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Tolerating Intolerance

Published in The Jakarta Post (

Indonesia’s growing tolerance of the suppression of opposition

Patrick Guntensperger
Years ago, in another country, a very successful real estate company’s president said to me, “In business, as soon as someone tells me that he’s a committed or devout Christian, I make it a policy not just to scrutinize the deal with extra care, but also to count the silverware when he leaves the room.”

What he was getting at was not that he didn’t trust Christians, or followers of any particular faith, but rather that the unsolicited announcement of someone’s most deeply personal convictions made him suspicious of that person’s motives and accountability. He went on to say that those people in business who feel it necessary, or even appropriate, to wear their religious views on their sleeves were more likely in his experience to display questionable business ethics, and even to deal with outright dishonesty.

Wow! I thought.

We discussed this some more and he expanded on that observation. Religious views, he felt, were a personal matter; a matter for the individual and God and no one else. A community of like-minded individuals is perhaps pleasant, and provides some support and reinforcement of the common ground of faith and understanding; all that is fine. Hence we have churches, synagogues, mosques. But when, in a secular, business environment one introduces oneself as a devout follower of any religion, it suggests a number of things.

It suggests an assumption of superiority (I know the truth…you don’t) that some might find offensive. More importantly, it suggests exclusion (You are not one of the enlightened, chosen ones and I am), and that raises some concerns on the other’s part. The extension of that kind of thinking is often that since you are not “”one of us””, it’s acceptable to deal dishonestly with you; to treat you in ways he wouldn’t treat his fellow believers.

My friend went even further. He pointed out that strongly held faith is all too often used as a justification for the most egregious behavior. Some adherents to religious dogma substitute devotion for moral judgment. His admittedly strong position was that religion, in some people, replaces a moral compass. It permits those people to act in any unethical, self-serving way and at the same time claim the moral high ground because they are devout and therefore incapable of immorality.

He asked, “How would you react if I were to introduce myself at a business deal with the announcement that I am an atheist and that I live and conduct my business according to those principles? I imagine you would find it disconcerting and grotesquely inappropriate as a gambit.”

Whatever we think of my friend’s suspicions of the overtly religious, it is probably fair to say that the outspoken and passionately devout are a matter of concern. It is also fair to say that the inclination, here in Indonesia, to grant special dispensation to the vociferously religious for otherwise intolerable acts is becoming more and more a matter of concern.

Muslims, Christians, and atheists alike have every reason to be concerned when they see the country’s police stand by and protect self-appointed guardians of particular religious doctrines as they assault, vandalize, and terrorize those of whom they disapprove.

The people of any country, and most especially of a budding democracy, have every reason to be deeply concerned when a religious group in that country demands the arrest and punishment of those whom they feel have “deviated” from the one, true path. And when that group has the apparent support of the government, in direct contradiction of the country’s constitution, there is reason for very grave concern indeed. When that group represents the majority view, it is time to move from concern to genuine fear.

It is ironic that the very people who see themselves as the holy defenders of their version of Islam, would, had they been alive a little over 1400 years ago, have been crying out for Mohamed’s blood for his deviation from the then-current dogma.

It is time in Indonesia for people to act in the way they would like to be perceived. Indonesia prides itself on being a country of tolerance. Right now the only tolerance the world sees is that Indonesia is tolerant of the suppression of opposing views, tolerant of the state-sanctioned imposition of the majority religion upon minorities, tolerant of violence against those of different faiths.
Tolerance doesn’t mean passivity. To be tolerant is to be courageous and to speak up when the rights of others are being trampled. To be tolerant doesn’t simply entail tolerating those who mirror your views. True tolerance, in the sense that is embedded in Pancasila, means being tolerant of views with which you disagree, even views you abhor. It even means standing up and fighting back on the behalf of those people with whom you disagree.

Indonesia is constitutionally a tolerant country. It is time that we realize that means that we cannot tolerate religious or any other kind of fascism.


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