Religion, public space

Amina Rasul

Posted on March 16, 2012

There is something about Jakarta that reinvigorates visiting Muslim intellectuals? Perhaps it is the freedom so evident when Indonesian scholars and analysts come together to discuss critical and sensitive issues, with honesty and a genuine desire to arrive at the truth.

Perhaps it is the fact that the Indonesian Islamic universities have produced generations of Muslim scholars who do not just teach about Islam as if it is a static religion but who actually engage in discussions about the context. For these reasons and more, it is exciting to be in Jakarta. I keep hoping that Philippine Muslim scholars could have stronger links with their colleagues in Indonesia, whose wealth of knowledge on Islamic issues cannot be matched by our Arab colleagues because of the simple fact that Indonesia can appreciate our faith within the context of our common regional environment. But that is another story to tell at another time. I had been invited to share Philippine experiences on religion and politics at the conference on "Religion in Public Spaces in Contemporary South East Asia," organized by colleagues at the Center for Islam and Society, Islamic University of Jakarta (PPIM UIN) and supported by the ASEAN Foundation and the Embassy of Canada in Indonesia. The conference looked for answers to the sensitive questions about the role of religion in conflict and in peace, especially since religion has been increasingly present in the public space here in Southeast Asia. As the conference organizers noted, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, debates have been vociferous about whether religious militant ideology, especially Islamic ideology, is a threat to the world political order.

Peoples of faith have participated in democratic as well as non-democratic processes, pushing for their agenda by claiming their seat at the political table. In times of crisis, people turn to faith for comfort, support and guidance. We have seen the rise to power of faith-based political parties and movements in response to perceived threats, whether military, political or financial. Globally, we have seen the rise of religious fundamentalism and faith based politics -- whether Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. Unfortunately, as politics and religion come together, we also witness the rise of intolerance.

In the United States, the Christian right (right-wing Christian political groups), strong in the South, is very influential in the Republican Party. They have influenced the Republican position on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and support for Israel (which puts them at loggerheads with the Muslims when it comes to issues such as Palestine).

In some European countries like the Netherlands and Germany, the influx of big Muslim migrant populations have created political parties who rally their conservative Christian constituents to protect the status quo (such as protection of local labor against Muslim migrants) by espousing policies that fan Islamophobia.

In democratizing Muslim communities after the Arab Spring, we see the rise to power of faith-based political parties with a conservative world view. While this should not cause trepidations in the West, where conservative religious movements also hold influence in the political arena, there will be contestations over issues where the West and some conservative Muslim communities hold opposite views -- such as Palestine and gender issues.

Developments in Southeast Asia have been no different. There is persistent debate on the nature and causes of the recent rise of Islamic sentiment and Islamist politics in Southeast Asia. Some see the rise as a reflection of a growing general interest in religion and a desire to bring Islam into the public sphere. Modern economic development and democratic systems are being infused with Islamic tenets and values. This view holds that the extremists and terrorists are but fringe groups in this general movement.

Years after the attacks of 9/11, we have seen growing rigidity in the "moderate" Southeast Asian region.

When the governments of ASEAN joined the US-led war on terror, they strengthened military approaches to eliminate the threats to security and focused on the terrorist cells linked to al Qaeda, particularly in Indonesia and in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. Unfortunately, the over-reliance of governments on a military approach to eliminating terrorism and neutralizing radicalization of Muslim communities has had serious collateral damages and not just property damages.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which had been conducting peace talks with the government since 1996, was declared a terrorist organization by then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Of course, she withdrew the label within months. However, this served to make the outside world view the MILF and its fight for independence as part of the global war of Muslim extremists to destroy the West. Consequently, ordinary Muslim citizens felt that they were being targeted or profiled as security threats. Identity politics and faith had become intertwined in communities that were under threat.

Also unfortunately, others, who see a radical in every mosque or madrasah, see political Islam as an expansion of extremist ideology following the events of 9/11, and related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This perspective unfortunately ignores the plurality of Southeast Asian societies and of Southeast Asian Muslims, who base their identities on a complex mix of religious, ethnic and national elements as well. Painting Southeast Asian Muslims with a radical brush risks skewing the positive relationship the West would like to have with the region. What is needed is an appreciation for the diversity within Southeast Asia and among Muslims the world over, and a better understanding of the issues specific to each, such as the ethnic conflict in Muslim Mindanao, Philippines.

In our region, pluralism has been under attack. If we are not careful, identity politics, religious intolerance, discrimination, and fear of "the other" may negate the successes of pluralism in our communities. In 2008, for instance, friends and colleagues from Jakarta who held a peaceful rally for religious tolerance (protecting the rights of the beleaguered Ahmadiyyah sect) were severely beaten up by an Islamic group who attacked the rally.

I related our own experiences in the Philippines, taking note of the fact that the Philippine Constitution supports the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. In its Declaration of Principles and State Policies (Article II, Section 6), the Constitution states: "The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable."

Article III, Section 5 of the Bill of Rights states: "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights."

Article VI, Section 29 (The Legislative Department) disallows the appropriation and release of public funds for purely religious reasons.

However, the Catholic Church (including the Catholic faith group known as the El Shaddai) and the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) have exerted tremendous political influence, with capacity to sway government position on public policy issues such as on reproductive health. To show strength, the church leaders organize rallies to show support for one issue or another.

(Take the recent prayer rally organized by the INC at the Luneta Park. The INC massed 300,000 together -- on a weekday -- for a Grand Evangelical Mission to pray for the nation. This was not even an annual INC event. Traffic was tangled for hours. Of course, there couldn’t be any truth to the rumor that the INC was flexing its muscle, as the Senate was busy with the impeachment trial of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, whose chief defense lawyer was INC member Serafin Cuevas.)

But I digress.

In spite of the avowed separation of church and state, the reality is that the Christian churches -- particularly the Catholic Church -- have tremendous influence. It cannot be denied that Catholicism, being the faith of the majority, does get preferential treatment in the public space. A visible proof: most government agencies conduct regular masses for the employees and have shrines of the Virgin Mary installed in their offices. The other faiths, however, do not enjoy the same privilege. An ecumenical prayer room for all faiths is a rarity.

Although peoples of the other faiths have never complained about this, perhaps government should start thinking about the inclusion of an ecumenical/meditation room for all to use. At least, with this one visible evidence, the Philippines can affirm its commitment to coexistence of all faiths. Reality will match rhetoric.

Wouldn’t that be something? A public space for all religions.