Thursday, February 28, 2013

Indonesia - Interfaith Dialogue Is Not Enough

From Tuesday until Friday, Indonesia is hosting an interfaith conference of Asian Christian and Muslim leaders, jointly held by the Indonesian-based International Conference of Islamic Scholars (ICIS), the Indonesian Bishops Conference (KWI), and the Indonesian Church Association (PGI). The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and the Christian Conference of Asia also support the gathering.

This interfaith dialogue, for sure, is not the first to be held in this country. There have been numerous interfaith initiatives and meetings across the archipelago aimed at airing tensions and establishing interreligious harmony.

Despite frequent meetings of Christian and Muslim leaders, however, the question still remains: why is religious violence, including anti-Christian campaigns in some areas of the nation, still continuing? What went wrong with previous Christian-Muslim dialogues?  
There are a number of reasons why such interfaith dialogues have so far had only little success in overcoming religiously-inspired conflicts.

First, many, if not most, interfaith dialogues are merely formal, ceremonial conversations, often taking place in luxurious hotels. As a result, with few exceptions, such interfaith meetings are a waste of time and money, and little more than “feel-good talk-fests” that do not fully grapple with real problems of interreligious relations and intergroup tensions on the ground. Worse yet, the meetings usually only involve “moderate factions” of both religions, and do not engage with the “real actors” of religious violence: the extremists.

Strengthening the moderates, while at the same time marginalizing the militants, is not the best strategy. In order to become successful, such interfaith meetings must bring leaders of conservative-militant groups of both sides to the negotiating table. This does not have to be an official gathering, but can also be a series of informal meetings. In many cases, such an informal approach is more productive than the formal one. Cases of interreligious violence across the globe, from Mozambique to Northern Ireland and Maluku, have ended in peace after a series of regular, untiring interfaith engagements involving opposing groups.

This is the essence of dialogue: an ongoing communication process to understand thoughts, minds, worldviews, teachings, systems of belief and philosophies of life of other communities. Dialogue should be a cultural bridge to tackle deadlock, to enhance mutual awareness, to foster joint activities and even to transform relationships between members of conflicting groups. An effective communication tool to create mutual understanding and mutual trust among warring parties, an interfaith dialogue, as professor of interreligious dialogue at Temple University’s Leonard Swidler reminds us, requires commitment and willingness to seek other truths, not to force our truth onto others.

The forms of religious dialogue vary: ranging from joint appeals by high-level religious leaders for an end to fighting, to attempts to develop mutual understanding and the recognition of shared values and interests, to grassroots efforts to encourage repentance and promote reconciliation. These types of ongoing, healthy and constructive dialogue can function as a way to move from the perspective of, in Milton Bennett’s terms, “ethnocentrism” to “ethnorelativism.” To achieve such quality, one needs more than, and must go beyond, a formal interfaith huge conference. 

The second reason why interfaith meetings tend to fail is the inability of participants to diagnose real issues facing conflicting groups. Many, perhaps most, people think cases of religious clashes are mainly rooted in non-religious factors.

ICIS secretary general Hasyim Muzadi, for instance, said in the Jakarta Globe that part of the agenda of the current interfaith conference is to address conflict, tensions and intolerance involving Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. This, according to him, is deeply rooted not in religious fanaticism, but in socioeconomic and political interests. In other words, the conflict is more about “greed” than “creed.”

This kind of reasoning — looking at the political economy of conflict — has been dominant since the rise of so-called modernism or secularism. Religious moderates, liberal skeptics and secular-minded scholars and policymakers have shared and echoed this argument, albeit for different reasons and objectives. While the “secularist-liberals” dismiss the positive function of religion, dubbing it as a pre-modern, undemocratic, intolerant and violent worldview, the religious moderates think of it in opposite terms: a source of peace, justice, tolerance and democracy.

However, looking at interreligious conflicts worldwide, one will find that such cases are about more than merely political economy. In large part, radicalism is not even rooted in poverty. And it is worth noting that many poor people in this country and other parts of the world do not share extremist views. And many poor areas in this nation have no record of communal violence whatsoever.
Conversely, as a recent study by Dutch scholar Martin van Bruinessen shows, Islamic radicalism and militancy in Indonesian is an urban middle class phenomenon.

Accordingly, those concerned with interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding need to stop focusing on poverty and economic issues — because such frameworks are not only unfair and biased but also, for the most part, misleading.

In the case of Christian-Muslim conflicts in some parts of West Java, for instance, one needs to take into account the rivalry between Christian evangelicals and Muslim hard-liners who compete for largely the same souls: migrant workers, urban populations and street children. Conservative-militant Muslim groups have contributed to the exacerbation and escalation of interreligious tensions, but hard-line Islamists are not the only agents of conflict.

Some Christian evangelical groupings, many of which have been supported by American-based evangelist churches and organizations, also have played crucial roles. As reported by International Crisis Group, US-based evangelical groups that supported “Christianization” and missionary activities in Indonesia included the Joshua Project, Partners International, Frontiers and the Campus Crusade for Christ.

The harsh competition between Muslim hard-liners and Christian evangelicals, and insensitive proselytization efforts by both groups, has indeed led to violent conflicts between religious communities. Moderate religious leaders need to pay attention to — and find productive ways to solve — the increase of Islamic vigilante groupings and various like-minded alliances that have become a public order menace as well as aggressive Christian proselytizing in Muslim strongholds.

The future of interfaith and Christian-Muslim relations in this country will depend on the serious, positive collaborations between actors in both state and society.

The ongoing religious clashes and tensions in large part are due to the failure of the government and state authorities to bring perpetrators to justice and to prevent or effectively prosecute incitement and intimidation committed by radical groups against religious minorities.

As long as the ruler remains silent, the social drama will continue. 

Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a research fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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