Monday, November 26, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 26, 2007


Alfred C. Stepan, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion (CDTR) at Columbia University in New York, was recently in Indonesia to address a discussion on "The World's Religious System and Democracy: Crafting the `Twin Tolerations'", organized by the Center for Dialogues and Cooperation among Civilizations (CDCC) and the Paramadina University. The Jakarta Post's contributor Alpha Amirrachman participated in the discussion.

Question: What is your position on the relation between state and religion?

Answer: We have to start with empirical analysis. Let's say that everyone here wants to have something we call democracy and at the same time also wants to have a very active religious life. And if there is secularism, it is often regarded as a prerequisite to building democracy. However, I should say that this (secularism) is most profoundly misconceptionalized, even among Western intellectuals.

Secularism is not only inaccurately conceived as a prediction of where a society will go, it is also a prescription that you have to be secular to become a democrat. Nevertheless, most democracies are not anti-religion.

I should stress that they don't ally themselves with religion, but give some support to religion. The simplistic version of modernization theory implies that there are at least four reinforcing dichotomies: traditional versus modern societies, high religious practicing societies versus low religious practicing societies, little separation of church and state versus strict separation of church and state, and non-democratic regimes versus democratic.

However, three of the most famous political scientists, Robert Dahl, Arend Lijphart and Juan L. Linz, never included any discussion of secularism in their definitions of modern democracies. None of them did.

So how would you redefine the concept of secularism?

I prefer to use the idea of "multiple secularisms" to get around some of the difficulties of the term. This would help me analyze the great variations in religion-state relations that exist in modern democracies.

In French, the essence of revolution was a hostile position with one major religion. This is regarded as the essence of modern secularism, making the state free from religion where all Catholic-oriented universities had been forced to close.

Where is Turkey? Turkey adopts the most extreme version of French secularism; they looked at what happened and wanted to have nationalism and regarded religious people as challengers to nationalism. And I don't think anybody here (in Indonesia) who wants to have an active religious life is attracted to this idea.

In the U.S., secularism is also a separation between church and religion. So everyone could construct religious freedom in their own state. And when they came together and started to think about the constitution, all they could come up is a compromise that the state should not make general law about religion.

In general, I find it more useful when discussing democracy and the world's religions to speak of what I have called the "twin tolerations", which are the minimum degree of toleration democracy needs from religion and the minimum degree of toleration that religion needs from the state for the polity to be democratic.

What is the minimum degree of toleration?

Religious institutions should not have constitutionally privileged prerogatives which allow them authoritatively to mandate public policy to democratically elected officials. The minimum degree of toleration religion needs from democracy is not only the complete right to worship, but the freedom of religious individuals and groups to publicly advance their values in civil society, and to sponsor organizations and movements in political society, as long as their public advancement of these beliefs does not impinge negatively on the liberties of other citizens, or violate democracy and the law, by violence or other means.

The financial support to religions on the part of the state in Senegal, India and Indonesia certainly violate French or U.S. ideas of a strict separation of religion and state, but does not violate citizens' human rights, or violate the necessary sphere of autonomy that I have identified as the "twin tolerations" that modern democracies need.

Certainly, the strong majority of religious leaders and followers alike in India and Senegal, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, have arrived at a mutual accommodation with, and even support of, a democratic polity and their own version of a "secular state".

Democracy is often regarded to be rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, which can be a problem in the Muslim world. Is it true that if we want to build democracy we have to adopt a liberal democracy?

We have to talk about utilization and invention. People can have desire to create something ... when they want to adapt and revise something. Like in Japan, they have Japanese capitalism which is very Japanese. In India, they have a very totally Indian version of democracy. Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid (of Nahdlatul Ulama) says that this country needs democracy, (but) he does not say (you need) Western style democracy. He said that you have many religions and you need to live peacefully.

Hence, I believe that every single religion has something that is useful for and compatible with democratic values.

What do you think of Indonesia as a new democracy but with a Muslim-majority population?

I think Indonesia has invented a system of relations between state and religion where a Religious Ministry here gives support to all religions, such as in their schooling or when their mosques or churches get burned down. So, we can live in a variety of ways. And you have Pancasila, despite its flaws, such as ambivalence about using state force to protect against Islamist violations of human rights in some parts of Indonesia, and the fact that for most of the Soeharto period, the military defined and orchestrated Pancasila, it still has some political virtues for a society such as Indonesia's.

Pancasila persistently helped defend against demands for an Islamic state religion that would have exacerbated inter-religious relations in its highly diverse and pluralistic society. Pancasila officially recognizes, and gives some support, to five religions in addition to Islam; Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and with the advent of democracy, Confucianism. In the "twin tolerations", I argued that all religions are "multi-vocal". What this means for Islam is that officially implemented systems of sharia would necessarily have a strong element of "state sharia" because one side of the multi-vocality would be state privilege and have the coercive powers of the state behind it.

What is the prospect of Indonesia becoming an Islamic state?

Due to the differences between "traditionalist" Muslims in NU, and "modernist" Muslims in Muhammadiyah -- and their political and cultural sensitivity to the existence and rights of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and non-practicing Muslims -- leaders of both these massive organizations are opposed to an Islamic state, which they know would lead to the non-consensual imposition of any single group's vision of "state sharia". Muhammadiyah's Amien Rais, for example, says that the Koran does not say anything about the formation of an Islamic state, or about Muslims' obligation to create an Islamic state, and that the Koran is not a book of law but a source of law. NU's Gus Dur is a regular participant in public arguments making the case why Indonesia, given its great social and religious diversity, which he sees as an empirical fact, should make the normative political choice for a pluralist polity.

Perhaps, like in Turkey or Pakistan, obstacles to democracy are not really posed by Islam but by military and intelligence organizations unaccountable to democratic authority.

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