Posting provocation, twittering pluralism
Just before Christmas suburban commuters ran a gauntlet of posters pegged alongside main roads leading into the East Java city of Malang.
For many the professionally-produced advertisements (left) in the national colors of red and white carried an unwelcome message. It translated as: ‘Good Muslims do not greet Christians with Happy Christmas or celebrate the New Year.’ There was also some Arabic calligraphy and a quote about unbelievers allegedly from the Koran.
The names of six organizations, including a radio station and ‘Forum Takmir Masjid Kota Malang [Malang City Takmir Mosque Forum] and the Majelis Ulama Indonesia [MUI – Indonesian Islamic Scholars] claimed responsibility though some have reportedly denied involvement.
Among those offended was Muslim lawyer Achmad Haryono. “The posters were provocative and erected by radicals who want to create a Saudi-like society,” he said. “Through Facebook community groups spontaneously alerted each other and we took action.”
Within two hours more than 100 posters in five suburbs had been ripped down and handed to public order officials, Haryono said. Christians and a Hindu offered to help but were told it was a Muslim task. It seemed like a good time to refresh ideas of tolerance so the Gusdurians got involved.
This sounds like a sack of the thorny and malodorous fruit, and to complicate matters the youth wing calls itself Garuda after the mythical eagle, a symbol also used by the national airline.
Gusdurian is a nationwide network maintaining the spirit and ideals of Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur. Its principles include humanitarianism, freedom, egalitarianism and justice.
A prominent Islamic scholar and great humorist, Gus Dur (right) was lauded by other religions for his championship of diversity. He held office from October 1999 to July 2001, a chaotic period marked by social reforms, maladministration and bad relations with the army. He lost office after being impeached by Parliament.
Despite many of the young Gusdurians’ remoteness from those turbulent times, they organized a seminar to commemorate the fifth anniversary of their hero’s death. Although this occurred on 30 December the event was held in early January because Malang was still mourning victims of the Air Asia crash.
Instead of printing posters they relied on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word, and by the time magrib [the evening prayer] had finished they’d packed a Catholic church hall with more than 250 people. The police were present but there was no trouble.
Here they sampled speeches from the all-male leaders of the major faiths, watched a documentary on Gus Dur and heard his praises sung by musicians and proclaimed by performance poet and businessman Muhammad Berlian Al Hamid (below, right)
After a while the Christian greetings of Shalom [Peace] and the Islamic Assalamualaikum [Peace be unto you] were replaced by Salam satu jiwa [Welcome, one soul].
Although there was a contingent of saffron-clad Buddhist monks and nuns in white it was clear from their dress that the majority were young Muslims – and their passion for pluralism was unequivocal.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said the moderator Kristanto ‘Tatok’ Budiprabowo, speaking to The Jakarta Post after the event. “In my experience most Muslims are liberal while Christians remain conservative. It’s very difficult to find progressive Protestants in this country – though Catholics are more advanced.”
Tatok should know. He studied for a Master of Theology degree at Yogyakarta’s Duta Wacana Christian University where he met Gus Dur and joined Interfide, a youth inter-faith movement. After graduating he moved to a church in Sumatra ministering to transmigrants from Java.
Now back in his hometown Malang and researching for a doctorate, he reflected on what he considers to be the growth of intolerance in Indonesia.
“It was much better in the past,” he said. “I grew up in a village outside Malang; we were the only Protestant family yet we never felt that we were strange. We had Muslim relatives. My Grandfather was a dalang [puppet master] who followed kebatinan [traditional Javanese beliefs].
“I played in the mosque with the Muslim kids. We celebrated Idul Fitri with our neighbors and they came round to wish us Happy Christmas.”
Tatok (left) said the situation started to change in the 1980s when then President Soeharto, who had previously oppressed political Islam, began to court Muslim support. Gus Dur, then head of the huge Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic organization, also started to criticise Soeharto’s New Order government.
“Radical preachers began to appear in the villages, though our kiai [Islamic scholar] was a wise man who sent them away,” said Tatok.
“But elsewhere they gained influence and started to use religion as a political tool. That led to the situation we have today and the problems we encounter.
“Although the majority religion in any society should reach out to minorities, it’s wrong to just blame Muslims for the growing intolerance. Christians must also reform. We need to refocus our beliefs and reinterpret what Christianity really means.
“Too many see their religion as exclusive and don’t want to know about other faiths. They stay within their own group. It makes them feel better. There is no special uniqueness in Christianity. We can see Christ everywhere, including in other religions.
“Curiously the inter-faith movement isn’t being led by academics who like to play safe. The activists are artists and creative people.”
Organisers later said they would lobby local government to declare Malang a ‘Peace City’ where the principles of inclusiveness and tolerance would be guarded.
“I think this meeting has helped many young people who are religious but unhappy with the way their faith is being interpreted, to realise they are not alone,” said Tatok.
“Now they understand that there are alternative ways of thinking, and that’s OK. Overall I’m optimistic; through modern technology good ideas can be spread more easily.
”Our job is to empower local people through the teachings of Gus Dur so we can all live together in peace.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 January 2015)