New Zealand Visit: Understanding Indonesia, its Religions and Politics

CRCS | News | Hary Widyantoro

In recent years there have been a number of scholars as well as students travelling to Southeast Asia to learn more about the region. On February 7 2015 students from Victoria University in New Zealand visited Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Yogyakarta to learn about Indonesia. Their visit was part of a broader trip they were taking around Southeast Asia. Because of the important role religion plays in Indonesia and in the life of Indonesian’s, learning about Indonesia also requires learning about the dynamics of religion and politics. This leads the students to visit the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), an institution for Religious Studies in Indonesia. CRCS arranged a short lecture in the Graduate Building (where the CRCS office is located) as well as a tour to three religious places: Pondok Pesantren Pandanaram in Yogyakarta and Borobudur Temple and Vihara Mendut in Magelang.

At CRCS, the students attended two short presentations from Haqimul Ikhwan, M.A from the ASEAN Center, UGM and Dr Iqbal Ahnaf, a lecturer at CRCS. Haqim addressed the issue of multiculturalism in Southeast Asia generally and in Indonesia specifically. Regarding one of the problems of multiculturalism in Southeast Asia, Haqim stressed that “in this globalized society, if you do not come to democracy, it will come to you.” Each country tries to implement democracy, but prejudice towards others still exists in diverse societies because nationalism is understood as homogenous. In other words, it is considered as a single identity.

Regarding this point, Haqim contended that identity is in fact not single, never fixed, relational and constructed. People consider a number of things when speaking of their identity and this consideration changes based on the context, meaning identity is always negotiated. Hence, particular people tend to feel superior to others because they have a different identity from them, which leads the “other” to feel insecure and threatened, especially if they are part of a minority group.
Continuing on this theme, Iqbal Ahnaf presented a more specific issue relating to the dynamics of Islam in Indonesia. Beginning his presentation, Iqbal contended that Indonesia is not an Islamic country because although some areas have a Muslim majority population other areas have a non-Muslim majority. For example, in western Indonesia such as Sumatra and Java, Muslims comprise the majority of the population whereas in Eastern Indonesia, such as NTT and Papua, the majority of the population are non-Muslims. Therefore, he emphasized that Indonesia is not an Islamic country, even though the majority are Muslims.

Discussions about Islam in Indonesia requires discussion of Islam and its two biggest organizations: NahdlatulUlama and Muhammadiyah. Iqbal explained that these organizations also need to be included in discussions about democracy in Indonesia because both organizations play important roles in implementing democracy. Moreover, both organizationsdo not supportthe implementation of either a Islamic state or Syari’ah in Indonesia, based on the consideration that not all Indonesians are Muslims.

With this in mind, Iqbal said that Islam in Indonesia is generally a tolerant form of Islam and many Muslims accept and respect the difference of others rather than the idea of an Islamic state. “However,” he remarked,“where is the tolerance rooted?” He then explained that Islam in Indonesia was not spread through conquest like in other parts of the world but through cultural processes such as marriage, trade, etc. It is this that led the founding fathers of Indonesia to make the decision against creating an Islamic state, but rather a secular state which recognizes religion as an important part of Indonesian life.

However, this ideology has been challenged from time to time due to the existence ofradicalism. Iqbal explained that there are two kinds of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. First is a non-violent form, comprised mostly of people from the salafis movement, and the second a more violent form comprised of thosewho are radical political Islamists. In his presentation, Iqbal discussed the origin of radicalism in Indonesia. It arose through a conflict between those who wanted to implement Syari’ahand those who disagreed on the basis that not all Indonesians are Muslims. This disagreement occurred during the post-independent when the Indonesian state was beingconceptualized. Supporters of the implementation of Syari’ah continued to lose in elections and debates with nationalists, which lead to the formation ofnationalist parties cross-cutting religious lines, which are supported by NU and Muhammadiyah, two strong civil society organizations.

After the lecture, the students visited a Pesantren to experience a religious educational institution creating future Muslims. Representatives from both Victoria University and the Pesantrengave a presentation about their respective institution and country, in order to share experiences and information.At the end, students from both institutionsgave performances. Students of the Pesentran performed hadrah, Islamic music and songs mixed with Javanese traditions, while Victoria Students performed the Haka, which is the traditional dance of Maori people in New Zealand.

Continuing the tour the students visited Borobudur temple in Magelang, Central Java the following day. There students saw the architecture of Mahayana Buddhism in Indonesia and learnthat it was createdin the 9th Century basedon oral tradition rather than written scripture. The last place that the students visited was Mendut Buddhist monastery where they learned from a senior Buddhist monk about the purpose of meditation,that are to control emotion, illusion and thought. At the end they practiced meditation guided by the monk.

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