Vajra Reza Alam | Research assistant to a University of Indonesia adjunct professor
Jakarta | Tue, January 17, 2017 | 03:28 pm

As journalist Kate Lamb points out in her Guardian article (Dec. 12, 2016) in the wake of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s blasphemy trial, Indonesia has seen rising religious intolerance, growing discrimination and attacks against religious minorities, as well as a wave of vitriol against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Aggravating intolerance has unleashed a deluge of hate speech on online platforms, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself expressed concern about the situation.

In a number of occasions, the President said that social media were full of provocative remarks and hateful exchanges between those who condemn Ahok’s controversial reference to the Quran and those who support the governor from a humanist and pluralist point of view.

I completely agree with the President that the death of civility in our cyberspace is something that we should fear, but probably a much more pressing and farreaching quandary facing the nation is the fact that many of us, especially the netizens, are extremely polarized between the “anti-Ahok conservatives” and the “pro-Ahok progressives”, so that hope for constructive dialogue between the two groups is vanishing.

As an advocate of both pluralism and tolerance, I have always been interested in engaging in honest and sincere conversation with those who oppose these values, but it is getting increasingly difficult to take part in such a communication in today’s divisive atmosphere.

There is one author, however, who really inspires me in this regard, and that is Maajid Nawaz, a British counter-extremist and liberal activist.

In 2012, Nawaz published a book entitled Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism, which details his life experiences, including embracing Islamism to then denouncing it after being imprisoned for five years by the Egyptian authorities for being closely linked to Hizb utTahrir, an organization banned in Egypt.

The most significant impact of the book on me was Nawaz’s statement that, “Any prisoner held solely for the non-violent expression of their beliefs, no matter how illiberal, has an automatic and unconditional right to our support as a fellow human being.”

This shows that despite his contempt for Islamic extremism, he recognizes that to deny the right to free speech is indeed immoral.

I did not fully understand the true meaning of Nawaz’s quote until recently. Growing up in a typical middle-class neighborhood in a Jakarta suburb, I had a close friend who lived nearby, with whom I did many activities together, although we came from vastly different worlds.

While my parents are well-educated liberals, his whole family is strongly attached to conservative Islamic values.

Our differences in terms of our outlook on life in general could not be more staggering. Whilst I believe in pluralism and tolerance, he believes in imposing sharia law in Indonesia.

As we grew older, we frequently became engaged in heated debates, which at times compromised our friendship.

One day we took part in a community outreach program organized by an NGO and set up a makeshift class in one of Jakarta’s poorest shanty towns to teach English to some children, many of whom had to quit school for economic reasons.

What was most astonishing, however, was that most of the children said they were relieved or even happy that they had left school, as they could start making money right away doing odd jobs.

I was naturally disappointed to hear that and tried to convince them that staying in school would give them a much better future in the long run, yet my liberal argument fell on deaf ears.

I knew they did not buy it, because they remained quiet and somewhat dismissive.

Faced by a cold response like this, I did not know what to say and felt dejected. But, precisely at that moment, my friend chimed in, “Hey, have you guys ever heard of the Quranic verse, ‘Allah will exalt […] those who have been granted knowledge to high ranks’? You must’ve learned the hadith ‘Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim.’

So, you should all stay in school, don’t you think?” When he said this, all the kids in the room started listening; their eyes were even glistening with a shimmering hope — and I was blown away.

Having distanced myself from religious fundamentalism all my life, this was an epiphany. I realized that one could effectively interpret scriptural verses for humanitarian work, beyond strictly religious settings, simply because the individual who references them is genuinely concerned for fellow human beings.

My friend was obviously one of such individuals. He embraces intolerant religious ideas — and I strongly condemn them — but as long as his concern for humanity is truthful, we can continue our dialogue.

Nawaz’s ideas reminded me that, if we truly believe in pluralism and tolerance, we have to learn to live and work with those who reject these values and engage them in a genuine conversation.

And this is very pertinent to the double bind faced by our democracy at the moment.

Since the outbreak of the controversy surrounding Governor Ahok, who happens to be a Christian of ethnic Chinese descent, a rallying cry of, “Don’t vote for a non-Muslim candidate!” has gotten so out of control that it threatens to impair the meritocratic principle of our democracy, i.e. a notion that power should be vested in individuals exclusively based on ability and talent without any reference to his or her personal attributes such as race, ethnicity, religion and gender.

So, the crucial question is, then, how should we reconcile this moral stance with another important democratic principle of “one man, one vote” and the “rule of the majority”? If, after all, the majority of our voters decide to choose Muslim candidates over non-Muslim competitors, simply because of their religious preference, shouldn’t we just accept it as the people’s voice?

My answer to this is a resounding “No.” I think that those of us who firmly believe in pluralism and tolerance must do our best to resist that kind of primordial shift in our public opinion.

And the best way to prevent such a parochial, sectarian view from holding sway over our voters is to have a genuine dialogue with them, for only through a sincere and honest conversation can we win over their hearts and minds.

Any quick fix, such as banning hardline groups, is not only undemocratic, but it would also amount to surrendering our convictions, and once we choose to go down that path, we’ll ultimately contradict the very essence of our values and lose our moral high ground for good.

Nawaz’s rendition of the Voltairean dictum — I disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it — seems to offer an effective antidote to the intolerant ideas surging in our country.

This post is also available in: English