Although Indonesia has long been a melting pot of religious and ethnic groups, differences in faith still breed curiosity, fear and even animosity.
When Kelik Wicaksono opened the door of his house to two leaders of his neighborhood one Saturday morning, he didn’t expect to hear the kind of news the two men brought him.
Kelik and his wife, both Christians, had been giving English lessons to children in their neighborhood in Pondok Cabe, South Jakarta, every Saturday afternoon.
“It was a very sad moment. The men came to tell us that two local ulemas from another village had voiced their concerns about the content of our class,” Kelik said.
“They were afraid because my faith is different from theirs. And they were worried I was teaching [the children] something else,” he said.
In fact, ulemas and neighborhood leaders were so concerned they held a meeting about the class at the sub-district level.
“What I don’t understand is why didn’t they come to me personally instead of talking behind my back and having a meeting about it?” he said.
The class, Kelik said, teaches children English in a fun way. Sometimes the 15 to 30 children, who are all Muslims, learn to sing and dance, other times they make origami artwork.
When the news of the day was the conflict between the National Police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), students took part in discussions on that topic. When asked what the duties of the police were, one of the girls in the classroom answered with certainty: “to catch the KPK”.
“Our class is very secular,” he said. “What we can see from it [the class], is that children are now more courageous and confident… because our class is very laid back,” he said.
Kelik and his wife are still holding the class and will meet with the neighborhood leaders to discuss how to address their concerns.
A few children have stopped coming to the class after their parents forbade them to do so.
“The children said, ‘They say you’re teaching us Christian sholat’,” Kelik said. Sholat is the Muslim prayer ritual.
Religious minorities are still persecuted in parts of the country, with certain groups more prone to having their freedom of worship violated.
While permission to build a mosque, the place of worship for Muslims, is easily attained, given the majority of people in Indonesia are Muslim, Christians at times find it more difficult to build their own places of worship.
Last March, Depok mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail revoked the building permit for a Batak Protestant church in Limo, Depok. Last month, a mob burned down two Protestant churches and the home of a pastor in North Sumatra.
Kelik said he had talked to people around his neighborhood and found they were afraid of Christianization.
When it comes to Islamization however, people remain tightlipped and the state will rarely take any action to stop it, said Jajat Burhanudin, the head of the Center for Islamic and Society Studies (PPIM) at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
According to Jajat, some public schools and universities are becoming hotbeds for radical Islamic thinking, with student religious groups preaching intolerant behavior towards people from different religions.
Jajat added that compartmentalized religious education in public schools and the conservative attitude of religious studies teachers contributed to religious intolerance in Indonesian schools.
In 2008, PPIM did a survey involving 500 Islamic studies teachers in Java and found that most teachers were opposed to pluralism, tending toward radicalism and conservatism. The worrying results speak for themselves.
The study shows 62 percent of the surveyed Islamic teachers, including those from Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – the country’s two largest Muslim organizations – rejected the notion of having non-Muslim leaders.
Almost 70 percent of the respondents were opposed to non-Muslims becoming their school principle and close to 35 percent were against having non-Muslim teachers at their schools.
Around 75 percent of the teachers didn’t want followers of other religions to build their houses of worship in their neighborhoods, the survey found.
Eighty five percent of teachers prohibit their students from celebrating big events perceived as Western traditions, while 87 percent tell their students not to learn about other religions.
In addition, 48 percent of the teachers would prefer female and male students to be separated into different classrooms.
The survey also shows 75 percent of the respondents had asked their students to call on non-Muslim teachers to convert to Islam, while 61 percent reject new Islamic sects.
In line with their strict beliefs, 67 percent said they felt more Muslim than Indonesian.
The majority of respondents also supported the adoption of sharia law in the country to help fight crime.
According to the survey, almost 60 percent of the respondents were in favor of rajam (stoning) as a punishment for all kinds of crimes and almost 50 percent said the punishment for theft should be having one hand cut off, while 21 percent want the death sentence for those who converted from Islam.
Only 3 percent of the 500 surveyed Islamic studies teachers said they felt it was their duty to produce tolerant students.
Jajat said the state had failed to take measures to contain a growing radicalization of Islam in public schools.
“The seeds of conservatism start early and educational institutions have always been the place to spread a certain ideology,” he said.
Islam-based political parties are actively collaborating with high schools to create “integrated” schools, he added. “It is part of a deliberate strategy to Islamize public schools,” he said.
While religious groups should not be stopped from opening day schools or boarding schools – even if those end up spreading their ideology, Jajat said, the situation becomes a worry when proselytizing happens in public schools.
“It shouldn’t happen in public schools. The government funds public schools with tax payers’ money. All religions should be treated equally,” he said.
He said democracy and universal values should be taught at school, while “the strengthening of primordial religious identity be avoided”.
Children should be exposed to different faiths as early as possible so they become accustomed to differences in society, Jajat said.
They should also be encouraged to have interfaith dialogues or join activities with people from different faiths.
“It can be something completely unrelated to religion, like how to tackle the problem of garbage,” he said.
The Indonesian religious education system, in which students are given religious studies based on the faith they adhere to, is very compartmentalized and does not stimulate tolerance and understanding between different faiths, Jajat lamented.
“At the same time, there is no effort to make the students see beyond religious symbols,” he said.
Recently a Facebook page titled “Replace religious education in high school with studies about ethics, humanity and basic philosophy” was created. The page now has 400 fans.
When asked about the page, Jajat said he fully agreed with the message.
“Basically, we should hold on to universal values,” he said.
One of the group’s fan, Karl Karnadi, an Indonesian atheist who lives in Germany, said he supported the group because he believed the current religious education system did not promote pluralism.
“In my opinion, intolerance tends to arise when a person is only taught about one religion all of his/her life without having been given the chance to know about other religions and their followers,” he said.
“Why not use religious studies for that? Teach people about more than one religion. Teach them at least about Indonesia’s six ‘official religions’. Give children a chance to get to know different religions outside the ones they adhere to. And in a descriptive way [like Wikipedia] rather than by indoctrinating them [like at church or with Koran readings],” he said.
“That’s an interesting idea, don’t you think?” Karl mused.
Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Life | Wed, February 17 2010