Promoting Secularism, Why Not?

By Dion DB Putra

A two week training in Gummersbach Germany from 7-19 March 2010 left a very deep impression in me. And it indeed brings lots of advantages. It changes my viewpoints on Liberalism, secularism and religiosity, meaning that I now have a better and more holistic concept than I did previously.

I have new knowledge and privilege experiences for my work as a journalist in Kupang, East Tenggara Province, Indonesia.

Lectures, presentations, interviews, debate, group discussions and all the different opinions were obviously pictured during the leadership training on Liberalism and Religiosity in Gummersbach. There were 24 participants from 21 different countries and continents (Asia, Africa, America, South America and Europe) discussing intensively about nine topics during the International Academy for Leadership in Gummersbach.

The seminar covered the following topics:

- A look at religion and its alternatives
- A liberal perspective on religion
- Contemporary issues in the field of religion and politics
- Religion, rule of law and human rights
- Religion and women's emancipation
- The concept and meaning of secularism
- Religion and the state in Germany
- Liberalism, the secular state and religion
- Separating state and religion and/or forging a new relationship between state and religion.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation was absolutely right to have chosen the nine topics for the training. I won't be discussing each of the whole nine topics but only choose several that I think the most impressive to my opinion.

The first is about Liberalism, religion and the secularism. Since the era of John Locke (1632-1704) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) the issue has long been argued as a perception and a way of life in a nation building. The theme is not only relevant to Indonesia now but also worth discussing from time to time.

Secularism, for instance, provides a clear separation between the state and religion. Yet, the state fully guaranties and strongly supports the freedom of religion. Secularism is one the basic elements of liberal democracy and a pre request for human rights development.

A case study in Turkey and India, the countries with Moslem and Hindus majority, was taken as an example in depth discussion on secularism . Turkey, for example, is questioned whether as a secular nation promoted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk since the early 1920s can be the best model for secularism implementation or not. According to Dr, Hasan Yucel Basdemir, a participant from Turkey, most of turkey people agree upon the implementation of secularism in the country but there are still some arguments over the case. He gave an example of how people argue about the prohibition of Jilbab for female Moslem students in university. There are pros and cons even among the Moslems in Turkey.

Still according to Basdemir, who is a lecturer in Divinity Faculty Hit it University Corum Turkey, a secular nation should guaranty the freedom of religious worship for its citizens. That indicates that the state should not interfere the freedom of its people to do any kind of religious ways, including the use of religious symbols such as jilbab, or cross necklace, etc. This individual right and freedom should be guarantied by the state and become the most important part in secularism implementation in any country in the world including Indonesia.

Another example of a secular country is Germany. Dr. Stefan Melnik, the main facilitator of the training explained that German Federal does not fully prohibit the students of elementary and junior schools to wear any religious symbols. The state allows them to wear religious symbols in private schools but not in public schools. The reason is because public schools are funded by the tax of every citizen whose religion is various from one another. That's why the use of religious symbols is not allowed in public schools.

When reflecting on Indonesia's current situation, the discussion about secularism proved to be relevant and it enriches my perception about the role of a democratic country. In Indonesia there has long been a desire to undergo certain dogma of a certain religion. The majority religion has been trying to dominate and to impose their policy to the state. If that situation is truly realized, that will really put individual right and freedom on hold.

I think, a secular country is an option worth struggling by a plural country like Indonesia. In secularism spirit human decision and actions in political arena should be based more on logical reasons than religious beliefs and its influences. Each decision should be based on public interest, rule of law and the highest respect of human rights.

We were discussing a lot of things related to secularism, through working group or panel discussion including religion in our world, its advantages and alternatives, Can it work out? We also were discussing about secular religion; Marxism, Fasism as a religion, whether or not a religion live side by side with another religion like agnostistism and atheist and whether several religions are superior than others or not.

The majority religion being a fact in every participant's country apparently became important factor when discussing about secularism, religiosity and liberalism. Various professional background of the participants such as politician, journalist, university student, lecturer, NGO activist, religious leader, and researcher has made the discussions went very well and it enriched the experience of each participant.

Asian countries sent more participants in the training, ten participants. Indonesia and Palestine sent two participants each. Jordan, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Malaysia and Kyrgystan sent one participant each. Europe sent eight participants: two from Turkey and Israel, Russia, Ukraina, Estonia, Germany and Slovakia sent a participant each. Africa sent three participants, from Ghana, Maroco and Egypt while America sent three participants, they are from Argentine, Brazil and Mexico.

Thumbs up for Dr.Stefan Melnik from England and Gulmina Bilal from Pakistan. Director of Theodor Heuss Akademie, Dr. Birgit Lamm has chosen a very competent and professional facilitator. Two of them has lead the whole discussion focused and fun although the perspectives of each participant sometimes was very different from one another.

The second topic that impressed me much is the discussion about religiosity. The basic question during the discussion was how to face the exclusiveness of religion, tolerance and fundamentalism. Does religion has a guidance to face this problem or it has to find the solution out of that? How tolerance is a religion and what's the meaning of the right to express a religious belief of a human being?

Tolerance still leaves many problems in many countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The participants from the four continents expressed the same worry. " In our Christian majority country, social conflicts are still a major problem up to the present, " said Isaac Obeng Aboagye from Ghana. Isaac gave an example on how the Charismatic Christian perceived the Protestants and Catholics as `other People'. Worse yet, its attitude toward the non- Christians. It happens everywhere that one religion tries to dominate the others. The point is that not only the domination of majority over the minority but also each religion tends to feel superior than the others.

The same situation also happens in Indonesia. It's very hard to create tolerance in this country. It's a huge problem in Indonesia. In the discussion I mentioned a survey by LSI in 2006 as a mirror. The survey showed that Indonesians seemed to be tolerant with social life such as living side by side peacefully with people from different religions but the tolerance become less when it comes to theology and political area. Let's take an example of the problem aroused when building a place of worship. Indonesia's experience shows that religion is used as a political means to achieve its goal.

It's really not easy to transform tolerance to the diversity of Indonesian people. The state also many times fails to take a firm and clear decision in upholding the principle of equality and justice.

Discussion Panel finally reached a conclusion. Tolerance is not a one day work because it involves values that are deeply rooted in society. It needs a capital to develop tolerance as wisdom in plural society. First, tolerance needs an intensive social interaction. Second, there should be a trust among different groups and beliefs.

Other than intensive dialogue, education plays a great role. Since their early days children should be taught to recognize the difference as an important chance to create social relationship. The curriculum at schools needs to be reviewed.

Third, mass media both printed and electronic even the online should promote tolerance. It's a never ending promotion. This conclusion is closely related with my work as a journalist. In Gummersbach, a small and peaceful town I came to realize that I hadn't been sensitive to this issue all these years. Media tends to exploit the difference among religions and its conflicts rather than to promote the similarities of its values such as love and peace.

The training has enlightened my viewpoints. It's my duty to promote the spirit of tolerance in my editorial policy in Pos Kupang Daily. It's a need of my people in East Nusa Tenggara province. This is the biggest advantage I learned from Gummerbach. The majority of people in NTT are Christians, Protestants and Catholics but the tolerance between the two religions and among other religions like Moslems, Hindus, and Budhist needs to be cherished.

The discussion about Liberalism, whether it is an ideology, a belief or a concept of thought and whether the misconceptions among religious beliefs and the liberals is considered a problem, whether the gap will turn even wider were thoroughly discussed in working group. The first group discussed about why the religious leaders and traditional groups tend to view liberalism as an enemy and how the liberals should react to this issue.

Another working group discussed about liberalism as a representative of west imperialism values and whether it is a moral degradation, what the liberals justification about the issue, the possibility of a liberal being a part of religious group, why it is possible and why not. At the end of the discussion I came to think that liberalism is not a value from the west but it is a value rooted in every community in the world because it flourishes the values of humanism which are universally acceptable.

There were also some lectures from several resources followed by a session of dialogue with the participants. The lectures cover the following topics:

  1. Panel on the issue of religion at the municipal level in Bonn. Discussion with Achim Kansy, City Councillor (FDP) and Coleta Manemann, Municipal Commissioner for Integration.
  2. Liberating women: are anti-discrimination laws enough or what else do we need? Lecture by Dr.Nadia Butt, journalist and university lecturer, former FNF scholarship holder.
  3. Liberalism and the relationship between Church and State in Germany - a historical overview by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hense.
  4. Isolation or constructive engagement? What kind of relationship between religion and the state does the FDP want today? Presentation by Pascal Kober MdB, Member of the Group "Christian in the FPD" and Lutheran Pastor. Venue: Hotel Fortuna Reutlingen.
  5. Religion in schools: The special case of religious education in German educational system from a liberal perspective. Discussion with Dr. Otto Bertermann (MdL) and other members of the FDP Parlimentary group. Venue: Bayerischer Landtag, Munich.
  6. Religion as a factor in international conflicts. Discussion with Prof. Dr. Mariano Barbato, Department of International Politics at the University of Passau. Venue: Kolpinghaus Munchen Zentral.

Besides the discussions and lectures, we also did a three day city tour to Munich. It was very fun.
After a visit to Munich the last session was a closing discussion and sharing opinions on how to promote the idea of secularism, what can be done individually and and how we confront the possible obstacles. The session closed with some agreements and disagreements and a deep thought of the whole training such as the material of the training, the resources, the facilitators and etc. Taking into account the importance of the topic I suggested that The Theodor Heuss Akademie in cooperation with Friedrich Naumann can hold the same training in the following years because such topics are important for the whole world especially for developing country like Indonesia. Through series of discussions with stakeholders it is expected to find a solution to many problems faced by many countries in dealing with the relationship between the state and religion.

My great thank goes to the facilitators Mr. Stefan Melnik dan Ms. Gulmina Bilal who had lead a well and fun discussion during the training. Also to the director of Theodor Heuss Akademie, Dr. Birgit Lamm, seminar organisation Denise Kopmann and her assistant Bjorn Kant.

I thank the chief of Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) Jakarta, Mr. Rainer Heufers who has given me an opportunity to join the training. I am so grateful to have a chance to go to Germany.

As the meeting place for 24 participants from 21countries, the training has given all the participants new knowledge and experiences and it has made it possible to exchange ideas among the participants. Better perspectives are also achieved throughout the sessions about many different topics. Although not always on the same side in viewing the related issues, the two week training has deepened our brotherhood.

We are back to our own countries and our working environments but we still keep in contact through e-mail, facebook and other possible facilities to continuo our discussion or to just say hi to each other. Now there's an international network for promoting solidarity, liberalism and secularism in our own ways.

Drizzles of snow had welcomed me on my first arrival in Gummersbach on 7 March 2010. When I left the little town on March 19 in the afternoon, there was no more snow and cold weather. The sun shone brightly all over Germany and the Spring time started to come along. My memory of Gummersbach will stay with me forever. Thanks a lot FNS.

(Dion DB Putra, email:;
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