Religious extremism is on the rise worldwide. The issue constitutes a serious threat to the stability and identity of nations around the globe, yet many governments and international institutions struggle to develop successful approaches to combat it.
In Southeast Asia – where religious conflict had traditionally been limited – the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in extremism, along with a serious threat to regional stability and the previous spirit of tolerance. Mohammad Kasim, from Moidaung Village in Myanmar, weeps at a transit shelter for newly arrived Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Kasim's wife and two daughters drowned when the fishing boat they were travelling in capsized on September 28. Photo: AP
In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalists have successfully pushed for the passage of discriminatory laws targeting minority religions, particularly Muslims. Meanwhile, in the context of a brutal military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west, the wider Myanmar population has embraced a religious-nationalist chauvinism that threatens the country’s shaky democratic transition.
In Malaysia, Islamic groups have become increasingly aggressive in their policing of the public sphere, and leaders have embraced the politicisation of religion as a way of securing votes and maintaining power.
Muslim demonstrators chant slogans outside Malaysia’s Court of Appeal in Putrajaya on October 14 after a Malaysian court ruled that a Christian newspaper could not use the word “Allah” to refer to God. Photo: Reuters
In many cases, Southeast Asian politicians are responding to a bottom-up development: extreme religious views embraced by larger and larger swathes of the population, with no countervailing narrative or movement to push back against this tide.
Part of the problem is that secular approaches, which aim to codify strong divisions between religious institutions and the state, eschew the important power that religion itself has to undercut the attractiveness of extremism. Where religious identities are ignored, an empty space is created and made available for extremist groups to seize and monopolise the discourse of an exclusive religion. The result is an environment that gives rise to intolerant attitudes and actions, including the promotion of violence and discrimination against other religious or ethnic groups.
A group of extremist Buddhists stage a demonstration against Sri Lanka providing refuge to any Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, in front of the United Nations office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on September 27 Photo: EPA-EFE
States that directly embrace one particular religion also tend to discriminate against minority religions and beliefs. Ultimately, their situation is similar to secular states’, as groups that monopolise ownership of “true” interpretations of religion often end up triggering religious extremism by promoting hatred and violence to preserve their dominance.
In both of these cases – the embrace of strict secularism and of religious monopolism – there exists a complete failure to cope with extremism because both approaches deny the important role of religious minorities in society. Both approaches have proven unable to create societies that are tolerant and respectful of diversity. The solution, therefore, lies not in casting religion aside or monopolising religious interpretations, but instead embracing religion’s ability to promote tolerance and forging a middle path between extreme religion and extreme secularism.
Then-independence advocate Sukarno addresses a rally in Macassar, demanding Indonesia’s freedom from the Netherlands in 1940. Sukarno would become Indonesia’s first president in 1945, and would adopt the ideology of Pancasila, advocating religious pluralism. Photo: STR
In my country, Indonesia, the embrace of religion itself as a tool in the fight against extremism is embedded within our founding ideology of Pancasila. When Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, set in place the foundations for the modern state of Indonesia, he rejected paths embraced by other Muslim-majority nations – both Turkish-style secularism and an Islamic state system like Pakistan. Instead, he proposed Pancasila as a foundation, recognising the need for an inclusive religious identity that also safeguards freedom of religion or belief.
Pancasila embraces five core principles that form Indonesia’s ideological identity: belief in God, shared humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice. Together, these principles form a bedrock that guards against the kinds of developments we have witnessed elsewhere in the region.
Indonesia’s political development has been far from perfect, of course, and we have had our fair share of inter-religious conflict in the years since Pancasila was enshrined in the constitution.
A Shiite Muslim prays at a temporary shelter in Sampang, Indonesia, in November 2012, after an incident in which about 200 believers in Shia Islam were driven from their village after a clash with Sunnis. Photo: AFP
Adherents of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, for instance, have faced persecution and displacement in West Nusa Tenggara and West Java, as have Shiite Muslims in other parts of the country. Intolerant extremist groups have, in some cases, pressured local leaders to deny rights to religious minorities.
Yet we have thus far been able to avoid becoming mired in widespread inter-religious conflict, as we are now seeing in Myanmar, because of our deeply ingrained belief in the importance of inclusivity and tolerance. This is reflected in many of our laws, such as Article 29 of the constitution, which mandates that the minister of religious affairs must be a minister for all religions, carrying the primary duty of ensuring that every citizen can possess, change or practise any religion or belief of his or her choosing. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of religious organisations registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the directorate general of culture, and thousands more operating freely in the country.
In the face of so many threats – and so many failures to address these threats – it is time for the world – and Asean, in particular – to consider adopting an alternative approach. Given the extremism challenge currently faced by a growing number of countries in Southeast Asia, it is important to look towards indigenous solutions that recognise the importance of inclusive religious identities and the institutionalisation of tolerance at all levels of government and society. This means not only passing and amending laws to incorporate precepts of freedom of religion or belief, but also reforming policies and procedures to ensure that tolerance is taught in schools and enforced in the workplace, and that it becomes a part of everyday life.