Rethinking public religion: Word, image, sound

Overall, localised moves to curtail the rights and freedoms of religious minorities are seen as presenting an important constitutional challenge. Currently legal challenges to, for example, local-government edicts preventing the construction of religious buildings - as with the ongoing church saga in Bogor - are channelled through local district courts. More broadly it was suggested that defining and guaranteeing access to processes of constitutional complaint is an issue that MENA countries such as Egypt should consider carefully in the context of drafting a new constitution.

Assessments of the impact of the decentralization law vary widely. Some stress the resulting improvements both in local service delivery and the extent to which, for example, customary law and governance structures are accommodated and included. Others, however, emphasise the negative - if largely unforeseen - impacts of decentralisation on inter-ethnic relations. There is growing evidence, for example of provincial leaderships pursuing policies designed to keep out ethnic "outsiders". Some provinces have also begun to stipulate the required ethnicity of elected officials, even if this goes against the constitution.

In significant parts of the country, it is argued, decentralisation has thus unwittingly assisted a process of homogenising local populations at the expense of previously prevailing heterogeneity. The central authorities are currently in the process of drafting a set of revisions to the decentralisation law intended to address these challenges, particularly with a view to curbing the role of ethnicity in the selection of local officials and elected officers.

How this works out in practice remains to be seen, not least in provinces such as Papua where the special-autonomy law stipulates that the governor should be a "native Papuan": but, as one interviewee put it, "how is the term native to be defined, and by whom? Devolution of power downwards means that mayors and other provincial leaders are elected locally and as such are not directly accountable to the central authorities.

Pakistan - Minority Rights Group

Finding means of reconciling the tensions between upwards and downwards-directed accountability remains a critical challenge for Indonesian democracy. On the negative side, in many provinces it has led to the election of what were described as "local kings" - and related local dynasties - who govern essentially for their own benefit. In some regions, such as parts of Kalimantan, power has devolved to local communities that are hostile to all newcomers. Local elites have been given the opportunity to upgrade their position and importance, without necessarily passing on the benefits to the people.

At the same time, on the positive side it was suggested that when well managed, decentralisation can prove an effective tool for enhancing local prosperity and managing prevailing diversities.

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As one interviewee put it: "We Indonesians are still dreaming that local government will become an engine of local economic prosperity that also helps to strengthen the state". As well as dealing with the large number of complaints it receives on issues ranging from police violence, conflicts between corporations and local populations to religious freedoms and the behaviour of local government officials, Council officials would also like to take a more active role in promoting tolerance and respect for human rights through expanded national education programmes. Budgetary constraints are such that this is currently not possible.

As a council official argued, however: "to make our democratic transition really work, values such as respect for minorities and freedom of religion really need to be placed centre stream in Indonesian society today". The representation and participation of minorities in Indonesian politics appears problematic. With respect to political parties, women are the only disadvantaged group for which there is any form of formal quota system. In administration, the judiciary and other public bodies, it was suggested that minority representation is very low, particularly at the higher levels of office.

In this context, the importance of civil-society organisations starting to take on these issues, in particular promoting broader debate and discussion of the whole idea of quotas was highlighted.

On the run

In relation to the growing ethnicisation of local Indonesian politics in the reformasi era it is important to underscore the basic point articulated by one interviewee: "Democratisation opens up both a space for increased respect for minority rights and a forum where intolerance and hatred can come into play. From the perspective of entrenching democracy, devolving power downwards to the local level is clearly a positive development, particularly in a large country such as Indonesia where the obvious alternative - a federal structure - is still widely viewed with suspicion.

At the same time, from the perspective of majority-minority relations to date decentralisation appears to have had a number of negative, if often foreseen, local-level consequences. More specifically, five wider "lessons learned" from this experience suggest themselves:.

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As one interviewee put it: "If you want to implement decentralisation, first make sure [the framework] is clear in your constitution. This is especially critical when issues of fundamental democratic constitutional principle, such as freedom of religion and worship, are involved. In a significant number of existing democracies, the constitution makes clear provision for referring such cases to the higher authority of the constitutional court.

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  • It is particularly important that minorities develop a sense of citizenship: that way they can actually play a role in consolidating a society built on democratic principles". It was further argued that promoting the notion of shared citizenship with equal rights for all might be as much a priority issue for countries of the MENA region as it remains for Indonesia today.

    There are also three lessons of democratisation in the area of strategic responses to the challenge of radical Islamism and enouraging respect for minority rights:. While the majority of Indonesian political parties started life as Islamic cultural movements, to date parties with explicitly Islamist programmes have proved unable to attract anything more than minority electoral support.

    Why is this? For this it is vital that the authorities take a proactive lead both in ensuring that minority rights are respected on the ground, and in actively advocating within society for the fundamental principles of tolerance and inclusion upon which they are based. Such an approach to upholding and promoting religious tolerance may also merit consideration in other democratising majority-Muslim countries in the MENA region.

    Whether or not this specific policy approach appears relevant, it is vital that - both in theory and in practice - the authorities in new democracies of the MENA region work vigorously to uphold respect for fundamental minority rights within their societies. Indonesia: conclusions and recommendations. Taken as a whole, the practical evidence and policy insights derived from the Indonesia case form just one basis of potential guidance that could be applied elsewhere in strategies for protecting the rights of minorities and promoting their participation and representation in the political process.

    Whether they are considered helpful or relevant with respect to the challenges confronting MENA countries engaged in the complex process of promoting and entrenching their democratic transitions is ultimately a matter of internal, contextualised judgement by governments and other critical actors within particular societies in this region. That said, what follows is an attempt to summarise key policy-related conclusions and recommendations.

    They arise from a broad examination of the issues in the context of Indonesia, Canada, India and South Africa, though for the purposes of this essay the Indonesian case provides the core empirical foundation. It is hoped that these insights will indeed prove to be both relevant and useful in the context of efforts to address challenges of minority protection, recognition, participation and representation in new and aspiring MENA-region democracies. Additionally, it is hoped that the conclusions and recommendations outlined below will provide some useful policy-directed food for thought for donors and other external actors seeking to support long-term democratic consolidation in the MENA region.

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    Here then are three conclusions with respect to reform and the promotion of democratic values in the context of minority rights:. In particular, experience in transitional countries such as Indonesia indicates that beyond establishing an appropriate legal and institutional framework for protecting minority rights, it is vital for governments to take a proactive lead in ensuring that those rights are respected on the ground, and in actively advocating for the fundamental principles of tolerance, inclusion, justice and equity upon which they are based.

    These general conclusions, deriving both from the specific transitional experience of Indonesia and more generally from that of numerous "new" democracies over the last two decades, are ones to which nascent MENA region democracies would do well to pay close attention. In countries such as Egypt with large, well-established religious minority communities, it is particularly important for transitional authorities to take a lead role in protecting and promoting the rights of minorities.

    Recent experience in Indonesia, no less than in many countries across central-eastern Europe, the post-Soviet space and sub-Saharan Africa points both to the critical relevance and vital importance of paying due attention to this "heightened conflict potential" aspect of the experience of new democracies. Mindful of the bloody inter-ethnic conflicts that have stained the transitional experience of so many countries over the last two decades, new and emerging MENA democracies need to frame approaches to majority-minority relations that are informed by a keen awareness of the lessons learned from these painful experiences.

    To date the idea of secularism has not received a particularly positive press in the MENA region. From an early stage, new and transitional democracies in the MENA region should seriously consider engaging in the development of nationwide civic diversity education and promotion campaigns tailored to the specific needs of majority-minority relations within their own context.

    There are five recommendations with regard to the responsibility of states in relation to the protection of minority rights:. In new MENA-region democracies as elsewhere in the world, safeguarding minority rights is not a "soft", optional policy issue. Concrete evidence of this is provided by the recent experience of countries that do e. India and do not e.

    Sri Lanka pursue minority policies based on appreciation of the fundamental democracy-diversity linkages. This basic perspective on the strategic importance of devising appropriate policy frameworks for managing majority-minority relations is one that all new and transitional MENA region countries would do well to take seriously, first and foremost in the context of fashioing their own democratic institutions and related constitutional frameworks. To be effective legislative and other state interventions need to be underpinned by, among other things, a broad-based programme of advocacy and education in favour of fundamental democratic principles of tolerance and inclusion.

    For such rights to function in practice, moreover, it is essential to give members of minority communities a clear say in decisions on matters that affect them directly - in other words, to devolve power down to the lowest practicable level. This approach has the additional merit of building on broader Indian lessons learned with respect to the impact of "reservations" on the prevailing socio-economic conditions of intended beneficiaries of these policies.

    Targeted socio-economic interventions based on the empirically identified needs and structural disadvantages of specific communities thus offer new democracies of the MENA region a potentially promising alternative policy approach to one based on traditional "group rights"-based affirmative action initiatives on behalf of minorities. As long as the prevailing political order is perceived as excluding minorities in significant ways, countries where this is perceived to be the case are likely to experience the rise of political protest and agitation in which issues of identity play a defining or otherwise crucial role.

    For democratising countries in the MENA region in particular, this last conclusion points towards two important and related further policy considerations:. What has bound these coalitions together is essentially a strong, shared sense of grievance against the existing political order: in some countries this has already provided the basis for the toppling of that order - and may yet prove to do the same so in others as well.

    In all cases the coalitions formed in opposition to the old or existing order are likely to remain an important political factor beyond the democratic revolutionary moment itself, and in this context it is important for new or nascent democratic authorities to pay close attention to the specific demands they articulate beyond the basic call for system change. In this context an awareness of the range of pre-emptive strategies available for accommodating and addressing such concerns and demands may prove to be a matter of democratic transitional urgency, even necessity.

    In this context, moreover, establishing a clear, thought-through constitutional framework for local-level democratic reform has paramount importance. In the context of MENA region democratic transitions, it is vital that an understanding of this basic perspective is mainstreamed into constitutional-reform processes, in particular in the context of the constituent assemblies currently being formed in Tunisia and other countries. Adopting a "big bang" approach to attempts to move from a centralised to a decentralised system of governance carries with it the likelihood that at least as many problems will be created as a result - many of them unforeseen and unpredictable - as old ones are "solved".

    MENA transitional countries should thus avoid the temptation to rush - or be rushed by outsiders - into rapid decentralisation programmes that attempt to "fix" all aspects of centre-region governance relations in one fell swoop. And as one interviewee expressed the broader issue to which this points: "Unless you identify and adapt customary structures within your democratic framework, in many countries the enterprise will simply fail". In newly democratising countries of the MENA region it may thus be critical to explore governance institutions and approaches located within traditional tribal and other customary structures, inter alia with a view to identifying those that can be appropriately integrated into or otherwise accorded formal recognition within emerging transitional democratic frameworks.

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    In this respect, moreover, it is important to take account of the central role of customary institutions and decision-making processes in many MENA region countries - democracies and non-democracies alike - notably in relation to prevalent, and often powerful, tribal social structures. In relation to questions of immigration, integration, national identity and language, there are six conclusions:.