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Living Together in Peace: Religious Diversity in Indonesia

August 16, 2016

Immanuel Church, Jakarta. CREDIT: Midori/Wikimedia

EMMA LO: Hi. I'm Emma Lo here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm speaking today with Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, who is joining us from Berkeley, California.

Bernard is a professor of religion and social science and a founding director and international representative at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in the graduate school of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He also teaches at Duta Wacana Christian University, State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga, and Muhamadiyah Yogyakarta University.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Bernard.

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Thank you. My pleasure.

EMMA LO: First off, could you tell us a little bit about your research interests, how you came to study Indonesian politics and religions, and eventually relocated to Yogyakarta?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Well, that's a long story. My current research interests are on religion and modernity in Indonesia. I'm writing a book. The tentative title is "Living in a Sacred Cosmos: Islam and Modernity in Indonesia."

I first visited Indonesia a long time ago, in the 1970s, and then came back during a sabbatical leave in 1989. Then, while I was there giving lectures at a university in Salatiga, I was invited to help them develop a graduate program in religion and society. It was a big challenge for me, and I decided to do it. So I resigned from my position in Berkeley and moved to Indonesia in 1991.

I thought at that point it would be probably fairly short, just a few years, but as it's turned out, it has been 25 years and I've never had a desire to move back to the United States.

My Ph.D. was in international relations and the impact of religion and ethics on international relations. Then I moved into studying cross-cultural ethics and the impact of culture on ethics, on how people consider what's good and evil, right and wrong, and so on.

So then, when I moved to Indonesia, although I had a background—I had a first degree in Asian studies and I had a second degree in Asian religions—really when I moved to Indonesia in 1991, my focus, sort of almost by default, turned to a focus on Islam because Islam is so dominant in Indonesia.

However, I was teaching, especially for the first 12 years of my 25 years in Indonesia, mainly in Christian institutions. So I had an opportunity to guide graduate students from all over Indonesia who were doing research mainly on Christianity in their parts of Indonesia. So I learned a lot about the church and the view of Christians as a minority—sometimes they were a majority in their part of Indonesia. But I learned a lot about their perspectives on the development of Christianity in Indonesia.

So I kind of combined an interest in seeing how minority groups negotiate and develop their position in Indonesia, especially in light of the rather dramatic growth of Christianity in Indonesia over the last century. But then, combined with that was an interest in how Islam is developing and changing and how that affects interreligious relations.

When I started teaching in Muslim institutions, maybe about 14 years ago, then I was getting a different perspective and learning a whole lot of new things that also were very interesting in terms of how religions are developing and changing and negotiating their positions in society.

EMMA LO: In addition to being a professor, you are also a Presbyterian mission co-worker in the country with the world's largest Muslim population. So you have direct insight into these religious tensions. As a Christian representative in a place where religion is such a divisive issue, have you ever been targeted?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: The simple answer to that is no. I feel very safe in Indonesia and have no worries whatsoever. I live in an all-Muslim neighborhood and feel completely at ease with all my neighbors, even those who are relatively hardline or more fundamentalist, if you like.

On the other hand, there have been some articles written about the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, which is a consortium with a Muslim, a Christian, and a national multi-religious university working together. So there have been written—or in the media there have been attacks, but they have never given me any sense of being attacked sort of more personally or being threatened in any way.

EMMA LO: And how have you all responded to these written attacks on the consortium?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Well, I should say that it hasn't been very frequent. Most Muslims in Indonesia are very impressed and proud that there is this kind of consortium that is doing religious studies more academically, using the social sciences and humanities and not just doing normative teaching of religion. So I haven't—I mean I've written plenty of articles that in a sense have taken the perspective of the importance of interreligious studies of religion, meaning cooperation between people of different communities and trying to understand the impact of religions on society. I've never written explicitly against the writers who have attacked ICRS. But my writing generally, I think, is included as something of a defense of what we're doing.

EMMA LO: And you've also edited a collection of essays, titled Dealing with Diversity, which discusses different methods for reckoning with pluralism in Indonesia. So what are some key takeaways from your interactions with a variety of voices while compiling this collection?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Well, if you've looked through the book, the book is actually published by a Muslim publisher in Indonesia in Indonesian and in English by a European publisher.

The book is looking at the problem of diversity of views in dealing with a whole series of problems. I wish I had the book in front of me. There are sections on gender, on violence and human rights, and on dealing with disaster, and then interreligious relations more generally.

The title of the book is kind of playing with several ideas at once, because dealing with diversity includes—it's sort of accepting the cards that are dealt out and then trying to make sense of what appears to be a random pattern. So there are connections between how different religious communities have developed and have influenced each other. I think probably all the major religions represented in Indonesia have been shaped by the history of Indonesia and by the context of different kinds of conflicts.

EMMA LO: I would love for you to go a little more into what you talk about in your intro to the book, where you do explicitly lay out these four different senses or definitions of the word "deal." And I was wondering if you have any examples or stories from your living in Indonesia that illustrate these different understandings of dealing. How does dealing with diversity take on different forms?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: I think maybe the best thing to do would be to tell a story that does illustrate some of the tensions involved in how diversity is dealt with.

I had an experience quite a few years ago where there was a charismatic Christian group that had decided to hold a big healing service in Jakarta. It was around Easter time, and they had prepared for a long time, I think more than a year, for this big event. They had gotten permission first from Jakarta for holding the event, and then leading up to the event they had huge banners that they put all around Jakarta inviting people to come to a healing service where an evangelist from Canada was going to be preaching and healing people.

The banners were quite disturbing to some Muslims, and they protested against the holding of this service. As a result, the situation became rather heated, and a more radical group of militant Muslims came into the city in trucks, bringing people from outside of Jakarta, a fairly large number of young people, young militant Muslims, coming into Jakarta, and they basically said that if this service was held, then they would start burning all the churches in Jogja. So this was a very serious threat of violence.

One approach to this kind of a threat is that: "Well, the Christians, whether you like what they're doing or agree with them, or whether you are in favor of what they're doing or not, they should have the basic same human rights as people of other faiths. The Muslim community often holds mass events that gather lots of people together in which they pray and have various kinds of activities for promoting their own views, including radical groups. So if you took a purely human rights and law-oriented position, then it would seem fairly self-evident that a group that has gotten permits for holding a big service should be protected, their rights to express their religious views should be protected."

On the other hand, the context in Indonesia of tension and the need to maintain peace and prevent violence is also a serious consideration.

One of my colleagues, who was actually the head of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University—his name is Dr. Professor Mursyidi—he had been the rector of a large Muslim university, he was the head of the senate of Gadjah Mada University, and he was also a very, very deeply pious Muslim leader. He held the position as the head of an umbrella organization for all Islamic organizations in Jakarta. Mursyidi brought the people together. He worked day and night on this problem because of the threat of violence at this time. He worked day and night to bring the Muslim radicals, the Christians, the government officials, and the police together to talk to each other, to try and work out some kind of a compromise that would prevent violence. And also, because he had spiritual standing in the Muslim community, he was eventually able to convince the young Muslim hardline group to stand down, to not carry out their threats.

There was a compromise reached in which the Christian group agreed not to hold their healing service in a huge outdoor stadium in the middle of the city, but rather to hold it in a smaller venue that was more enclosed and that was not so provocative for the Muslims, in part because the Christians had gotten permits on the basis that this was an event for Christians and was an event for celebrating Easter, whereas it appeared from their advertising that it was really an evangelistic outreach to non-Christians.

So in the end, through a whole period of negotiations, then they reached a compromise position that was able to resolve the crisis that occurred at that time.

EMMA LO: That's a wonderful illustration of compromise.

A follow-up question I have to your anecdote is: In general, what role do you think that religious leaders should play in resolving these kinds of interfaith conflicts? Do you think that, in general, religious leaders can mediate situations such as the story you just shared?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Certainly. In fact, as you know, Indonesia has had periods where there was serious violence between Christians and Muslims. Most of it happened between the years 1998 and 2002, which was the time immediately following the fall of Suharto. During those four years, with a few incidents stretching to about 2002, there were a lot of conflicts in Indonesia, not just between religious groups; ethnic, economic, and political conflicts that occurred in many places in Indonesia. During that period of time, there were a lot of people who used religion to try and further their own political and economic goals.

There's a lot of different stories that we could tell about this. But the conflicts were usually about economic and political power, and they were usually in areas where Christians and Muslims were relatively equal in strength, so 50/50 or 40/60 percentage of communities.

In these areas where there was conflict and competition for power and control of resources, religion was a volatile issue that some leaders were able to manipulate, to use in order to manipulate believers, the common people, to mobilize, to even use violence, to try and protect the interests of their own community. That often came out of fear, fear on the part of Muslims of Christianization, that Christianity was spreading and trying to take over, and, with the lack of a strong central government after the fall of Suharto, there was a lot of uncertainty about where Indonesia was going; and the fear of Christians that Muslims were trying to Islamicize and take over and to wipe out the Christian community.

So there were fears on both sides that were exploited to mobilize people for violence. Fortunately, we haven't had any mass violence in Indonesia since about 2002, with a few small incidents up until around 2004.

So if religion as a very powerful force in Indonesia could be used to mobilize people for violence, religious leaders, responsible religious leaders from all communities, have been very critical in building understanding, building compromise, and helping communities to learn to live together rather than in conflict with one another.

A rather amusing example of this that my wife, Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta, who's an Indonesian anthropologist, discovered in research on conflicts in the North Malukus, was that in a village where there had been violence between Christians and Muslims they got together and discussed: "What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?"

The Muslims said, "We have two requests of the Christians in the community that we would like to request that you do." The two requests were: "One, please make pens for your pigs, don't allow the pigs to wander around the village, because it makes us very uncomfortable," because pigs are forbidden for Muslims. The second request was that the Christians would attach a loudspeaker on the outside of their church so that everyone in the village could hear the sermons. They said, "All of our sermons are broadcast on the loudspeaker from the mosque, but we don't know what you're saying, and people are afraid that you may be attacking the Prophet or inciting people to oppose Muslims. So we think you should be more transparent and open about what you're saying and broadcast your sermons from a church."

Well, from a Western point of view that's a rather strange request. But it illustrates how leaders try to communicate with each other about how to calm fears and to overcome potential conflicts within the community.

EMMA LO: That's really fascinating. So how did the Christians respond to this request?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Well, they did it. They penned up their pigs and they put a loudspeaker on their church so that people could know what they were saying in their sermons.

EMMA LO: We are about at time. But just to finish up, you just identified a decrease in volatility and violence in Indonesia since 2002. Are there any other trends or changes to the climate of tolerance that you witnessed over the past couple of years?

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: I would say there is increasing religious public piety in Indonesia, the publically expressed piety, religious symbols, the way religion is used to try and shape society, shape social relations, shape politics and economics. It's very evident to anyone who follows Indonesian culture and politics and society that there is an increasing intensity of religious expression in Indonesia. This is quite disturbing to some people who would prefer Indonesia to be a more secular and a less religious society.

But I think the remarkable thing is that Indonesia is a place where both increasing Islamic piety and a very strong and growing church seem to be able to coexist in relative peace. There is, of course, as you know, guaranteed freedom of religion, including freedom to change your religion, in Indonesia, and it's not uncommon for Muslims to convert to Christianity and Christians to convert to Islam. That happens. It's always traumatic for the families and communities involved. But it is something that happens quite frequently in Indonesia.

It seems like the growing piety of Muslims in Indonesia has not stopped the growing strength of the church in Indonesia. That's a very interesting phenomenon in today's world, where there's a lot of tension between different religious groups, and even violence in many places.

So I think Indonesia is an interesting example of where increasing intensity of religious practices among Muslims and Christians is not the factor that creates conflict and violence. In fact, increasing intensity of religious practice often goes side by side in a society where the communities live, as I say, in relative harmony with each other and with respect for each other.

Within the city of Jakarta, there are some very-fast-growing churches and there is very strongly expressed Islamic piety. But within the city, up until now, there continues to be the ability to live together, people even from the same family who are Muslims and Christians, and sometimes Hindus and Buddhists as well, who are able to respect one another and honor each other and live in genuine warmth with each other, respecting each other's traditions and ways of life.

As you know, Indonesia is a very large country. There's a lot of diversity. If you ask, "Is there persecution of Christians in Indonesia?" I think an appropriate answer is to ask, "Is there racism in America?" Of course there is persecution of minorities, of all religious minorities, especially groups like Ahmadiyya and Shias and so on, as well as Christians and others. But it's illegal, it's against the law, and, in general, in most of Indonesia there is a remarkable degree of tolerance and acceptance and genuine warmth between people of different religious communities. It's not uncommon in some parts of Indonesia for Christians to help Muslims build mosques and Muslims to help Christians build churches. That's not an uncommon thing to happen in some parts.

The ability of Christians and Muslims to live together in peace, as well as Hindus and Buddhists and Confucianists and people who follow more local practices—I would guess that this is the story that is much less heard about than the story of conflict. Conflict sells papers. Conflict is sensational. But the actual day-to-day life of most Indonesians in most parts of Indonesia is remarkably peaceful.

I think, in part, that stems from a very long history of people in Southeast Asia generally, and especially in Indonesia, of living side by side in different religious communities that have learned to respect one another.

EMMA LO: That's certainly encouraging to hear.

Bernard, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights and observations with us. It was a wonderful conversation. Thanks for joining us today.

BERNARD ADENEY-RISAKOTTA: Thank you.

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