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Indonesia, Interreligious Dialogue in

Zainal Abidin Bagir
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Indonesia, Interreligious Dialogue in

When Islam came to Indonesia, it encountered a religiously diverse society, in which Hinduism and Buddhism were already deeply rooted, as expressed in the system of governance, architecture, and the arts. Dialogues, understood in broad terms as encounters between people of different faiths, were unavoidable. This article, however, will discuss deliberate efforts to bring those people together in a variety of settings. In that sense, interreligious dialogue in Indonesia can be said to have started in the 1960s, initiated by the government and later developed by other actors. Since its beginning it has been deeply entangled with the social and political situation of the time.

Religions in Dangerous Times: The Birth of Dialogue.

Indonesia has a majority Muslim population, with 88 percent of its 230 million people claiming to practice Islam. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than the combined population of Muslims in the Arab countries. However, two notes should be immediately added. First, the situation varies in different areas of Indonesia. Aceh, on the western tip of Indonesia, is overwhelmingly Muslim, while its neighboring province, North Sumatra, has significantly more Christians than the national average. Java, the most populous island, has a Muslim majority, but its neighboring (though much smaller) island, Bali, has an overwhelming Hindu majority. Many areas in eastern Indonesia have more Christians. For example, 65 percent of the population in North Sulawesi is Christian, yet its neighboring province, Gorontalo, has a Muslim majority. This situation creates an interesting religious and political dynamic.

Second, although the country has an overwhelming Muslim majority, the state is secular, in the sense that it is not based on any particular religion, though it can be argued that it privileges six world religions. The constitutional debates in 1945, and again after 1998, show that some Muslim groups still aspire to privilege Islam by making the observance of Islamic sharīʿah an obligation for Muslims. The government’s regulations related to religion after independence, and to some extent until the early twenty-first century, have been largely defined by the tension between accommodating Muslims as the majority and maintaining harmony between religious communities.

This policy became even more significant in the aftermath of the bloody 1965 movement that the government attributed to the Indonesian Communist Party. Religious groups were mobilized to fight the communists, viewed as an anti-religion force, and suspected communists were forced to embrace one of the religions. Proselytization was encouraged to counter the communists, but it ended up creating suspicions among communities, especially between Muslims and Christians, who, according to some authors, seemed to have more success in proselytizing.

The issue of proselytization continues to arouse suspicion and has affected many other issues, including foreign aid to religious organizations, restrictions on the building of places of worship, and interreligious marriage (Cholil, 2006). Mujiburrahman (2006) aptly expresses the tense atmosphere surrounding religious communities in the title of his book, Feeling Threatened. The Muslims felt threatened by Christian missionizing, while the Christians felt threatened by attempts to Islamize the state after the failed attempt to insert sharīʿah into the 1945 constitution.

In general it may be said that there is a mood for tolerance among religious communities in Indonesia, though there are also tensions among them. Interreligious dialogue was born in this atmosphere. Parallel to dialogue, another means of easing the tension was regulations.

Dialogues and Regulations to Achieve Harmony.

It may not be a coincidence that, when formal dialogue began in the 1960s, spaces for such dialogue were being opened up in the international arena, especially by Christian and Muslim leaders. Statements sympathetic to other religions were released by the Second Vatican Council, the World Muslim League, and the World Council of Churches (Banawiratma et al., 2010).

The more urgent impetus for dialogue, however, was clearly the escalating tensions between Muslims and Christians within Indonesia. In 1967, objections to the building of a church in the majority Muslim area of Meulaboh, Aceh turned into a national issue and were brought to the parliament by a Christian leader. This was followed by the issue of foreign aid to religious organizations—suspected to be the main source of funding for Christian missionary work—which was in turn brought to the parliament by a Muslim leader. In the same year, a number of Christian churches and schools in Makassar, South Sulawesi were attacked. The major issue behind all these was suspicion of Christian attempts to convert Muslims. Later that year the government conducted an interreligious consultation, opened by President Suharto himself, with one of its agenda items being the restriction of proselytization. This first attempt at interreligious dialogue was unsuccessful—one of the reasons, as recounted by officials, being the Christians’ refusal to restrict missionary work.

After that, the first serious initiative was by Mukti Ali, who was to become minister of religious affairs (1971–1978). A graduate of McGill University in comparative religion, he is well known for his commitment to interreligious dialogue. During his term, forums were organized that involved leaders of religions as well as Muslim and Christian university students. Ali himself felt that the dialogues among the students were much more successful than the ones among religious leaders, in part because the latter put greater emphasis on issues of contention, such as proselytization, which stood in the way of building trust among them. These and the ensuing attempts at interreligious dialogue by Ali’s successors framed dialogue as a way to achieve harmony and the stable social order needed for Indonesian development.

Djohan Effendi, a close aide of Mukti Ali in the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA), recounted that during Ali’s term, when his task was to maintain dialogues, the idea was that harmony could in fact be achieved by dialogue. However, after Ali stepped down as minister of religious affairs, harmony was sought through greater regulation. Two controversial regulations by his successor concerned restrictions on proselytization and foreign aid for religious organizations (Gaus A. F., 2009). Under the New Order regime (1966–1998), the policy was criticized as forging a forced harmony that hides diversity. Religions were acknowledged, but they were also heavily regulated, and their freedom in what are regarded as sensitive issues was limited.

Contemporary Dialogues by the Government.

In the early twenty-first century, the Ministry of Religious Affairs is still active in promoting dialogue to achieve interreligious harmony. Some of the old regulations are still valid and some have been revised. The ministry now has a Center for Harmony among Religious Communities (Pusat Kerukunan Umat Beragama), which conducts programs related to religious harmony. The center’s mandate is to provide training and reconciliation programs in conflict areas, as well as dialogues in different parts of Indonesia. Beyond that, several models of interreligious forums have been established, the latest being local “Forums for Harmony among Religious Communities” (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama, or FKUB).

The formation of the FKUB is based on a 2006 revision of the 1969 regulation on houses of worship, which details the tasks of local government in maintaining harmony. Though mandated and partly funded by the central and local governments, the FKUB is supposed to be an organic representation of local religious communities at the levels of province and district. There are about four hundred such forums now, matching the number of districts all over Indonesia. Their main task is to maintain interreligious harmony; their more specific, and sometimes controversial, task is giving recommendations for the building of places of worship, which is required in order to secure a building license from the local government. In each FKUB all the recognized religions must have at least one representative, and the remaining members are chosen in accordance with the proportion of different religions in the area.. Yet decisions are supposed to be made by consensus, never by voting. According to recent research, the success of the FKUBs since 2005 has been uneven; they function in some places and not in others (Laporan tahunan, 2009). In practical terms, the potential of a well-functioning FKUB cannot be exaggerated.

A more recent addition to the government’s efforts is a series of regional multilateral and bilateral interreligious dialogues sponsored by the Directorate of Public Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, established in 2002. Most of these dialogues take the form of conferences in Indonesia and many other countries, but there are also activities such as youth camps and media gatherings. One criticism of this enterprise is that it is too closely tied to security issues—the former minister of foreign affairs himself (2004) connects them to the fight against terrorism, following the 9/11 events in the United States, and with image-building for Indonesia as a majority Muslim country that enjoys democracy and multireligious harmony.

Mainstreaming Dialogue.

Beyond these specific government-sponsored activities, and despite the criticisms of the way dialogues (and regulation of religion) have been handled by the government, it is difficult to deny that they have helped to mainstream interreligious dialogue. The 1990s, in particular, saw non-governmental actors—individuals and organizations such as religious councils, civil society organizations, and even political parties—likewise taking up dialogues in different forms.

Among Muslim religious thinkers who provided the foundation for interreligious dialogue, one of the most prominent is Djohan Effendi. Effendi, who took a leading role in interreligious dialogues during Mukti Ali’s term and later became the head of the research and development division of MORA, had the idea that interreligious dialogue should result in a “theology of harmony,” which acknowledges that truth and salvation are also present in religions other than one’s own. Two other important Muslim theologians who actively campaigned for a more pluralistic understanding of Islam were Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid (who later served as Indonesia’s president from 1999 to 2001). Such views advanced by the reformers were not always received warmly by other Muslims, and were countered by an alternative genre of polemical writings that set the truth of Islam in opposition to other religions. Nonetheless, the reformers’ ideas have provided firm theological foundation for dialogues. Similar figures have also emerged among Christians and leaders of other religions.

Dialogues among religious councils.

Another indication of the mainstreaming of interreligious dialogue can be seen among the religious councils (majelis agama) that represent the six recognized religions, such as the Protestant Communion of Indonesian Churches (established in 1950), the Conference of Indonesian Bishops (which held its first council in 1924), and the Indonesian Council of ʿUlamāʾ (1975). The councils are supposedly independent, though each is given some funding and is consulted by the government on issues specific to the religious community it represents. Each has what is variably called the division or committee of “interreligious harmony” or “interreligious relations,” to maintain good relations with people of other religions.

The involvement of religious minorities in interfaith forums was (and is) important in a time when building churches in a Muslim majority neighborhood can be a very problematic issue. As discussed by Bambang Budijanto (2009), especially after the 1998 democratic movement, even the Christian evangelicals who previously considered interfaith forums useless now became active. In general they did not emphasize theological differences as much as developing better relations and mutual understanding with other religious leaders or NGO activists.

An interesting example of interreligious cooperation occurred in January 2011, when some of the prominent religious leaders met and exposed what they saw as the government’s “public lies” on issues like corruption, poverty, the environmental crisis, and the government’s own inability to defuse religious conflicts. This statement was widely covered by the media, who referred to the participants as “interreligious figures.” The appearance of these figures in public, including the gatherings of political parties, serves an important symbolic function to show a commitment to work together on common issues, beyond their own particular religious concerns.

Dialogues initiated by civil society organizations.

A new development began in the 1990s, when prominent figures, such as the Muslim Djohan Effendi and the Christian Th. Sumartana, stimulated the creation of non-governmental organizations focusing on interreligious dialogue. Among the oldest and most prominent of these was Dian Interfidei (Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia), established in 1991, which is still very active in Yogyakarta.

Interfidei does not use the term “interreligious” (antar-agama), but instead “interfaith” (antar-iman), to distinguish itself from the state discourse of agama (religion). As defined by the government, agama refers to the six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, which are legally privileged. By using the word “faith,” Interfidei avoids labeling the persons involved in dialogue as formally representing a certain religion, as was the custom in dialogues; rather, it emphasizes the transformation of the faith experiences of individuals in their encounters with the others. Further, it tries to embrace groups outside those acknowledged as “religion” by the government, including the so-called indigenous religions and belief groups.

In 1996 a number of churches in East and West Java were destroyed, some NU ʿulamāʾ in East Java were mysteriously killed, and communal violence involving Muslims and Christians in some places increased after the rise of the popular movement Reformasi, which marked the transition to democracy. These unfortunate events, taking place in the new, unstable democracy, brought the long-standing state policy of harmony into question. Nevertheless, these events created another drive toward more interreligious dialogues, both at the governmental level and among civil society organizations. For example, the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace was founded in 2000 (related to the World and Asian Conference on Religion and Peace). At the local level, more interreligious CSOs were also founded in some parts of Indonesia, especially areas of conflict, such as Maluku after the bloody clash between Muslims and Christians in the few years after 1998.

Although such large-scale communal conflicts ended by the early 2000s, an important agenda now concerns wider religious freedom, as it finds a stronger basis in the amended 1945 constitution, which includes explicit human rights articles. Another trend relates to many of the NGOs working on secular issues, such as the environmental crisis, gender equality, reproductive health, migrant workers, and human rights; because of challenges they encounter in the field, they have felt the need to engage with different religious communities and are thus involved in interreligious dialogue. This situation has created an emerging trend of conducting interreligious dialogue on apparently secular issues of common concern. Percik, an NGO in Salatiga, Central Java, which is otherwise known for its interest in local issues such as elections and disaster relief, developed and maintained interfaith forums for religious leaders at the local level, as well as for women and youth. New interreligious organizations were formed, such as the Interfaith Network on HIV/AIDS in 2010, which is well connected to international faith-based HIV/AIDS NGOs. Meanwhile, older interfaith organizations have also been paying more attention to such new issues.

Dialogue at the academic level: Religious studies.

In the academy, another kind of dialogue has developed, through the development of the academic study of religion. Religious studies, as understood in the Western academy, can be said to have been introduced into Indonesia by Mukti Ali, the minister of religious affairs in the 1970s. A graduate of McGill University (Canada) and a student of the renowned comparativist Wilfred Cantwell Smith, he introduced the discipline of comparative religion into Islamic state universities. He was quite aware of the tension between the supposed objectivity of the academic enterprise and the aspiration of creating an interreligiously harmonious society, and affirmed his belief that the two should go together: the objective of comparative religion, after all, is dialogue. Thanks in part to his authority in MORA, comparative religion spread to many Islamic universities.

Forty years later, the most visible success of the academic effort is apparent not only in Islamic universities, but in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), established in 2006, which unites a secular university (Gadjah Mada University [GMU]), an Islamic university (Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University), and a Protestant university (Duta Wacana Christian University), all located in Yogyakarta. While ICRS offers the PhD degree in what is called interreligious studies, six years earlier (2000) GMU had established a master’s-level program at its Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, offering courses on world religions, theory and practice of dialogue, and indigenous religions, as well as many topics concerning religion and social issues, such as conflict, politics, science, and gender. Both programs conceive of themselves as engaged in the academic study of religion, but the promotion of dialogue and understanding among people of different religions is also one of their objectives.

Besides the ICRS and GMU, comparative religion departments in the Islamic universities and theology departments in Christian universities have also attempted to be more sympathetic in their treatments of other religions. Some, for example, have created inter-university courses on inter-textual studies. Yet the tension between academic study and the aspiration for dialogue, which goes beyond the academic scope, remains.

Current Challenges.

Indonesia’s historically deep-rooted diversity carries with it the seeds of tension which, in the authoritarian regime of the New Order under Suharto, needed to be controlled in order to maintain a stable social order in which development could occur. As dialogue never takes place in a sociopolitical vacuum, the goal of understanding between religious communities may take the form of attempts to create a “theology of harmony,” but it is also a search for a more pragmatic consensus to deal with the tensions of diversity. Such tensions still include the old issue of the building of worship places, with different dynamics in areas with different minority-majority situations, or the intra-religious tensions between the mainstream and minorities within a particular religion, such as the Ahmadīyah sect within Islamic communities. In both those issues, new religious groups, which emerged into the freer atmosphere created in 1998, play significant roles. Interreligious dialogue in the context of post-1998 democratic Indonesia will be assessed by how it uses the much wider space for freedom, in which louder and more diverse voices, both inter- and intra-religious, now compete in the public sphere.


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