Articles > Religions and the public sphere > 2010 > Learning to Co-exist in a Smiling Islam
The journal > Year 6 N.11 June 2010 > Learning to Co-exist in a Smiling Islam

Learning to Co-exist in a Smiling Islam

In the largest Muslim country in the world the educational system as well is based upon the five principles of the Pancasila, the ideological architrave on which the state rests. The Constitution upholds the right to religious freedom and in schools religious education, as well as respect for different identities, is assured.

Azyumardi Azra | 01 June 2010

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country of the world. Out of a total Indonesian population of 235 million, 87.21% are Muslim; 6.04%, Protestant; 3.58%, Catholic; 1.83%, Hindu; 1.03%, Buddhist; and 0.31%, animist. Even though Muslims constitute the single largest section of the population, Indonesia is neither an Islamic state nor a secular one. In fact, Indonesia officially recognizes five great world religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which enjoy equal government services through the Ministry of Religious Affairs. 

The founding fathers of the independent Indonesian Republic and promulgators of the 1945 Constitution recognized the diversity of religious faith in the country. The Preamble of the 1945 Constitution states that the declaration of Indonesian independence was due to the blessing of God Almighty and that the Indonesian state is based on five principles: belief in One Supreme God; a just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy, which is guided by inner wisdom through deliberation and representation; and social justice for the entire people of Indonesia. These are the five principles called Pancasila, the ideology of the Indonesian state and the common platform of all the different groups of the Indonesian people. The official explanation of the first principle states that belief in One Supreme God means that Indonesians are free to adhere to and practice any of the five officially recognized religions. Article 29 of the Constitution explicitly guarantees religious freedom. As far as religious life is concerned, the role of the state is to promote respect among the adherents of different religions and to achieve intra- and inter-religious harmony. Emphasis on the need for communal and national solidarity has formed a pattern of thought and action in all aspects of Indonesian life and particularly religious life. 

Now, how is religious life reflected in the Indonesian national education system? How should students in schools behave toward their co-students who adhere to different religions? According to the Indonesian Education Act of 1989 – which was amended in 2003 – the contents of the curriculum of each educational institution in Indonesia, from the primary to the tertiary levels, and also the curriculum of non-formal education, should include Pancasila education, religious instruction (Pelajaran Agama), and civic education (Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan/PPKn). Religious instruction in Indonesia has two functions. The first function is to support the religiosity and the religious culture of students. The second is to promote respect between the followers of different religions, inter-religious harmony and national unity. This is the social dimension of religious instruction which entails such issues as the ideal relationship between the followers of various religions, the relationship between religious pluralism and national unity; and the role of religious leaders in the mobilization of the people to participate in national development. This is designed to ensure that religious instruction will not produce parochial feelings among students.

Such principles are well reflected in the textbooks used in Indonesian schools. For instance in a textbook on civic education for senior high schools [Abubakar et al., 19982], one can find a special chapter on “religious harmony.” The description begins with the legal bases of religious life in Indonesia: the 1945 National Constitution and the Decree of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). Then it is stated that there should be mutual respect, cooperation among followers of different religions and no compulsion to belong to any particular religion. Furthermore, this textbook also emphasizes the importance of religious harmony among the followers of a single religion that has different schools of thought, denominations, sects and suchlike in order to prevent conflicts among followers within a particular religion [Abubakar et al., 1994, 1998: 58-66]. 

Words of Respect

The same principles are strongly stressed at the level of junior high schools. In a textbook for the third grade there is a special chapter on ‘religious harmony’ which states among other things: ‘We must realize that in societal life we will find a great deal of differences among people, including religious ones...Any worshipper is free to practice his/her own religion. A good understanding of religion will lead one to have self-control as well as to respect people of other religions. This attitude and behavior will in turn enhance harmony and tolerance among followers of many different religions…Human beings must realize that as creations of God Almighty they have equal dignity’ [Santoso et al., 1995 and 1997: 37-39].

Another textbook for junior high schools, grade II, says, in a chapter on ‘belief,’ that ‘any person is free to follow any religion.’ This is a reflection of the personal right to adhere to and practice the teaching of a specific religion. Freedom of religion is not granted by the state, it comes from one’s conscience. Therefore, one must not force another to adhere to one’s religion. One should practice one’s religion in a good manner; followers of different religions should cooperate and have mutual respect and tolerance, so that there will be harmony and tolerance in the religious life of the nation’ [Santoso et al., 1994: 1-5]. Lastly, a textbook for junior high school grade I, describes the expression of piety to the One Supreme God. It states that each and every religion has its own concept of ‘piety’ to God Almighty. Despite that, all religions share the meaning of piety, that is ‘obeying all commands of God and preventing oneself from doing evil.’ All Indonesian citizens should, therefore, ‘enhance their piety to God, so that they can be good citizens’ [Yusman, 1994: 1-5].

As for elementary school, it is enough to cite one example from the textbook used at sixth grade. It says, among other things, that ‘there should be harmony in religious life. Any adherent of a particular religion should respect the followers of another religion. An example of religious tolerance is that we should respect a follower of another religion who is performing rituals or celebrating a religious holiday. We should not disturb him/her. We should also respect places of worship and never inflict any damage on them’ [Sartono and Suharsanto, 1999 and 2001: 44]. 

In short, there are concerted efforts to impart religious harmony and tolerance through schools in Indonesia. It is important to point out that all the textbooks cited above are used not only at public schools but also at madrasah (Islamic schools) where the teaching of religious tolerance and harmony is no less important for a number of reasons. Firstly, since students are involved in social interaction with their co-religionists, they need to know how to interact and treat their peers of other religions outside of their madrasahs or in society at large. Secondly, even among these Muslim students there are differences in religious belief and practices that come from their parents and social milieu. In fact, Indonesian Islam is far from monolithic; it is a plural Islam that comes from different interpretations that in the end gave rise to different schools of thought (madhhab and aliran) and traditions. There are, for examples, groupings of Muslims such as the ‘traditionalists,’ represented by the Nahdlatul Ulama, and ‘modernists,’ represented by the Muhammadiyah. It was not unusual that in the past these differences led to quarrels and conflicts among Muslims. Therefore, there is an obvious need for intra-Muslim tolerance and harmony which must be implanted and strengthened through madrasah education. 

The Dutch System

It is important to note that madrasahs basically represent a modern development of Islamic Indonesian institutions such as the pesantren or pondok (both traditional Islamic boarding schools in Java and Kalimantan), the surau (in West Sumatra), the dayah and the rangkang (both in Aceh). The madrasah educational system initially adopted certain aspects of the Dutch schooling system which was introduced in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, there remained a dichotomy between the Western Dutch educational system, on the one hand, and madrasah education, on the other, which continued to exist even after Indonesian independence in 1945. The schools were administered under the Ministry of National Education, while madrasahs – devoted mainly to Islamic religious learning – were under the auspices of the Ministry for Religious Affairs. Over the years there have been attempts to integrate the two systems; the most significant and far-reaching attempts were carried out in 1975 when madrasahs were obliged to offer courses in general education along with religious subjects. The integration was completed with the enactment of the Law of the National Educational System of 1989 which made madrasahs equivalent to general schools.

The critical role of madrasah education in teaching tolerance and harmony both among Muslims and non-Muslims can be seen in their numbers. The absorbing capacity of madrasahs in the context of national education as a whole is very high. At the very least, elementary madrasahs (Madrasah Ibtida’iyah), junior secondary madrasahs (Madrasah Tsanawiyah), and senior secondary madrasahs (Madrasah Aliyah) in the late 1990s had almost 20% of school children at these levels. No less important, data for 1998/1999 show that community-owned (private) madrasahs accounted for more than 85% of all madrasahs all three levels.

Since September 11, after the American military operation in Afghanistan, the very term ‘madrasah’ has been associated with Muslim fundamentalism and radicalism. In fact madrasahs have been accused by some journalists and observers of being a ‘breeding ground’  for radicalism and even terrorism. While this accusation should be examined thoroughly in the Afghan context, it is certain that Indonesian madrasahs are different. Madrasahs in this country are under the control of the government. The contents of their education must be in accord with the curriculum issued by the Ministry of National Education and like general schools they are obliged to foster religious harmony and tolerance. This is why since 1990s Indonesian Islam has been dubbed by international magazines such as Time and Newsweek as ‘Islam with a smiling face,’ an Islam that is compatible with modernity, democracy and more in general with the contemporary world.

A key role in the entrenchment of this kind of Indonesian Islam was played by the reform of Islamic higher education by Mukti Ali, the Professor of Comparative Religion at IAIN Yogyakarta who graduated from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and served as Minister of Religious Affairs from 1971 to 1978. 

Islamic higher education consists of 14 state institutes for Islamic studies (Institut Agama Islam Negeri/IAIN) and 33 state Islamic colleges (Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri/STAIN). Most of the IAINs were established in the late 1950s to early 1970s, and STAINs were formed from branches of IAIN faculties in the late 1990s. In 2002 IAIN Jakarta was converted into a full-fledged university, the State Islamic University (Universitas Islam Negeri/UIN), which has a mandate not only in the teaching of Islamic religious learning but also in all branches of knowledge: the humanities, the social sciences and natural sciences.

Such institutions have played a major role in the transformation of Indonesian Islam into an Islam based on tolerance and inclusiveness. Key factors in this development include the changing role of the pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding schools) and other community-based Islamic educational institutions; the continued modernization of Islamic education as a whole; and the reorientation of mass social-religious Islamic organization away from a heavy political orientation to a more cultural one.

Since the 1980s at least, the pesantrens have increasingly become agents of development and social change, active in community-based development and the proponents of civic culture and civic values. As the Impact Study demonstrates, the IAINs have been central to this transformation. The IAINs, the pesantrens, and the madrasahs are one constellation. IAIN students and faculty members are overwhelmingly from rural origins. They bring to the IAINs an awareness of rural conditions and rural society. In turn, when they return to their villages, they are able to translate into terms that are relevant to rural Muslims developmental and modernization principles previously considered not in conformity with Islamic teachings. 

Equality between the Sexes

Furthermore, many IAIN alumna have become NGO activists, advocating religious, social and cultural transformation. The scope of their activities and influence at the rural level have increased to include not only religious matters but also such issues as rural development, family planning, environmental protection, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. They even touch areas that tended to be avoided in the past such as gender equality and AIDS education.

The role of IAIN alumna is similarly instrumental in the modernization of the madrasahs. The madrasahs have increasingly become centers of general education while maintaining their community roots. This modernization is also reflected in the on-going idea of unifying the secular and Islamic madrasah systems under one umbrella of the Department of National Education as well as the transformation of IAIN into UIN or at least the inclusion of a greater range of general programs in the IAIN system. This inclusion has been popular as ‘IAIN with a wider mandate.’ While IAINs remain the principal points of access to higher education for rural youth, a crossover to the general (secular) university system is now possible thanks to the equivalence of Madrasah Aliyah (MA) and Sekolah Menengah Atas (SMA) as outlined in the Act on the National Educational System.

The prominent role of IAINs in the transformation of Indonesian Islam which has distinctively become more tolerant and inclusive owes much to the approaches they have adopted in their educational processes. In particular, Islam is treated not only as a religion but also as a historical phenomenon that has evolved and adapted to many societies and cultures. It is thus regarded as an observable reality that can also be subjected to rational and empirical inquiry. Furthermore, a comparative study of religions is emphasized, fostering an analytical approach and engendering knowledge, understanding and respect for other religions. Self-criticism promotes self-reliance, coexistence, tolerance and a readiness to accept, analytically, critically and unemotionally, the positions of others. In addition to this, intellectual, social and cultural interaction with the West and with other religions is encouraged and facilitated. The West is not seen as an enemy but rather as a partner in achieving progress.

The emphasis on comparative studies of religions is particularly important. In the past Christianity was, to some degree, associated with Western colonialism and with a sometimes hostile West; a sentiment that to some degree survives at the grass-roots level. Christians now comprise Indonesia’s second largest religious community and this community has become an integral part of Indonesian society. This has required attitudinal changes within the Muslim community, a process accelerated by education in general and by the IAIN/STAIN/UIN emphasis on peaceful co-existence. 

*Parts of this paper were originally presented at the workshop: ‘Teaching the Other: Muslims, non-Muslims and the Stories They Teach,’ Library of Congress, Washington DC, October 25, 2002; and at the International Colloquium on ‘Managing Muslim-Christian Relations,’ University of Melbourne, 12-14 February 2004.

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