An Indonesian lesson in inter-faith trust

Not only Indonesia, but also South-east Asia, received a religious vote of confidence when the archipelagic nation's two most influential Islamic organisations decided to deploy volunteers to enhance security during Christmas. Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) are household names which represent a wide spectrum of pious Muslims comfortable with Indonesia's religious diversity. The organisations have provided an important backdrop of historical continuity and assurance for the future during often volatile developments.

Indonesia's ideals of religious tolerance and co-existence, which are enshrined in the state ideology of Pancasila, have been challenged by extremist, fanatical, militant or outright terrorist groups masquerading as defenders of the Muslim public interest. Attacks on minorities, both outside and within the faith community, have threatened to cause a contraction of the overlapping spaces inhabited by diverse religious groups. What Muhammadiyah and NU have done, along with other well-intentioned organisations, is to push back the incursions that hate-driven groups and individuals have made into public life. Aiding the police to protect churches during Christmas celebrations was a pointed reminder that violent revisionists cannot alter the character and deflect the course of an entire nation.

In crucial ways, South-east Asia is Indonesia writ large. Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other communities share historical and contemporary space with animists, agnostics and atheists in a region defined by the capacity for cultural inclusiveness born of religious diversity. No religion can claim to be the central faith of all of South-east Asia. By the same logic, no religion can be pushed back and away into the unwanted realms of marginality. Yet, there is no dearth of the regressive who are willing to invest their lives and take others' in a violent effort to try and reclaim a village, a town, a city, a region or a nation as exclusively their own. Muhammadiyah and NU have said "no" to the purveyors of such hate. Other organisations in the region should step up to the challenge similarly whenever religious minorities in their backyards are threatened with cultural, to say nothing of physical, extinction.

Singaporeans, who live in a secular state which protects all religions but is partial towards none, would be attracted instinctively to the idea of a South-east Asia for all faiths. Yet they, too, must guard against attempts to encroach into the common civic space and demarcate it along exclusively religious lines. The separation of religion and politics helps to keep the Singapore commons intact.