National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Muslim and Christian girls ride bicycles outside Trawas, on the island of Java.
-- Photos by Paul Jeffrey
Building peace in Indonesia

Religion is both a help and a complication as country struggles with new democracy


Ismartono’s map of Indonesia is hard to see. The 17,000 islands of the sprawling archipelago stretch across one wall of the Crisis Center that the Jesuit priest runs for the Indonesian bishops’ conference. Yet all the little pieces of paper he has tacked to the map, each sporting a number that denotes a violent conflict detailed in the center’s file cabinets, end up covering almost all the land. Indonesia is reduced to clumps of yellow and white papers with stretches of water in between.

Ismartono -- like many Indonesians, he has just one name -- is a troubleshooter for the Indonesian church. As executive secretary of the bishops’ commission on interreligious dialogue, he ghostwrites pastoral letters about tolerance and, when those exhortations fail, oversees the church’s response. When there’s a conflict, he flies in and advises the local bishop on how to react. And with his wall map and files, he’s keeping track of what is often described in the media as “religious violence,” the communal fury that in recent years has reduced hundreds of churches and mosques to ashes and killed thousands of Indonesians.

Lest someone decide his files are too dangerous, he sends copies to be stored at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Such care for the past, Ismartono argues, is important in building a better future.

“I visited Dachau once, a monument to the victims. Yet in Indonesia we build monuments to the killers, and that tells people that killing is normal. I want to counteract that, by recording the names of the victims. But people are afraid of data, of information, and that creates a dangerous amnesia. If we lose our memory, we won’t learn from past, and we’ll be tempted to repeat the same thing in the future,” Ismartono told NCR.

In many ways, Indonesia represents so many of the issues that play out across the globe: poverty amid riches; a search for order amid political instability; battles for land and power and resources that get wrapped up in religious garb; and the rise of fundamentalism that places extreme religious fervor at the service of political and territorial battles. If seemingly endless violence can breed a sense of futility, it also has, in Indonesia’s case, generated some very creative efforts at peacemaking.

It’s not about religion

The priest claims that religion is usually not the root of the violent conflicts that have plagued this Southeast Asian nation in recent years. Indeed, one of the first tasks Ismartono undertakes when he travels to a trouble spot is to help local folks, if they’re still talking to each other, draw up a “conflict map” that aims to unveil the causes of the violence. In this complicated land, Ismartono and other peacemakers report, those other motives for killing are often numerous.

“It’s never really about religion. It’s a fight over power, or economics, or something else, and then those involved in the fight invoke religion. They use religion. But the conflict isn’t about religion,” Paulus Widjaja, a Mennonite pastor and director of the Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace at Duta Wacana Christian University in Jogjakarta, told NCR.

The well-televised images of burned worship buildings and beheaded bodies in places like Ambon, a city in the Moluccan Islands, would seem to belie that accusation. After a Muslim bicycle rider was struck and injured by a Christian bus driver in Ambon in January 1999, violent clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians. In the four years since, more than 5,000 people have died around Ambon, and 750,000 people have fled the area.

A provincial capital, Ambon had long been a Christian stronghold in this mostly Muslim nation, but Muslim migrants from the crowded island of Java arrived in steadily increasing numbers in recent decades. Muslims became the majority in some areas, leaving some Christians mourning the loss of religious hegemony. Tensions over land and control of local business grew. Nonetheless, cooperation between the two groups was supposedly insured by a widely praised system of village alliances known as Pela Gandung.

Indonesia was changing dramatically in the late ’90s, however, and what had worked before came under intense new stress. The 1998 overthrow of Suharto, the strongman who vigorously clamped down on any disturbance or dissent, created a rush to decentralize power in the name of democracy. Using corruption and repression interchangeably, Suharto had managed to artificially fuse more than 200 million people from hundreds of different ethnic groups into a secular, multiethnic state. In his absence the center could not hold, and Indonesia began to resemble a failed Balkan state where local power rivalries became the order of the day. Because Suharto’s all-encompassing rule had precluded the development of a healthy civil society, local institutions that could have dealt creatively with conflict were sorely lacking. Many newly installed local political bosses saw this supposed era of reform as merely a chance to get rich quick off the abundant natural resources whose profits had previously flowed to Jakarta.

All these centrifugal forces were offset by a powerful military that was determined at all costs to maintain the nation intact, if for no other reason than that defense of sovereignty was good business. The military is heavily involved in resource extraction enterprises, both as a partner and as a security provider, and its loss of oil-rich East Timor over the last four years has left the generals more convinced than ever not to let Indonesia disintegrate. Their current brutal repression of political organizing in Aceh (natural gas) and Papua (gold, copper, timber and natural gas) is a result of lessons learned in East Timor, which finally won independence last year. As they whisper orders in the ear of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, one phrase frequently repeats: Never again.

Security forces make trouble

When the Christian bus driver hit the Muslim bicyclist, the traditional conflict resolution methods of Pela Gandung might have eventually worked, had external forces not come to bear on the conflict. Although all the factors that played a role in the Ambon violence are still not clear, the decision in Jakarta to send in the security forces was particularly disastrous, because most of the police who arrived were Christians and backed their local counterparts, while most of the army troops dispatched to the area were Muslim, and backed the other side. Both security forces fueled the conflict, in part because they brought with them to Ambon their own internecine feud. The police were spun off from the military in 1999, as part of post-Suharto reform, yet the unhappy divorce has been plagued by turf battles over control of drugs, prostitution, gambling and natural resources.

Things went from bad to worse in Ambon when a radical fundamentalist Muslim group known as Laskar Jihad (Islamic Militia), sent 2,000 young fighters to the area with the collusion of the army. Some Ambonese Christians responded by forming a “Laskar Christian,” yet it never fielded more than 200 fighters, and its links to a regional independence movement from the 1950s, now exiled in Holland, only served to fuel the military’s desire to squash it at all costs. Many observers also believed the military’s response in Ambon was self-serving, orchestrated by Suharto-linked generals who wanted to provoke chaos in order to prove that democracy, with its inherent diminution of military power, was a dangerous course for the country to pursue.

The arrival of private militias in Ambon during the conflict also demonstrated how religious fundamentalism has complicated the scene in Indonesia and elsewhere.

“Fundamentalism is growing everywhere, because when people feel they’re being forced into globalization, that all over the world people must drink Coca-Cola and smoke Marlboros, then many respond by becoming more aware of their own primordial identity, and seek to project it on others,” Widjaja argues.

“This fundamentalist vision has a tremendous appeal for disaffected youth, of whom there are millions in this country,” said Jane McGrory, an Australian peace-building specialist for CORDAID, the Dutch Catholic development agency. “No one is organizing them, so they’re ripe for rallying around an ideology. They get offered a sense of purpose by going off to defend the faith against infidels. They get to have a mission, to be part of something important, and that has a powerful attraction for young, unemployed people.”

Soldiers train outside Surabaya. The Indonesian military is a key player in the country's economic and political life.

Laskar Jihad’s presence in Ambon is a good example of how external forces can take advantage of a local conflict for its own ends. In this case, it was fundamentalism (and the funding that comes with it) from Saudi Arabia’s radical Wahibi sect, which appealed to some alienated youth. Yet radical Islamic groups are not the only foreign-backed show in town. Laskar Christian turned out to have foreign backers as well, from Web sites raising money for “persecuted Christians” in Indonesia to a more hands-on presence. “During the worst of the conflict in Ambon, if you went to the Muslim side you could easily find Afghanis there. But if you went to the Christian side, it was just as easy to find a missionary from the Netherlands,” Rizal Panggabean, a Muslim intellectual, told NCR. Panggabean directs the Center for Security and Peace Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta.

Not the best of friends

Christians in Indonesia are, as anywhere, a heterogeneous group. In Ambon, Catholics and evangelicals weren’t the best of friends, and observers say that, when violence broke out, the Catholics, a much smaller group than the evangelicals, tried to remain neutral. That stance eroded after about a year, Panggabean reported, “because of the provocation of the evangelicals and the ignorance of the Muslims, to whom Christians are all the same. In a conflict situation, you aren’t interested in minor differences among your foes. And the middle ground rapidly disappears.”

Ismartono agreed, referring to relations between Catholics and Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, which boasts about 40 million members. “It’s easier for us to get along with the [Nahdlatul Ulama] and their friends than with the evangelicals,” he said.

A February 2002 peace treaty brought an official end to the conflict in Ambon, although sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued. Among the agreements was the creation of a commission to study the causes of the violence, and a promise to throw out the religious militias. Laskar Jihad was starting to break up anyway, and by the end of last year it had dissolved, as much from the loss of external funding as from dissent within the ranks over bad organization and the impure, comfortable lifestyle of some leaders who stayed far from the religious battleground, abandoning the warriors to their fate in Ambon. “On one boat coming back from the Moluccas, these disgusted young fighters were shaving off their beards and throwing their turbans in the water,” said Sydney Jones, Indonesia project director for the International Crisis Group.

One of the most notable elements of the Ambon conflict is that the violence never took hold in the village of Wayame, which sits across a bay from Ambon. Surrounded by warring villages and equally divided among Muslims and Christians, religious leaders in Wayame formed a crisis council with 10 Muslims and 10 Christians. The leaders formulated strong behavioral norms, banning weapons, for example, and expelling or punishing those who breached the norms. If Muslims broke the rules, they were punished by Muslim leaders; Christian leaders likewise disciplined their own people. It worked. While neighboring villages lapsed into murderous warfare, Wayame remained peaceful.

Wayame’s experience proves the importance of strong and decisive religious leadership in preventing violence. “When they’re in trouble, when government leaders and politicians fail, people in Indonesia look to their religious leaders. There’s tremendous potential there for alternative leadership from the religious community. In Ambon the religious leaders abused that trust, and as a result people were left feeling angry at their mosque or church,” Panggabean of the Center for Justice and Peace Studies said.

Improper responses to conflict by religious leaders would appear to make the label “religious conflict” somewhat appropriate after all, at least in some cases. “It’s unfortunately common in situations of violence that religious leaders start to speak two languages, double talk, speaking in conciliatory ways when they’re with others but changing their tone when they’re among their own constituents. It’s a difficult test of faith for anyone in the middle of all those bodies and so much blood, but it’s precisely in places like Ambon where we need them to become a voice for a common purpose, and not to take sides. If you ask them, they’ll blame the military or someone else for the violence, but in reality the religious leaders helped fuel the war by serving as part of the mechanism of violence,” Panggabean said.

When religious leaders meet

When religious leaders can meet together, however, whether in an ad hoc space or in an organized manner, “then people will have a better chance of getting the leadership they need,” Panggabean argued.

Such dialogue certainly exists at a national level, and recent events in the world have strengthened it. The National Moral Movement, a formal alliance between Evangelical, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities, was formed here two years ago. In February, with fear rising that events in Iraq would exacerbate tensions in Indonesia, a seven-member delegation representing the alliance traveled to Rome to tell Pope John Paul II that they appreciated his work to stop the invasion of Iraq. A group letter delivered to the pope thanked the pontiff for making clear that the conflict between Iraq and the United States “has nothing to do with religions.”

The group, which included Catholic Cardinal Julius Rijadi Darmaatmadja of Jakarta, then went on to Brussels to lobby the European Union to push harder for an alternative solution to removing Saddam Hussein by force. Following the meetings in Europe, a smaller delegation from the Nahdlatul Ulama, which is part of the interfaith alliance, went to Baghdad to urge Saddam Hussein to obey U.N. resolutions regarding his country’s weapons.

Widjaja claimed the delegation and its mission were significant. “Indonesian culture is very symbolic, and the delegation’s trip was an important symbol to people that if we can work together for international peace, perhaps we can get along better at home,” he said.

Jones of the International Crisis Group was less impressed. “Those guys are thoughtful members of the Jakarta intelligentsia, intellectuals who always talk to each other. But that’s it. What they say doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the grass roots,” she said.

The encouragement of face-to-face grass-roots dialogue is a budding industry in Indonesia. Wherever you go in the archipelago, there are institutes and nongovernmental organizations -- NGOs -- and seminars on “peace building.” In the wake of conflicts like that in Ambon, religious activists, academics, conflict transformation consultants and other peacemakers converge on the scene of the violence to help sort things out. In other areas, peace-building efforts are organized to identify and resolve underlying tensions before things turn ugly.

The budding industry has its critics. “A lot of these efforts are well meaning but not particularly productive. A lot of money has gone to create new NGOs that will probably collapse because they don’t have their roots in society,” Jones said. “I don’t see any major harm being done, although there are some anthropologists in Ambon who’ve expressed a concern that some of these groups are resolution conflict according to their own views about the conflict and what conflict resolution is all about, which may not be in sync with indigenous views.”

Earlier this year the Indonesia program of Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development and relief agency of the U.S. bishops conference, published a peace-building directory that rivals in size the phone books of major U.S. cities. It lists all the groups involved in peace building in Indonesia and describes their work. According to CORDAID’s McGrory, who works as an adviser to Catholic Relief Services, the book is an attempt to “democratize information” by linking up groups doing similar work.

Peace building toolkit

CRS also produced a “peace building toolkit.” It grew out of a series of workshops with local organizations. It includes case studies and information about human rights, media advocacy, conflict resolution, and so on. “By gathering this from local groups doing peace building, we developed a resource that’s grounded in Indonesian reality rather than just theoretical knowledge imported from somewhere else,” McGrory said.

Javanese rice farmers outside Boyolali, in central Java.

Abdul Halim is director of Lintas, a project in central Java supported by CRS. Lintas does radio programs about tolerance directed at youth, and brings together youth from different religions for face-to-face sharing. “The potential for conflict is much higher in homogenous villages because when they encounter someone different, they aren’t prepared and their ignorance can be easily manipulated by outsiders trying to take advantage of the situation. If they join a mob, it’s not because they have a problem with the other religion but because they really don’t understand it,” Halim told NCR.

Helping religious communities redefine their own theological foundations is also a task at hand for peacemakers in Indonesia.

“People rely on religious leaders for answers to the problems we’re facing today, but usually it’s like waiting for Godot,” said Dian Nafi, director of Al-Muayyad Pesantren (an Islamic boarding school) in Solo. Nafi took several of his students to Ambon after violence broke out there. They went to help the victims and study the conflict, not to join the fray. “We suffer from tremendous religious illiteracy. There’s a shortage of critical thinking in much of Indonesian Islam. The Arabic in the Quran looks like squiggly worms to us. And so the task of interpretation gets hijacked by the fundamentalists.”

According to Wiwin Siti Aminah, a Muslim writer at the Interfidei Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Jogjakarta, the Islamic concept of jihad needs to be reinterpreted so that it’s more relevant to Indonesia. “The radicals have taken over how we define jihad, and manipulated people as a result. We need to understand that the greater jihad is the struggle against selfishness and impurity inside us. The lesser jihad is the defense of one’s self and neighbors. We’ve got to turn the focus back on the greater jihad before we kill each other,” she told NCR.

Fr. Noegroho Agoeng, a theologian at Interfidei, praised the Indonesian bishops for a series of pastoral letters, which since 1996 have focused on the need for tolerance and the promotion of justice and solidarity. “They’ve been helpful in leading us to reconsider mission, not as the task of converting others, but rather the vocation of bringing Jesus to earth to make shalom, to make all people feel like they are living in the realm of God,” he said.

The emphasis on peace building is also changing how nongovernmental organizations understand economic and social development. In the village of Legundi, tucked high up in the volcanic folds of central Java, the most populous island in the Indonesian chain, Catholic Relief Services helped three villages work together to construct a common water catchment lagoon. “This is peace building,” says Pengjon Irawan, a Jogjakarta-based peace-building specialist with CRS. “When water gets scarce, people start to blame each other. By working together to insure there’s enough water for all, we’re preventing the conflict before it starts.”

Another element of peace building is helping village councils learn how democracy works. A product of the reform movement that emerged after the fall of Suharto, the councils -- and the novel process of electing members of the council -- can be a source of tension in a community with little experience of democracy.

“We’re just learning how democracy works. Under Suharto there was a false consensus that was imposed from above, and people were afraid to be different. Although we’ve supposedly become democratic a lot of that old attitude still exists, including at a local level, where leaders gather people together to tell them what they’re supposed to think. Peacebuilding means helping people think for themselves,” said Jamal Tazid, program director of the Believers Humanitarian Assistance Agency in Boyolali.

Most people involved in peace building efforts here say it will take time for Indonesia’s political culture to develop the tools to insure justice for all. Likewise, as long as the rest of the world sees Indonesia as primarily a supplier of gold, petroleum and timber, or as a bulwark against international terrorism, injustice will be subsidized and tremendous external pressures will continue to push residents of the sprawling island chain toward confrontation.

What some religious leaders are struggling for in the meantime is a minimal space of tolerance and reason that will allow Muslims and Christians and everyone else in this spectacular land to not just live together without killing each other, but to work together to build the authentic democracy that for too long has been denied them.

Paul Jeffrey is a journalist living in Honduras and the 2002 winner of the Eileen Egan Award for international reporting, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services. Each year, CRS awards a trip to the winner; this year’s journey was to Indonesia.

Indonesia facts

   1,919,440 sq km
Border countries:
   East Timor, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea
   231,328,092 (July 2002 est.)
Life expectancy at birth:
   68.63 years
Ethnic groups:
   Javanese 45%, Sundanese 14%, Madurese 7.5%, coastal Malays 7.5%, other 26%
   Muslim 88%, Protestant 5%, Roman Catholic 3%, Hindu 2%, Buddhist 1%, other 1% (1998)
   Bahasa Indonesia (official, modified form of Malay); English; Dutch; local dialects, the most widely spoken of which is Javanese
   Indonesian rupiah
Gross domestic product:
   $687 billion (2001 est.)
Population below poverty line:
   27% (1999)
Labor force by occupation:
   agriculture 45%, industry 16%, services 39% (1999 est.)
Unemployment rate:
   8% (2001 est.)
External debt:
   $135 billion (2001 est.)

-- Source: The CIA World Factbook

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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