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Indonesian students at interfaith prayerIndonesian students at interfaith prayer

The world's third largest democracy, Indonesia, is neither an Islamic nor a secular state, but is based on 'unity in diversity'. Miftahul Huda writes about the struggle to turn this ideal into reality.

‘Be confident and proud of Indonesia as a whole because the culture is very rich, from Merauke to Sabang. And, if you happen to be Muslim, you should be very proud of Indonesian Islam because it is very rich in terms of heritage. Be proud also because Indonesia is a model of democracy in the Muslim world. You should never feel inferior to Muslims from other parts of the world. I think it is good for young people in Indonesia to pray wearing a sarong and a peci [traditional Indonesian cap] rather than wearing a gamis (Arab outift), for instance.’

I was inspired by this message in The Jakarta Globe, 9 December 2011, by the distinguished Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra. It helps me to appreciate the complexity of the country and the contribution I can make. Indonesia is not only the world’s third largest democracy, but also the largest Muslim nation in the world. In the Journal KULTUR Volume 5 2010, Azyumardi wrote that Indonesian Islam not only rich in its cultural and social expression but also in its institutions.

Indonesian Islam has two mainstream organisations: Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912, and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), founded in 1926, as well as many smaller organizations representing ‘cultural Islam’. Throughout Indonesia they run thousands of educational institutions ranging from elementary madrasah and schools to pesantren (Islamic Boarding schools) and universities. In addition, they operate hospitals and clinics, orphanages, people’s credit bank, cooperatives, NGOs and much else. They successfully influenced changes after the fall of president Soeharto in 1998 although they failed to consolidate civil society during the ‘Reform Period’.

The political situation became more stable after the 2004 general election when the leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah publicly committed not to be involved in power politics. But the country stills needs to establish good governance, to eradicate the rampant corruption, improvements in enforcing law and order, and the continued recovery of the Indonesian economy. Alongside government efforts, there are high hopes that civil society organizations and groups could play a greater role in meeting these needs.

Among Indonesians there is a huge sense of frustration, hopelessness and powerlessness. For example a student activist in Jakarta burnt himself to death in front of president palace. Another example is the fighting between students from different schools and the radicalisation leading to attacks on different religions or ethnic groups. While the government is trying to handle these problems, they have failed to protect the people and enforce the law.

Recently I and another activist from Jakarta and NU visited a remote village in Bogor, three hours from Jakarta. There, the group Ahmadiyah (Group of Islam) had been attacked by an unknown group of young people from outside the village. They had destroyed homes, mosques, schools and burnt the library and office. The people from Ahmadiyah tearfully told us how bad the situation is now. Ahmadiyah is long established in Indonesia and works alongside other organizations, especially NU whom they regard as an ‘elder brother’. I reflected on how lucky this village was to have Ahmadiyah. The road is bumpy and not many people want to visit this remote village. But these people built a mosque and schools – giving to society without demanding things from the government. Despite the many problems and attacks on Ahmadiyah in various parts of Indonesia, my friends and I continue to speak up for the rights of religious minorities and continue to work with them.

Students of different faiths visiting a Cathedral in IndonesiaStudents of different faiths visiting a Cathedral in IndonesiaAnother experience over the last two years has been my engagement with Interfaith projects – something I feel passionate about. At an international interfaith conference in Solo, central Java, we visited a Mosque and Church located adjacent to each other. Hearing the leaders speak about how they work together was just amazing. They have created a culture of dialogue to handle their differences through negotiation. At that conference we also did practical work helping to clean the pesantren (Islamic Schools) and painting the church and Wihara (for Hindu and Budhis). We were excited to do this while many people looked and asked why these Muslim women were helping another religion? Our women friends were able to explain and engage the society through this action.

Christian Sunday Services on the sidewalks at GKI Yasmin BogorChristian Sunday Services on the sidewalks at GKI Yasmin BogorRecently we have been supporting GKI Yasmin church where the local government has locked down the the church building preventing the Christian community from using it. Joining the Sunday service on the sidewalk outside the church was a turning point for me. I decided to take responsibility that everyone in this country should have freedom of religion and to campaign for the government to protect the people. The following year my friends and I worked with religious leaders and government to run a programme of interfaith workshops for senior high school student leaders from different schools. Together we learned how we can take responsibility that our nation lives up to its principles of unity in diversity.

As part of the programme we brought the participants to join the Sunday service in GKI Yasmin. The Muslim women students attracted attention because they were wearing the veil. With so many people (and police officers) watching us and wondering what we were doing, I was interviewed by a group including a journalist. Feeling nervous about how to explain, I finally suggested that they ask the Muslim female students directly what they were learning. Later I heard what they had replied: ‘This is my choice and I am responsible for what I choose, nobody can change my faith.’ Some of the male students asked the police why they weren’t letting the Christians into the building, as they had a right to use their church. The police couldn’t answer, saying that they were just doing what the bosses told them to do. We ended the service by standing together and singing an anthem. I felt proud to have this gathering. It is small and not covered by large media but this is the real Indonesia where everyone can celebrate our diversity.

What made me proud was seeing those young students communicating so ably in public. They were able to respond and take a stand for what is right. I believe this small initiative will help the students understand the dreams of our founding fathers to build our nation with the spirit of Pancasila (‘Five Pillars’). Despite the fact that almost 90 percent of the population is Muslim, Indonesia is clearly not an Islamic state, nor is Islam the official religion. Rather, Indonesia is based on Pancasila – neither theocratic nor secular.

Last Christmas the GKI Yasmin community still could not use their church. Even worse, the local government did not allow them to celebrate Christmas publicly. In the end they celebrated Christmas in a house after a group of Muslims in the area angrily protested, while some of us who are also Muslim supported the Christians. We gave them flowers and offered our protection as they celebrated Christmas.

With the richness of Indonesian Islam combined with Initiatives of Change, I am confident in my role bringing peace and hope for Indonesia and the world with the spirit of non violence. As a Teacher in a pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding school) I not only teach my subject but I am also responsible for the future of the country by explaining the universal values and bringing students into the real meaning of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

Miftahul Huda, graduated from the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. He works for IofC Indonesia and is also a teacher at Pesantren An Nahdlah Sawangan Depok.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.