Violence and intolerance for ambiguity
Paper Edition | Page: 7
Indonesia is once again affected by violent acts of religious intolerance. Recently, a group of people attacked a Shiite community in Sampang region, East Java, on Aug. 26. Two Shiite men died while trying to protect the children and women of the community.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono attributes this incident to the lack of comprehensive mastery regarding religious conflict management among the personnel of Indonesian intelligence bodies. This factor can be brought into account, but aside from it, the issue of fundamentalism, which becomes a most crucial factor in curbing religious hostility and violence, has not been addressed.
One does not need to wait for gory and fiery incidents in order to respond to the inter-religious hostility that is pervading Indonesian society. Flames of hatred against the minority Shiite community in Indonesia have been fanned by the religious leaders who label the stream of teaching as “deviant”, and propose a conversion to the majority Sunni teachings to resolve the conflict once and for all.
Social enclaves separating the two streams of Islamic teachings will continue to exist, since social integration between the two schools is not encouraged by Islamic religious leaders. The head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) of Sampang, Buchori Maksum, even stated that both communities are “like oil and water that cannot mix. I cannot promise that the conflict will end.”
The tumultuous quest for social integration and conflict resolution regarding different religious beliefs is quite difficult, due to the nature of religious beliefs themselves. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his classic book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) proposed three channels through which human beings try to make sense of their world: science, arts and religion.
Science deals with hard facts, things that are observable and experienced through the human senses. Through scientific theories, human beings explain their subjective reality. The tradition of skepticism that gives rise to the process of checking whether reality supports assumptions and hypotheses, makes scientific endeavors open to change. There is no absolutism in science, since every theory and concept can be falsified should new evidence emerge.
In arts, human beings express the intangible aspect of their inner world in response to the outer world. Art encourages unlimited exploration, so there is no absolutism in art, either.
Religion’s essence is to find transcendental meaning to the mundane and agony-manifested human
Unlike science, art deals with things that are unobservable and unverifiable. It depends on the emotional state of faith rather than skepticism and inquiry.
Unlike the arts, religion leaves little room for freedom of expression and deviations since it has dogmas that need to be observed carefully should one have the desire to achieve inner peace and salvation.
Religion serves a lot of functions in human lives. The most important function of religion is, of course, to help people cope with the senselessness and suffering of their everyday life. It also gives one a sense of optimism — a sense that salvation and peace really do exist, despite the
ordeals that one may endure.
Religious beliefs, however, are prone to the tendency of monolithic absolutism. Every individual believes that his or her religion is the best practice. So when one encounters different religious practices, they might have a negative attitude towards them. But attitude cannot be a predictor for behavior. A negative attitude towards the teachings of other religions does not automatically trigger acts of violence.
One factor that could determine whether this negative attitude will manifest itself in violent behavior is an individual’s level of tolerance for ambiguity. Tolerance for ambiguity is an individual capacity to be comfortable with differences, or things that contradict one’s assumptions.
People who have a high tolerance for ambiguity will not have their faith shaken by the existence of religious teachings which contradict their views. They can accept the fact that different people might have different viewpoints that are subjectively valid.
By possesing this trait, these people will not resort to violence and destruction when they encounter a group of people who practice something contrary to their version of the truth.
People who have a low tolerance for ambiguity will feel scared when they realize the fact that there are multitudes of interpretations regarding human existence, and this would mean that their dogma might not be the single, absolute truth.
As a defense mechanism to overcome this shaken faith, they will resort to violence, seeking to appear strong and aggressive in order to conceal the deep feeling of insecurity within.
Tolerance for ambiguity is an important trait that is needed to build a peaceful and diverse society. Education plays a major role in creating individuals that have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but our basic education system is insufficient to instill this tolerance for ambiguity in students.
Our social science lessons are frequently studied in a rote-memorization strategy with no interconnections among concepts explained. From proper teachings of social sciences we can learn to live with ambiguity. There are numerous theories that sometimes even contradict each other in social sciences that can be used to explain a single phenomenon — and viewing a phenomenon from a multidimensional approach is what helps a person to be more tolerant towards ambiguity.
The Indonesian education system also does not incorporate the studies of different ideologies and schools of thought which exist on this earth. A lack of holistic awareness regarding different ideologies and schools of thought, along with their own strengths and weaknesses, can trap a person in a blinding ethnocentrism.
As long as Indonesians still lack a proper education, I am sure that the intellectual capacity needed to develop tolerance towards ambiguity will not be reached. And acts of senseless religious violence will continue to flourish until God knows when.
The writer is a psychology teacher and school counselor at Gandhi Memorial International School. The opinions expressed are his own.