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In response to a spate of religious violence that broke out in some parts of Indonesia, such as the recent attack on the Shia community in Madura, Religious Affairs Minister Surya-dharma Ali claimed that such riots had nothing to do with religion.
It is not clear whether his statement aims at creating stability, preventing recurring disturbances or avoiding the “real” problems facing Muslims in the region. This is not the first time that the minister has issued such a “silly” statement, and he is not the only political leader that claims there is “zero connection” between religion and violence, although in some cases, religious discourse, institutions and actors did figure into the turmoil.
Rather than investigating religious networks in sectarian conflict settings, social scientists also tend to look at political and economic dimensions of the collective riots. For most of them, religion is considered a peripheral issue. Indeed, observers from secular traditions generally find it difficult to acknowledge the degree to which different logic and moralities affect behavior in religious communities, and they consequently underestimate the degree to which religion underwrites violent conflict on its own terms.
Academic observers also tend to downplay the role of religion in the riots, insisting that what appears to be a religious conflict is, upon closer analysis, really motivated by political interests as well as socio-economic and territorial grievances that are mobilized and manipulated by greedy elites, outside provocateurs or agents of conflict.
Taking the same line, moderate religious leaders and scholars also tend to refuse identification of violent conflict with religion, noting that religion teaches peace not violence, tolerance not intolerance, love not hate, and the like.
Unfortunately, however, many cases show otherwise. Many violent conflicts throughout the world, including Indonesia, have been cloaked in religious garb. What the moderates think of or idealize as religion might differ from the conceptions of radicals. While moderates denounce radicalism as “irreligious” or “un-Islamic,” extremists regard and believe that violence is a part of a “sacred mission” and strongly rooted within their religious traditions, beliefs, doctrines and teachings.
Does religion matter? If so, why does it matter?
There are a number of reasons why religion does matter in some cases of communal violence, including but not limited to, the numerous cases of communal conflict in post-Soeharto Indonesia.
The first reason is that, as prominent religion historian R. Scott Appleby noted in The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, religion’s confessional loyalty translates into a clearly defined and durable community, its model of faith counters rational calculation and enlightened self-interest, it cultivates a righteous sense of persecution and provokes passion against evil that fuels the excesses of group hatred.
Although religions were indeed manufactured or invented within particular historical and political contexts of thousands of years ago, their creeds, Appleby (2000: 57-61) has argued, are represented as fundamental truths, providing security in times of uncertainty, and countering the challenges of relativism and secularism of late modernity. This is precisely what Salafi, Wahabi and other religious radical groups have held up in Indonesia and other parts of the world.
Second, religion, Islam included, possesses a stock of material metaphors and military imagery, and promises rewards for violent sacrifice. The concept of some transcendental authority — the “will of God” — which translates into the absolute authority of church officials, and religious myths of election (e.g. the concept of the “chosen people” or the “best religious community of believers”) and persecution, provides a powerful alternative to the delusional formation of paranoia, which transforms victimhood into vengeful action. This is among the reasons why “religious culprits” and doers of violence never regret their inhuman, violent acts.
Third, religion potentially transfers secular differences between a particular “us” and “them”, the known and the unfamiliar, to the cosmic plane and thus into a moral struggle between the amorphous forces of order and chaos, and good and evil, for which the ultimate sacrifice — murder or martyrdom —is possible.
Fourth, religion did matter during the anti-Shia or anti-Ahmadiyah campaigns since it provides a more powerful and effective force for mobilization than other forms of collective identity partly because, according to Chris Wilson in his From Soil to God, religion is “not only strongly linked to a sense of self, but also provides a far-reaching and uplifting ideology, powerful institutional structures and an enduring and clear-cut definition of an ‘other.’” Rioters, unsurprisingly, often were discovered to be driven by religious zeal. The mobilization of ordinary people in the riots was full of religious symbolism. Some religious institutions became primary conduits for the mobilization of people for violence in the name of God, faith or even particular schools of thought (mazhab). These institutions, moreover, exercised vast emotional influence over some adherents of Islam, as well as provided social meeting places, communication networks and pools of resources.
Fifth and finally, religion provides the concept of a “sacred territory” and a set of ready materials and symbolic targets, which if attacked provokes intense feelings. Accordingly, mosques were destroyed, religious centers desecrated, sacred texts and beliefs were ridiculed, prophets or religious figures were slandered and other symbols of faith violated.
To conclude, while religion never acts autonomously as a cause of conflict, ignoring its role completely would preclude a proper understanding of much of the violence in Indonesia.
Throughout the many instances of communal violence in the country, religious sentiments, material interests and political motives interacted with one another to magnify and alter the influence each would have had in isolation. Take away one factor, such as religious tension, economic inequality or political competition, the violence would not occur.
This is to say that although religion matters in most outbursts of violence in the nation, it is also too simple to reduce the complexity of the riots to just a matter of religion without investigating the political economy of particular religious followers and groups in the broad and varied social field of Indonesia.
The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.