Monday, July 07, 2008

Creeping Toward Theocracy Without Constitutionalism in Indonesia: Using the State to Suppress Competitor Religions

Once upon a time, the state had, among its many duties, the suppression of heretical sects and the policing of the good behavior of tolerated religions. In 1500 Europe, for example , monarchs were expected to serve as the secular enforcers of the religious orthodoxy of the one true and only version of Christianity. Greek Christians were heretics, but far away and mostly the problem of Islam as territory populated by Greek Christians came increasingly under the control of Muslim conquerors. In those lands the conquerors sought to displace one eternal claim on the character of a particular territory (that of the Greeks) for another (their own). But within the lands under their control, there was a fierce and ruthless willingness to use the secular arm in the service of an expression of the only and only faith at the behest of those who would speak for it. Religious dissent and political dissent tended to be inextricably conflated. The Albigensians in France, the dissenters in England, the Hussites (Catholic version) in Bohemia and any number of others were branded as heretics and then given over to the state. The functioning of the Holy Office in its heyday prior to the Protestant Reformation was intimately tied to the police powers of the state. But all that changed with the rise of powerful heretical movements that eventually morphed into separate faith communities. It seems that what ultimately distinguished heresy from legitimate (and competing) religion, in early modern Europe at least, was the size and power of the community of its members. For others, there was severe discipline, or exploitation and expulsion. And death. Even after the rise of the state system in which religion was privatized (to a greater or lesser extent) and the state, certainly after the 19th century) was meant to serve multiple faith communities.

Still, little whiffs of this old fashioned fusion can still be discerned within Europe, and even encouraged when it suited the secular West. Poland provided the best example. Catholicism and anti-communism came together there to contribute to the transition from one sort of regime to another. The understanding was that religion could be a potent political force. And in that form--and against the Soviet Union--it was happily deployed in Poland and Afghanistan in the 1980s. And religion has always worked in the background as a powerful political force. But that role, especially in the United States, was as faction rather than as a directly controlling political force. "By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." James Madison, Federalist, No. 10 (November 22, 1787). With little access to official state power to enforce their norms, religion was relegated to politicking among the faithful for the attainment of its religious goals within the political sphere. The key ingredient of the old settlement was missing--the power to eliminate competing factions.

How interesting, then, to watch the use of the instruments of secular democracy in the service of a usurping religion, and the consequences for minority faith communities. I have spoken about the resurrection of apostasy as a public offense within democratic constitutionalism. See Larry Catá Backer, Constitution and Apostasy in Afghanistan, Law at the End of the Day, March 28, 2006. And I have spoken of one consequence, and uncomfortable one for Christians minorities within the dar al Islam, of the conversion of religion from a private to a public institution. See, Larry Catá Backer, The Other Sectarian War in Iraq: Iraqi Christians, the Vatican, American "Soft" Islam and a Future of Fractured Constitutionalism, Law at the End of the Day (September 19, 2007).

But now, it seems, that faction itself is becoming a potent weapon in the hands of religion--to undo the system of democratic governance through which it derived its voice. Faction, it seems, in the hands of religion may be the the means through which the techniques of democratic governance can be used to undo the democratic state itself. It was with this in mind that I read the rather bland report about a harder version of Islam that appears to have become the voice of democracy in Indonesia. Lucy Williamson, Indonesia Clerics 'Growing Force,' BBC News Online, July 7, 2008. The article itself is meant to publicize and legitimate a Report from a civil society actor, the International Crisis Group, that complains about the way that Islam is using the techniques of civil society engagement with democracy to suppress its enemies--that is to use the state to suppress its religious adversaries. For all that, the report was troubling for devotees of robust democratic factional politics.
On 9 June 2008, the Indonesian government announced a joint ministerial decree “freezing” activities of the Ahmadiyah sect, an offshoot of Islam whose members venerate the founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. For months hardline Islamic groups had been ratcheting up the pressure for a full ban, while civil rights groups and many public figures argued that any state-imposed restrictions violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
International Crisis Group, Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree: Overview, Asia Briefing N°78 (7 July 2008). Indonesia has not become an Iranian theocracy; nor have Islamic divines usurped the system. Instead, "careful lobbying by hard line clerics is giving them a greater role in the country's politics. Hard line groups are poorly represented in parliament, but the report says they are finding ways around that. They have, it says, been able to develop contacts in the country's bureaucracy, and have used classic civil society techniques to influence government policy. " Indonesia Clerics 'Growing Force,' supra.
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
Federalist No. 10. Madison agreed that factions could be checked when none attained a majority. Where a faction was able to enlist a majority of citizens, then Madison suggests, direct democracy can easily be subverted. The cure for this ill, he argued, can be found in a federal republican form of governance grounded in the extension of the territory and number of peoples forming the population of the state--the larger and more heterogeneous the population the less likely that any one faction can attain a majority . But the rationale for this suggestion was, in retrospect, weak--it relied on a sort of Pyramid scheme for its effect.
Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
Federalist No. 10. But Madison assumed that the greatest factions would be no faction at all. Religion, as a private matter was to remain beyond the reach of state politics. Even assuming that religious sensibilities would color the moral and ethical compass of legislation, religion itself could not use the state to further its own particular institutional goals.
Yet that is precisely what the dominant sect of Indonesian Islamic divines means to do--and by use of the very tools of faction that Madison once suggested would itself serve as a bulwark against factional usurpation.
Despite fatwas (religious opinions) on the sect from the Indonesia Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) in 1980, warning that it was dangerous, and in 2005, recommending its banning, there was no action by the government until June 2008. Why now?

At least four factors are responsible:

  • the systematic lobbying over the last five years of the bureaucracy, particularly the religious affairs ministry, for action against Ahmadiyah;
  • the search by hardline groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (Hizbut Tahrir is the Indonesian form of the international organisation’s name), for issues that would gain them sympathy and help expand membership;
  • the unthinking support given by the Yudhoyono administration to institutions such as the MUI and Bakorpakem, a body set up under the attorney general’s office at the height of Soeharto’s New Order to monitor beliefs and sects; and
  • political manoeuvring related to national and local elections.

Indonesia: Implications of the Ahmadiyah Decree: Overview, supra. But of course, factional politics is never enough. The real language of power is violence--and Indonesia's divines have not been reluctant to exercise their power violently. "In the week leading up to the issuance of the decree, two other factors came into play. One was a fear of violence that increasingly dominated government (re)action. On 1 June 2008 a thug-dominated Muslim militia attacked a group of the decree’s opponents, sending twelve of them to the hospital and ten militia members to court." Id. See also Report at p. 7. Madison, it seems, was right. Factions can be a powerful force. He was also right to believe that factions were essentially anti-democratic yet unavoidable. Yet he failed to understand the ability of non-political institutions to reconstitute themselves as faction. And he also vastly underestimated both the strength of religion-as-faction to threaten the very system set up to avoid the conflicts among religions as institutional actors. He never anticipated that religion could fashion itself as a majority faction "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source." Federalist No. 10, supra. But the world today is not that of an 18th century American colonial matrix of dozens of essentially Protestant sects united by their common Christianity and divided by the minutiae of important differences in the expression of that faith. Global institutional religion, like global economic enterprises and civil society elements now dwarf states. The traditional theoretics of faction have been inverted.

And thus the creeping toward theocracy without benefit of constitutionalism. Of course, the Indonesians did not invent the modern forms of state suppression of competing religions at the behest of dominant faith communities. The Iranian Shi'a Islamic hierarchy has been ferocious in its persecution of Baha'is as heretics--deploying state power for that purpose. For the views from the persecuted community, see Persecution of the Baha'is in Iran. In its Christian Orthodox forms, of course, the disciplining is far more managerial and bureaucratic. The Russian Law on Religion is a case in point--instituted for the most part to control threats to the domination of the Russian Orthodox establishment against evangelical Christian sects.

While the Western press and global civil society frets about "hard line" Islamists in Indonesia, they miss the essential point of the suppression of the Ahmadiyah: religion as an institutional (rather than a moral and ethical) actor within systems of secular factional democracy. As institutional actors serving their own ends (rather than those of the state) they present a challenge to organized political power that, on the one hand may produce theocratic constitutionalism, and on the other theocratic governance without constitutionalism. Indonesia points to a third alternative: one in which the forms of secular constitutionalism masks the hegemony of religion without the protections of constitutional restraint. For it is one thing for religion to politic for the expression of state power in accordance with a certain morals and ethics; it is quite another for religion to advance its own institutional goals through the power of the state. And that, precisely, is what those Indonesian Islamic divines have intended.

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