Recently, Indonesia has seen Sya’aria inspired legislation enacted in face of protests that these laws marginalize religions other than Islam. Much of that protest is raised by the Balinese non-Muslim majority, but much also comes from the Christian minority in other parts of the archipelago, and is only the latest chapter in an ongoing story.
The friction between Christian and Muslim in Indonesia has frequently erupted into far more than mere loud doctrinal dispute. People die. Children are beheaded, homes burnt, mosques and churches destroyed, and dozens of devout are routinely injured in riots. These altercations are manifestly not over mere differences in personal beliefs.
Here in Indonesia, Christianity, on the one hand, is seen as Western and has evolved into a system of beliefs, while Islam, on the other, is seen as Eastern and remains a system of behaviours. For a Christian to be baffled by why Muslims seem so concerned with the religions and beliefs of others is to misunderstand the nature of Indonesia’s Islam.
It must be recognised that the raison d’etre for both religions was a need and a desire for social control. Religion developed as a mechanism, not for formulating spiritual beliefs, but rather for regulating society’s behaviour. In the tribal and largely nomadic Middle East during the late Neolithic period, there was a need to institutionalise rules of diet, procreation, social roles, and behaviour. The spiritual underpinnings of these societal regulations served as justification for their imposition as rules.
In the medieval period, the Renaissance, right up to the Enlightenment, Christianity was clearly a mechanism of social control. The religious leaders were determined to ensure that their religion was espoused by the people of their communities.
In that respect modern Islam, being 600 years younger than Christianity, is something like Christianity 600 years ago. Islam is a tool of social and political control; so long as the tenets are publicly espoused, the conventions observed, and the rites performed, devotion is assumed.
Westerners tend to be bemused, even baffled by attempts by Islam to impose religiously dictated regulations; Westerners see those as attempts to impose beliefs. In the West, the secular world is eliminating laws that enforce religious principles and naturally bridle at attempts to impose beliefs.
But, in reality, the imposition of Sya’aria inspired laws is not an attempt to impose Islamic beliefs. What Westerners need to understand is that it is not belief that is demanded; it is public behaviour that matters.
To a Christian Westerner, one can see oneself as a religious person as long as one has a heartfelt acceptance of Jesus as god. To the Westerner, religion is a personal, internal matter.
Alternatively, if a Muslim professes faith, gives alms, does the Hajj and the ritual prayers, and observes Ramadan, his obligations are met, and he can see himself as a religious Muslim. To the Muslim, religion is a public, external matter.
While Westerners see the imposition of religious values as presumptuous, Muslims would argue that unless they are shared by a community, they are worthless as values. Communal values, harmony, conformity…these are all virtues in Islam. To a Westerner, individual rights, autonomy, and freedom from societal constraint are the higher values.
Where Westerners frequently equate Muslim public declarations of devotion with religious fanaticism, Muslims often interpret the internalisation of Western religion as atheism. Because religion is a far more personal matter in the West, someone who exhorts the rest of society with his religious views is fanatical, and possibly deranged. Meanwhile, to a Muslim, a person who keeps his religious views private can be seen as dangerously sociopathic.
A Westerner is more likely to define himself by the constitution of his internal universe; a Muslim by his standing with respect to his community; the current manifestations of both Christianity and Islam reflects that fundamental dichotomy. The religions are different because they fulfill different needs in their faithful. They serve different purposes
Is it possible then to reconcile the two? Can two such contradictory worldviews ever coexist peacefully? Possibly. But not until the two sides recognise that the disputes are not about whether Jesus was divine or a merely a prophet, whether representations of the Prophet are sinful, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They’re not even about whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the Lord’s Day, or whether alcohol consumption, polygamy, or toilet paper is permissible.
The disputes are more about man’s view of man. Is he more important as an individual, or is his membership in a community or society the pivotal issue? Does a human being have moral obligations to others? To his immediate family? To his community? To the human race as a whole? Or merely to those who share his views? What are those obligations? To what extent must we control others’ ‘morality’?
When we start looking at these kinds of questions instead of petty doctrinal and dogmatic ones, there may be some hope for genuine dialogue.