Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tolerant Nationalism

Promoting tolerant nationalism, beyond religious versus secular

Muhamad Ali, Manoa, Hawaii

The commemoration of Independence Day every Aug. 17 may leave certain crucial questions unanswered, despite all the underlying spirit, surrounding symbols and colorful celebrations. One such question is whether Indonesian nationalism was and continues to be secular or religious.
Scholars have attempted to provide answers to this delicate and complex question, but most of them are trapped in a dichotomous opposition between the religious and the secular. In fact, for many Indonesian Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians, nationalism is both secular and religious. Pancasila has become the ambiguous yet accepted ideology of Indonesia's nationalism. But what can we, as a nation, gain from it?
Most Western literature on Indonesian nationalism argues that historically the emergence of nationalism was attributed to the rise of secular leaders such as Sukarno and Hatta (both being graduates of the Dutch educational system) and a secular print media, including Budi Utomo and the Indonesian National Party of Sukarno. Nationalism is believed to be a Western import, and it was secularly educated leaders who introduced this concept to this new country.
This argument has been challenged by many. Michael Francis Laffan, in his Islamic Nationalism and Colonial Indonesia (2003), argues that Islam played a crucial role in the rise of Indonesian nationalism. According to him, it was Muslim scholars and leaders, influenced by Islamic reform movements in Mecca-Medina and then Egypt, through their religious organizations (such as Syarikat Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah), publications and activism, who worked in anti-colonial movements during the early 20th century. These two arguments stand upon their own emphasis of certain movements and individuals in selected moments of history.
The essence of nationalism is patriotism, or love of the native land. This love of the native land has very constructive impacts on the life of a nation. By this spirit of love, all members of a nation are willing to work hard to build their country into a prosperous and peaceful one. Also by this spirit, self-determination arises and can become a strong force in self-improvement and nation-building.
In interfaith meetings, every religion attempts to argue that nationalism and patriotism are sanctioned by their religious beliefs, and their gods teach them to love their country and to work hard for it. This may be called religious nationalism, for the absence of a better term, to suggest that nationalism and religion are not incompatible in the heart and minds of many of these religious peoples.
If one says nationalism was and is Islamic, then a question may arise: Were there only Muslims who fought against colonialism? They were a majority certainly in the struggle against colonialism, but were there Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and non-religious peoples in nationalist movements?
This question leads to the very problem Indonesia has faced again and again: Is Indonesia truly a pluralistic nation? To the latter question, many Islamic political parties and leaders have only one answer: that it was Muslims who played the main role in gaining and keeping independence and therefore it is the Muslims' right to determine the direction of the nation by their particularistic laws.
It is often claimed that Muslims gave up seven words of the Jakarta Charter (with the obligation for Muslims to observe their religious beliefs) and presented it to non-Muslims of the nation as a gift. For them, Pancasila was often seen as a gift to the pluralistic nation, compromising Islamic ambitions to make the nation-state an Islamic state.
Thus it is hardly present in the minds of the Muslim majority that Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and others, whether or not they identified themselves as such, participated in the struggle against colonialism, and have long contributed to the development of the nation.
Pre-independence nationalism was to get rid of the Japanese and the Dutch, but post-independence nationalism was to contribute to the development of the country in all aspects of life. Some post-independence nationalists argue that nationalism should today mean anti-neoimperialism, economic imperialism in the form of capitalism (and its representative institutions) and so forth.
More recently, some Nahdlatul Ulama leaders issued a manifesto that criticizes new modes of imperialism in the form of external forces imperializing Indonesia economically, politically, culturally and intellectually. This neo-nationalism is sometimes linked to particular religious interpretations as well.
How should we resolve this question? There is no one answer to this. Nationalism is perhaps neutral in itself. It is a good thing to love one's country. Every community in the world today, including the Muslim world, has accepted nationalism as the best political ideology.
But we are facing excesses of nationalism: Aggressive nationalism which tries to impose one's nationalism onto other nations near and far. Between nations, tolerant nationalism, either religious or secular, should be promoted.
Indonesian nationalism, either religiously or secularly based, can have excesses and extremes as well. Extreme nationalism, for example, forces minorities to adopt the overarching political agenda that they would otherwise reject because it does not suit their needs and interests.
An extreme nationalism wants to civilize the margins (indigenous believers, religious sects, new religious movements, mountain and jungle tribes, and so forth) by way of imposition without respect for their particular conditions and needs. Within a nation, there needs to be a balance between nationalism and multiculturalism.
Thus, we should now go beyond secular versus religious nationalism. It is time to promote more substantive and tolerant nationalism: strong, solid, but respecting other concepts of nationalism and nationalities within and without the country. Tolerant nationalism is a love of one's country manifested in various aspects of life, but not at the expense of the destruction of other peoples within and beyond the constructed boundaries.
Indonesian nationalism should be tolerant in the sense that, whether religious or secular or mixed according to different communities, it should respect minorities and the marginal, and at the same time should respect other nationalisms outside it. One of the outcomes of such tolerant nationalism is continued participation within the nation and peaceful coexistence and fruitful cooperation outside it.

Photo: Me, my Professor Jerry Bentley, and classmatess at World History class, Hawaii, 2004.

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