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ICRS Yogyakarta - The Politics of Religious Moderation: A Critical Review

Consortium of:

The Politics of Religious Moderation: A Critical Review

  May 10th 2022

Written by Maurisa Zinira

The challenges faced by religious communities to maintain a harmonious religious life in Indonesia are getting more complicated with the increased level of religious extremism. Extremism continues to erode the value of diversity that marks the distinctive character of Indonesia. Sectarianism has become stronger and identity politics is becoming a trend in Indonesia's plural society. Because of this, the Ministry of Religious Affairs issued a policy called “Moderasi Agama” or religious moderation to tackle the crisis caused by religious extremism.

At the societal level, the religious moderation program initiated by the Ministry of Religious Affairs draws various responses. Intended to build a harmonious religious life, the term and concept of religious moderation has undeniably stirred polemics about who is moderate and who is not. The arguments have spread wildly and generated polarization among religious groups that further problematizes the moderation discourse and increases the resistance of anti-government religious groups.

The Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and Persekutuan Gereja-Gereja Indonesia (PGI—Communion of Churches in Indonesia) see such side effects arising from the government program as worrying for future religious life. Therefore, without intending to delegitimize the religious moderation program, the book entitled "Politik Moderasi dan Kebebasan Beragama: Suatu Tinjauan Kritis” (The Politics of Moderation and Religious Freedom: A Critical Review) written by the team from ICRS and PGI seeks to provide a critical review of the terms and concepts of religious moderation that are considered vulnerable to various conflicts and interests. This book was launched in Jakarta on April 12, 2022, inviting several figures including Alissa Wahid, humanitarian activists, academics, and researchers in Indonesia.


Religious Moderation and Extremism

The emergence of a religious moderation program cannot be separated from the course of religious exclusivism in Indonesia. Arguably, this program is a response to the rise of religious extremism that constantly haunts Indonesian religious life. In his foreword to the book "Moderasi Beragama" published by the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 2019, the former Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin asserted that the term religious moderation refers to the attitude of reducing violence or avoiding extremism in religion.[1]

The need to be moderate, according to Syaifuddin, is necessary to seek common ground from the two extreme poles. On the one hand, there are religious practices that recognize the absolute truth of a religious interpretation sponsored by conservatives. And on the other hand, there are also religious groups that are extreme at deifying reason to ignore the sanctity of religion which is promoted by liberal extremes. Both —Syaifuddin thinks—need to be moderated so as not to foster religious interpretations that trigger conflict.

The idea of religious moderation is written in two books. The first book titled Moderasi Beragama is considered to be the master book. Meanwhile, the second book entitled Peta Jalan Penguatan (Roadmap) Penguatan Moderasi Beragama Tahun 2020-2024 (Roadmap for Strengthening Religious Moderation in 2020-2024) is a derivative of the first, which contains strategic steps in the socialization of religious moderation values. Both handbooks for religious moderation, according to the research team from ICRS and PGI, still contain ideas and/or concepts that are counterproductive to government ideals of celebrating diversity/plurality.


A Critical Study of the Idea of Religious Moderation

The book by ICRS and PGI highlights the program of religious moderation from the perspective of the politics of religion. The researchers found that the religious moderation program still uses an institutional approach to religion that is heavily focused on shaping religious views concomitant with the state’s agendas. In this regard, religious moderation is more like a "religion making" agenda by the state to maintain ketertiban (discipline) in the society. It legitimizes the Ministry of Religious Affairs (as state apparatuses) to hold control over religious interpretation and practices and determine what is acceptable and what is not about a religion. Taking into account the rise of extremism in the background, the religious moderation agenda can be seen as government’s soft power to eradicate extremism and maintain the ‘order’ of religion.

Examples of how the government polices faith and religious practice can be found in many cases. In 1961 for instance, the Ministry of Religion attempted to define agama as a separate definition from kepercayaan and BAKORPAKEM (Coordinating Board for Supervision of Beliefs and Religions) was authorized to monitor the growth of faith in Indonesia. Throughout the years after the Board’s establishment, unorthodox faith communities have been victims of the law for accusation of religious heretics.

Although carrying the spirit of appreciation for plurality, the ICRS-PGI research team views that the religious moderation programs have not been completely unglued from this kind of control paradigm. This is at least apparent from Syaifuddin's own statement in the book that the religious moderation program is to indicate that the state is present in efforts to internalize religion to be moral and spiritual foundations of life on the one hand, as well as efforts to appreciate diversity of religious interpretation and truth on the other hand. [2] The presence of the state in internalizing “moderate” values certainly hints the control of the state in religion. The government's "moderation" program has the potential to restrict religious freedom. As mentioned in the second book of religious moderation, three indicators of moderation include: 1) religious views, attitudes and practices are not harmful to the noble values of humanity, 2) those views, attitudes and practices do not conflict with mutual agreement in the life of the nation and state (Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution) and 3) the views, attitudes and practices do not violate the provisions of the law that guide society and state to realize social order and mutual benefit.[3]

The problem is, as Zainal Abidin Bagir stated during the book launching, that the existing legal infrastructure still provides enabling conditions for intolerance. The existence of the 1965 PNPS Law which is still preserved by the state is an example of how our religious management program is agitated by the government's policies. The Joint Regulation of the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Minister of Home Affairs Nos. 9 and 8 of 2006 concerning the establishment of houses of worship has limited the rights of minorities in worship. Without any revision to the problematic policies, religious moderation programs would not bring any transformation to freedom of religion.

Nevertheless, the research team said that the government's efforts to respond to multidimensional crises caused by weak respect for differences must be appreciated. Though the main book on religious moderation still contains debatable terms that provoke polemics, the second book on the roadmap of the program tends to avoid the debate by reducing the use of the ambiguous terms of “moderate.” It instead focuses more on a strategic plan to transform the exclusive mindset of religion to be a more inclusive one through six areas of life: society, state, education, politics, religion, and media. The “roadmap” mentions that the Ministry of Religion expects to use the “moderasi beragama” program as a cultural strategy to bring more moderate nuances of religion. While the change is important, it should be carried out carefully through a democratic way to avoid any side effects of the programs as mentioned earlier.

The book launched by ICRS and PGI does not aim at delegitimizing the government's program to protect diversity but are intended to support better management of differences while reducing the intrusion of the state into religion. This moderation program that aspires to equal citizenship needs to be continuously supported through the development of concepts that emphasize respect for plurality and freedom of religion. The state must be present in the lives of citizens, but not by being faith police that regulate citizens' faith. The state must be present in its capacity to provide a safe space for citizens to worship freely without any interference by issuing policies that protect citizens’ freedom of religion.



[1] Kementerian Agama RI, Moderasi Beragama, 1st ed. (Jakarta: Kementerian Agama RI, 2019), 2.
[2] Kementerian Agama RI, 8.
[3] Tim Kelompok Kerja Moderasi Beragama Kementerian Agama RI, Peta Jalan (Roadmap) Penguatan Moderasi Beragama Tahun 2020-2024 (Jakarta: Kementerian Agama RI, 2020), 30.


Recorded Discussion: