OPINION: Cultural Wearing-Out

In President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to Europe, Indonesia was hailed for its correct approach to fighting terrorism and extremism.

President Joko Kompas/HAMZIRWANPresident Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and British Prime Minister David Cameron meet at the British PM office at No.10 Downing Street, London, on April 19, 2016. Jokowi and Cameron discussed efforts to eradicate extremism and promote Islam as a religion of peace.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron was highly impressed with Indonesia’s approach to tackling extremism and terrorism through implementing values of tolerance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the societal system in our country that maintained the values of tolerance and was able to prevent conflict (Kompas, 20/4/2016).

There are two reasons that make them highly impressed about Indonesia. First, currently many European countries are facing the threat of extremism and terrorism, with the Islamic State (IS) movement as the alleged icon behind the movement.

Second, thus far, European leaders and people have tended to look at the Middle East as their main perception of Islam. As a result, they tend to see the Middle East as the source of extremism and terrorism threats. This creates a phobia: Islam is deemed identical to violence.

Looking at the phenomenon of Indonesian Islam (hospitable, peaceful and tolerant), it is unsurprising that the European leaders are impressed. Indonesia faces the problems of extremism and terrorism with a soft approach.

In the General Briefing on Counter-Terrorism forum, National Counterterrorism Agency head Tito Karnavian said that the soft approach was Indonesia’s backbone in tackling the spread of the extreme ideologies of terror. This is done through strengthening three ideologies, namely Islam Nusantara, Pancasila and democracy. These three variants are born of the womb of Indonesian culture.

Middle East culture

Michael Hudson in “The Elements of Arab Identity” (1977) concluded that Middle East politics can only be understood by first understanding its culture and society. This is the software on which the region’s culture of politics is established. The two important elements in the Middle East’s culture of politics are the Arabic language and Islam as a religion.

Drysdale and GH Blake (1985) divided the cultural heterogeneity in the Middle East and Northern Africa into four major categories. First, the countries with many languages but which are religiously cohesive (Morocco, Algiers and Iran).

Second, countries with many religions but having one language (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria).

Third, countries with many languages and religions (Turkey, Iraq, Cyprus, Sudan and Israel).

Fourth, countries with many languages and religions and with local populations and immigrants (Palestine, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates).

The political culture in the Middle East also tends to be based on factional strength. According to Ibnu Khaldun in “Mukaddimah” (2015), Arab nations have very strong factional fanaticism.

Such is the cultural basis of Middle Eastern countries. However, in the region culture has no dominant role in breaking down socio-politico-religious barriers. On the contrary, to some extent culture is a source of more problems as it becomes a wall that divides society. There are a few indications of the weak role of culture.

First, up till now, the dichotomy between nationalism (Arabism) and Islamism has yet to be complete. Friction still occurs. Culture has yet to break down the dichotomy. As an excess, socio-religious divisions occur in many factions: nationalists vs. Islamists.

Second, the dichotomy between secular and religious countries is still heated. Turkey is right in the middle of it. Culture has yet to develop national identities that alleviate states from such dichotomies. The failure of the Arab Spring in establishing democracy in the Middle East is due to the weak role of culture.

Third, cultural barriers (ethnicity, race and Islamic school of thought) have yet to dissolve into a singular collective culture. This is, in fact, the main role of a cultural strategy. As a result, conflicts between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Wahhabis are always heated in the Middle East. Barriers between Arabism, Persianism and Kurdism are also in constantly high tension.

As a matter of fact, the Middle East has strong cultural capital. However, in the region culture is still in the fixed “raw material” form that has yet to be internalized and integrated into other dimensions of life, such as politics, society and religion.

Instead of serving as an umbrella and to break down barriers, culture often serves in the contrary. First, it creates a separate barrier that exacerbates the complexities of existing dichotomies and sentiments. Second, instead of reducing the tension, it makes the dichotomies and sentiments even more rigid. Third, it sharpens the frictions within the dichotomies and sentiments.

Culture in Indonesia

On the contrary, in Indonesia culture is like “oxygen” that is unseen but it functions significantly in all social spaces. Culture is everywhere and it serves as the breath of life in the reality of the nation-state. Culture has the role of a meeting point and a melting point between various socio-religious configurations. In the oasis of culture, barriers and dichotomies are broken down but each of the entities does not lose its own uniqueness.

Therefore, despite having a more complex social categorization than the Middle East, Indonesia has completed the search for its nation-state identity, which has resolved its various dichotomies. Diverse religions are melded together under the principle of the One True God as stipulated in Pancasila. This resolves the dichotomy between secularism and religion.

Islam itself is merged with local Nusantara cultures. Political factionalizing based on ethnicities, as was evident in the establishment of the Jong Java, Jong Sumatranen Bond, Jong Celebes and other groups, is now merged under the 1945 Constitution. Ethnicities, races and groups are collectively accommodated under the spirit of nationalism under the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Thus, all dichotomies are resolved by using culture as the vehicle.

In Indonesia culture performs its role in esoteric and perennial levels, while in the Middle East culture only exists on exoteric and peripheral levels. Indonesia has cultural imperiums, including Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, and various other civil society organizations. This is the civil power that develops naturally and serves to balance the state and to support state work.

These civil society organizations reduce the burden of the state as their socio-cultural-religious influence spreads over half of the Indonesian population. In the Middle East, this phenomenon does not exist. Civil power is weak. Even if it exists, its position is vis a vis the state, due to the unresolved dichotomy. Instead of lessening the tension, its existence puts more of a burden on the state. This is the effect of the worn-out role of culture. Therefore, countries in the Middle East must be more intensive in using the cultural approach.

As culture is the most valuable treasure Indonesia has, the country must be preserved from all potential cultural crises. In recent years, culture has seemingly lost almost all of its functions and roles.

Politics, society and religion have become more alienated from culture. Politics becomes even more deprived of cultural logic. Social order is invaded by foreign cultures. Religious life has become more hostile toward culture, as it is deemed bid’ah (deviant). Terrorist acts and networks abusing the name of religion have become more widespread. A Pew Research Center survey on the global attitude toward IS shows that 10 million (4 percent) Indonesians support IS.

These are all signs that culture is eroded from the religious space as the IS ideology is highly anti-culture. As long as the nation-state wishes to avoid being torn apart by conflict, we have to maintain and intensify the function and role of our culture.


Head of Center for Indonesia-Middle East Studies

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