View Point: Indonesia’s pie-in-the-sky religious harmony

In News by

Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta

At the beginning of this month, I received a circular about the second World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) announcing it had officially wrapped up, and had been a great success.

The organizers reported over 260 events in over 40 countries but “it’s likely the total number of events will continue to go up … as we continue to find many events that were not posted to our site, indicating a large growth from last year”.

The circular announced the highlights of the WIWH 2012. I read that it was celebrated for the first time at the UN. In the UK, the Interfaith Relations Committee (IFRC) held an event at the House of Lords that included many distinguished guests. In the Australian Parliament, over 100 religious, spiritual and community leaders were invited to a morning reception.

In addition, they invited people to send in pictures from the events they attended to contribute to a photo gallery and to provide feedback. As a token of the WIHW’s appreciation for all this, a respondent will be selected to receive a set of handmade harmony beads.

I’m not a cynical person (no, really), but my immediate reaction to the circular was, get real. How can events in the UK, the House of Lords or morning tea in the Australian Parliament seriously contribute to reducing religious conflict in Indonesia or the Middle East, pray (sic!) tell? What will they do next? Try to fix religious conflict by giving out 7 billion harmony beads to everyone on Earth? Isn’t it all just pie in the sky?

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with interfaith events. It’s just that they are not a solution to interreligious conflict in themselves. In fact, many are just an exercise in preaching to the converted, gathering together people who already believe in religious harmony. Can you imagine al-Qaeda or the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) attending an interfaith dialogue?

The level of interaction at these events is also often superficial anyway. It has to be, because if participants go deeper into religious doctrine they’ll start arguing.

This means that some dialogue is little more than a feel-good exercise in mutual self-congratulation. Indonesia, for example, recently formalized an Inter-Religious Council (bringing together leaders from major faiths in the country to tackle interreligious conflicts in the country) but it hasn’t exactly stopped religious conflict, has it?

I accept that not all inter-faith meetings are a waste of time, however. They can be useful when they take place at the grass-roots level – as opposed to the UN or the House of Lords! — and deal directly with real, local issues.

I have often been critical of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) but he did help build better relations between the Christians, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah (the two biggest Muslim organizations in Indonesia) a decade or more ago, bringing members together to do the hard work of talking through differences and finding commonalities. This was one reason why Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg lecture in 2006 — which more than implied that Islam is a violent religion — did not lead to a crisis here in Indonesia.

Franz Magnis Suseno, a leading Indonesian Catholic scholar and priest has also been at the forefront of inter-religious conflict resolution for decades — again at the grassroots. According to him, many Catholic parishes have established contacts with local Muslims and this has repeatedly eased resistance to plans to build churches.

Unfortunately, the beleaguered Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) Taman Yasmin hasn’t benefited from this approach. Why? Because the state isn’t playing the role it should, as reflected in the typical it’s-not-my–problem stance adopted yet again by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). According to him, the Taman Yasmin dispute should be handled by the local administration.

OK, Mr. President, we know we have regional autonomy laws but that doesn’t mean you can just dismiss organized mob attacks by saying “such an incident has also happened in other places across the country. This issue has gone on for years.” (see The Jakarta Post, Feb. 15).

As if that makes communal violence OK. What a statesman! What a leader! What an upholder of the law!

What a bad example. And that is part of the reason why intolerance is increasing. Hard-line groups like the FPI can continue their belligerent ways with impunity because of state impotence.

Din Syamsuddin, chairman of our Inter-Religious Council, for example, has said religious groups have the right to exist, so long as they don’t resort to violence. Has he been living under a rock all these years? The FPI and other hard-line groups make threats, intimidate, cause destruction and violence and even kill routinely but the state does next to nothing, while peaceful groups like Christians, Hindus, animists and Ahmadis, etc. are persecuted.

And what about Alexander Aan, the Indonesian atheist who posted “God doesn’t exist” on his Facebook wall and found himself facing blasphemy charges? He’ll be locked up, while hard-line thugs continue to walk our streets, threatening anyone who dares disagree with them.

It’s ironic that SBY — who has been so weak in dealing with hard-liners — now faces an FPI rally against him personally when he visits Surakarta.

I’m sure it won’t be quite the sort of interfaith event WIHW had in mind, but maybe it will convince our President that we are well past the point when beads, morning tea and platitudes are enough to fix rising religious violence.

The writer ( is the author of Julia’s Jihad.