Friday, April 06, 2007

Indonesia is experiencing an identity crisis

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (Apri 5, 2007)

Al Makin

The recent support of the Indonesian government for UN Security Council Resolution 1743 on Iran's nuclear program has led to another public controversy. This, without any doubt, resembles to the public responses to the short visit of U.S. President George W. Bush here last year.

More importantly, those events have raised confusion about our national identity. To be clear, we can perhaps break down the question into the following: Are we Muslims or Indonesians? Can we maintain our unique nature as Muslims and Indonesians at the same time?
Then, questions that are more straightforward may appear: What kind of intention do we have in mind now, to build a secular modern state or an Islamist sharia-based state? Are we somewhere in the stages of turning from the former to the latter? If so, we are now simply ignoring our founding fathers' commitment to respect for diversity through their fight against attempts to insert the word sharia in the state ideology.

It looks difficult then to describe our own collective identity as a nation with confidence. What is certain is the unlucky position of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. During his administration the process of radicalization has gained momentum, which seems to overshadow the process of democratization.

Given the situation, the government has to manage as wisely as possible the use of religious sentiment in the political realm. In doing so, the Yudhoyono administration has so far failed to show any consistency, unfortunately.

On one hand, Yudhoyono displays no clear response to the enactment of over 50 sharia-based regional ordinances across the country. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid once commented cynically on this attitude that, like many other public figures, Yudhoyono seems to be afraid of being labeled as anti-Islam or Islamo-phobic.

Naive as it may sound, Yudhoyono has even tried to present his own image and to defend his administration against any possible blame for failure to address problems by exploiting religious sentiment. This was evident at least in the zikir nasional (national repentance) held in the Istiqlal mosque together with his Cabinet members and top state officials recently.
This feature reflects Yudhoyono's own belief that he himself needs religious legitimacy to defend his position.

On the other hand, the recent support for the UN Resolution contains certain courage. This was as bold as Yudhoyono's acceptance of Bush. In both cases, numerous opinions written in the national media attacked the government's policy and, to be sure, the masses took to streets and yelled their anti-Western attitude, based mainly on their religious emotions.

It is very likely that in both cases the government had already anticipated the harsh public reception. The public seem to think that anything related to the U.S. and the West ought to be rejected and is automatically against the Muslim interests. Of course, this attitude is based upon incorrect theological rather than political considerations. To them, Iran is simply a Muslim country and its people are their brothers, so much so that it is not important anymore to understand what the case really is.

By contrast, the Indonesian government's support for the resolution is clearly in line with the interests of the U.S. To put the point differently, the U.S. has been often perceived as the mastermind of troubles plaguing in the world and even in the country. As for Yudhoyono, however, the show must go on.

In the Iran sanction case, the opposition bloc at the House is directly targeting Yudhoyono through their interpellation petition. For those who do not like Yudhoyono, it seems the time has come to stir up the emotion of the people, regardless of the possibility that they may not understand the matter at hand.

It suffices to tell us, given the fact that our identity of being unique Indonesian Muslims has gone, it leaves us nothing but to stick to our Muslim identity and will lead to fantaticisim. Accordingly, it would be hard now, if not impossible, to address the public with the real issues, such as the content of the resolution and the reasons why we are supporting it. Not to mention how the current international situation and the long complicated conflict of so many interests in the Middle East could be better understood.

Politicians who signed the petition have seized the momentum to achieve certain goals. Whether or not the interpellation petition may work or not, at least they have exercised religious sentiment in their political rhetoric.

One may suggest that Yudhoyono counter the attack using the same religious sentiment, such as by holding a bigger mass prayer. But resorting to religious conviction for political gains will only exacerbate our crisis of identity, I'm afraid.

The writer is a lecturer at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Yogyakarta and a doctoral candidate at the Seminar fur Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients at Heidelberg University in Germany. He can be reached at