The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, December 15, 2008


Bashed, bloodied but unbeaten © Duncan Graham 2008

Preaching the universal religious virtues of peace, love, understanding and forgiveness is easy enough before backslapping thinkalikes in a safe house.

In the warmth of the applause the speaker can bask in the sunshine of self-righteousness. The challenge comes when the audience is hostile, even brutal and the environment is the street.

Catholic priest Benny Susetyo has been confronted by the ugly side of Indonesian life and passed the test splendidly. Though not without considerable pain.

In August he was bashed senseless by three thugs and spent five days recuperating and undergoing tests in a Singapore hospital. So far no-one had been arrested for the crime.

His assault came a few months after hoons from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) thumped peace marchers in central Jakarta, wounding 70. This encouraged the Christian press to claim Father Benny was the victim of a planned assault by fundamentalists aiming to fracture Indonesian pluralism. However the victim doesn’t go so far, saying he doesn’t know why he was bashed.

He said he is no longer in pain and had forgiven his assailants – “of course.” Maybe they were just after his handphone.

If the criminals were religious loonies or hired hitmen who thought their violence might bludgeon the secretary of the Inter-Religious Commission of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference into silence they selected the wrong man.

For the human rights activist is still hammering his message of reform in the way Indonesians use and misuse religion and he’s taking his mission far afield.

His latest stop was New Zealand where he was invited during Human Rights Week by the Indonesian Embassy to promote the Republic as a multi-faith tolerant society. His visit was also used to celebrate the Christmas season.

NZ is a nation that still holds to a Judaeo-Christian heritage and values, but where organised religion is in decline. There are about 40,000 Muslims in the South Pacific country and only a tiny fraction from Indonesia.

“There are so many things that New Zealanders can do to help democracy and promote public civilization in Indonesia,” he told anyone who would listen during a tour in early December.

“I don’t just mean in terms of trade. Visit Indonesia and do whatever you can to explain what’s happening in the world. Spread the message that religion must be on the side of the poor and disadvantaged.

“Religion is being used as an instrument of power in Indonesia, manipulated by the State and big business.

“Religion has been trapped by rituals, people chasing after symbols and failing to find the balance between the state and the market. Religion must be a source of morality.”

Father Benny sees parallels in Indonesia with the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR who presided over the disintegration of the union and the arrival of democracy.

Father Benny claimed that the Russian people eventually grew tired of the way democracy was being mishandled and corrupted, and are now drifting back to totalitarianism. He fears the same disillusionment may infect Indonesians.

He said this is because politicians are continuing to use religion for their own ends and consequently risking harmony in Indonesia.

Benny Susetyo, 40, is normally based in Malang in East Java where he studied for a masters’ degree in philosophy. He is a member of the Alliance for National and Religious Freedom and has written several books on pluralism and religion.

In the mass media he has used Indonesia’s press (“the most free and democratic in Asia”) to savage the government’s response to the Lapindo mud volcano disaster in East Java, demanding that businessman Aburizal Bakrie (who is also the Coordinating Minister for the People’s Welfare) be held accountable.

The meddlesome priest has even dared to demand the government seize the Bakrie Group’s assets to compensate the thousands who have lost homes, land and jobs to the unstoppable eruption of gas and slime. (A Bakrie company was associated with the gas drilling that allegedly caused the eruption.)

Father Benny has also been a critic of the banning of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect under pressure from hardline Muslims who believe that only their interpretation of the faith is correct.

His other targets have been poorly educated religious leaders who have used the hate passages in the ancient books to provoke violence. So it’s easy to assume the man has garnered many enemies who might want to give him a hard time – literally and metaphorically.

“We need a new paradigm for religious teaching that will interpret the texts in accordance with modern usage,” he said.

“Take off your exclusive glasses and start looking at the world in an inclusive way. The dialogue must be about life. The challenge for religion is to take sides with the downtrodden, the poor, migrant workers – and advocate on their behalf.

“In many cases religion has lost its true essence in bringing peace and justice to the world – advocating solidarity, forgiveness and being good friends with all. Plurality should be the main issue in the development of our national character.”

In an earlier age Father Benny would have been pilloried as a Communist and publicly harassed by the military and police if not jailed. For he is not afraid of putting the boot into politicians and the corporate world, both untouchables during Soeharto’s authoritarian era.

He has focussed on the power of cashed-up business-backed politicians to buy media time and who use religion to clothe themselves with piety in the search for votes.

At the same time he has trust in the common sense of the ordinary people. He said they had not been fooled by the large number of celebrities and clerics who have put their names forward for public office; these candidates have been dumped at the ballot box.

He unsuccessfully supported the removal of religious affiliation from identity cards and thinks it will be some time before Indonesians can accept the idea that the state and religion should be divorced, as it is in NZ and many other Western countries.

“The issue is not to have a religion, but to be a religion,” he said. “Religion has become a plaything of the state.

“The important things are not the number of places of worship, but the creation of a life of togetherness. We have to become better educated and intellectually more mature.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 December 2008)