Leading Indonesia beyond religion

For several weeks, Muslim hardliners have been agitating for the chief of a sub-district in the Indonesian capital to step down because as a Christian she might not be able to serve the Muslim-majority ward well.

Even Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi weighed in, encouraging Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo to consider their demands to transfer his subordinate, Ms Susan Jasmine Zulkifli (in photo above), from Lenteng Agung to a non-Muslim kelurahan (or sub- district).

They argued that Ms Susan would not be able to understand Muslim aspirations; and hence would not be able to serve the needs of the constituents effectively.

But the governor has rightly stood his ground and refused to bow to protesters who have been demonstrating outside the sub-district office. His argument is that if he were to transfer Ms Susan whom he appointed in August after stringent tests, he would create a precedent for the future where regional officials could be removed through public protests.

According to the governor, Ms Susan's performance will be evaluated after six months based on her competence and professionalism, not her religion.

The issue of religion and leadership has not been a problem in Indonesia until very recently.

After all, Muslims accepted a non-Muslim as their leader when a Christian, Amir Sjarifuddin Harahap, became prime minister in 1947 during Sukarno's experiment with parliamentary democracy. Another prominent Christian, Benny Murdani, was commander of the armed forces from 1983 to 1988. He also served as minister of defence and security.

What baffles many in Jakarta is the insistence of Minister Gamawan that the official be removed from her position as Bu Lurah or sub-district chief of Lenteng Agung because of her religion.

The minister should have realised that there are many other government officials working in regions where the people they serve belong to a different religion. Do these officials have to be redeployed as well?

Analyst Aleksius Jemadu of Universitas Pelita Harapan commented in the Jakarta Globe on Oct 2 that "many public officials in Bali aren't Hindus but they perform quite well, and even gain respect from the local, Hindu-majority people".

The same situation exists in East Nusa Tenggara, where government officials who are not Christians may perform even better than their Christian colleagues.

The growing religious piety and conservatism among Muslims, who form 88 per cent of the population, have been accompanied by greater intolerance towards religious minorities in recent years. So-called liberal Muslims have been attacked, as have Shi'ite Muslims and members of the Ahmadiyah sect. There have also been attacks on churches.

The campaign against the Lenteng Agung sub-district chief exemplifies the rejection of non- Muslims as leaders by sections of the Indonesian Muslim society. Many also want Muslims to avoid voting for non-Muslim candidates.

In the run-up to the Jakarta gubernatorial election in September last year, some Muslim figures, including popular singer cum preacher Rhoma Irama, campaigned unsuccessfully through the mosques to warn Muslims that "Islam prohibits Muslims from choosing a non-Muslim as their leader".

It was an oblique reference to Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta's deputy governor who is a Chinese and a Christian, and who was then standing as Mr Widodo's running mate.

The campaign was also prompted by fears that if Mr Widodo, after being elected, were to stand as candidate for president next year, Mr Basuki would succeed him as Jakarta governor, and hence the Muslims in the capital would have a non-Muslim as their leader.

But voters did not buy the argument. Instead they voted overwhelmingly for Mr Widodo and Mr Basuki.

There is no consensus among Islamic scholars as to whether Islam prohibits Muslims from picking non-Muslims as their leader in a secular state like Indonesia. There are Quranic verses which can be interpreted as imposing such a ban. But historically, Jews and Christians served as officials of Caliph Omar in the fledgling Islamic state.

Prophet Muhammad once told a group of Muslims to take refuge in the kingdom of a Christian king in Abbysinia (in present-day Ethiopia) from persecution by pagan Arabs in Mecca. This showed his faith in the Christian king as a just leader who could protect Muslims.

In today's Indonesia, there is no legal requirement that leaders must be Muslim. Despite being a Muslim-majority nation, the country is not an Islamic state. The Constitution does not even specify that the head of state must be Muslim, although all Indonesian presidents so far have been adherents of that religion.

The Constitution also clearly spells out all citizens are equal before the law and that every person has the right to equal opportunity in government. Hence, it would not be right to remove Ms Susan as sub-district chief because of her religion as this would deny her of her right to equal opportunity.

The fact that Muslim hardliners have now extended their objections to government appointees - not just candidates for political office - is also worrying.

Indonesia still has a long way to go when it comes to nation-building.


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