close_menu
close-popup
image-popup

Available languages:
close-popup
Paypal
Carta di credito
subscribe
Christians in the Muslim World

A Thousand Civilisations and a Thousand Questions. A Mosaic called Indonesia

A journey in the largest Muslim country in the world: thirty thousand islands, three hundred ethnic groups, two hundred and twenty million inhabitants, one in ten of whom are Christian. Independence movements and fundamentalist groups disturb a world that wants to be at peace and friendly. And which in recent years has witnessed a growth in inter-religious tensions. Tanah air kita, our land and our water: this is the affectionate and patriotic name of this immense archipelago. Islands and seas are not separate but make up one single whole. And thus the very many layers and stratifications of history and geography make up a single rich and complex drawing.

Satu Jam, one hour'. In Jakarta you get used quickly to this answer given by the taxi drivers.

 

To the question 'how long will it take to get there?', they nearly always give the answer 'an hour' even though the journey amounts to two kilometres. The size of the traffic is the first fact to welcome the visitor. Indeed, more than welcoming you, the traffic in this city 'kidnaps you' and you do not have a good idea of when it will set you free. The city with its fifteen million presences a day, twelve million presences during night, and twenty-one million envisaged for 2015, has grown so quickly and is on such a scale that taxi drivers themselves have difficulty in reaching the destination and so the drive lengthens in proportion to the stops that are required to ask for directions from the local inhabitants. At every corner, in fact, around a stall of a travelling salesman of fruit in pieces or fried ravioli there is a small huddle of Jakartans: they are conversing, they get the news on the league table of Italian football, a subject of which the Indonesian press is very fond, or, in their slippers, they merely look at the passers by.

 

From the windows of the Blue Bird taxis, the only ones to be trusted according to local sources, one engages in one's first encounter with the capital of a city 40% of whose population lives under the threshold of poverty, that is to say on less than a hundred euros a year. A handful of very rich; a multitude of very poor. In the middle a thin middle class. These are the extreme contradictions of the third producer in the world of rice and coffee and the eighth for oil production which underwent an extraordinary development during the 'reign' of Suharto (1967-1998), when the country reached an annual growth rate of 7.5%, but also the economic crash of 1997 from which the nation still has to recover, and a democratic system which encounters difficulties in finding its way forward.

 

The traffic is so crazy because there are very few main roads in the centre, and these even have four lanes according to the gear you are in, with broad verges of tropical vegetation, whereas the rest of the road network is made up of narrow and muddy lanes which with the first rains come to be flooded and thus paralysed as well. 'It is much easier to finish up in hospital because of a car accident than because of a terrorist attack!', jokes Father Magnis Suseno, a Jesuit who is a lecturer at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy of Jakarta and is one of the most important experts on Javanese culture, a German by birth and an Indonesian by citizenship who, with his elegant shirt made of batik, challenges the traffic with his motor bicycle, and with a joke introduces us to the daily life of this city, the capital of the largest country with a Muslim majority in the world.

 

Hearing people speak about bombs and terrorist attacks is by now a norm for the inhabitants of this archipelago who are used to constant searches of their bags and luggage, at the entrance of every commercial centre or public place, by police or private security guards. The two hundred and two deaths caused by the attack in Bali in October 2002 and the twelve victims of the bombs at the

 

Hotel Mariott in Jakarta in 2003, which were attributed by the authorities to the terrorist group of an Islamic matrix, Jemaah Islamiyah, are wounds that are still open for this country.

 

The Jakarta Post, the most widely selling newspaper in English, often sounds alarms on its front page about the subject: from the new security systems against possible attacks to the risk of kidnappings for foreigners at the hands of armed bands.

 

But one is dealing here with news that is not always one way: the international agencies if they talk about the alarm of terrorism for Christian churches during the Christmas period also observe the readiness of young Muslims to engage in voluntary service of looking after these churches; if they refer to the death sentence for three Christians in Sulawesi, held to be the fomenters of the violence of 2000, they also refer to the appeal of two religious leaders, one Christian and the other Muslim, to suspend this death sentence and to begin new investigations into these clashes.

 

And yet life in Jakarta, in the eyes of people who land from Europe in full winter where the temperature is thirty degrees in the shade, appears to be calm, like that local small train that crosses the city from north to south and every day brings with it a consignment of varied humanity. It is a train without doors which are of no use for a small train that is caught as it goes past and which allows those who sit on the benches lining the side walls to enjoy an alternative system of air conditioning.

 

On the roof of this train sit little boys and inside there are few seats for the crowd that gets on and gets off: women covered from their heads to their feet in veils and clothes of the most glaring shades of colours of pink and yellow; couples of girls and boys, with her in a miniskirt and high heels and he in jeans and a T shirt; devout Muslims who pass by with small boxes asking for offerings for the building of a new mosque; and a band made up of seven boys who entertain the commuters with the latest hits of Malayan pop music. The piece that is most popular is a little melancholic, even though with a rhythm of drums and guitars, which reminds one of the famous

 

'Sarà quel che sarà': in the Muslim version the recurrent line is 'it will happen, what has to happen, according to the will of Allah'. A woman disfigured by who knows what accident passes by and tugs on people's jackets to ask for some money, and the central corridor with a broken flooring is the pathway for the newspaper sellers and the vendors of the most varied kinds of merchandise homemade peppered sweets, yellow chequered towels, plastic watches, and bottles of fresh water.

 

On board there are also Catholic students who are passing through Jakarta to reach the university parish that is in the south. There every week about two hundred boys and girls, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, meet to discuss things, to take part in basketball competitions or even simply to tell each other, for example, about attending a university in which certain groups of fundamentalist Muslim students, above all during Ramadan, use language which is more extremist in tone than that of their fathers, and who hate Bush and all 'Westerners', whom, for them, are synonymous with 'Christians'.

 

In the study of Father Ismartano, who is head of the Office for Inter-religious Dialogue of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference, there is a map which at first sight brings out the dramatic character of contemporary realities in Indonesia: it is a complete map of the archipelago, and on the various provinces there is a series of little notes attached with a pin, On each note is written a number: it is the constantly updated total of deaths caused by the violent clashes which for years have been covering this land with blood. On the city of Aceh, which is located in the extreme south of Sumatra, where for years the opposition between the central government and the GAM, the local independence movement, has been very strong, to quote just one example, one reads: 2,963 deaths, calculation for 4 May 1999 to 19 June 2005.

 

Christians and Muslims who kill each other for religious reasons? In the view of Father Ismartano this reading is too simple and too reductive for a very young nation which was born from a crossroads of history of various layers and a very special geography, and whose Constitution of 1945 envisages religious freedom and where a decree of 1991 introduced Islamic law for the Muslim population alone in order to assure a greater uniformity of judgement by the Koran tribunals.

 

Indonesians call their homeland 'Tanah Air Kita', our land and our water: over thirteen thousand islands that extend for five thousand kilometres longitude, with a population of about two hundred and twenty million inhabitants, of over three hundred ethnic groups with two hundred and fifty different languages, which since independence have been overtaken by the imposition of Bahasa Indonesia, today the seventh most spoken language in the world. A little more than a tenth of the territory is cultivated, whereas almost 60% is covered with forests. The principle and most populated islands are Sumatra and Java, which are surrounded by their satellite islands.

 

In the archipelago, 85% of the population is Muslim and 10% is Christian. Of this 10% two-thirds are Protestants and a third are Catholics. 1.5% of the population is Hindu and 3.5% of the inhabitants identify with Buddhism and the various indigenous religions. There are over one hundred and seventy-four million Muslims, a number equal to nearly all the Muslims of the Arab countries put together. However, these percentages vary from west to east: the more one moves towards the east of the archipelago the more the numbers of Christians grow, and to such an extent that on islands such as Sulawesi and Papua there are regions where the population is almost divided in half between Christians, above all Protestants, and Muslims.

 

Islam arrived here, when animist, Hindu and Buddhist religious practices were already widespread, in the wake of the trade carried out by merchants and the missionary work of the Sufi who started out from Persia, from the Indian sub-continent and later also from Arabia. In 1292 Marco Polo was already documenting the presence of a Muslim community in Pasai, in the north of Sumatra. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries the establishment of the economic and political supremacy of Europe in Asia stimulated, after a certain fashion, the consolidation of the Muslim communities and regimes as an expression of their own cultural identity and political resistance. During the nineteenth century, in particular as a result of the increase in journeys by sea, many Indonesians went on pilgrimages to Mecca from which they returned, often as teachers, with a deeper knowledge of orthodoxy. Lastly, the events of the last decades have witnessed the arrival from the Middle East of Wahabite cells.

 

It is a little as though to Indonesia has happened what takes place with material decorated with the ancient local art of batik: from the initial cloth, thanks to a series of applications of wax in layers and at different moments, and successive immersions in colour, you come in the end to more creative materials with floral and geometric decorations that are regular or asymmetric, shaded or strong.

 

A clear example of this originality and the detailed history of Indonesian Islam is to be found in Yogyakarta which is located in the centre of the island of Java. A university town to the utmost, the location of tens of thousands of students from the whole of the archipelago, Yogyakarta has a special status which was bestowed upon it by President Sukarno because of the merit it had acquired during the struggle for independence from Holland which was obtained 1945. It is governed by the Sultan, who is the civil authority for all the inhabitants and the religious authority for the Muslim community. He lives in the Kraton, a palace of the eighteenth century, whose decorations are the artistic expression of a very rich mixing of different religious styles. The Sultan himself, in addition to a rigorously kept appointment with prayers in the mosque five times a day, is accustomed to making offerings, as is envisaged by the Hindu tradition, and to engage in meditation, as the Buddhists do.

 

'Yogya', as they call it here, explains Father Budi Subanarm, a Jesuit who teaches at the Catholic University Sanata Dharma, which has thirteen thousand students, most of whom are girls, 'is the destination each year of millions of pilgrims and renders tangible still today what has happened in these lands where over the centuries different religions have established themselves and have encountered each other but where, also, they have been able to live together. The Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world which goes back to the seventh century AD, the Hindu temple of Prambanan, the Catholic sanctuaries, all a few kilometres from each other, together with the palace of the Sultan, narrate not only the wish of men, a wish cultivated since remote times, to look at heaven and to build monuments in an attempt to reach it, but also how different communities can live near to one another in respect and exchange. This is the real capital of the Javanese spirit'.

 

 

The Art of Dancing

 

Father Suseno has devoted detailed studies to this Javanese 'spirit' which he attempts to summarise in the following way: 'The Javanese, who make up 40% of the population, have always been the group that has been culturally and politically dominant in Indonesia. Their Islam is extremely multiform; although many of them feel that they are Muslims in a convinced way, it is also true that they consider themselves first and foremost Javanese. They consider religions as means and not as ends, and they work for inner and outer harmony'.

 

Suseno goes on to explain that according to their social lifestyle conflicts are managed through a search for consensus and an attempt to place the interests of individuals at a secondary level compared to the needs of the community. The Javanese pursue inner harmony by trying to contain their emotions, they refine their inner feelings, and they engage in an experience of inner power through meditation. Maturity in moral behaviour is connected with the cultivation of an aesthetically pleasant environment of which the interplay of shadows, Javanese dances and batik art are some of the most well-known expressions. 'The Javanese', concludes Father Suseno, 'are inclined to be tolerant. Their civilised urbanity, their wisdom and their cordiality are on a par with their detachment from everyone with the exception of their closest family relatives. Theirs is certainly one of the greatest cultures of humanity'.

 

Although in the textbooks of Suseno it may seem only a theory, the Javanese spirit is the practical life of every day for the sisters of St. Charles Bartholomew who manage the hospital that bears the name of the same saint and is located in the central district of Jakarta. Organised into different buildings, from that for the well-off to that for the poorest, all with an image or a statue of Our Lady, the hospital has a staff that is 75% Catholic, the rest are Muslims, and 60% of the patients that it takes in are also Muslims.

 

'We have never had problems of 'religious conflict'', explains Sister Rosalia Isti, who is the head of the nurses, 'because each one of us has clearly in their mind who they are and what their identity is and thus we encounter the diverse without any difficulties'. Respect for life, for these sisters, is the cement of this cooperation which led, for example, the heads of the five principal religions of Indonesia to sign together a document against abortion in 2002.

 

Almost with difficulty she draws from her memory a distant memory: once she was in a discussion with a patient who did not want the crucifix in her room. It frightened her. But it was very easy to solve the problem. Indeed, Sister Rosalia explained with great directness: 'we cannot remove that crucifix because I am here because of that. If they take that away the must also take me away'. Thus they reached an agreement: they moved the bed so as to avoid the disquieting sight for the patient, and the question was settled quickly.

 

In the wards there is a curious note: the cards at the foot of the beds with the various data and diagnoses of the patient have amongst the various headings also that of agama religion. 'Thus', observe the Sisters, 'we know who to ask if the patient wants to receive communion. Every day, in fact, the chaplain goes the rounds and administers hundred of communions to our patients'.

 

In that hospital, in the waiting room of the office of the Sisters, there stands out a photograph that was taken some time ago. It is the picture of prayer meeting for peace at the time of the last war in Iraq which shows together the Archbishop of Jakarta, the head of the Protestant community, the head of the Buddhist community, the head of the Hindu community and the head of the two chief Muslim organisations, the Nadlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiah. They are photographed sitting together in meditation on the same carpet. The Cardinal is wearing a batik shirt. This is a photograph that can be found hanging in other places in Jakarta and is almost a manifesto for this city.

 

'Some time ago I met some European journalists', relates Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, the Archbishop of Jakarta, 'who wanted to encourage me to speak about the conflicts that take place in Indonesia as clashes that have a religious origin. One cannot simplify the map of Islam in Indonesia. Above all one cannot speak about one single Islam in our country because I myself constantly observe that there are different attitudes, different interpretations of the Koran, and on the part of the majority of Muslims there is a desire to have relationships that involve friendship with Christians'.

 

'If I know that a person is a Muslim, they are first a friend and then a Muslim', explains Cardinal Darmaatmadja', 'esteem grows and then friendship. In order to dismantle every journalistic thesis to the effect that there is a conflict of religion, it is sufficient for me to refer to that terrible day when a young Muslim, in an attempt to carry a bomb out of a Christian church, lost his life in a horrible explosion. Here in Indonesia we Christians and Muslims are not enemies'.

 

Certainly, concedes the Archbishop of Jakarta, there are violent groups of radical Muslims who organise attacks but they are small exasperated groups who are unable, in his view, to impinge on the openness to dialogue of the majority of people.

 

'The real problem', emphasises the Cardinal, 'is that Christians and Muslims share the same concern: in Java, as is the case in the whole of Indonesia, we run the risk of intrusions by external minority groups that have nothing to do with the local culture but which try to import extraneous elements. And I am referring both to groups of extreme Muslims who come from the Middle East and to groups of Christian sects, for the most part American, who engage here in an exasperated proselytism. They even knock on the doors of the heads of Muslim organisations, as a dear friend of mine told me'

 

'Differently from what happens in Europe', concludes the head of the Catholic Church of the archipelago, 'where Islam is imported by immigrants who come from Arab countries, and which thus has the profile of an extraneous culture, here we are all both Christians and Muslims bound to this land which has always welcomed Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. We are all Indonesians. I myself am a Catholic Cardinal but the whole of my family, with the exception of my father, are Muslims. Indeed, many Indonesian bishops are converted Muslims, the sons, therefore, of Muslim parents, with a whole tradition behind them of non-Christian culture and religion. This is written into our DNA: in another person before everything else I see a friend. If we remain faithful to this tradition we will know how to overcome this season of conflicts that has been induced from outside the country'.

 

Is, therefore, what for Suseno is perhaps the principal wealth of the island, the Javanese spirit, threatened? Is its survival at risk? If to the external agents described by the Cardinal one adds the major crisis that took place at the end of the last century, which left half of the population without a steady job, and the attempt of the army to keep power at almost any price, in the view of Raymond Toruan, a Catholic journalist of the Jakarta Post, one obtains that mixture which is making the Indonesia of recent year explosive.

 

 

Churches that Must be Built

 

Toruan and Father Greg Soetomo, the head copyeditor of the Catholic weekly Hidup (which sells a hundred thousand copies in Jakarta alone and in December had an edition that contained the poster of a bishop), periodically promote a meeting of a sort of informal association of about a hundred Catholic journalists of various newspapers and weeklies in order to search together for an always up to date reading of the news that is taking place under their very eyes.

 

'The power of TV, explains Toruan, 'is immense'. Few newspapers are read in the archipelago but the television is incredibly popular. Now if one has to report the fact of the three girls who were decapitated in Sulawesi, a service of a minute for the TV news will never be able to give an in-depth account of that news. It will simplify it to the utmost and there is the risk that it will be mystified and reduced to being a matter of a religious clash, which is what it was not. Few parts of the media went to the bottom of the matter and asked themselves why before these events took place new militias were placed on the island. Clashes like these appear to be fomented specifically by the military who see their power decreasing with the growth of democracy and hope for tensions and acts of violence which will justify their presence as a guarantee of security. There is a need to have an in-depth approach and not to stop at appearances'.

 

Amanda D. Suharto, a well-dressed Muslim lady with straight black hair, echoes the Catholic journalists. She is the president of Madia, a non-governmental organisation that promotes inter-religious dialogue. Amanda's office is located at the buildings of the Bishops' Conference of Indonesia and in the entrance there is amongst other things an anti-militarist poster: 'we do not want to invent a super-religion', Amanda, who is married and has two daughters, explains, who has behind her shoulders a curriculum of studies carried out in America to be a company manager and who receives various telephone threats by people who are disturbed by her work, 'we must not convince the other to believe in what we believe, but we must engage in dialogue and understand other people's arguments'. Moved by this belief she and her vice-president, a Buddhist, are involved at the present time in particular in the question of the building of churches, something which today is increasingly difficult. Indeed, there is an increasingly rigorous application of the rule according to which the agreement of all neighbours is required if one wants to build a holy building this is an almost impossible undertaking in areas where the fundamentalist Muslims are strong. And in certain neighbourhoods everyone knows that there are people who will pay you if you go to a mosque.

 

Like the neighbourhood of Father Sandyawan Sumardi, a Jesuit, whose office has a photograph of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and a poster of Che Guevara, and who for years has been sharing everything with the Muslim inhabitants of the one of the poorest places on the planet. A pile of mud, that is almost hidden, after you turn the corner, between a road in which BMWs also pass and the river that passes through Jakarta, which at the same time is for everyone an open WC, a washroom and a place to wash clothes. Here the people are in such absurd situations that they might appear to be the members of a documentary on poverty in the world. Only they really live in these shacks made up of corrugated iron, without work and without shoes; children who are half naked who cross the street under the watching eyes of those who shave themselves sitting in the ground, amongst turkeys with few feathers and the smell of kerosene which is to be sold at the market.

 

The question of the building of churches, the reason for heated debates in the capital, is simple for Salhuddin Wahid, the former president of the NU, the largest Muslim organisation in the world and with which more than a half of Indonesian Muslims identify. For Wahid, who is well known and esteemed in the country, the architect of a house that is elegant in its essentiality, and who interrupts the long conversation at the time of prayer, Christians must have the same freedom of worship and thus must be able to build churches. Only not everywhere. The fact is that they are a minority and must behave as such.

 

For Wahid, the fuse of the contemporary tensions lies, on the one hand, with those who want to import into Indonesian ways and life elements that do not belong to them, such as forms of Middle Eastern Islam that are not specific to the traditions that have been developed in these lands and, on the other, with the slow but inexorable separation between those who have learnt about and cultivated the Islamic faith from books and those who have done so from the oral tradition; those who think that one can interpret the Koran in the light of the present and those who do not share this approach.

 

'I am afraid', observes Wahid, 'that in about twenty years we will witness a division. I myself am convinced that one can read the Koran bearing in mind that today there exists a development in knowledge that did not exist during the seventh century but which is now a part of our lives. There is room for a shared effort. In politics as well: a Muslim should not vote for a candidate only because he is a Muslim but because he presents realistic projects to combat corruption, projects that are honest, projects for economic growth and development'.

 

'There is room for a shared effort'. This idea of Wahid's is almost the guiding criterion of Azyumardi Azra in his work as Rector of the Islamic State University of Jakarta, which has over twenty-thousand students, both Muslims and Christians, who follow the Faculty of Islamic Studies, but also the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Economics, the Faculty of Technology

 

He studied in the United States of America, in the same university and at the same time as Father Alex Wijoyo, the secretary to the Archbishop of Jakarta, his friend ever since then, and he is convinced that the university should be a place of encounter and constant exchange where one can listen to the most modern Muslim thinkers but also to Catholic Cardinals, such as the Archbishop of Vienna, Cristoph Schonborn, his recent guest.

 

The students, like the lecturers, choose this university because it is open to what the Rector defines as multi-culturalism: 'religion cannot be limited to a personal and private space. Each person must be able to choose his or her own proposal starting with his or her identity in a shared space of debate between majorities and minorities in reciprocal respect. The pathways to follow will then be found'.

 

From this university emerge every year, argues the Rector who travels the world to make contacts and develop cooperation with Catholic universities as well, hundreds of young professionals, lawyers, journalist, political leaders, ulama... A further chance for the Javanese spirit?

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal