Side Views

Religion, democracy and young Indonesians — Ratih Hardjono

April 01, 2012

APRIL 1 — Recent tensions between Dayak youths and Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, brought back vivid images of the Sampit conflict in 2001 in Central Kalimantan.

The fight between youths, centring on a banner telling one group of youths that they had to leave the city, nearly caused violent conflict and pushed the panic button of the security apparatus.

Kompas daily pointed out that horizontal conflicts with religious elements in Indonesia reached a peak in 2011 and were on the increase (Kompas, January 30). It doesn’t take much for these sectarian tensions to be brought to the surface.

These tensions are like a vast forest of dry tinder: If accidentally lit, then the whole forest is immediately set alight. During the Soeharto period there were few examples of this sectarian tension occurring. It’s true that the military helped him suppress sectarian behaviour.

Soeharto understood Indonesian communities more than what we gave him credit for, and he knew the serious damage to society that sectarian violence could potentially cause within those communities.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was drummed into us that we must respect other Indonesians with different religions. The national slogan Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) was a way of life. What has happened to this lofty slogan?

I remember former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid having a conversation with a man who in 1999 felt Islam in Indonesia was being threatened with democratisation. “We Muslims are the majority in this country so why are we thinking and behaving as if we are the minority?” asked Gus Dur.

We all fell silent in the room, it was a fact and a reality that was always going to be that way. The existence of the Islam Defenders Front resonates with Gus Dur’s point of view.

Perhaps what democratisation has brought out in Indonesia is that Islam in Indonesia is not homogenous, instead it’s like a rainbow with many beautiful colours. The point about Indonesian Muslims is that we must agree that we may have differences of interpretations of Islam, and let’s leave at that.

In some of the eight Sekolah Demokrasi (School for Democracy) found across Indonesia today, there have been accusations that Sekolah Demokrasi have been challenging Islam. The schools are open to anyone and do not differentiate on the basis of belief.

One group deliberately erected a sign opposite one of our schools for six months. The sign read “Anti-Democratic School”. One participant in another school believed in the meaning of jihad as eliminating anyone who was not of the same belief and joined the school to enlighten others.

This person did not even want to shake hands with the opposite sex. This created tensions at first but as the one-year class progressed, this tension evaporated as the point of views of each of the participants was heard and understood by others.

The participants agreed that there were differences and that all Indonesians were entitled to their own personal beliefs. Ignas Kleden, the chairman of the board of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID), which runs Sekolah Demokrasi, insisted from the start that “democracy does not create heaven but forestalls the creation of hell on earth and democratic politics are in the sphere of the negotiable while religion remains in the domain of the non-negotiable”.

Let’s not mix up democracy and religion. Democracy is in the public sphere while religion is in the private sphere.

What we have learned in running Sekolah Demokrasi for the last six years is that many of our participants, mostly young people, have never had a conversation about being Indonesian with one another and on where they want Indonesia to head in the future. Many of these youths have been living in isolation from one another despite physically living in the same area, making it easy for outside forces to manipulate and manoeuvre them into behaving violently.

Most importantly, they begin their journey in Sekolah Demokrasi by not realising that they must participate in developing Indonesia and stop blaming others. The one-year conversations centre on how best to develop their area and consolidate their visions, and they all agree that violence is not part of their vision.

They conclude at the end of the year with common dreams and more than 1,000 graduates want a better and peaceful Indonesia. This dream has kept the graduates in all eight areas where Sekolah Demokrasi are operating in touch with each other years after studying at the school.

The schools have also tapped into the pulses of Indonesian youths: Energy and power, driven by strong personal aspirations. Youths in Indonesia aged between 14 and 24 years old are estimated to be more than 30 per cent of the total Indonesian population of the 240 million.

One of the main issues that keeps reappearing among the young people of Sekolah Demokrasi is access to economic opportunity. Modern information technology, whether it be television or the Internet, have instantly opened up communication, giving people at the regency level access to information related to the national and international arenas.

These young people know that many of them have been left out of Indonesia’s national economic development and they want to be part of this.

When tensions flared up in Pontianak recently, our partners running Sekolah Demokrasi in West Kalimantan were concerned. They contacted us in Jakarta and it was clear that what was taking place was symptomatic of something much deeper than what was appearing on the surface.

Edgar Janz from the World Bank office in Jakarta found out that the number of unemployed youths in Indonesia was six times higher compared to the world average. Fifty three per cent of youths end up in jobs in the informal sector and mostly as unpaid family labourers.

Sekolah Demokrasi aims to build a peaceful Indonesia, coping with the aspirations of the young at the regency level. Hopefully, these aspirations will mesh together and form a strong Indonesia.

However, governments at the regional and national levels must start taking these regional youths seriously. Creating youth employment must be a top priority. Government agencies at provincial levels must start planning and developing programs that will meet their dreams of a better Indonesia. If managed properly, these youths, which are the potential wealth of the nation, can be transformed as productive assets and become the foundations of the future economic growth of the country. — The Jakarta Post

* The writer, a former journalist, is secretary-general of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID). She was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University, class of 1994.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.