Interfaith Dialogue and Preventing Violent Extremism in Asia

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Introduction

The most fundamental problem of all religious believers is that they have not genuinely made religion an important part of humanity. Religion has to be understood as a way to accelerate democracy and civil society. Religion is an important tool for freedom of human beings from all forms of violence. In essence, the ultimate goal of all religion is to humanize human beings. The more fervently one embraces religion, the more empathy one feels for fellow human beings, and even for all creatures on this earth.

Religiosity in the sense of a part of humanity still leaves behind a million problems that must be addressed seriously.  This is proven by an empirical reality which is deplorable: injustice, poverty, stupidity, political tyranny, and cultural imperialism. The phenomenon is, religion is in a hollow, while the problem of humanity is in another hollow.  Religion is not able to provide a solution for the crisis, so that religion losses its function.  What emerges is just the claim of religious truth which ends in the defense of religion without reserve. Consequently, religion becomes an exclusive dogma, and very often used as a political commodity.  What is needed now is a return to universal values such as justice, egalitarianism, rationalism, and pluralism so that religion is not lured into a quagmire of literalism, fundamentalism and conservatism.

 

The essence of  interfaith dialogue

There are so many forms of interfaith dialogue that can be carried out by multi-faith communities in preventing violent extremism in Asia. I propose a form of dialogue in action named participatory activities. In this regard, interfaith dialogue is used to transform the community to become a more just and civilized society.

In other words, enlightenment and transformation at a personal level is not enough.  Dialogue participants have to make social transformations and this transformation must be carried out across all religions congregations. Therefore, we can still rely on religions, as a vehicle to govern someone’s individual spiritual relationship with God and social relationship with other people, to use them as a force for transformation for individuals and communities in order to gain common progress in all aspects of life, including peace, justice and welfare.

It is very important to note that dialogue should not only be carried out among the elite, but should be done at the “grass root” level. It must involve all elements of society, namely youth, women, entrepreneurs, cultural and educator organizations. Moreover, the process of dialogue should also involve marginalized groups.

 

The topics of the dialogue

The topics of the dialogue should be based on the crucial issues, such as: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; eliminate all forms of violence, discrimination and exploitation, especially against women, children and vulnerable people, fight against corruption and despotic system, promote gender equality and women empowerment; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.

Through dialogue, those participants from different religious communities learn more about each other, and this will subsequently lead to a better understanding between them. Mutual understanding ultimately leads them to seek common factors between the different religions to be then rendered as the foundation for living together in peace and harmony. 

Through participatory activities, religious leaders and religious communities from different religions are able to experience living or working together. This can be realized in the form of, for instance, a jamboree, or in activities involving the provision of humanitarian aid or medical aid for victims of disasters. The experience of living or working together will open their minds and encourage them to eliminate all forms of violence, prejudice and to eradicate all the tendency to stereo-type other groups.

 

The principles of interfaith dialogue

There seem to be four fundamental principles that must be fulfilled in establishing inter-religious dialogue. First, the principle of humanity. Frankly speaking as religious community we tend to take on the position of God, by acting arrogant and being judgmental. In all honesty, we tend to judge and find fault in others instead of devoting ourselves to each other and caring for each other. We always claim to be in the right and others are always wrong, misguided and infidels. As a result, religion-based wars and conflicts become the main stories in the media.

In living together, we must always maintain our position as human beings, not as God. Our duty is to contend for goodness, and leave judgment on whether our devotion is acceptable or not to God. So, our task as humans is only to try our utmost to do good as much as we are able to do. And then we leave everything to Him. We don’t know who among us will be saved, who among us will have our devotion accepted, only God knows that.

Secondly, the principle of one family. As religious community we must consider other people, of whatever faith, as our brothers and sisters, as part of one family. We must realize that we all come from the same origin, namely from God. Although we call Him by different names. All of us come from the One and because of it we are family. This affinity can become a force that has unprecedented meaning in building peace among different human beings. This kinship will give birth to love and affection among us, and in turn, eliminate hatred and hostility.

A sense of affinity will generate sincere respect and appreciation for others. Because of this feeling of unity, there is a sense of caring and a desire to help each other. This feeling of kinship and being of one family will distance us from behaviors of violence and crime. If we feel pain when we are hit, then we will not hit other people. This feeling of affinity will eventually lead us to social solidarity. We don’t want to see other people in trouble or in pain. Ultimately, we will realize that, as brothers and sisters, we have a common enemy. The enemy of all religions is no other than injustice, oppression, greed, ignorance and poverty. Once we have this awareness, as people of faith we can work together to eradicate the common enemy. We can work together to rid the world of injustice, we can cooperate to eliminate oppression, greed, ignorance and poverty. Doesn’t cooperation and working hand in hand make our tasks much easier and less arduous?

Thirdly, the principle of democracy. As religious community we should actively promote the principle of democracy. Democracy stems from respect and appreciation for other people. The essence of democracy is respect for the nature and dignity of human beings as noble beings. In a society that upholds democracy, all citizens are treated the same in the eyes of the law. The terms majority and minority don’t exist. All communities have the same basic rights, which is to live as human beings.

In a democratic nation, we must not be anarchic. Even if other people commit sins, we should not take the law into our own hands. Leave it to the law enforcers to punish them accordingly. In this context we should urge the state and the government to enforce the law fairly and take a neutral stance. There should be no public policies or legal decisions that are discriminative to any groups, especially to minority groups. The fact is that in a country, the government is often unable to be impartial and neutral, especially towards religious minority groups.

This discriminative attitude can be very dangerous and may well become the starting point of numerous conflicts and humanitarian tragedies. In a nation with such a heterogeneous population in regards to religion and culture, such as Indonesia, the government should take a more prudent stance and apply the principle of human rights regarding religious freedom. Religious leaders should actively create and promote religious interpretations that are democratic, that emphasize on the principles of tolerance and pluralism, and gender equality.

Last but not least, the principle of pluralism. One of the major problems faced by religious community in this era of globalization is religion-based conflict and violence, both internally as well as between different religious community. Why do conflicts happen? It is because religious community no longer live in isolated blocks, but interacts with each other so it is very possible that frictions happen with the potential to cause conflict. The relationship between inter-religious groups is not always peaceful. Religion-based conflicts and violence frequently occur in a number of areas. Religion-based conflict and violence usually occur as a result of growing politics of identity. In other words, it is the mobilization of religious identity for the political interest of certain parties.

In order to achieve peace and harmony in living together, all parties in society should adopt a tolerant and pluralistic attitude. Tolerance is the ability to constrain oneself and one’s emotions in order to minimize and eliminate potentials of conflict. Meanwhile, pluralism is much more than tolerance.

Pluralism is the willingness to recognize differences and accept diversity as a natural force in life to subsequently be committed to build solidarity and cooperation for the sake of peace and harmony. Pluralism must be built upon a principle of love, caring, equality and the recognition of human dignity. Pluralism urges for the fulfillment of human rights, including women rights.

Pluralism is a process of active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. To sum it up, pluralism does not mean that one has to shed one’s own religious identity and disclaim one’s own commitment to the religion embraced, and it also it doesn’t mean syncretism that one mixes teachings of different religions. The core of pluralism is the strong commitment to build a synergic relationship with each other in order to ensure peace and harmony.

 

Interfaith dialogue as a tool of social transformation

Dialogue participants have to make social transformations and this transformation must be carried out across all religions. I believe that if people of all faith and religions come together to discuss their common problems that beset the nations, truly peace can be built.

Peace is the hope and desire of all people. Peace is not merely the absence of war. Peace is a state of harmony, cooperation and well-being. Peace is a term that applies to relationships within the family, between husband and wife, between parents and children,  to relationships between the members of one community or  between communities, as well as to relationships among the people of diverse races, religions, faiths, nationalities and cultures.

It should be remembered that there will be no peace if many people are still poor, hungry or oppressed; if there are still many who are illiterate, have no access to education. In my experience, there will be no peace when unemployment is still high, or many workers are not ensured of their basic rights.

No peace where there is violation of the political rights of citizens, such as the right to voice an opinion freely, the right to religious freedom. There is no peace where exploitation of the environment still happens. There will be no peace when corruption, money laundering, trafficking and slavery are still rampant in society.

Peace is a core ideal of all the world’s religions, and lies at the heart of all moral philosophies and social ideals. In my experience, upholding peace must begin from the principle of acceptance of others.

In this context, I do believe that interfaith dialogue is not only possible, but also necessary to engender an appropriate understanding of other religions. Through dialogue, each side understands the problems faced by other religions and so there emerges a feeling of sympathy and empathy which motivates a desire to work together and to overcome their problems.

 

Some barriers in the implementation of interfaith dialogue

There are at least four barriers in the implementation of interfaith dialogue in Indonesia. Firstly, the cultural barriers. A number of studies on interfaith dialogue in Indonesia explain that the main obstacle in upholding interfaith dialogue is cultural barriers. Indonesian people still holds firm the values of gender inequality, feudalism and intolerance which are not conducive for the implementation of interfaith dialogue.

Our society still holds firm the values of patriarchal culture, which are not conducive for the principle of democracy. The indicators of such culture, among others, are: Our society still adheres to beliefs that give preference according to sex. In all matters men have the advantage over women, boys have priority over girls. This culture is deeply interwoven in society and introduced into all aspects of life, such as in education, economy, and politics.

The patriarchal culture obtaining in the society indoctrinate that husband is the leader of the family. The man is the master, the boss of the household.  As a consequence to this is that woman is no one but a maid, a domestic servant whose place of activity is never away from the kitchen. So, decision making at home also places the right in the men’s hands. As a result, many women do not have the liberty of choosing their leader or rather of taking part in making important decisions in their life.

Secondly, the barrier is the weakness of government. In many cases, the government, especially the police, judges and prosecutors are too weak to ensure protection of the people’s human rights, particularly in regards to religious freedom for minority groups. A number of cases, such as the closing of churches, the ban of the Ahmadiyah, anarchic acts towards the Syi’ite group and indigenous religions’ community, prohibition to build houses of worship for those not included in the six acknowledged religions.

Thirdly, the theological barriers in the form of patriarchal misinterpretations of Islamic teachings. In general, Islamic interpretations widely disseminated in our society are still exclusive, unsympathetic towards non-Muslim congregations and also still discriminative against women, children and minority groups and so on.

There is a belief in many mainstream Muslim societies that upholding Islamic state is God's law and is therefore must be done. So, rendering any effort at reform this belief to be regarded as un-Islamic. Many Muslims absolutely believe that men and women do not have equal rights in Islam, such that demands for equal rights men and women are portrayed as against God's law. And also many Muslims still believe that only the ulama (Muslim man religious scholars or jurists) have the authority to speak on Islam. Thus, women's groups in Muslim societies face difficulties advocating for reform when they do not have the support of government or those perceived to have religious authority. 

It is not surprising that many Muslims are afraid to speak out on Islamic issues in public, especially if their views are contrary to majority. They fear controversy or being labeled as anti-Islam. This fear extends to progressive scholars who have the knowledge and credibility to speak out, but choose to remain silent for fear of jeopardizing their jobs and livelihoods, invoking community hostility, or facing threats to their safety. Those are the real barriers in upholding interfaith dialogue in Indonesia.

And last but not least, the structural barriers. In Indonesian case, the structural obstacle comes in the form of discriminative public policies and laws, particularly towards women, minority groups and vulnerable people. The ICRP has recorded more less 147 discriminative regulations in regards to the implementation of religious freedom. As long as those laws are permitted to prevail, there is always a strong potential for violence and conflict in society.

 

Concrete actions to overcome the barriers

Firstly, Cultural reconstruction efforts through education in its wide sense, from education in family life to formal education in school then non formal education in society life. To reconstruct the culture, particularly the culture of peace, the culture of respect, and the culture of  dialogue is very important. Why? Respect for different culture and religion should be incorporated into education curriculum at various levels, whether in state of private education institutions. These efforts are absolutely very much needed because culture of peace, tolerant and inclusive can not emerge naturally and spontaneously in society, instead it must be arranged in such way through education system, particularly in family education. I believe that interfaith dialogue must be begun from home, from family life.

Secondly, religious reinterpretations. Some efforts have been done regarding promoting humanistic, inclusive and progressive religious interpretations which are more conducive for the fulfillment democracy and the principles of human rights and also more compatible with the improving of interfaith dialogue.

Last but not least, law reform efforts. At the level of policy and legislation, the guarantee granted by the state for the freedom of advocating any belief is sufficiently adequate. The problem lies in the practical level or law enforcement. Law enforcement on all policies is very weak and influenced by the socio-political situation of the government. Should the central government adopt  strong and firm measure in the application of the  laws, then the implementation on all public policies will go as desired. On the other hand, if the central government adopts weak and infirm disposition, the implementation of various laws will meet with barrier and handicap.

In addition, other matters which have often hampered the enforcement of democracy, fulfillment of human rights, and promotion of peace and justice in Indonesia and many countries in Asia, have been currently related to the economic and political gaps. The failure of the government in realizing the social welfare and in improving the intellectual life of the nation are the strong reason for certain extremism, particularly Islamist groups to committing destructive, terrorism acts. The Community’s desperate poverty and ignorance have often been exploited in such a way by certain groups for the pursuit of their own political and economic interest and that is very terrible. It is this very unfortunate condition which is alleged to have given birth to extremism.

Many efforts actually have been done in line with amending and revision of some important laws and public policies which are not conducive to the establishment of interfaith dialogue. As a consequence, we need to encourage awareness and sensitivity to variety and diversity. In this context, rules and regulations in Indonesia and Asia must take into account such diversity. Hence, it is hoped that a model of pluralism society which is inclusive, open, guarantees religious freedom can really emerge.

 

Conclusion

Experience has shown me that in many religious dialogues, all religions have a common enemy, which is injustice. Injustice brings to many social problems which related to extreme poverty, corruption, lack of education, unemployment, migrant workers, trafficking in human beings, children marriage, prostitution, political tyranny, and cultural imperialism. Injustice also results in unequal relationships, which in turn give rise to domination, discrimination, exploitation and many forms of violence and crime. That is why, interfaith dialogues should be aimed at eliminating all forms of injustice, that is our common religions’ enemy.

So it is time to redirect religion’s position by putting more emphasis on religious moral values and multi-cultural principles. It is no longer time for dogmatic religious teachings that are full of myths and horror stories of doomsday. Religious preachers should encourage people to do good deeds, to care for each other, and to build a human civilization that is peaceful and harmonious.

Interfaith dialogues should educate people in bridging diversity and enriching humanity for a better future in living together. Now, what should be done by all religions congregation as the important contribution for preventing violence extremism? Here I propose four concrete actions as follows: 

Firstly, all religions congregation work together through interfaith dialogue to continue the efforts of cultural reconstruction through education in its wide sense, particularly education in family life. These efforts are needed to be implemented because culture of peace, respect, tolerant and inclusive cannot emerge naturally and spontaneously in society, instead it must be arranged in such way through education system. This interfaith cooperation is a very fundamental step uphold peace. Even if each religion has differences in norms and doctrines, but at an empirical level has the same reality, that is, the reality of a humanity that cuts across religion, ethnicity and race, etc.

Secondly, all religions community work together to continue the efforts of law reform. We have to reform some national and regional laws and public policies which are not conducive to the establishment of peace and justice as well as the upholding of democracy and human rights.

Thirdly, all religions congregation work together to continue the efforts of promoting humanistic religious interpretations. We have to propose religious interpretations which is more conducive for promoting peace, justice, and upholding human rights, particularly women’s rights and gender equality. It is this type of interpretation which will lead us to eliminate all forms of prejudice, hatred and violence. So that, there will be no longer interpretations that are discriminative against women and other minority groups. All religious leaders should return to their prophetic task which is to push for transformation of society in order to attain a civilized society.

Last but not least, through interfaith dialogue, all religions congregation work together to urge the government to seriously eliminate the roots of terrorism  that are already present in our society and use a comprehensive strategy in combating all forms of religious radicalism. An approach stemming from militaristic power based on the principle of security should be reviewed.

It is our conviction that there is no single way to sever the chains of radicalism. We compel the government to overcome the structural problem that causes the various social injustice. At the same time, we advocate the government to improve and accelerate economic growth that would be a very important instrument for improving the welfare of the people. This is because a slow economic growth, low income of the people, high poverty and unemployment rate, not to mention poor quality of education would have a dire impact on the lives of the people. These unfavorable conditions would have a direct correlation with rampant radicalism and acts of violence in society.

Finally, interfaith dialogue must ultimately produce a peaceful and happy society, as is stated in the Holy Qur’an with the phrase baldatun thayyibah wa Rabbun ghafur.

 

[1] Paper submitted on The 6th Action Asia Peace builders’ Forum “Preventing Violent Extremism: A Peace building Perspective, held by The Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) Indonesia, in Jakarta, 16-18 October  2017.

[2] Chairperson of Indonesian Conference on Religions for Peace (ICRP) She can be contacted at: Alamat email ini dilindungi dari robot spam. Anda memerlukan Javascript yang aktif untuk melihatnya.  or Alamat email ini dilindungi dari robot spam. Anda memerlukan Javascript yang aktif untuk melihatnya..