Interfaith Dialogue at the Grassroots Level

Title : Interfaith Dialogue at the Grassroots Level
Author : Siti Sarah Muwahidah (CRCS, 2007)
Keywords : Interfaith dialogue, grassroots empowerment, religious identity
Interfaith dialogue is commonly used in building peace and understanding among religious groups. Swidler (2000) claims the interreligious project cannot becarried out only by scholars and leaders of the world religions; the ideas and concerns of the grassroots communities must also be voiced and heard. Such a project must work on all three levels-scholars, leaders, and grassroots-or it will not work at all.

I present findings of my fieldwork in a small village in East Java, Indonesia, where land authority problems became a common ground for conducting interfaith cooperation. I observed interfaith empowerment efforts led by a group of Catholic activists and students who arrived in 1997, which successfully supported the villagers in claiming their land. According to Paul Knitter (1995), grassroots interfaith cooperation will necessarily be followed by interfaith dialogue. In this thesis, my first question concerns whether the subsequent dialogue that follows interfaith cooperation in Banyu Urip can be claimed as interfaith dialogue; my second question concerns the significance of the interfaith program in Banyu Urip.

The feasibility of starting and maintaining interfaith programs in Banyu Urip was made more difficult for the following reasons. In the first place, the villagers had suffered economically and politically under a variety of regimes, from the Dutch Colonials to interference from the PKI, and eventually local governments. They had no control or authority over the very land they had lived on, and derived their living from. Thus, they were like displaced persons in their own country. Further, religion was imposed on them from outside: their native Javanese practices were proscribed by the Indonesian government and they were forced to convert to one of the five acceptable religions. This combination of forces – both political and religious, and both imposed from outside – meant that the villagers were doubly oppressed. This has led to cynicism concerning religion and government. However, the villagers generally feel that both Christians and Muslims worship the same God, a pragmatic approach that probably was developed due to the villagers’ long suspicion of the intentions and agendas of the outsiders; i.e., the villagers had more in common with each other than they did with the missionaries, NGOs, and other groups that tried to interfere in their lives. But it also meant that they would not take the strictures of their faiths very seriously.

My general finding is that in communities that have a lack of knowledge of their own particular religions subsequent dialogue may take other forms which are different from that of Knitter’s description. A kind of liberative dialogue became necessary to overcome this cynicism and suspicion and to create a forum where the villagers could exert some control over their village and their lives, as well as strengthen the interreligious relationship among them. Success in the economic and political sector encouraged success in the interfaith sector, and vice versa.

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