A new survey by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace identifies which Indonesian provinces have the most instances of religious intolerance, demonstrating that the issue is unfortunately a real problem in the country. However, I, as an Indonesian, have reasons to believe that the opposite is also true. While traveling with two of my friends, I often meet other travelers who are surprised to discover that I am both a Catholic and an Indonesian. Many people initially find it hard to believe that in Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, there are people of different religions. My two friends and I often hear a surprised “wow” when people learn we share the same nationality.
The three of us, each with a distinctly different physical appearance, do make for an eclectic group. I’m Chinese-Sundanese with fair skin and straight hair, one friend is Presbyterian Ambonese (an ethnic group from the Maluku Islands) with dark skin and wavy hair, and our other friend is Muslim Javanese with light brown skin and straight hair.
“All of you come from Indonesia?” To that question, I explain that Indonesia is in fact a very pluralistic nation.
Many wonder if Indonesia’s diverse population coexists peacefully. The reality is, some of us live in harmony, and others do not – neither case being fully representative of the whole.
Admittedly, many of us hold prejudices against other ethnic groups and religions, which can sometimes lead to conflict, but I find that as long as harmony exists among families and communities, the country stands a chance for peaceful coexistence.
I find the perfect example of living in harmony, like our nation’s slogan, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), in my own family. I grew up in a big multifaith and multicultural family. It all started when my grandmother from my mother’s side, a Muslim Sundanese met a Confucianist Chinese-Javanese man, my grandfather. They fell in love and got married. At that time, in the 1940s, interfaith marriages were relatively common. Today, this kind of marriage is possible, although not easy due to a legal system that only recognizes religious marriage.
As a result of more interethnic and interreligious marriages in my family, my extended relatives belong to at least three different ethnic groups: Javanese, Chinese and Sundanese. When it comes to religion, it is even more complicated because five belief systems are practiced in my family: Islam, Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
How does such a colorful family live? Just like everyone else. We are close and talk to each other regularly.
One of the advantages of having such a diverse family is that I can have discussions about different religious beliefs. When I was a child, I went to the mosque, the church and the temple with relatives to see how they pray. My parents taught me the basic principles of their religions and let me choose my own.
The most interesting part is the gatherings during holidays and religious festivals. Every Christmas, Eid al-Fitr and Chinese New Year, we all gather at my grandmother’s house for a big halal meal that everybody enjoys. Though seeing my aunts and cousins who wear hijab dropping by for Christmas dinner may be an unusual sight for the neighbors, it never creates a problem.
We have our difficulties, too, like any other family, due to personal misunderstandings rather than ethnic or religious differences. And with such diversity, we can sometimes resort to stereotyping one another even within the family. We might repeat common stereotypes, saying for example that our Minangkabau relatives are stingy, the Javanese are always late and the Chinese are business-oriented. But we have come to realize that such prejudices are not always valid. For example, our Minangkabau relatives are actually very generous. The better we know each other, the more we realize that every individual is different, and there’s more than one dimension to each of us.
I know my family is not the only one of its kind. There are many other communities in Indonesia and around the world, neighborhoods, schools, offices and organizations – like the Indonesian Diaspora Network and the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (an organization founded by Indonesian interfaith leaders) – that embrace people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds and promote understanding through social interactions, dialogues and collective activities.
Looking at these groups and at my own family, at the ease with which we interact, I don’t see why we all can’t experience the same thing on a national scale.
Juliana Harsianti is a freelance journalist for various publications and a communication consultant based in Jakarta. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).