Teaching Religion in Indonesia: A Report on Graduate Studies in Java

Bret Lewis, Ph.D, Arizona State University

Henry Luce Foundation Exchange Student 2010



Established in 2000–2001, the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) is the only master’s level religious studies program at a non-religiously affiliated university in Indonesia. In many respects, the program is experimental, operating within the dynamic political and religious environment of the Muslim world’s youngest and largest democracy. Like other large democracies such as India or the United States, the Indonesian government and courts have their challenges and opportunities in navigating a multiplicity of religions. In Indonesia, this took on particular urgency in the context of religiously-charged conflict in the 1990’s and early 2000’s which helped lead to the establishment of the CRCS. This paper seeks to explore how students and key faculty relate to the program’s mission and approach to the study of religion while tracing the development of religious studies as a discipline in Indonesia. Special attention is paid to the political and, at times, controversial aspects of approaching religion with secular and pluralistic frameworks and language. It was informed by interviews and surveys conducted between January and May of 2010.

crcsWhat constitutes the study of religion varies according to specific political, social, and culturalcontexts. Indonesia is no exception and, correspondingly, this paper explores the challenges and possibilities of religious studies in the world’s most populous Muslim country and overall fourth largest nation. This paper is based on my experiences and survey data collected in the spring of 2010 as a Luce Fellow at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It was my good fortune to spend four months in Indonesia engaging with faculty, associates, and students at this master’s level program. What I found was an impressive attempt to apply the tools acquired and skills developed in the academic study of religion to very real social and political challenges. The program at CRCS, while fully academic in its goals, integrates in unique ways the tensions between Muslim dominance and respect for a variety of religious traditions. This mission has not, however, been free of controversy or challenges. Some are suspicious of CRCS’s western methods and secular connotations due in part to the historical legacy of Dutch colonialism, compounded by contemporary debates about select U.S. and European foreign policy measures such as those enacted post 9/11. In addition, critics have interpreted an ideological pluralism at work that, they fear, suggests “all religions are equal” in ways that threaten not only certain truth claims and student piety but also call into question their view of Indonesia’s special relationship with Islam. In its defense, the CRCS sees its mission not to relativize but rather to strengthen the democratic principles of the country. This would include an equal respect for minority viewpoint and the academic freedom to investigate and document the country’s rich religious diversity. Rather than endorsing a rigid secular model (for example, one that seeks to sideline religion’s public role) the CRCS sees religion as a galvanizing force that should build upon religion’s moral and communal frameworks in contributing to areas such as minority religious rights, public health, disaster relief, and environmental policy. This paper sets out to describe how the CRCS navigates the concerns of its critics while pursuing its mission.

Full Article (pdf) available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9647.2012.00803.x/abstract



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