How Indonesia’s model of inclusion and religious tolerance can root out extremism in the region

Indonesia’s founding ideology, of a state that enshrines both religion and religious tolerance, can be a model for Asean amid the rising conflict that is threatening stability in Southeast Asia, says Eva Kusuma Sundari.


Religious extremism is on the rise worldwide. The issue constitutes a serious threat to the stability and identity of nations around the globe, yet many governments and international institutions struggle to develop successful approaches to combat it.

In Southeast Asia – where religious conflict had traditionally been limited – the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in extremism, along with a serious threat to regional stability and the previous spirit of tolerance.

Discriminatory laws

In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalists have successfully pushed for the passage of discriminatory laws targeting minority religions, particularly Muslims. Meanwhile, in the context of a brutal military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the minority Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west, the wider Myanmar population has embraced a religious-nationalist chauvinism that threatens the country’s shaky democratic transition.

In Malaysia, hardline Islamic groups have become increasingly aggressive in their policing of the public sphere, and leaders have embraced the politicisation of religion as a way of securing votes and maintaining power.

In many cases, Southeast Asian politicians are responding to a bottom-up development: extreme religious views embraced by larger and larger swathes of the population, with no countervailing narrative or movement to push back against this tide.

The problem

Part of the problem is that secular approaches, which aim to codify strong divisions between religious institutions and the state, eschew the important power that religion itself has to undercut the attractiveness of extremism. Where religious identities are ignored, an empty space is created and made available for extremist groups to seize and monopolise the discourse of an exclusive religion. The result is an environment that gives rise to intolerant attitudes and actions, including the promotion of violence and discrimination against other religious or ethnic groups.

States that directly embrace one particular religion also tend to discriminate against minority religions and beliefs. Ultimately, their situation is similar to secular states’, as groups that monopolise ownership of “true” interpretations of religion often end up triggering religious extremism by promoting hatred and violence to preserve their dominance.

In both of these cases – the embrace of strict secularism and of religious monopolism – there exists a complete failure to cope with extremism because both approaches deny the important role of religious minorities in society. Both approaches have proven unable to create societies that are tolerant and respectful of diversity. The solution, therefore, lies not in casting religion aside or monopolising religious interpretations, but instead embracing religion’s ability to promote tolerance and forging a middle path between extreme religion and extreme secularism.

Religion as a tool

In my country, Indonesia, the embrace of religion itself as a tool in the fight against extremism is embedded within our founding ideology of Pancasila. When Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, set in place the foundations for the modern state of Indonesia, he rejected paths embraced by other Muslim-majority nations – both Turkish-style secularism and an Islamic state system like Pakistan. Instead, he proposed Pancasila as a foundation, recognising the need for an inclusive religious identity that also safeguards freedom of religion or belief.

Pancasila embraces five core principles that form Indonesia’s ideological identity: belief in God, shared humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice. Together, these principles form a bedrock that guards against the kinds of developments we have witnessed elsewhere in the region.

Indonesia’s political development has been far from perfect, of course, and we have had our fair share of inter-religious conflict in the years since Pancasila was enshrined in the constitution.

Adherents of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, for instance, have faced persecution and displacement in West Nusa Tenggara and West Java, as have Shiite Muslims in other parts of the country. Intolerant extremist groups have, in some cases, pressured local leaders to deny rights to religious minorities.

Avoided conflict

Yet we have thus far been able to avoid becoming mired in widespread inter-religious conflict, as we are now seeing in Myanmar, because of our deeply ingrained belief in the importance of inclusivity and tolerance. This is reflected in many of our laws, such as Article 29 of the constitution, which mandates that the minister of religious affairs must be a minister for all religions, carrying the primary duty of ensuring that every citizen can possess, change or practise any religion or belief of his or her choosing. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of religious organisations registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the directorate general of culture, and thousands more operating freely in the country.

In the face of so many threats – and so many failures to address these threats – it is time for the world – and Asean, in particular – to consider adopting an alternative approach. Given the extremism challenge currently faced by a growing number of countries in Southeast Asia, it is important to look towards indigenous solutions that recognise the importance of inclusive religious identities and the institutionalisation of tolerance at all levels of government and society. This means not only passing and amending laws to incorporate precepts of freedom of religion or belief, but also reforming policies and procedures to ensure that tolerance is taught in schools and enforced in the workplace, and that it becomes a part of everyday life.

Eva Kusuma Sundari is a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives, and an IPPFoRB member.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

OpinionEva Sundari