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[Read directly on The Jakarta Post and The Malaysian Insider.]

by Jennie M. Xue and Michael J. Rahardjo, Jakarta

Indonesia is in dire need of a secular president because it is a secular country by law. 

The de jure fact that Indonesia is a secular country is often blurred by the de facto reality that too many Indonesian leaders indulge themselves in religious symbols. Such lifestyles have reached an alarming level, for they do not seem to put an end to the various laws and policies that perpetuate discrimination. 

It is as if Indonesians live in a theocracy, not a democratic, secular country. 

Indonesia’s ID cards still bear the “choice of religion” column. The central government is also too lenient on hard-core extremists and local governments that have been using force to close down churches and other minority places of worship. The requirement for halal certification for food, cosmetics and hotel accommodation is also a violation of the secular country concept. 

The 2013 school curriculum emphasizes the study of religion with four extra hours and pivots on so-called “religion” in other subjects, including science and math. 

On the other hand, Indonesian literature has been eliminated from the high school curriculum due to the removal of IPA (natural sciences) and IPS (social sciences) majors.

In the 2013 high school curriculum for the Indonesian language subject, the first core competency expected is internalizing and implementing religious teachings as observed by adhering to Indonesian language norms and being grateful for having Indonesian language and literature as a blessing from God.

Amazing, isn’t it? This core competency was designed by the Education and Culture Ministry of a secular country. 

Perhaps Indonesia isn’t that secular or is actually anti-secular considering the controversial birth of Pancasila? Was Indonesia intended to be an Islamic country? 

That was previously discussed, but it is now history. 

As Indonesia is legally a secular country, we must remind ourselves that Indonesia’s Constitution protects all individuals equally.

Churches being sealed, closed down or even burned down without the government doing anything significant to deter the repeat of these acts is incomprehensible. 

It is also incomprehensible that the Ahmadiyah, a minority sect in Islam, has been persecuted heavily for simply being different, despite being peaceful and respectful toward others. 

The cases of wrongdoing toward minorities are called “acts of persecution”, not merely discrimination. Why? Because those acts were imposed upon a specific group by a group of violent individuals condoned by the government’s silence and noninterference. 

By condoning violent acts with a failure to stop them via soft and hard power, such as peaceful talks, negotiations and armed protection, a lack of political will in maintaining balance between groups with different religions is prevalent.

We need a president who understands this and works hard to protect the basic human rights of Indonesians.

The definition of “persecution” according to the Geneva Convention Article 1A, is that the suffering or fear caused must be sufficiently serious, by its nature or repetition; it must either constitute a basic attack on human rights, for example, life, freedom or physical integrity, or, in the light of all the facts of the case, manifestly preclude the victim from continuing to live in his or her country of origin; and it must be based on one of the grounds mentioned in Article 1A: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. 

A president who respects human rights, humanity and peace must act according to universal morality, not based upon specific religious teachings. We must remind ourselves and respect the fact that Indonesia is a secular country. Consequently, we need a secular president. 

In a paternalistic society like Indonesia, a president is a fatherly icon of influence. It matters that he projects an aura of spirituality without giving special preference to a specific religion. This would translate to peace-oriented decisions and policies. 

A secular female president may be an even better choice, for today’s world requires a gentler and more peaceful approach in leadership. 

Professor Susan Perkins of Northwestern University, Katherine Philips of Columbia University and Nicholas Pearce published an article in Columbia’s Journal of International Affairs that pointed to a correlation between higher gross domestic product (GDP) growth and female presidents in countries with ethnic strife.[]

Jennie M. Xue is an Indonesian-born author and columnist based in California. Michael J. Rahardjo is an essayist and columnist based in Jakarta.

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