Interview: Suryadharma Ali

What are the most pressing priorities for the Ministry of Religious Affairs?

SURYADHARMA ALI: We have identified five key areas as our priorities here at the ministry. First, we must improve the quality of religious life in Indonesia, increasing the understanding of the values that are inherent in each of our religions while gaining a true understanding of how to apply these values correctly in our society. The second key area we are focusing on is improving tolerance in our multi-faith society and promoting inter- and intra-religious harmony. This programme helps to create stability in society, which is a fundamental factor in maintaining economic development. The third priority is to enhance the quality of religious education. We are tackling a number of areas such as improving accessibility and scholarship opportunities for children to study religion, building and developing facilities at schools and madrassas and improving the management of education services to make sure that religious education in Indonesia is conducted in line with our principles of inter-faith harmony, peace and respect. We also oversee the curriculum, having introduced a certified standardised system through which we monitor the schools regularly to check they are following this curriculum correctly. Our fourth priority is to improve the quality of Hajj organisation and services offered to pilgrims and pilgrimages of all faiths, while our fifth priority is to create good governance in the ministry.

How do you protect minority religions’ rights?

SURYADHARMA: Indonesia already has the basis for dealing with this through three means: Pancasila, former President Sukarno’s five principles of Indonesian nationhood; the saying “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” (“Unity in Diversity”); and the 1945 Constitutional Law. Article 29 explicitly ensures that the state guarantees the freedom of each citizen to embrace their religious teachings and to practice according to their religion and beliefs. The Ministry of Religious Affairs acts as the coordinator of governmental policy on religion and as such it acts in accordance with constitutional and other laws. It is important to note that Islam is not the official state religion even though Muslims comprise around 85% of the population. The ministry provides services to all religions through a directorate-general for each of Indonesia’s officially recognised religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholics, Hinduism and Buddhism.

How do you balance promoting inter-faith harmony without intervening in religious practices?

SURYADHARMA: First, we provide management guidelines to maintain order among the different visions of multi-faith communities to reduce conflict with one another. Second, we aim to empower the community in general, and religious groups in particular, so that they will have greater capability to solve problems independently and in their own environment. We also run the Forum of Inter-Religious Harmony, which is designed to find ways to create inter-religious harmony between multiple religious groups and prevent conflict and misunderstanding. We are also working on inter-faith dialogue with other countries.

Having said all that, it is important to focus on the positives and to mention that religious harmony and tolerance in Indonesia are inherent in our traditions and values. We see diversity as the source of Indonesia’s power and we can act as an example to many other multi-faith and multi-cultural nations around the world. Everywhere you go in Indonesia you will see mosques next to churches and temples, and different religions co-existing peacefully in the same communities. We have even seen examples of Christians taking part in Koran recital sessions and Muslims and Christians opening their houses to each other’s pilgrims and worshippers across the archipelago.

We need to eradicate all possibilities of the idea of a religious state taking hold, and this is where the role of media, observers and intellectuals is so important.