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ICRS Yogyakarta - Film Screening and Discussion on Islam & Democracy

Consortium of:

Film Screening and Discussion on Islam & Democracy

  February 14th 2022

Written by Jekonia Tarigan

In Indonesia, the contestation regarding the role of Islam in the life of the state continues. In the early days of the nation, there was a debate about the Jakarta Charter, “with the obligation to carry out Islamic law for its adherents.”[i] Now, a number of groups desire to establish the supremacy of Islam in Indonesia. On the other hand, mainstream Islamic organizations claim that the current consensus of the nation is in harmony with Islam. This issue prompted UGM’s Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), the Pardee School of Global Studies of Boston University, and Watchdoc, to develop a film covering this topic with support from the Henry Luce Foundation. The film was given the title Unfinished Indonesia. This film is the third film in the Indonesian Pluralities series. On 27 January 2022, the film was screened and followed by a discussion related to issues of Islam and democracy. This discussion was held in collaboration with the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) - Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, and San Diego State University. Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, College of Art and Letters, San Diego State University moderated the discussion. The discussants included the film’s producers Prof. Robert Hefner (Boston University) and Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, director of ICRS.

In the film screening and discussion, there were quite a number of questions asked by the participants and Prof. Kuru as moderator. First, to Hefner, questions related to the film included: Why Indonesia? Why film? What was the reaction of the Indonesian audience? Is the film going to help to grow the discussion of Islam and democracy? Toward this question, Hefner explains that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country and the third largest democratic country in the world. Around 87% of Indonesian people are Muslim. Islam in Indonesia is very diverse too, because when Islam met the locality of Indonesian people and their cultures, Islam became contextualized and resulted in many colors of Islam within Indonesia. Hefner also explains that there are many Muslim scholars who study Islam in Indonesia, but there are still many things that have not been explored in these studies, one of which is related to issues of Islam and democracy.

According to Hefner, after being ruled by the New Order regime for 32 years, many things have occurred related to the dynamics of the relationship between Islam and the state as it relates to democracy. However, Hefner argues that Indonesia was quite successful during the power transition period and even managed to hold direct general elections. Furthermore, in Indonesia, democracy is also growing with freedom of the press and freedom of association. However, according to Hefner, it is not enough for the issue of Islam and democracy to be voiced academically in a campus environment which is often elitist. This issue must be discussed more widely, and this requires more interesting media that can touch more people. Therefore, Hefner argues that film is a good medium for spreading ideas and building discourses about Islam and democracy. For Hefner, the film provides an opportunity for wider discussion as it shows how issues related to Islam and democracy involves a myriad of complex problems. The role of the community and moderate social and religious organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah is very important, because these two organizations have large mass bases and extraordinary contributions to the social life of the community, both in the fields of education and health. In terms of the relationship between religion and the state, or Islam and democracy, these two organizations also have a large contribution, because the nature of their nationalism also supports Indonesia's journey as a nation. In the end, according to Hefner, the big task that needs to be done in the Indonesian context specifically related to the issue of Islam and democracy is how to build a society that is truly committed to Indonesian national values, which still respects religious and cultural differences so as to create an inclusive society. Many of the continuing problems are rooted in the tension between the inclusive group and those who are exclusive and cannot accept diversity.

During the discussion, several questions arose related to the issue of blasphemy, which received considerable attention in the, specifically in the dynamics of the Jakarta gubernatorial election involving Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), who was accused of committing religious blasphemy. The participants were curious about the socio-political dynamics of those times. This issue became more interesting in the discussion, because after his release from prison, Ahok was appointed CEO of a state-owned company (BUMN). Related to this, Bagir explained that the blasphemy law had been issued in 1965.[ii] However, the law was more widely used after the reform and democratization process in 1998. According to Bagir, before 1998 the number of blasphemy cases involving the blasphemy law was only tens of cases. In the last 20 years, there have been hundreds of blasphemy cases. Indeed, Bagir also explained that in Indonesia the blasphemy law is not only used by Muslims, but also by people of other religions. However, Ahok's case is unique because this is the first time that a state official, who served as an active governor of the state capital, has been exposed to religious blasphemy issues. Therefore, Bagir argues that the blasphemy law is actually a threat to democracy because the issue of religious blasphemy has the potential to be used in order to leverage political positions. If in a regional head election process the quality of the candidate is not so good, then to increase the electability of the candidate, religious issues, especially religious blasphemy, are very influential in bringing down certain candidates and increasing the electability of other candidates. The issue of religious blasphemy has an important role and influence in shaping public opinion.

Moreover, Bagir explained that compared to Pakistan, for example, the blasphemy law in Indonesia is milder, but of course the blasphemy law in both Pakistan and Indonesia poses a threat to democracy. Therefore, Bagir argues that in the future, the blasphemy law will continue to be a stumbling block in the democratic process in Indonesia and one of the factors that trigger problems in social and political life, as well as relations between religion and the state. Indeed, Bagir also explained that there had been several attempts at judicial review of the law, but all were rejected by the Constitutional Court. Therefore, it seems that it will take a long time to replace the law, so all parties must work together so that even though the blasphemy law cannot be replaced, we must prevent frequent use of the law. Finally, Bagir suggested that all parties who have an interest in the issue of democracy in Indonesia, especially in relation to the dynamics of relations between religion (Islam) and the state, watch the film so that they are aware of how diverse the faces of Islam are in Indonesia and that each group must have a space. The need to be involved in the democratic process is increasingly being realized.

Unfinished Indonesia Documentary:

Full recorded discussion:


[i]                     Bagir, “Pluralisme Kewargaan Arah Baru Politik Keragaman Di Indonesia.” p. 56

[ii]                     Bagir et al., Studi Agama Di Indonesia: Refleksi Pengalaman. p. 8