relinquish control over its territory or its citizens' ideological beliefs. Remembering the decades-long armed insurgency that nearly lost Indonesia the resource-rich area, Jakarta is probably concerned that GAM symbols reference lingering sentiment for independence. On the other hand, Jakarta is right to be wary. Conservative Islamists adopt competing nationalist ideologies that impose even more polarization into mainstream norms. Majority rights still trump minority ones and even non-conformists in the majority are quickly shut down.
This year an attempt by a 75 year old grandfather in Aceh, who sought a court order for a mosque to turn the volume down on the call to prayer, was interpreted as a challenge to Islamic dominance. His attempt failed and he became the subject of death threats.
Indonesians reconcile Islamic belief with democracy in their own way, which is arguably either good for democracy or good for Islam. This week a Pew report stated that seven in 10 Indonesians want Shariah law implemented in the legal code, even though many social scientists and Islamic scholars have found that most Indonesians are moderate and secular.
In this bipolar environment of democratization and Islamization, the pressure of competing forces is contradictory. Conservative Islamic aspirations are broadly accommodated, through bylaws (new Shariah based bylaws are added each year, not removed) and legislation. This mainstreams such things as bans on homosexuality and outside faiths needing permits.
Such norms produce indifference to intolerant activities as these activities are seen as protecting the status quo and contributing to the nationalist project of unifying citizens. It also over emphasises the ethno-cultural-nationalist focus.
Christians in some parts of Indonesia, particularly West Java, suffer under discriminatory laws and by-laws that suppress their religious identity or reduce it to specific limits of acceptance. Other areas such as Malang city in East Java are comparably tolerant. Christian and ethnic communities such as Chinese and Hindus are undisturbed.
However, the fact that arbitrary conditions can be mandated for Christian places of worship and to restrict proselytising, signifies insecurity and a lack of enforcement of minority rights. It is testament to state apathy and consent that in particularly tense regions, sites of worship are policed by thug-like Islamist groups with little police objection.
Many churches find that they cannot secure necessary permits due to an impasse with residents, local leaders, and regional heads of government. Churches that are accused of operating without a permit become the targets of harassment and intimidation from Islamists or are shut down by authorities.
Diversity does not apply to just anyone. Some identities are completely unrecognized. Last year Alexander Ang was beaten up at work by colleagues for his atheist beliefs (discovered on Facebook) and subsequently jailed under the blasphemy law.
Even unity in diversity cannot override blasphemy, and yet neither Pancasila nor the state establishes a defence for such injustice. Atheist identities are anonymous, both in the national ideology of Pancasila, whose first article is belief in the one and only God, and when individuals are systematically categorised by the many identification documents that require them to list a religion.
The state approves just six acceptable religions?not including atheism, Judaism, Animism and polytheistic beliefs. Sim cards, cable television, even hairdressers and beauty salons, request an individual's religion on their registration lists. Supposedly secular schools contain mission statements acknowledging devotion to God as first priority, assuming unanimous belief in a monotheistic God.
Students are taught a deity-neutral prayer that they parrot before classes and meals. What is worse than adults having to constantly decide who and what they are, is children being categorized before they even understand what it means to own a hereditary identity. Systematic categorisation and documentation of potentially discriminatory aspects of identity reinforces social and political margins of belonging.
The tug of war between diversity and homogeneity has rarely conferred legally certain equal minority rights. Religious groups such as the Ahmadiyah and Shia, who live among mainstream Muslims, have been attacked, oppressed and exiled from their communities. Such is their stigma that West Lombok regional heads have even suggested Ahmadis be relocated to an island for their own protection.
At this time, for instance, 20 Ahmadiyah followers are waiting in their mosque, sealed by local government, for the West Java Bekasi administration to allow them to practice their religion freely, without having to remove 'Islam' and their connection to it from all references or from having their Imams chosen for them.
A 2008 joint ministerial decree and West Java gubernatorial decree banned Ahmadis from propagating their beliefs, in spite of the 1945 Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religious belief to minorities.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) can strengthen social solidarity by employing the language of human rights rhetoric to push for ethnic and cultural minority rights.
Indonesia's strengthening civil society can work against homogenizing pressures to solidify elements of civic nationalism into the prevailing but unworkable ethno-cultural nationalism, to empower an equal, participative political community rather than marginalising and suppressing difference.
For example, in reaction to the Bekasi Ahmadis' plight, groups for pluralism and religious freedom marched in Jakarta to decry the government's inaction in addressing religious intolerance. The government's apathetic approach to certain minority groups, and unwillingness to monitor police and local government bias, is now backfiring as civil organisations have become more vocal and politicised.
Protests might not yet have forced President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's hand, or resulted in secure legislation, however ongoing mobilisation and politicisation of rights issues and citizenship through the lens of civic nationalism, will have a better chance of success, especially if civil society organisations operate in a conducive environment.
Civic engagement faces many challenges, not least a pending Bill on Mass Organisations (ORMAS) that would place authoritarian restrictions on civil society organisations.
Indonesia today is thus both a minefield of conflict and tension as well as a reservoir of patience and forbearance whose people have to put up with a lot. Their leaders perpetuate extractive political and economic systems, poverty affects more than half the population, and a history of violence and disorder has embedded a culture of police and military impunity.
Corruption is a way of life. Graft scandals involving elites are a weekly spectacle in the news. The abundance of natural resources and their subsequent exploitation, has not translated into a better quality of life for most, despite the buzz around the expanding middle class.
Social justice in society is improving slowly with excruciating steps from democratizing elements and civil society. A civic approach to nationalism alternatively adopts the view that minorities are equal rights bearing citizens, making human rights language-recognition of claims holders and obligations of duty bearers-more explicit.
The tension of consolidating the national identity of such a vast expanse of island habitats and their inhabitants is portrayed in the struggle for the power to control, limit, express and define legitimate patriotic identities through narrow nationalist ethnic and cultural terms.
'Unity in diversity' conceals a hegemony that interprets diversity inflexibly. Instead of pluralism and diversity, it is in fact homogeneity that is employed to glue together the diverse regional ethnic and religious identities of 242 million people.
In the midst of conflict and intolerance, it seems like the nationalist focus leads to a self perception that defines individuals only in relation to what they are not, therefore continually creating an 'Other'. Indonesia is large and there are multitudes of examples of tolerance and pluralism, however ethnic and cultural diversity continues to challenge the mainstream sufficiently enough to incite conflict, intolerance, and discrimination and to render citizenship status insecure.