The hope that this December will last in peace was shattered by the torching of a Shiite Islamic traditional school in Sampang, Madura, on Thursday. If we ask the opinion of a Jakartan Sunni preacher this Friday, we are very likely to get a negative answer, “It was their own fault. They have established a pesantren in a Sunni area.
“Besides, being a Shiite is a big mistake. The true teaching is Sunni and God will only accept Sunni Muslims. If the Shiites want to live in peace, they have to repent and convert.”
Yet, if we go to a religious leader of a Shiite community in their own dominating region, we might get a similar answer. Sunni Muslims are said to be wrong because of certain things they believe theologically or jurisprudentially.
In the preface of his book, The Muslims — Who Are They, Muslim thinker Samih Atif al-Zain wrote, “What induced me to write this book is the blind division between Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims, a division that should have vaporized with the eradication of illiteracy…”
We know exactly how hard it can be to make people understand something, especially when it relates to sacred beliefs, which are easily exploited by anybody. Even for most people, to accept a new understanding, however logical or rational it might be, is easier said than done.
On the other hand, for traditional rural communities, accepting a new value is harder than it is for urban communities. A process that ensures the old values are left undisturbed and the social system is unharmed is required in order to gain a communal agreement.
For a Maduranese individual, for example, being in a prison for hurting or killing somebody might be a personal honor or an honor for his or her family or community.
Torching a Shiite mosque might be regarded as a rewarding action for him beside God, despite the fact that he is not observant in doing his prayers.
Religiousness, in this case, hence has its own logic, which requires us to understand it in its own context.
If we then take Samih’s idea on the eradication of (religious) illiteracy, it will be more than about telling the people what the true teachings of a religion are.
The Muslims, as in many cases in Indonesian rural communities, most often are listening to their religious leaders instead of looking for the most acceptable notions logically or rationally.
In the era of Dutch colonization, therefore, besides the use of armed forces, relationships with local religious leaders were one of the breakthroughs in penetrating the communal bond in order to gain relative acceptance among the natives.
Often, governmental messages were then blended with religious argumentations.
Looking at the good sides, what was attempted during the Soeharto regime was similar. The outbursts among Muslims were tamed through administering things legally or semi-legally.
Official religious leaders, such as the heads of subdistrict offices of religious affairs (KUA), acted in line with governmental policies. Most of them came from traditional religious backgrounds and masses.
However, what is needed now is not to copy and paste previous policies. The “magic” hands must be coming from Muslim organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah or Persatuan Islam (Persis), which are working together with the state. In other words, it is the society itself that must be empowered and activated.
Local NU leaders, for example, such as in Sampang, especially at the communal or neighborhood levels, must be empowered since they feel only loosely tied to their supposed superiors and central organization bodies.
First, they must be made acquire the ideas on democracy, tolerance or peace-building as they are extensively discussed and put into words among the central leaders. The principle is that the discourse should disseminate at the grassroots level where the mass actually are.
Second, the local religious leaders must be conditioned with proper reinforcement such as economic support for themselves or their schools (or pesantren) — something that can be done by the state — to make them gain confidence and respect from their community.
With the authority and leadership of the respected local religious leaders, together with other leaders and communal elements, a conflict will be easier to cope with.
It will be even more effective in challenging the threat of violent radical religious thoughts, which are now becoming more frequently diffused at the mosques.
After all, hopefully, people will be more reluctant to commit violence in the name of a religion. And we may see that arson of a school, a mosque or a church will take place less or no more.
The writer is a researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta