Institutionalizing Interfaith Mediation: What, Why and How?

Diah Kusumaningrum | CRCS & IIS | Report

How do you get sworn enemies sit together in a mediation process? How do you mediate them? Does it even make sense to try? These are amongst the questions that 30 Indonesian activists and researchers from all around Indonesia raised in a workshop on “Institutionalizing Interfaith Mediation,” organized by CRCS, PUSAD-Paramadina, Lembaga Antar-Iman Maluku (LAIM) and UGM’s Magister Perdamaian dan Resolusi Konflik (MPRK) on 11-13 October 2017. Four recipients of the Tanenbaum Peacemaker-in-Action Award were involved in this workshop: Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye of Nigeria, Ms. Maria Ida “Deng” Giguiento of the Philippines, and Pastor Jacky Manuputty from Ambon. The workshop itself was part of a series of events, which included two public lectures and two movie screenings, highlighting the work of Imam Ashafa and Pastor James at the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna, in central Nigeria, which has been documented into the 2006 documentary film The Imam and the Pastor

Simply put, mediation is a process in which negotiations take place with the assistance of a third party. It comes in handy in conflict scenarios where communication between the parties has broken down and/or the trust level between them is very low. Needless to say, such conflict scenarios involving different religious groups are best mediated by teams of interfaith mediators.

Why is it important to institutionalize interfaith mediation in Indonesia? As explained by Zainal Abidin Bagir, while large-scale communal violence has subsided since 2004, small-scale incidents of inter- and intra-religious violence have become more frequent and widespread throughout Indonesia.

Unfortunately, these conflicts have not always been effectively dealt with by the state. The police forces work effectively in some places, but not in others. The anti hate speech regulation is enforced in some places, but not in others. Provincial or district level regulations are fair in some places, but are discriminating against religious minorities in others. With these in mind, civil society-led interfaith mediation processes become viable alternatives to dealing with interreligious conflicts.

When asked about the challenges of institutionalizing interfaith mediation in their respective regions, participants pointed to a number of factors: the rise of vigilantism, the intensification of in-group bonding, Islamist legacies of past insurgency movements, lack of government support for survivors of religious violence, and lack of solidarity among minority groups.

First, with acts of vigilantism on the rise, some individuals and groups become deterred from reaching out across religious lines. Not wanting to risk being labeled as apostates, and thus become easy targets of violence, they sometimes tone down their support for religious freedom.

Second, when the trend is to interact more exclusively – that is, with one’s co-religionists only – it becomes difficult to find a pool of individuals willing to be trained as interfaith mediators. Third, in some regions, Islamist ideas are deeply intertwined with narratives of victimization developed by past insurgents and passed on throughout generations. Such strong sense of victimization makes it difficult for some people to embark upon pro-peace initiatives.

Fourth, since the government has failed to adequately support survivors of religious violence, the survivors needed to prioritize their time and resources for rebuilding their lives, making it difficult for them to become full-time mediators. Lastly, it seems that the various religious minority groups are harnessing most of their energies inward, leaving only a little to stand with others in the face of religious intolerance.

Despite these challenges, participants are determined to further interfaith relations, among others, by initiating interfaith mediation services in their regions. They look forward to learn from the four Tanenbaum awardees about the “hows” of setting up and sustaining such services – which was discussed in detail in the second day of the workshop.

How to institutionalize?

Imam Ashafa stressed that nobody can make people sit together, let alone force them to enter into mediation. “If you tell them you want to mediate them, they will say back to you: who are you to mediate us?” To get around this, the Imam emphasized that “backdoor strategies” are needed. What he meant was that mediators need to first create space for members of the opposing parties to meet, reach out to one another, overcome prejudice, and such.

He creatively introduced many strategies in mediation efforts, which include organizing story telling activities, fun fairs, peace declaration, humanitarian services, peace education curricula, scriptural reflections, sports events, etc. “Once people are doing stuff together, we can get them to discuss things that bother them. We don’t need to call the process as mediation. What’s important is that we help them talk to each other.”

Moreover, Imam Ashafa outlined a number of approaches applied by IMC. He mentioned that sometimes IMC is there just to provide space and resources, and the parties carry on the negotiations by themselves. On other occasions, IMC performs shuttle mediation – that is, meeting parties separately and convey messages across. Now and then, IMC acts as a med-arb (mediator-arbitrator), mediator with the power to decide on what the parties should do.

Imam Ashafa interestingly includes “divine intimidation” and “divine intervention” in his strategy. The former is when the mediators say something like,”This is what God wants you to do—don’t you want to please Him?” “Divine intervention” is when the mediators impose certain actions to parties, with a claim that they are intervening on behalf of The Almighty. When various approaches have failed to facilitate interaction among parties, such “intimidation” and “intervention” may work, as people tend to abide to The Divine. 

Pastor James reminded participants the need to spend time and energy to think about organizational matters, funding, and networking. Underlining the need to have an effective division of labor within the IMC, he mentioned how Imam Ashafa and himself dedicate about half of their time for national level networking and for international engagements. This means that, while James and Ashafa’s friendship and leadership serve as IMC’s foundation, its day-to-day running is in the capable hands of a pool of mediators and a few staff.

Interfaith mediation is not smooth sailing. For this, Pastor James suggested that mediators need to secure backing from high-profile religious leaders, the government, the media, and community leaders. While providing mediation services is very time consuming, organizations still need to set aside and invest some time in building good relationships with those actors.

Some participants saw the Nigerian example as an exception, rather than the rule. To this, Imam Ashafa and Pastor James responded, “At the beginning, it also felt impossible to us. But then, if you want peace and if you believe that your religion wants you to bring peace, nothing is impossible.”

Diah Kusumaningrum teaches at the Department of International Relations at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), Indonesia. She currently construcs a database of nonviolent actions in post-New Order Indonesia.


Seri Liputan Kuliah Umum “Imam dan Pastor” dan Lokakarya Pelembagaan Mediasi Antariman

Liputan 1Dari Kuliah Umum “Imam dan Pastor”: Agama Menggerakkan Perdamaian

Liputan 2: Institutionalizing Interfaith Mediation: What, Why and How?
(Terjemah Indonesia: Pelembagaan Mediasi Antariman: Apa, Mengapa, dan Bagaimana?)

Liputan 3: Pelembagaan Binadamai dalam Pengalaman Mindanao

Liputan 4: Pelembagaan Binadamai dalam Pengalaman Maluku

Liputan 5: Refleksi dari Lokakarya Pelembagaan Mediasi Antariman



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