Tomas Lindgren:Narration of the People Involved in (Religious) Conflict in Ambon

I had finally interviewed Professor Tomas Lindgren after doing his fieldwork for the second time in Ambon (the first one was done in 2005 and now 2009) in a cafe in Yogyakarta. Prof. Lindgren interviewed people who were directly involved in the conflict and several Ambonese scholars who talked about the conflict in Ambon which happened for five years (1999-2004). There were a great deal of important findings and analyses that he revealed during this one on one interview.


CRCS: What are you doing this time for your research?

Tomas: I am writing a book about religion and conflict, and part of that, I discussed about the conflict in Moluccas. I am focusing on the people’s narrative account on the religious conflict, which according to people’s narratives. I am trying to illustrate the religious conflict in Moluccas.

CRCS: You told me that you are doing a narrative research on it, but as you know, sometimes people tell the truth, but sometimes they tell a lie on the conflict, then how could you differentiate it using the method of narration?


Tomas: It is very difficult to do that, yup, of course people do not tell the truth all the time. If you read Victor Crapanzano’s works, he differentiated historical truth and narrative truth. Sometimes people tell a lie, but they believe in what they say. I believe what they believe in their own narrative. Sometimes I do not believe that narratives are historical truth. But sometimes they do not lie; you have to make a distinction between historical truth and narrative truth. Narrative truth could be that that person has experienced a situation, so, that narrative is true, even though, I might think that this is not the historical truth.

CRCS: In some points, narration can be very dangerous because people might narrate their own experience to their son and descendant. Narration then can become stereotypical and it may pursue an ongoing resentment between Muslims and Christians in Ambon?


Tomas: It could be dangerous, but it is very important to analyse, because narrative constructs our acts and behaviour which have been narrated. We live in a narrative world, for instance, my belief is narrated. Narrative is the most basic story of our life because we cannot think what happened yesterday if we will not use narrative. We talk in the beginning of the day, the middle and the end of the day and the world becomes complicated because of narration. And that is what I am doing as a psychologist of religion; I want to understand how they recognize the world in order to understand the way they act.

CRCS: Do you still see the segregation in Ambon City?

Tomas: Very clearly, I think it has become more segregated, even before the conflict because before the conflict, we had an area where Muslims are the majority, and there was an area where the Christians are the majority. Then during the conflict, Christian families who were the minority moved down to the area where they become the majority, and Muslims who were the minority also moved to another area where they became the majority. Then Muslim area became more Islamic, and Christian area became more Christianized. The situation can be worsened, but it does not necessarily create violence. I am not sure that segregation leads violence, but it easily provoke violence. I think it would be better if people mingle with each together.


CRCS: Do you think that peace building can make people have a general narrative of the origins of the conflict?


Tomas: I think it is very important to make people hear other people’s narrative. People should get to know and learn about other narratives about the conflict. Maybe they will agree on the same narrative, but it is still someday in the future. But what you have to admit is that, they have variations of narrative in the same Muslim communities, and I guess there are also various narratives on the Christian communities about the conflict. It is almost impossible to find out the historical truth about the conflict. For example, how many people died in Moluccas? No one knows. When did it start? Is the conflict over or not yet? And who are the main actors of this conflict? There are various narratives on it.

CRCS: What I am learning from this narration is that religion is not main factor of conflict, and at the same time, people battle in the name of God. People are easily provoked with religious issues. How do you see the position of religion in this conflict?

Tomas: I do not believe that religion caused the conflict. During my interview in Ambon, people narrated that the conflict was economically and politically motivated. It became religious because religion became involved, religion made the conflict complicated, even though it was not the cause of the conflict. It is important to remember that there were Muslims who killed Christians, and Christians who killed Muslims, but it does not mean that this person merely killed this one because he is a Muslim or vice versa. It is not the main reason. For instance, when I am playing tennis, I do not play tennis because I am a Christian. Sometimes people said that religion causes violence, religion is a problem. It is hard to say, because when you analyse conflict, you can realize it is so complicated. We cannot say that the conflict was obviously caused by the Muslims, or caused by the Christians. There are so many motives in the conflict, like economical, political, religious and social. We cannot say that religion caused the conflict in Northern Ireland or in the former Yugoslavia. It is too easy to say that. But I also would not agree to say that religion does not create conflict, because religion is not innocent. I used to say that religion is problematic, but it is not the problem.


CRCS: Why are people easily provoked with religious issues?


Tomas: If you see the narration, what happened during the Lebaran on January 19, 1999? Muslim people narrated that they were worshipping, and they were attacked in the mosques. Then mosques and churches were burned. Most people reacted that religion is an important component as it is the identity of many people in Indonesia. It is also because Soeharto tends to create and emphasize religion as identity. Islam as identity, Christianity as identity, Buddhism as identity, so on and so forth. Their identities are related to their own holy places. Muslim identity is related to the mosques and Christian identity is related to the church. So, in Ambon’s case, it was more on attacking the identity.


CRCS: What is the difference of the conflict in Ambon if to be compared with the conflict in Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, or in Southern Thailand and Philippines?


Tomas: That is actually a difficult question, but what I found remarkable of this conflict is that it is almost impossible to find someone who has a clear aim on this conflict in Moluccas. Muslims were only defending themselves as well as the Christian. But who wants something behind this conflict? I don’t know. In the former Yugoslavia for example, we know that they wanted to create a greater Serbia, they wanted to create something, even though it was a terrible idea, and they had leaders to implement their dreams. We can see the conflict in Sri Lanka as well, they had a clear aim to establish something. Also if we see the conflict in Southern Thailand, Muslims want something; they had aims. But what was they wanted to establish in the conflict in Moluccas? What was their aim during the conflict in Moluccas? No one knows. I don’t know either. Both communities feel that they are the victims. There are similarities, though, in the conflict in Moluccas and Sri Lanka, which I call double minority complex. In Moluccas, Muslims feel marginalized, even though they are the majority in the Republic of Indonesia. Christians also feel marginalized in Ambon, but I think they are the majority there. If we see Sri Lanka, Sinhalese is 80% of the total population but they still feel they are the minority. Tamil people feel like they are minority, but if you just cross the water to the north of South Asia they are the majority. So, it is quite complicated. We are also finding in many other conflicts that people feel they are the minority, even they are majority.


CRCS: What is your provisional conclusion in your research?

Tomas: First of all, the conflict is very complicated, than I thought before. It is so difficult to find out the fact of this conflict, because there are so many narratives from the people involved during the conflict. So, my intention is to see the different understanding of the conflict both from the Muslim perspective and the Christian perspective. Right now, I am focusing on the Muslim perspective on the religious conflict.


CRCS: Do you think the creation of Lascar, whatever lascar; Lascar Jihad (LJ), Mujahiddin or Lascar Kristus make the situation better or worse?


Tomas: For the Muslim yes, because once I realized during my fieldwork in Ambon, Lascar Jihad actually defends many Muslims, and of course LJ also contributes to escalate this conflict, but LJ also contributes to the Muslim society in Moluccas during the conflict. They send doctors and they send teachers that are only meant for the Muslim societies. There are so many dimensions in this conflict, because the army was involved, preman (thugs) was involved. And there are the political and economical aspects in this conflict. The arrival of LJ affected much the social and religious life of the Muslims in Ambon, but I am not sure with several lascars in Christian areas, whether they give much affect or not. I don’t think so. Laskar Kristus is not the same thing with LJ, because LJ was a concrete and strong group, and Laskar Kristus is not really a strong and sustainable group.


CRCS: Do you think that the future relationship of Christians and Muslims in Ambon will get better or worse?


Tomas: Better, because I can see sometimes that people are trying to work for peace and reconciliation in Moluccas. On the other hand, during my fieldwork in Ambon, I became more convinced that the conflict in Moluccas is related to culture and history, which is unique in Moluccas where war was based on different villages and little kingdom that spread out over there. So, war is not something new. And the existence of the former LJ in Ambon will not worsen the situation because they are actually quite a few, and these lascars now do not destroy the peace process in Ambon.


CRCS: Ok. Thank you so much Pak Tom



Tomas Lindgren, who is used to be called Pak Tomas, is a professor of psychology in Umeo University in Sweden. He was also a guest lecturer and visiting professor at CRCS for a couple of semesters in the past.(HAK)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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