What should a Religion Minister in Indonesia be like?

Whenever Indonesian Presidents unveiled their cabinet in the past, the name that went with the title of Religious Affairs Minister was never the one that generated most interest or discussion.

 Posted by: Ardi Wirdana October 3, 2014

Whenever Indonesian Presidents unveiled their cabinet in the past, the name that went with the title of Religious Affairs Minister was never the one that generated most interest or discussion. For so long, choosing a Religion Minister in Indonesia had been a pretty straightforward and predictable affair. This time round, however, the most populous Muslim country in the world is bound to pay more of an attention, given the extraordinary circumstances it currently finds itself in.

In recent months, Indonesia has had to deal with various grave matters related to religion. The country was left feeling let down earlier in the year when the religious affairs ministry was found to have been emeshed in a massive Haj corruption scandal, allegedly involving the minister.

At the same time, Indonesian Muslims have been an easy target of provocation by extremist group ISIL or ISIS, with at least 30 Indonesians estimated to have joined the jihadist movement. From within, the country has had several issues of religious disharmony to deal with, brought about by intolerant organisations like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), while cases involving minority sects like the Sampang Shiite case still remained unresolved.

With less than a month before naming his cabinet members, President elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will have quite a task in finding the right man to be religion minister in Indonesia who can help find a solution to all these problems. The fact that he himself has been on the end of some serious religion-related rumours and accusations may just be an added burden weighing at the back of his mind.

Last week, all the rumours seemed to have taken a toll on him. When reporters asked him about another rumour suggesting that he planned to have the religious affairs ministry abolished from the government, Jokowi snapped.

“Why do you keep asking about the religious affairs ministry?” Mr Widodo blurted out.

The reaction was a response to a barrage of inquiries by lively reporters regarding rumours suggesting that Jokowi was planning to have the Religious Affairs Ministry abolished from the government. He firmly denied the rumors and assured that the ministry will exist and function as normal.

Party Pressure for Religion Minister in Indonesia

Before picking the right man to take charge of the ministry, Jokowi must firstly decide whether he would go for a partisan or non partisan figure for the post. Jokowi and vice president Jusuf Kalla, even before being elected, had promised to move away from ‘transactional politics’, especially when naming cabinet members and have vowed to give key ministerial posts to competent professionals instead of party politicians.

It is not yet clear whether the religious affairs was one of the ministries earmarked for a non-partisan minister, but Islamic parties in Jokowi’s ruling Gotong Royong coalition have been showing signs indicating that the post of religion minister in Indonesia is likely to be filled by a party politician.

The National Awakening Party (PKB) and United Development Party (PPP), both Islamic-based parties, are reported to be keen on nominating their party members for the Religious Affairs ministerial post. PKB, which has been part of the Gotong Royong coalition since its formation, is understood to have the upper hand over PPP, which has yet to decide whether it will switch sides, after pledging its vows to support Prabowo Subianto throughout the election campaign. PPP is likely to back its member and current religion minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin for the post. The former lawmaker is gaining growing support and popularity in his ministerial role, after replacing former minister Suryadharma Ali who has been named suspect in a Haj corruption case.

However, Jokowi will also be aware that rewarding a political pal with a ministerial post in a ministry that has proven to be one of the most corrupt is a move that may not go down well with a lot of people.

President SBY was on the receiving end of some strong criticism when he opted to replace PPP party chairman Suryadharma Ali, with Lukman, another PPP politician. Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) claimed SBY simply “bowed down to political pressure” instead of focusing on reform when he made the decision.

There is obviously no guarantee that a non-partisan figure will be free of any wrongdoing. However, given the history of corruption in the ministries when led by a partisan minister, some observers are of the opinion that the religion ministry post is best awarded to someone with no party affiliations. A non partisan figure, they believe, will also avoid conflicting political interest.

Combating Extremism

Mr Lukman in his short term as minister has won the approval of many. One of the things Lukman has earned credit for is his stance on religious extremism, particularly the notorious ISIL group. While some politicians have been trying to play down the dangers of the ISIS movement, Mr Lukman has been vocal in condemning their actions.

“I think the threat of ISIS, from Indonesia’s point of view, is very big,” he said to BBC Indonesia. “It is a serious matter because not only does it go against the ideology of the majority of Muslims in Indonesia but it could also disrupt our lives as a nation and country.”

The government has officially banned ISIS in Indonesia, and the religious affairs ministry has made early efforts to combat the spread of ISIS ideology by holding discussions with religious leaders and organisations. However, the threat remains.

It is reported ISIS militants from Indonesia and Malaysia have recently formed a Malay-speaking military unit. With the ISIS problem persisting, Indonesia will be hoping for a minister who will adopt a similarly stern stance on the issue.

ISIS, however, is just one of a number of troublesome issues the ministry will have to deal with. At home, hard-line Islamic group FPI has constantly been seen as a disruptive influence for their mob attacks on religious minorities. The most recent case saw the group gather in its hundreds to protest and warn against the appointment of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Chinese Christian usually known as Ahok, as Jakarta Governor.

The current administration under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been accused of protecting the FPI by not taking serious actions against the group. Many, therefore, will be hoping that the upcoming government will not be as lenient to such hardliners.

Tolerance a Priority in Indonesia

Jokowi has shown that he intends to build close ties with religious minorities. His closeness with some groups of minorities has even sparked controversial rumors about his real religious identity. One rumor suggested that Jokowi was a Christian of Chinese descent and even published what appeared to be a marriage certificate and an obituary advertisement purportedly showing the name Herbertus Handoko Joko Widodo or Oey Hong Liong. Jokowi refuted the claims and said that he has always been a Muslim.

Another rumour suggested that Jokowi plans to appoint a Shiite Muslim to become the religious affairs minister. Again, he rubbished the rumour and assured people that the minister will be from the majority Ahlusunnah wal Jamaah or Sunni Muslim group.

It is likely that Jokowi would want a minister that shares his tolerant view on religion. A figure like Suryadharma Ali would not fit the bill. Mr Suryadharma stirred controversy when he allegedly expressed support for the forced conversion of Shiite followers in Sampang, East Java, where tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims have boiled over. The former minister has also stated that Shiite Islam was heretical because it deviated from mainstream teachings of Islam.

Mr Surydharma’s successor looks more like the figure Jokowi will be looking for. The ministry in Mr Lukman’s charge has started to conduct interfaith dialogues since he has been placed in charge of the ministry. The dialogues bring together minority religious groups with the hope that it can produce a road map to tackle religious intolerance in the country.

He is also said to be working hard to achieve a resolution on the long-standing Sampang situation before his term ends. If all goes well, this would invite even more support towards him and elevate his chances of being retained as religious affairs minister.

Ismail Hasani from Setara Institute, a democracy and human rights watchdog organisation, believes that Mr Lukman is currently the outstanding candidate for the job of religion minister in Indonesia. However, he pointed out that whoever Jokowi trusts with this vital mandate must continue and improve the work to promote religious tolerance in the country, which is no easy task.

“Indonesia’s biggest asset in religious terms is its diversity and so the main concern is not providing good religious education, because we already have plenty of people who can do that. But to promote and manage pluralism in the country, a strong character and mind is needed,” he said.

SOURCE www.establishmentpost.com