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S. Almirzanah: Pancasila-A Mosaic and Feature of the Character of the Indonesian People

Address to the International Leadership Conference
by Syafaatun Almirzanah, State Islamic University, Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Jakarta, Indonesia - December 8, 2012

Political ideology is intended to unite people in political organization for effective political action. . . The goal of ideology is to arouse feelings and incite action, and the power of an ideology derives from its capacity to capture the human imagination and mobilize and unleash human energies.[1]

Pancasila: A mosaic not a monolith

According to the sociology of knowledge, an individual is influenced by his/her historical and sociological background where he/she has grown up. Thus, there are a number of factors which can influence the outcome of an individual’s understanding of Pancasila.* Sociological, cultural, and intellectual circumstances, or what Arkoun describes as the ‘aesthetics of reception,’ certainly contribute to the forms and substances of interpretation. The ‘aesthetic of reception’ means ‘how a discourse, oral or written, is received by listeners or readers’, especially, in the case of Pancasila. More specifically, it refers to the conditions of individual perception of each level of culture corresponding to a social group in every phase of historical development.[2]

Different intellectual inclinations also influence the effort to understand Pancasila and thus lead to different interpretations of each sila (precept). Such inclinations can take the form of recovering the true meaning of the sila as literally expressed in the text, or finding general principles of Pancasila beyond its literal or textual expression. Thus, while accepting the general principle of Pancasila, Indonesians do not adhere to a single interpretation of it.

Indeed, one characteristic of Pancasila is that it gives room for different kinds of approaches and interpretations. There is no single interpretation of Pancasila or the people’s consultative council. A sole official interpretation of Pancasila is contradictory to the very character of Pancasila itself.

Various interpretations of Pancasila which stem from different beliefs and values are not only allowed but also necessary if the principles of Pancasila are to be implemented and put into practice. This does not necessarily lead to extreme relativism. While each group can maintain its identity, through the implementation of the principles all the groups will directly or indirectly engage in continuous dialogue with each other. Here we can understand why, as van der Kroef remarks: “though pancasila as a doctrine has been in existence for at least ten years, precious little effort is being expended by the interpreting elite in analyzing, or interpreting the doctrine.[3]                                        

Indeed, historically Pancasila was not born in a vacuum. It has a historical and sociological setting. It may have influenced by foreign culture, but Pancasila has an Indonesian background. In his book, Eka Dharmaputra divides the origin of Pancasila into three layers, called unity and diversity. These layers are: (a) the indigenous, (b) the Indic, and (c) the Islamic; there are sociological backgrounds respecting integrated values from different cultures and religions in the community, i.e., abangan, santri dan priyayi. From these settings, Eka Darmaputra places Pancasila as a solution for the historical and sociological condition of indonesian society. [4]             

The effectiveness of Pancasila, then, has to be measured by its ability to maintain both the unity and the diversity of Indonesia. Despite its religious diversity, Indonesia indeed has until recently been generally known as a country where a number of great world religions meet and develop in peaceful coexistence.

Now, how does Pancasila deals with the diversity of Indonesia?

In this case we have to say, as many have said, that Pancasila is really “a smart choice” taken by the Indonesian leaders before Indonesian independence. For a society so fragmented like Indonesia, Pancasila surely meets the need. The principles of Pancasila are broad enough and general enough to be able to include as many groups as possible within its embrace. Tb Simatupang wrote: “The five principles are a wide enough umbrella for every body. Nobody has anything against them; people can accept them; we can all live together under them.”[5]

One of the real tests for the effectiveness of an ideology like Pancasila, however, is whether or not it is rooted in the culture and value orientation at least of the majority of the people.[6]

Political ideology is intended to unite people in political organization for effective political action. The goal of ideology is to arouse feelings and incite action, and the power of an ideology derives from its capacity to capture the human imagination and mobilize and unleash human energies.[7]

Thus, only when Pancasila is rooted in the religious/cultural/value orientation of the people can it stir people’s emotions and incite actions. On September 19, 1951, when receiving an honorary degree from the Gajah Mada University, Sukarno—the founder of Pancasila—said among other things:

Pancasila, which you said, Mr. Promotor, to be my achievement, is not at all my achievement. Insofar as Pancasila is concerned, I am only its formulator: a formulator of those feelings which have been present silently in the heart of the Indonesian people. I am no more than just a “communicator” of the desire and aspirations of the Indonesian people for generations ... Pancasila has been written in the heart of the Indonesian people for a long time. It is my conviction that Pancasila is the feature of the character of the Indonesian people.[8]  

He repeated his rejection of the idea that he really was the creator of Pancasila four years later:

I firmly reject Professor Notonagoro’s statement that I am the creator of Pancasila. Pancasila is created by the Indonesian people themselves. What I did was dig it out of the life-world of the Indonesian people . . . [9]

In fact, Pancasila can be viewed as a secular as well as an equality definition of monotheism since religion is defined as ethics and separated from the state. This is the foundation which made it possible to overcome the tension between Islam and a secular national state in Indonesia and to demonstrate a successful pattern for harmonious unity of communities with different cultures, ethnicities, and religions.

It is important to note the definition of a tolerant and pluralistic monotheism by the then President Sukarno, who described the first principle of Pancasila as follows:

It's the principle of belief in God. It means that all Indonesians believe in God in the sense that the Christians believe in God in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Muslims in line with the teachings of Mohammed, the Buddhists practice their religion as prescribed in their holy scriptures. But we all together believe in God. The Indonesian state is a state where every believer can worship God according to his own choice of religion. The Indonesian people believe in God in a refined manner that is without the egoism of any one religion.

From the Islamic perspective, this Pancasila definition of monotheism is a clear-cut deviation from the traditional Islamic Dhimmi[10] principle. Pancasila puts Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists on an equal level. That is not only a revolution in Islamic thinking but also a translation of the mystical ideas of the great Andalusian Sufi Muslim Ibn Arabi into a political program. Sufi Islam's tolerance and its rejection of any dogmatism has become a basis of political reality in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, non-Muslims are not dhimmis but citizens of equal standing. This offers a model for an equal definition of Islam and Christianity, which is expanded also to Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, religions which are not mentioned in Islamic revelations.

The religious harmony demonstrated by Indonesia based on Pancasila also exceeds by far the Lessing parable of the three rings; it has to embrace the other world religions. Indeed, most Indonesians are Muslims, and the rest are Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians and even a very small Jewish community. Thus, it was not without any reason when the first president and his colleagues formulated Pancasila. What he and his colleagues had in mind was the definition of a tolerant and pluralistic monotheism as the first Sila of Pancasila

Plurality is the very texture of Indonesia, and the issue of the relationship between different religions and cultures is extremely important, even more so today than in the past. In such a pluralistic society, the complexity of religious and cultural identities can bring harmony, but at the same time it can lead to conflict.

In the past, Indonesia with its diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and religions was seen as a model of a tolerant harmonious country where people of different religious and cultural backgrounds could live harmoniously. In fact, there is a long-held near-consensus among specialists that the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims are steadily moderate in their religious views. Beginning from the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1950s through the contemporary social scientists such as Robert W. Hefner, all have emphasized the pluralistic nature of Indonesian Islam, which is conducive for furthering the moderation process of the Muslim community in Indonesia.

However, in the last ten years or so the international media and some academics have warned of rising Islamic radicalism and intolerance in Indonesia. Especially since the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, radical Islam has been perhaps the most vivid and enduring image generated by Indonesia. Recently we also witnessed even more violent acts of intolerance directed to minorities in the country. Here religion has become, what Kimball called “a lethal force.”

Whether this later development represents a shift in the character of Indonesia Islam towards fundamentalism is subject to debate. What is not debatable is the fact that in the last few years the more conservative and radical expressions of Islam are prevalent in the country, which is undoubtedly a setback for religious pluralism based on Pancasila.

Of course there are many reasons for those issues and intolerance leading to conflicts (economic, social, and political), but one of the causes I believe is religious illiteracy. I am not only talking about those who are uninformed about other religious traditions; I also believe that some of them are not well informed and are illiterate about their own traditions. I am wondering if Indonesians are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant of religions.

According to the survey conducted by the Center for Islamic and Society Studies (PPIM) at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, most teachers of Islam in public and private schools in Java opposed pluralism and are even inclined to radicalism and conservatism.

The survey reveals that 68.6 percent of the respondents are against non-Muslim school principals and 33.8 percent resisted non-Muslim teachers at their schools. Some 73.1 percent of the teachers refused to allow their non-Muslim fellows to build houses of worship in their neighborhoods.

I am sure that participants of this research “know next to nothing” about the other religious traditions they are opposed to. It is common in many religious traditions that exclusivist tendencies are likely to be uninformed from within as well as from without.

Uninformed from within means they are usually deaf to alternative interpretative possibilities from inside their own tradition. Uninformed from without means they are usually articulated with little to no experience of genuine encounters with the other, or if there is experience of the other, it is short-lived and highly negative.

The impact of this religious ignorance is actually deeper. That great pioneer of the modern discipline of the history of religions, Friedrich Max Muller, once famously wrote, “He who knows one religion knows none,” perhaps largely referring in his own scholarly context to those who aspired to become experts in the study of a particular religious tradition. Yet today, this dictum seems to have significance well beyond the membership of the American Academy of Religion and similar scholarly societies. In today’s increasingly religiously plural social contexts, these words suggest not only that a failure to engage pluralism is an act of self-marginalization within our own social contexts but also that, without some understanding of the faith of our neighbor, the religious person (or community) living in a religiously plural society cannot even understand oneself (or itself).

Today, religious ignorance is pervasive and certainly dangerous. In an era when the massive power that religions wield, something that no one can deny, we can ask ourselves whether one can understand any culture and history — political or social — without understanding other relevant religions.

Whether one is religious or not, understanding religion is a key to understanding other cultures. Religions have been powerful forces throughout history in any country, sometimes working for good and sometimes to destroy. They have inspired some of the greatest and noblest of acts; equally they have inspired some of the most ruthless brutality. They are central to much social and political history.

In addition, racial and religious prejudices are major issues in the contemporary world, including Indonesia. One major motive in the understanding of religions is to encourage knowledge and understanding between religions and cultures, based on the assumption that prejudice will be overcome if each knows more about the other.

It is hoped that the knowledge of others will result in understanding and better relations between peoples. Above all, the understanding of other religions (including the diversity within religious traditions) is to enable us to “see through the spectacles” of other cultures. If someone can develop an empathic understanding of another culture, the result will be that they are more ready to empathize with other cultures as well.

Unfortunately, the Indonesian community today lacks this basic religious knowledge. As a result, many Indonesians are too easily swayed by demagogues. This ignorance endangers our public life. Thus, we need to equip our citizens with a basic understanding of the world’s religions.

There are many reasons to expect from Indonesia’s future leaders at least minimal religious literacy, which can be cultivated in a wide variety of courses. The most obvious is a world religions course that covers, at a minimum, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. During such a course, students would learn the basic symbols, beliefs, practices, and narratives of those religions.

We are not living in a secularized world. The world today is as fervently religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. To contribute fully to the politics of the nation or the affairs of the world, we need to foster students’ basic knowledge about the world’s religions.

Reconstructing “diversity” based on Pancasila and universal values

The basic assumption of this perspective is that religious pluralism is not simple recognition of the fact that there are different religions and faiths in a society or a country but an appreciation that the fact of the religious plurality has a positive value. The term “pluralism,” therefore, is not the sheer fact of plurality alone but involves active engagement with plurality. In other words, “religious pluralism” is not a neutral or descriptive term for the phenomenon of religious diversity but an ideal to strive for and a positive evaluative response to this phenomenon. Therefore, to be a pluralist is not merely to be a tolerant person. Religious pluralism calls for active engagement with the religious other -- not merely to tolerate but to understand. It is in this context that religious pluralism should be grounded in the theological acceptance of the others as God’s design for humanity. Theologically speaking, religious pluralism is divinely-ordained system.

In this situation it is important to reconstruct “diversity.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) asserts that part of the creative genius of Rabbinic Judaism is that it pioneered not one but two ideals of peace. The first is the ultimate "messianic" peace in which all divisions among humankind will be dissolved and all tensions resolved. Perhaps the most well-known biblical text expressing this messianic ideal is Isaiah 11:6-9, beginning with the famous words, "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."

For Sacks, the genius of Jewish teachings regarding peace is that it complements the messianic ideal with a practical ideal of a "here-and-now peace which depends on different groups with incompatible ideals living graciously or at least civilly together without attempting to impose its beliefs on others."[11]

In fact, this is what we should pursue in today's multireligious world. Religious plurality is the very embodiment of what it means to be the One. When viewed from "outside," the pluralism of religions appears to be problematic, disjunctive, and competing; but seen from "within," pluralism becomes an expression of the inclusiveness of the One, the Ultimate, which is multidimensional.

Thus, this new interpretation on pluralism in the Indonesian context is crucial to avoid fatal misunderstanding or, as explored by Edward W. Said, misinterpretation and misrepresentation. The rise of arbitrary interpretations of pluralism will have serious implications especially for diversity itself.

A big nation is a nation that can reconstruct pluralism to build togetherness and unity in diversity. As Diana Eck said, pluralism is a process of continuous creativity, because pluralism is an effort to solve the problem of diversity, and not an effort to divide, let alone making social unrest.

Closing remarks

With those characteristic and flexibility of Pancasila as described above, it is upon us, as leaders, to implement the values. There are two key Qur'anic concepts which can be roughly translated as “human being.” They are bashar and insan. Unlike bashar, which always relates to the human being as a biological entity—a specie among the species—the word insan is related to the animating breath breathed into human by God and therefore is indicative of the special relationship the human person has with God. The human being is the creature who observed the divine attributes and who is thus responsible for reflecting these attributes in his or her life. The human being as insan is the only creature who volunteers to bear the amanah, or divine “Trust” which God “offered to the heavens and the earth and the mountains,” each of which, despite their majesty and strength, declined to bear it (33:72). It was the human being alone who opted to accept the amanah to uphold divine law, thus holding himself or herself accountable for the building of just societies.[12] It is in this sense that the human being is responsible to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil,” thus fulfilling his or her role as khalifa or “vicegerent” of God. Being a “vicegerent” of God, however, ought never be interpreted as permission to exert dominance and ownership over a creation which belongs only to God. Rather, it is a sacred responsibility to nurture and care for one’s environment and especially one’s fellow human beings by living out a commitment of service to all.

Let me close by quoting from Kasimow and Sherwin:

The Religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, nor more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations. . . . .  Horizons are wider, dangers are greater. . . . No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us.[13]

And quoting from Rumi:

Be like a compass: Stand firm on your one foot well-established in the center of the circle (belief and love of God) and travel with your other foot with people of 72 nations of different races, colors, religions, ideologies, worldviews, cultures, personalities. Be so tolerant that your heart becomes wide like the ocean. Become inspired with faith and love for others. Love all the creation because of the Creator. Offer a hand to those in trouble, and be concerned about everyone. So long as you remain in yourself, you are a particle. But if you get united with everybody, you are a mine, an ocean. All spirits are One! And all bodies are One! There are many languages in the world, in meaning all are the same. If you break the cups, water will be unified and will flow together.

* Pancasilais the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state: Belief in the one and only God, a just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives, and social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.

[1]Reo M. Christenson, et. al., Ideologies and Modern Politics, p. 6

[2]See Arkoun, "The Concept of Authority in Islamic Thought," in Klauss Ferdinand and Mehdi Mozaffari, eds., Islam: State and Society, London: Curzon Press, 1988, p. 58. In hermeneutics, inspired by Paul Ricoeur and Gadamer (Gadamer, 1989), each in his ways, we knew that reading text is not such a straightforward event. The text will disclose its meaning in interactive ways. Text means or produces meaning in many and different ways. In addition, insight and enlightenment are provided in various contexts and by various peoples. Thus, everybody has his or her rights to understand the words he/she heard or read. He/she has his/her own reflection for the texts.

[3]Jm Van der Kroef, Pantjasila, p. 246.

[4] See Eka Darmaputera, Pancasila and the Search for Identity and Modernity in Indonesian Society, E. J. Brill, The Netherlands, 1988.

[5]TB. Smatupang, This Is My Country, p. 317.

[6] The other test is whether or not it is also true for universal humanity.  

[7] Reo M. Christenson, et al., Ideologies and Modern Politics, p. 6.

[8]Dr. Ir. Sukarno, “Ilmu dan Amal: Geest, Wil en Daad,” (Science and Praxis: Spirit, Willl and Deed, Medan: Yayasan Cakra Utama dan Pustaka Hasmar, 1951), p. 17.

[9]Quoted in Soediman Kartohadiprodjo, Pancasiladan/daam Undang-undang Dasar 1945, p. 11.

[10]A dhimmi may be defined as a person with accountability and inviolability (holiness), he is granted human right and constitutional rights. In classical Islamic jurisprudence the term dhimmah means accountability and inviolability, which is usually termed personhood in modern legal discourse. Dhimmah is also commonly understood as “protection,” “treaty” and “peace” because it is a treaty that puts non-Muslims under the protection of Muslims (it is the concept of the rights of minorities).

[11] See 

[12]Fazlur Rahman, “The Qur’anic Concept of God, the Universe, and Man,” Islamic Studies, March, 1967, VoI. I, 9.

[13] Kasimow and Sherwin, No Religion Is an Island, p. 6.