Recent cases of religious intolerance in Indonesia have led some observers to worry that U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise of religious tolerance in Indonesia during his visit in November 2010 was exaggerated. Public statements and decrees from Indonesian government officials have discredited religious minority groups and exacerbated conflict between minority religious groups and the largely Sunni Muslim population in some Indonesian communities.
Contemporary state officials in Indonesia often consider religious freedom issues through the lens of their particular political interests. For example, it has become popular lately among government officials to restrict and marginalize religious minority groups. Their efforts range from banning worship or religious practices and restricting access to jobs based on religious dress codes, to turning down permits to build places of worship and implementing conservative interpretations of Islamic law. They mistakenly believe that these actions will ease conflicts and increase their own popularity.
Since it was founded in 1945, Indonesia has welcomed people of all faiths to practice their religion. Although the population is predominantly Muslim, various faiths and different Muslim sects coexist peacefully. For centuries, both Sunni and Shiite mosques have stood side-by-side with Buddhist and Hindu temples (some of which date back to the 9th century) and Indonesia’s numerous Christian churches (some established as early as the 17th century).
Even the Ahmadi religious group was left mostly undisturbed until recent years. The Ahmadis came to Indonesia at the beginning of the 19th century and were founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian religious leader who claimed he was the promised messiah foretold by the Prophet Mohammad.
Fortunately, religious tolerance in Indonesia is not the exclusive domain of the government, and other groups are actively trying to fill the gap. Despite a worrisome trend among officials to avoid, rather than deal with, conflict between religious groups, it is important not to forget the many constructive initiatives, whether inter- or intra-religious, that are on-going in Indonesia to bridge divides between various religious communities.
Credit should be given to civil society organizations in Indonesia since they are currently the pillars of religious harmony. In March 2011, for example, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, in collaboration with the Canadian Embassy, organized an international conference in Jakarta to promote multiculturalism in Southeast Asia. Attended by scholars from Southeast Asian countries, Canada and Australia, the conference was an opportunity for sharing experiences on multiculturalism and has sparked interest to establish bilateral or multilateral efforts to pool resources and confront rising radicalization.
Multiculturalism is also being promoted on the ground in Indonesia through training programs in religious schools. These programs introduce both teachers and students to a variety of ways to experience a sense of common humanity in our daily lives. They are run by civil society activists from organizations such as the Paramadina Foundation, which has been involved in education. Paramadina is working in collaboration with The Asia Foundation, a non-governmental organization committed to the development of a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region, and the Karuna Bali Foundation, a non-governmental organization providing those in Bali and elsewhere with opportunities in education and individual growth.
More than 300 teachers have been trained in techniques to promote universal human values, such as love, peace and respect within the curriculum of their respective schools. Positive values are one cornerstone for mental development in children. In a value-based and respectful environment, students can develop their interest and capacity to work for peace, respect others and avoid violence.
Indonesian civil society groups are constantly producing new ideas and initiatives to support and maintain religious harmony. Although radicalized groups are still disturbing the peace, they face formidable resistance from civil society groups who love their country, are eager to live in harmony, and are working tirelessly to promote multiculturalism within the society.
Civil society groups are the ones who are working to change government policies that betray the principles of democracy, freedom and human rights and Obama’s praise should be directed to them.
Testriono is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).