A Democracy Can Overcome Extremism

During the Salem witch trials of the early 1690s in colonial Massachusetts, 20 people were hanged or stoned to death after being accused and convicted of the felony of practicing witchcraft.

Three centuries later, similar scenes of mob-led religious extremism were recorded on tape this past weekend in Cikeusik, Banten.

The two dark episodes of humanity obviously took place in a different time and context.

What is clear, however, is that in both cases ignorance provoked by religious extremism and justified by government (in)action led to the violent and gruesome death of citizens.

Some people may say the Cikeusik incident is a wake-up call to the nation to restore its mantra of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or unity in diversity.

Well, we have actually had several wake-up calls, but each time we’ve hit the snooze button.

In the past few years, violence in the name of religion in this country has increased to a worrying degree. Religious violence now takes place not only in remote areas, but also right in the nation’s capital.

The closing of houses of worship, assault on an orphanage and stabbing of a religious leader all happened in front of our eyes and under full media coverage.

We cannot say that we did not see this coming.

As a democratic society, the blame rests with us. The government that has done little to prevent such acts — even possibly provoking hostility toward a certain group in some instances — is, like it or not, a democratically elected one.

Statesmen would have done well to heed Nicolo Machiavelli’s words: “When the evils that arise have been foreseen, which it is only given to a wise man to see, they can be quickly redressed; but when, through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy.”

A government that is unable to foresee and avoid conflict and does not fulfill its duty to protect its citizens must be changed.

We have the means and the obligations to do so in an orderly fashion. Even in between election cycles, civil society has the power to put pressure and contribute in setting the public agenda.

Nevertheless, changing governments alone (which was obviously a great luxury during Machiavelli’s time) will not do the job if people remain ignorant of the intolerance around them.

The fact that some religion-related conflicts were “resolved” through relocation of the lesser group means that the government and society accept the intolerance.

Relocation may deter physical clashes in the short term, but it reinforces the message that if the extremists make a fuss, they will have their way.

Add a few cycles of this and they will feel empowered to take harsher action when the perceived infidels defy their ultimatum.

In dealing with these types of issues, we need to be crystal clear that it is not a particular community that we are defending, nor a specific group that we are fighting.

It is about defending the fundamental human rights and upholding the constitutional rights of every Indonesian citizen: the right to live and practice religion. This fight is against violence, extremism and ignorance.

Therefore it is mind-boggling to see how much effort and focus are being put into the joint decree of three ministers and other administrative and procedural red herrings.

Instead, we must go all out on making sure that our children receive a good-quality education that truly fosters tolerance and not hypocrisy, that our economy is growing in an equitable manner, that our political system is built to reflect a healthy democracy and that as a society and as a nation we come together without any prejudice.

Good education, proper livelihoods, fair political representation and social cohesion are the ultimate kryptonite to religious bigotry — not a piece of paper signed by any number of state ministers.

The real solutions are long-term ones, not a result of a few hours or days of “inter-faith” meetings or community dialogue.

In pursuit of the real solutions, we need to be a society that is educated and sufficiently sophisticated that we can intellectually disagree without being emotionally disturbed and physically violent.

Or as Aristotle eloquently put it, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

And enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution is the admonition “to develop the nation’s intellectual life.”

Of course the same document also went further to suggest the country needs to contribute to a world order based on freedom, lasting peace and social justice.

Our president seems to be very keen on this and has even dared to write to his most powerful counterpart in the United States about it. Surely it is a quality that has its virtue at the right time. But we must remind ourselves that like every good thing, it must begin at home. Our home.

Michael C. Putrawenas is an adviser to the Indonesian School in the Netherlands. The views expressed are his own.


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  • Byline

    Michael is a professional leader in the fields of energy investments, complex commercial deals, and sustainability with extensive international experience. His personal interests span from socio-political issues, history, and culture.

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