Religious Affairs Ministry and the start of Ramadhan

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, July 21 2012, 11:59 AM
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Paper Edition | Page: 6

“What is your conclusion? Do you agree with the edict that Ramadhan begins on Saturday, July 21, 2012?” asked Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, every time a leader of an Islamic organization was about to conclude his remarks on Thursday (July 19) night’s “Sidang Isbat” orchestra.

And we could see that some religious leaders, after coming up with fine explanations, suddenly became startled and looked as though thy had no choice other than to agree with “the already cooked meal.” So, what was the forum actually for?

How can we say it was democratic when personal freedom in religious affairs was interfered with by the state, favoring certain groups and disfavoring others? Why does the state not merely act as an impartial referee, since its intervention only sparks unnecessary destructive conflicts?

In this way, we can see that the Religious Affairs Ministry is no different to the colonial era’s KantoorvoorInlandschezaken, the office established for local (primarily Muslim) affairs in 1918. Beneath its appearance as an umbrella for different religious beliefs, the office is actually a political institution with hidden (and now flaunted) repressive agendas.

In the colonial period, based on advice by Snouck Hurgronje that Muslims could be controlled by having their religious affairs “administered”, the office drew up policies that were decided by the Governor General, the most-senior ranking political official.

The dissenting ulemas and their organizations were spied on and suppressed. Muslims who wanted to perform the haj pilgrimage were screened and their activities in Mecca and other places in Saudi Arabia were systematically restricted.

The main mission was simple: The existence of colonialism must be preserved at all costs. What does today’s Religious Affairs Ministry actually serve? To answer that, we need to look at the big picture.

During the transition toward democracy, the pie had to be shared to ensure a coalition. So, the ministries, where money and policies are mostly managed, became the “prey”. Every allying party received its “jatah” or share, based on their proportion after the general election.

Suryadharma, being the head of the Islamic United Development Party (PPP), was given the top post at the Religious Affairs Ministry. As long as he supports the dominant party and the president, his position will be secure, even he transforms the ministry into a “kingdom” inside a kingdom.

Publicly, therefore, he must maintain support for both his chairmanship of the PPP and his chief ministerial role at the ministry. Realizing that his party’s electability depends primarily on the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) masses and other organizations which make up the majority, he will certainly be supportive of them. His own personal religious beliefs are of no consequence, as we understand him as a politician.

Engineering the “public’s conscience” — being one of the best ways for every politician to mobilize support — is what we see every year at the Sidang Isbat, the general meeting to decide the beginning of Ramadhan and other religious rituals.

The public is forced to internalize what is right and wrong instead of allowing them to make decisions based on their own methods or ways. The “truth” is said to be only “one” and it is what everyone must acquire. To arrive at a different “truth” means to be prepared to be alienated, socially or politically.

In fact, we are talking about the teaching of a religion, which for dozens of centuries has been debated. It is also not related to the subsistence of millions of poor Indonesian Muslims who are living below accepted standards.

Why does the ministry not occupy itself, for example, with drafting and implementing regulations for religious affairs that are fair for all religious groups? Why is it not busy with eradicating its intermittent corruption practices?

Why do the officials and the religious leaders keep speaking about a version of truth when we clearly see that they are untruthful? Why is the public repeatedly tricked with a hallucinatory medicine that only relieves the pain temporarily, while the underlying disease is never solved?

At this time, we should also note that the use of the words demi persatuan (for unity) is very dangerous for democracy in Indonesia. The term “unity” gave us a tyrannical regime in the past. It was this notion — which nowadays is still used in the context of Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI) — that caused tens of thousands, or possibly even millions, of lives to be sacrificed because of perceived difference or dissent.

The use of the word “unity” potentially annihilates the powerless “others” since it is here connotatively understood as (the necessity of) “uniformity” rather than a potentially altered social contract. It directly confronts, therefore, the very idea of democracy or liberty.

To Indonesian Muslims, this idea of “uniformity” was one of the main reasons why the Ahmadis lost their rights in the public sphere. They have been coerced into accepting what the majority believes and to relinquish their own teachings.

This time, after all, we should thank the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and other like-minded organizations for their courage in being different. Without having to negatively question their intentions, we should be glad that democracy is still alive despite the wounds inflicted by our “crafty” leaders.

The writer is a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation and the Ciputat School for a Democratic Islam.

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