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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

Democracy in its simplest definition refers to rule by the majority, in which their voice determines decisions. In other words, this definition implies that minorities have very little, or even no voice at all.

While there are instances of "voiceless" minorities, interestingly, this may not appear to be so in certain circumstances. In today's Indonesia, those belonging to fundamentalist groups – both theologically and politically, are rather small in number but have been loud and influential on the mainstream. This is both mind-boggling and hard to comprehend.

Does democracy truly mean the majority dominates the minorities leaving the latter with very little breathing room? If it does, is "compassionate democracy" simply a myth or even a legend? How should minorities react? Even more importantly, how should those who belong to the majority behave toward minorities? With those exceptional fundamentalist minorities' strong voices affecting the majority, how should we interpret Indonesian society and its respect and acceptance of differences?

Ideally, democracy should be exercised carefully, because, without guidelines, it can easily be fertile ground for the distorted practice of democracy. After all, it is based on a very simple premise: the majority wins and the minorities must follow whatever is decided.

For politicians, this drawback is an advantage that can be used over and over, and which could eventually culminate in the politics of amnesia, a terminology coined by Terry Eagleton. And without careful democratic practice, compassion toward any group, and more importantly any minority, may not be exercised at all.

It would be saddening if "compassionate democracy" were merely an oxymoron, a terminology in contradiction, even though it would attest to Aristotle's notion that democracy is probably the rule of the mediocre majority. Take the May 1998 tragedy, for example, when orchestrated mayhem by puppeteers whose faces are yet to be unveiled resulted in massive casualties. Many of the victims and survivors belonged to the majority. There was no doubt about that.

However, this orchestrated incident targeted groups of minorities, particularly those of Chinese ethnicity, by using symbols of the majority. The fact that such a minority group was targeted mercilessly did not appear to be of significant regret. An in-depth investigation and effort to bring the perpetrators to justice is still far from being successfully accomplished, because after all, in many people's simple minds, the minority should submit to the majority. Isn't that what "democracy" is about? Let's think.

That democracy is "the rule of the mediocre majority" has been used as a weapon by those who believe that it is truly so. Thus, ideologically, it is a fallacy. Is it really so? For instance, this misconception has been used by fundamentalists of every kind to substantiate that their ideology is the best, as it would terminate such a mediocre system of government. Hizbut Tahrir has been advocating worldwide a caliphate by recruiting people in power and those who might rise to power. It is interesting to note that their number is very small in quantity, yet they are so loud.

The "upside down" rationale that has been used by some people for continuous politics of amnesia against those who belong to certain minority groups, such as those of Chinese ethnicity, is both cruel and inhumane. Chinese descendants have been stereotyped as rich and corrupt, thus any individual who belongs to this group does not deserve any compassion. After all, they are a minority, thus they must submit to the majority's wishes.

It is also commonly heard that individuals of such resourcefulness do not need any consideration and when some of them behave unethically, fingers tend to point to the whole group and the whole ethnicity, not only the individual in question. And whenever there has been a catastrophic incident, either natural or man-made, those who belong to minority groups tend to be belittled with the argument, "We the majority also suffer, why not cater to our needs instead?"

In other words, compassion toward individuals of minority groups does not come unconditionally. Just like a raped woman who wore a miniskirt or a liver cirrhosis patient who "deserves" to be in such pain because of chosen lifestyle.

Being a member of a minority group comes with such double, triple or even quadruple standards. It is too high a standard for one to reach, even if the person is exemplary in many areas.

I find such a harsh reality for being a member of a minority group heartbreaking. Democracy in Indonesia has been tarnished by the so-called "equality dogma."

Unfortunately, instead of the minority groups who insist upon equality of treatment, the majority oftentimes uses the "majority rules" doctrine far too often, leaving very small space for minorities to exist, or even to breathe, without having to bend.

Sure, a diverse society like Indonesia is hard to manage, but its size is, contrary to popular belief, very manageable. It is only slightly less than three times the size of Texas. And if most people think that the politicians have been having a lot of fun without showing any political will to make meaningful changes in protecting the safety and security of those who belong to minority groups, then it is time for all of us to shake the tree to its roots and demand compassionate democracy.[] 

The Jakarta Post, April 26, 2008

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