Is This Muslim Country Better Than the U.S. When It Comes to Religious Toleration?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States prides itself on its religious toleration, but according to a prominent scholar of religious freedom, a Muslim country might actually have a more peaceful framework for people of different faiths to live together in harmony. That country would be the largest Muslim nation on earth by population: Indonesia.

When asked if Indonesia has a more civil and more tolerant approach to religious differences, Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute‘s Center for Religious Freedom and the author and editor of more than twenty books on religion and politics, said, “In many ways, yes.”

“Patterns of civility and politeness, they’re ingrained in Javanese culture,” the scholar told PJ Media in an interview following a speech for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. While Marshall would add “a million qualifications,” he suggested that the Javanese culture in Indonesia is more suited for religious freedom than American culture today. (Javanese people make up the largest ethnic group in Indonesia.)

“The dominant American secular tendency is to say, ‘We can only get along with each other if we ignore our differences or pretend there aren’t differences and we’re all the same.’ We call that pluralism, but that’s the opposite of pluralism,” the scholar told PJ Media.

Real pluralism, he argued, entails living with and acknowledging real differences. Marshall paraphrased religious toleration in action: “You believe this, I believe that. I think what you believe stinks, but we live next door to each other, how are we going to get along?”

True civility, Marshall suggested, does not involve “marginalizing or relativizing the differences,” but learning how to get along despite them.

Many Americans might counter his argument, saying the United States already follows this model. To this, the scholar would point to American politics, where “the common tendency is to secularize, you drive religion out of public life — that’s the only way we can get along with each other. What you’re saying is, we abolish our differences.”

There are many signs of fractured civility in the United States today. Three in ten secularists see conservative Christians as a threat to their physical safety. An organization which brands as “hateful” mainstream conservative and Christian organizations (and even a few liberal activists) has gotten major traction in the mainstream media, and has even convinced companies like Vanco Payments and Amazon to stop doing business with so-called “hate groups.”

An LGBT organization in Ohio has announced plans to target churches, forcing them to host same-sex weddings. An LGBT megadonor announced that he considers penalizing Christian bakers for refusing to serve a same-sex wedding to be “punishing the wicked.” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) actually suggested a Christian nominee was unfit to serve in government because he thinks Muslims will be judged by God, even though he himself would treat all people equally.

By contrast, in Javanese culture, Christians and Muslims live side by side, without downplaying their religious disagreements, Marshall explained. He told the story of a Christian man given the honor of placing a crescent atop a newly built Mosque — not as a symbol of submission, as such an act might be in the Middle East, but as a symbol of peace and civility.

Marshall recalled a town which had built a church and a mosque side by side. The Christians allowed their Muslim neighbors to name the church, and it became the Ishmael Church. The Muslims allowed their Christian neighbors to name the mosque, and it became Emmanuel Mosque.

Indeed, Indonesia’s national mosque, the Istiqlal (Independence) Mosque in Jakarta, was designed by a Christian architect, Frederich Silaban. The largest mosque in Southeast Asia and the third largest Sunni mosque in the world, the Istiqlal Mosque has provided parking space for Christians on major Christian holidays like Christmas.

Marshall also told the story of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian politician of Chinese origin better known as Ahok, who served as governor of Jakarta from 2014 until June of this year. Marshall said Ahok was “the only sitting governor I have ever heard quote John Calvin and Abraham Kuiper.”

Ahok controversially quoted the Quran in an effort to understand why many Muslims opposed his candidacy, but some Muslims considered the speech blasphemous, and he was convicted of blasphemy against Islam. Even so, while Ahok was on trial for blasphemy, he still received 43 percent of the vote.

“I don’t want to say this is utopian, but the hegemonic pattern of Javanese culture is toleration,” Marshall told PJ Media. He explained the tradition of a pela, a covenant named after the word for “brother” or “trusted friend,” which originated in the region of Ambon, today the capital of the Indonesian province of Maluku.

The pela consists of three parts: “First, we will not make war on each other. Second, we will love each other. Third, we will not intermarry,” the religious freedom scholar explained. While the last two parts may seem counterintuitive in the West, the idea of having two brotherly communities which share common schools, neighborhoods, and government need not involve intermarriage.

(Marshall’s interpretation of the pela may be rosy. Some scholars have suggested that the tradition has been interrupted and was insufficient to prevent violence around the turn of the century, when Christian-Muslim fighting broke out in Ambon between 1999 and 2002.)

Whatever the benefits or myths of the pela, Javanese culture has long been set apart by an emphasis on toleration and civility. Indeed, there is a unique name for Indonesia’s flavor of Islam — Islam Nusantara, or “Islam of the Islands.” This version of Islam has preserved certain local traditions, such as pilgrimages to the tombs of ancestors. It also led Indonesia to keep Islam out of the Constitution, which has exempted the country from the kind of religious civil wars experienced in the Middle East.

Marshall noted that Indonesians insist foreigners “do not confuse Arab culture and Islam.” They argue that the “Middle East is a desert culture” and it expanded militarily, while Islam came to Indonesia peacefully.

The religious freedom scholar warned against the “tendency amongst Christians to apply a Christian template to Islam,” noting that conservative Christians in particular tend to think that the original Islam which spread through warfare is the “true” one. “That’s not an argument, but taking a template from one faith and it doesn’t fit for another,” he argued.

Marshall told one more story which may sound dispiriting to many religious people, but illustrates the flavor of religious toleration in Indonesia. The scholar met a man making traditional shaddow puppets (Wayang Kulit). The man said he always fasts for a day before making evil figures. This led Marshall to ask what religion he was.

“I’m a Catholic,” the man explained, but he wasn’t born a Catholic. “I was born a Muslim.” Marshall asked why he converted. “My wife told me to.” Is she a Catholic? “No, she’s a Muslim.”

Why did she want her husband to become a Catholic? “Then I could only have one wife,” he said. This attitude struck Marshall, who said, “They would be too free and easy with their religion for me.” Even so, the story gave a flavor to Javanese culture and their laid-back attitude when it comes to living with one another.

Finally, Marshall admitted that the Javanese culture, which he praised as more civil than U.S. culture, is not ubiquitous across Indonesia. He listed Aceh, West Java, the Banten, and South Sulawesi as places with Islamic communities influenced by radical Islam and in which he said “90 percent” of the country’s civil strife occurs.

Indonesia is a massive country, and it does indeed struggle with radical Islam in some areas. But the Javanese culture suggests that Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony, as many do in the United States. Marshall may have a rosy view of Javanese culture, and some parts of the U.S. may already be just as tolerant as this culture.

Even so, it is heartening to hear about a Muslim country where toleration is alive and well. It may indeed be possible for Americans to curb some of the rising tide of angry tribalism by looking across the Pacific to Jakarta. If the largest Muslim country in the world can foster a tolerant culture, surely Americans can put aside some of the rising vitriol and learn to understand one another, even when convincing each other is likely impossible.