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By Dr. James M. Dorsey

An Indonesian push for a Southeast Asian return to values rooted in an ancient Indo civilisation amounts to an innovative attempt to manage polarisation.

Exploiting its rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia this week inaugurated the ASEAN Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue.

The dialogue opened by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and attended by members of his cabinet, ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn and religious leaders from across the region highlighted Mr. Widodo’s support for the agenda of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest, Indonesia-based Muslim civil society movement.

Backed by the government, Nahdlatul Ulama organised the dialogue as well as last November’s Religion Forum 20 (R20), a summit of prominent religious figures on the eve of the Indonesia-chaired Bali summit of the Group of 20 (G20) that brings together the leaders of the world’s largest economies.

The Indonesian government made religion and intercultural and interreligious dialogue key themes of its G20 and ASEAN chairmanships.

Religious reform was at the core of the Religion Forum 20. It focused on modifying religious law, confronting historical grievances, truth-telling, and forgiveness as a basis for identifying shared civilizational values.

“This work has been taken beyond the realm of Islam to other religions and the world at large,” said Timothy Samuel Shaw, a senior executive of the Center for Shared Civilisational Values (CSCV), established in 2021 by Nahdlatul Ulama.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a senior Nahdlatul Ulama official, cautioned that “there are serious challenges to harmony in our traditions. We need to revise our tradition to achieve harmony.”

Nahdlatul Ulama has sought to set an example with a 2019 fatwa backed by 20,000 Islamic scholars calling for replacing in Islamic law the concept of a kafir or infidel with that of a citizen with equal rights.

In February, the movement used its Hijra calendar centennial and an international conference of Islamic scholars to call for abolishing in Sharia the notion of the caliphate, a unitary state for all Muslims, and replacing it with the nation-state.

This week’s ASEAN dialogue constitutes a logical extension of Nahdlatul Ulama’s almost decade-long campaign for religious reform and a redefinition of Islam in the 21st century, and Indonesia’s effort to claim its seat as an influential regional and global player.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Widodo suggested that a driver of the dialogue was a concern that religion may be losing its relevance in parts of the world.

 “The people of ASEAN…have an increasing religious spirit. Indonesia, for example, is a country where the people most believe in God, and the number is the highest in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, 96 percent of respondents in Indonesia believe that good morals are determined by belief in God,” Mr. Widodo said.

The president noted that “in the religious field, the world community is becoming less and less religious. A survey from Ipsos Global Religion 2023 of 19,731 people from 26 countries in the world showed that 29 percent stated that they were agnostics and atheists.”

The conference’s declaration argued that the Indo sphere stretching from South to Southeast Asia “consists of countries that have traditionally shared a similar set of civilizational values, deeply rooted within their respective societies. These values foster a culture of tolerance and harmony while reducing conflict between groups.”

The declaration asserted that “it is of the upmost importance that ASEAN Member States cooperate to revitalize the civilizational mentality or worldview, that was long characteristic of Southeast Asia prior to the modern era. This civilizational mentality is characterised by a willingness to accept differences while preserving and strengthening harmony among society’s diverse elements.”

Although not explicitly referenced in the declaration, the dialogue is rooted in what the Center for Shared Civilisational Values describes as the Ashoka approach.

The approach aims to create an “alternate pillar of support for a rules-based international order founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being” by “reawaken(ing) the ancient spiritual, cultural, and socio-political heritage of the Indianized cultural sphere, or ‘Indosphere’ — a civilizational zone that pioneered, long before the West, key concepts and practices of religious pluralism and tolerance.”

A third-century Indian Buddhist emperor, Ashoka renounced armed conquest after years of bloody warfare to champion compassion, extensive dialogue, and interchange among followers of diverse religious paths, inter-faith tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect for others’ dignity. Ashoka fostered an Indianised civilizational worldview throughout South and Southeast Asia.

Indonesia and Nahdlatul Ulama hope that ASEAN will embrace the concept of an inter-religious and intercultural dialogue during a series of meetings in September.

The initial challenge for Indonesia and Nahdlatul Ulama is ensuring that ASEAN incorporates their approach into its operational framework by establishing the dialogue as an annually recurring ASEAN event.

In contrast to the power struggle that emerged as a result of efforts to incorporate the R20 into the walk-up to next month’s G20 summit in Delhi, securing ASEAN’s support for a civilizational approach could prove to be low-hanging fruit.

The real challenge is transitioning from lofty declaratory statements to transformative actions. That would entail reaching a consensus on definitions of terms such as tolerance, democracy, and respect for human rights on which states and civil society groups differ.

The conference statement’s reference to democracy is significant, given that only half of ASEAN members qualify as a democracy. And even they would likely disagree on definitions.

The conference put forward several suggestions for concrete steps ASEAN could undertake, including enhancing people-to-people contact, furthering the role of women, encouraging youth participation in dialogues, and incorporating underlying principles in educational curricula.

Valuable as they are, the suggestions are a way of preparing for the heavy lifting and lengthy process needed to turn an innovative approach into a living reality.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

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