The essentialist critique of liberal multiculturalism highlights the fact that the latter is inadvertently wedded to a collective cultural identity politics, which has encouraged the reification and rigidification of group identities. Foregrounding difference and preservationist attitudes, such identity politics tend to neglect the development of bridging social capital, and to undermine the emancipatory potential of liberal multicultural societies. In this article, I first seek to substantiate how pluralism in post-Suharto Indonesia has been articulated as liberal multiculturalism through increasing legal accommodation of certain ethnic, as well as conservative Muslim norms and institutions. Analysing how ethnic and religious identities have become more and more rigidly defined in the process, I then gauge the prospects of pluralism in the light of Rainer Forst’s four conceptions of tolerance.
Historically, Indonesia had a colonial experience of pluralist polities where cultures were divided but met in the marketplace. What we find less often in Indonesian history are truly pluralistic polities, that is polities either explicitly valuing diversity or emphasising trans-ethnic commonalities. In current Indonesia, behind cultural diversity issues as such, the more fundamental political issue looms large of how to organise multifaceted cultural diversity socially. I will argue that the answer lies not in playing diversity against unity, nor in emphasising secularism. Rather, my argument is based on cosmopolitan theories and the transdifference approach to cultural plurality and, thus, takes a stand against a mere focus on national and ethnic issues. In order to contribute to discussions about an explicitly diversity-honouring version of Indonesianess in everyday interactions, we can learn from revisiting historical experiences. Indonesia has a deep tradition of fruitful cultural exchanges and un-dogmatic religious syncretism. This is especially developed in Indonesia’s multicultural harbour cities. Based on my experience in Makassar (South Sulawesi) over a period of 30 years, this article provides a glance on a politically marginal but culturally cosmopolitan city, which has also been a centre of Islam since the 17th Century. Its specific form of localised cosmopolitanism might open some avenues for conceiving a pluralistic unity in Indonesia.