Interfaith Dialogue: Ideas and Practices in Indonesia

Indonesia has been practicing interfaith dialogue longer than any other country in Asia, or even in the world. This kind of dialogue has been institutionalized since the 1960s and strongly promoted by the government, practiced in society and developed by academics, but the experiences and ideas that have evolved from these practices have not been documented or analyzed academically. Therefore, Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) which considers interfaith relations as one of its main academic concerns, published a book entitled “Dialog antar Umat Beragama: Gagasan dan Praktek di Indonesia (Interfaith Dialogue: Ideas and Practices in Indonesia)”. This publication was of great interest to the Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, who invited CRCS to discuss the topic further. Below is the interview with Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir who represented CRCS at the discussion as one of the book’s authors.



Zainal Abidin Bagir, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), a Master’s program at the Graduate School of Gadjah Mada University (UGM), in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS-Yogya), representing UGM. In 2009 he was appointed as the Indonesian Associate for the UNESCO Chair in Inter-religious and Intercultural Relations for the Asia Pacific region (associated with the Chair at Monash University, Australia). Dr. Bagir received his doctorate in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University. His previous education includes an undergraduate degree in mathematics (Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, 1992) and a Master’s program in Islamic philosophy and science at ISTAC (International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Kuala Lumpur, 1994).


Q: What does the book “Interfaith dialogue: Ideas and Practices in Indonesia” want to accomplish?


A: This book tries to map the interfaith dialogues that have been conducted in Indonesia. First, we in Indonesia have had many experiences with interfaith dialogue, but it has not yet been documented or researched. I see Indonesia as having as having ‘many’ experiences with interfaith dialogue, more than other countries either in Asia or in Europe, or even in America. It stands as a rather new phenomena in these places. However, here in Indonesia inter-faith dialogue has long been institutionalized, such as the interfaith dialogues that can be found in this book which have existed for at least forty years, perhaps more. When we hold programs relating to interfaith dialogue, we realized that in fact, Indonesia is experienced in these matters. We are trying to map those experiences. To map the dialogues, we divided them into three areas; state-sponsored dialogues, dialogues by members of civil society, and dialogues in the academic environment, particularly higher education. Looking at dialogues that occur across several levels or regions is also interesting, I think. So overall our main objective is to record what has been done in Indonesia.


Q: What do you expect readers to get out of the book?


A: I expect them to get a better understanding about interfaith dialogue and to come to the realization that dialogues are varied. As I mentioned earlier, there are state-sponsored dialogues, civil-society dialogues, and dialogues that start from grass roots level. So there are multiple issues being addressed through different kinds of dialogues. I think this is important because today people tend to perceive that inter-religious dialogue only refers to religious leaders, when they meet and make a declaration or a similar kind of activity. What has happened so far has been far more than just that aspect of dialogue. That is merely one facet of inter-religious or inter-faith dialogue. Hopefully, readers will gain a better understanding of what has happened.

Q: What kind of readers will be interested in this book?


A: I think this book will be of interest to the general public, and perhaps some academics as well as those involved with the government. Such as was the case previously, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was interested to carry out a book discussion, which I suppose shows that the government was also interested to acknowledge more about the issue. This is despite the fact that about one-third of what we covered was regarding what the Ministry has attempted. They were still interested in discussing it. So I consider the topic to be board enough to interest the public as well as academic and government circles.


Q: How important do you think the issue of interfaith dialogue is in Indonesia?


A: If we summarize the miscellaneous points covered in this book, one of the motifs of these dialogues is to overcome conflict or tensions between religious followers. It is important to bear in mind that dialogue cannot solve all problems, it can only be of help to conciliate tension or reduce misunderstandings, reduce prejudice, however some tensions or even conflicts occurred even when dialogue was undertaken. There were reasons for the conflicts, so dialogue is not a medicine to cure all diseases. It is just a part of the solution, but a significant one. To overcome these issues, several kinds of efforts could be attempted at once. Tensions over religious adherents, for instance, that involve faith differences or different teachings, might encompass political aspects and economic aspects, and these issues should be overcome by applying political and economic solutions. But in other cases, engaging in dialogue can be a possible route to settling conflict.


Q: Were there any critical responses from the audience?


A: One of the critical responses was addressed by the discussant, Dr. Abdul Moqsith Ghazali, a Senior Researcher at the Wahid Institute, and the author of “Argumen Pluralisme Agama Membangun Toleransi Berbasis Al-Qur’an”. He said that the book could have been made thicker, even though it is already long, with almost 300 pages. However, it does not cover all things and we realize that. We sampled inter-religious dialogues in the hope of discerning some patterns. We sampled several important institutions we knew, but did not include them all because we just used representative organizations. So, it is limited from that perspective., The idea that the book is incomplete is correct in that sense. We had an idea that this book would serve as a kind of a beginning, just a start. It is supposed to be followed by research, for instance, that focuses on the types of dialogue already accomplished by civil society organizations, how those dialogues are patterned, what are their motifs, what are their goals, did they succeed or not, and so on. This can be achieved through individual research, unlike this book which is provides a very general picture, more like an initial survey.


The second criticism aimed at the book is that it tends to emphasize the institutions conducting dialogue, while the agents of dialogue are not seen comprehensively. That is a fair assessment.. There are important historical figures who were active at the beginning of the trend of inter-religious dialogue in Indonesia in the 1960’s, such as Professor Mukti Ali. We mentioned him in the book, but there is no explanation about his thoughts. We also mentioned Sumartana, one of the important figures in Yogyakarta who established INTERFIDEI, who was the first to establish dialogue at the level of civil society. We did not, however, cover his way perspective. So our view in the book is limited, we did not review the process in its entirety. Furthermore, we did not outline those who do not like dialogue either in the Islamic dimension or the Christian dimension, it is important to cover those who view dialogue as neither important nor beneficial. We admit that this is a shortcoming, but we were not able to cover everything within one book. Those were the two significant criticisms regarding the book’s comprehensiveness. (dca)

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