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San Francisco, California – This month marks the 12th anniversary of a critical event in recent Indonesian history – the May 1998 riots. Following the death of four university students who were participating in a protest to demand the resignation of President Suharto, people took to the streets, rioting and looting. 

Though many claim the riots were a result of frustration with the current regime and mass unemployment, the ethnic Chinese Indonesian community quickly became a target of mob violence, including reports of nearly 100 Chinese Indonesian women being raped. 

On the anniversary of this tragedy, we must take the opportunity to look at ethnic and religious pluralism – toleration for a diversity of different groups and cultures – within Indonesian society today.

Jemma Purdey, a fellow at the University of Melbourne Department of Political Science and author of the book, Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia 1996-1999, says that Chinese Indonesians were targeted in these riots because of a widespread belief in Indonesia that they control the economy and are corrupt. These kind of harmful misperceptions were pervasive during the Suharto administration and unfortunately have continued after its fall. 

Obstacles to overcoming these stereotypes and achieving true pluralism in Indonesia can be traced to the emergence of certain extremist ideologies and to poor governance. By understanding the underlying reasons for widespread anti-pluralism in Indonesia, we can look at the landscape of Indonesian pluralism with fresh eyes, hopefully inspiring a change of behaviour and attitude toward those who are different.

For instance, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – which was founded in 1975 and serves as Indonesia’s topmost Muslim clerical body – is notorious for its fatwas against pluralism, secularism and liberalism. 

In Islam a fatwa serves as an informed and educated expert opinion, but one that is legally non-binding. However, many Indonesians believe followingfatwas are spiritually compulsory. Thus, these fatwas affect the behaviour and thinking of mainstream Indonesian Muslims who are mostly moderate in their outlook and practice, and who accept Islamic teachings as relayed to them by religious figures.

Religious clerics or scholars have the responsibility to clarify that a fatwa is based on a particular scholar’s understanding of an issue and is open to further interpretation – or even disagreement. In fact, all classical religious scholars conclude their fatwas by saying, “And God knows best”, in other words, not insisting on the absoluteness of their opinion.

The MUI must do more, as it is comprised of members with enough charisma to influence the public in matters of tolerance and pluralism. Unfortunately, however, it has been silent on cases of alleged persecution towards ethnic and religious minorities, the eviction of poverty-stricken Chinese Indonesians from their homes and the forced closure of a Protestant church in Bekasi, a growing suburb in West Java.

Furthermore, Indonesian religious leaders and scholars have not made pluralism-oriented teachings a priority. This must change. Religious schools in Indonesia should focus more of their curriculum on teaching pluralism and peaceful coexistence, while also offering hands-on training on respecting multiculturalism so that students can practically apply these teachings in daily interactions with others. Currently, these schools emphasise primarily the study of the Qur’an, hadiths (sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), Arabic and the history of Islam and Muslim civilisations.

What Indonesia needs is for people at all levels of society – from the government to the general public – to vocally and actively support cultural and religious tolerance and pluralism. All Indonesians must come to believe that neither one’s culture nor religion is better or more valid than someone else’s. 

There are many ways to act and worship. Diversity should be acknowledged and cherished with ongoing dialogue and collaboration between every ethnic or religious group so that each one is considered equal and valid. 

Spreading a spirit of pluralism in Indonesia requires a concentrated effort and a strong political will. Indonesians must support a change of consciousness and reform in their society by increasing awareness of the importance of equality and peaceful coexistence instead of waiting for another tragedy like the May 1998 riots to remind us.[]

Common Ground News, May 25, 2010

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