Fanny Syariful Alam is a former contributor of PeaceGeneration Indonesia, and the regional coordinator of a still young community of peace activists in Bandung, Indonesia. His work focuses on peacebuilding issues based on human rights for the young generation.
Interview: Mona Behnke, Ronja Eberle
1. What is your first memory related to religion?
The first thing I associate with various religions is their rituals, their festive days, their houses of worship, and the 6 religions officially recognized by the Indonesian government that I learned in civic classes at school. Furthermore, I studied religion as a subject in school.
2. When did you first get in touch with other religions or belief systems?
Since I was a little kid, I have been living with relatives and people from different religious backgrounds. I also have some neighbors, classmates, and working partners from different religious backgrounds and beliefs. The condition intensified when I started to join an interfaith community in Bandung in 2013, where I have seen more diverse things and issues than only the ones of the 6 officially recognized religions in this country ever since.
3. What does religion mean to you?
At first, I saw religion as an obedience. In example, people who do not fulfill religious obligations, such as prayers or other religious rituals, could be punished. Then, there are rewards and punishments, such as heaven and hell. There are also different stages that “determine” where a person will go in the afterlife, and there would be “trials” by God to determine what the afterlife is like.
Currently, I have seen religion more as a system for social life. Religion can serve as a legal and educational system, as well as a norm in families and neighborhoods, or even in the system of the government.
4. Is religious education helpful for democracy?
It is rather rare for me to figure out if religious education can assist in the improvement process of democracy. However, it really depends on the situation and how a country applies the selected principle of religion. For example based on the appreciation towards other groups or the tendency to promote their own group as the only truth in a plural society – or even to show disrespect towards the different others. The above situation might lead to the development that each of the various educational institutions practices their own religious education inside their community. I believe when religious education leads to tolerance, acceptance, as well as respect towards various differences among the society, religious education begins to improve democracy.
5. What is civic education from your perspective?
Civic education is a vessel to develop and to maintain a democratic life in the society and the nation. In addition, it provides information and experiences to empower the society to participate more in the democratic system, which intends to create good governance.
6. Is civic education important for democracy?
As mentioned above, it is a vessel to develop and to maintain the democratic life in the society and the country. Definitely, it is significant for the maintenance of the democracy, since it involves the engagement of society and blends various social issues in. It allows individuals to stand up for themselves, to voice for disproportionate circumstances and other groups through the appreciation of differences inside a diverse society.
7. How do you define Indonesian democracy?
Indonesian democracy has developed in several stages, starting from the first Parliamentary Democracy from 1945-1948, to the Guided Democracy under the leadership of the first Indonesian president, Soekarno, from 1959-1966. Then, it continued with the Pancasila Democracy under the leadership of the second president, Soeharto, from 1966-1998, and the Democracy of the Reformation-Period, from 1998 up to now.
Indonesian democracy has quite a long history. However, the Pancasila Democracy has been the political foundation for the system in this country for a long time. It has a close correlation with the Pancasila, the State’s five philosophical principles, with its basis in the responsibility to the one and only God. Furthermore, it relies on the principle of inner wisdom, and the unanimity of deliberations of representatives who are supposed to unify the Indonesian societies and also include issues of social justice for all (Notosusanto, Nugroho). The democratic principles reappeared in the Reformation Democracy since 1998, under the leadership of the president, BJ Habibie, and are extended by some principles, such as the freedom of press, the multi-parties system, a more democratic general election, the rotation of the central government leadership to the regions’ leadership, a more open political recruitment, and more secured basic rights for the citizen.
a. Is democracy in Indonesia unique, or can it be compared to other democracies?
I believe that the Indonesian democracy almost resembles the democracy of other countries through the implementation of human rights’ principles as well as openness and transparency to secure freedom of rights for people. The difference lies in the Indonesian values represented in the State’s five philosophical principles mingled with other additions to support freedom of rights for the Indonesian citizen.
8. Is religion inscribed in Indonesian identity?
The process of including the religious identity on the Indonesian ID card is very common now despite the fact that it began just in 1967 under the Soeharto era to repress the communist principle and movement. There used to be a stigma that people who joined the communist party or its movements were atheist or irreligious. The recording of religious identity had a purpose to monitor the social circumstances at that time and became a normal thing up to now. All identity information recorded in the family registration certificate and ID card comprise the religious identity.
9. What developments have you observed in the past two decades since the onset of the Reformation?
The reformation era has brought a more democratic political life than in the Soeharto period. People have more courage to speak up, the media voices more issues than expected. There are more openness and democratic movements in terms of politics – social, culture, and economic issues are revealed. All of them secure Indonesians’ rights of freedom.
a. What development worries or concerns you?
The above described situation exactly takes Indonesia to a much better live, both for the country and its citizens. Despite the fact that it leads to improvements in Indonesia, too many free voices somehow can lead to the repression of other groups, predominantly minorities. Yes, it is good to voice any objection, or any repression. However, when those voices eventually are repressive against minorities on behalf of the freedom of voicing and expression, it is wrong as well. Unfortunately, parts of the Indonesian government apparatus even allow this to happen unhindered. For example the establishment of Joint Decree of Three Ministers, Minister of Internal Affairs, Minister of Religion Affairs, and Attorney General No 3/2008, let it happen that the Notice and Orders for Indonesian Ahmadi Worshippers are regulated and restricted in their teaching principles in the public, as well as in building their worshipping houses.
10. Do you address or confront these concerns? a. If yes, why, and how?
I coordinate issues of minority groups, including religious, gender, and even economic minorities in my city. Together with my partners, I set up weekly discussion groups like a class meeting about the above mentioned issues for the youth. Why the youth? They are the next generation and I and my partners think that it is important to empower them through knowledge about peace issues and human rights that can positively impact minorities. Their enthusiasm and passion is huge when they join us. At the regular meetings, we also encourage them to start to write down their opinion for media publications as well as to become an initiator for sharing peace issues regarding minorities’ situations with their own communities or groups. How can we be trusted by the youth to sustain our program? We have the support of trusted key persons who also work on the issues, starting from practitioners, academics, communities, and even youth legislators. And, it is our third year to work and fight for these issues.
11. What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
I have realized that it is important to acknowledge the government’s role to support our work. Despite our dispute with them towards our regularly discussed issues and their disapproval, I attempt to outreach to them since they are the key to civic empowerment inside the society, particularly with regard to the youth. However, I usually have difficulties gaining them for my program/meeting, and I realized how far apart all of our issues are, so it is difficult to convey them. On the other hand, I can understand why they refuse to be engaged since most of the regional/local regulations do not support the existence of specific minority groups, such as Shia, Ahmadi, Christians, and LGBT.
12. What do you think are the three most important aspects involved?
Active engagement in civic education is significant for society because: a. it helps the democracy process to function well, b. it encourages society to participate openly in democracy, c. it ensures the implementation of society’s rights and freedom.
13. Can you share a memorable moment in your work that keeps you motivated?
I remember inviting the speakers of Ahmadi and Shia together to our youth community, where most participants are believers of Sunni Islam, and Christians. I mingled them and let the young people ask anything, starting from allegations seeing both of them as deviation, the suspicion that both of them are not classified as Islam, and then I let the speakers respond with their knowledge. The purpose was to give the youth real encounters with Ahmadi and Shia practitioners, so they can find out true facts from right and credible sources instead of any information they gain from various online media.