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The Thinker: Faith Talks Silenced
Nicholaus Prasetya | January 17, 2011
Last week, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali sparked debate when he said “there were no religious conflicts during 2010” in Indonesia.
But it doesn’t take much to see that the minister’s comment was far from the truth.
Last week, for instance, members of a hard-line Muslim group forced 15 people in Surabaya to halt a discussion on religious tolerance.
The Surabaya incident was a continuation of religious tussles from last year, including disputes over permits to worship and the forced closure of churches.
It had the look of numerous conflicts before it, having been perpetrated by intolerant groups whose moves were, in the end, supported by local authorities. In this case, police in Surabaya ultimately forced the meeting to end.
The forum was disbanded for two main reasons.
First, members of the Ahmadiyah community, a minority Muslim sect, were at the talks, according to news portal Detik.com. Their mere presence anywhere is enough for critics to launch protests or other forms of intimidation.
The other reason is an old excuse: The 15 participants apparently lacked a permit to hold such a forum.
The country is supposed to celebrate diversity, even when it comes to religion. Ahmadiyah members have rights that should be protected by the government.
However, many of the sect’s members live in fear — and they’re not the only ones.
The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace recorded 28 attacks and rights violations against Christian communities across the archipelago in the first seven months of last year, up from 18 cases in 2009 and 17 in 2008.
The Wahid Institute cited 196 cases last year of violence based on intolerance and religious discrimination, an increase of almost 50 percent from a year earlier.
The Moderate Muslim Society, moreover, said at least 81 cases of religious conflict occurred last year — an increase of more than 30 percent from 2009.
In such a country where the government fails to ensure the rights of all its citizens, communication becomes integral to avoiding clashes such as the ones we have seen or heard about in the news.
But is there still room for religious tolerance if criticism is often silenced?
The German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas theorized that a rational society would evolve through the development of economy, technology or capital.
But he also said communication and information exchange — not the economy, as others such as Marx posited — was the true driving force of society.
Seen in this context, the Surabaya forum’s dispersal is particularly regrettable because participants were trying to engage in discourse on the very subject of engaging in discourse.
Ideally, peaceful communication means no group dominates the dialogue, giving all participants — with the goal of reaching a consensus — the chance to speak their minds, regardless of their status in the community.
Before the breakup of the talks, the Ahmadiyah members at the Surabaya forum were given a fair chance to share their thoughts. For once, they were not silenced by rowdy protests or government sanctions. They were not forced to follow what other groups wanted them to do.
The Ahmadis were there to talk about how to foster a better environment for interfaith harmony in the country.
Surely the meeting in Surabaya was a welcome break from the world where stigmatization, threats and repression are part of their daily lives. They are Indonesians, but strangers in their own land.
This begs the question: Why is it that groups of hard-liners do not participate in such forums instead of cracking down on such peaceful initiatives?
It is clear that, as a country with a Muslim majority, mainstream Islamic groups should be involved in the dialogue.
But resisting the urge to advance their own interests should be a prerequisite before they can take part. Ideal communication eschews the supremacy of one group over another and focuses on finding long-term solutions to conflicts through building consensus.
Interreligious conflicts should be bridged by communication.
They cannot be solved by force.
Thus, it is everyone’s duty to protect open lines of communication wherever they have been established.
Last year, it was clear to all — save perhaps for our religious affairs minister — just how common acts of intolerance were.
Should we expect the same this year?
We will if the rights to free speech and religious freedom are at the mercy of those who shut out ideas and beliefs contrary to their own.
Nicholaus Prasetya is currently a student at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB)