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Ichsan Malik, the founder of the Institut Titian Perdamaian (Institute for Steps to Peace), a peace-building NGO, discusses the trend of religious-based violence in Indonesia. Ichsan, the coordinator of the Peace Psychology program at the University of Indonesia’s School of Psychology, was earlier involved in peace-building amid communal conflicts in Maluku and Central Sulawesi. Below are the excerpts from the interview with The Jakarta Post’s Amahl S. Azwar.
Question: How do you see the trend of religious conflicts in Indonesia?
Answer: After the reform era, since 1998, there has been a certain amount of backtracking in religious life, evident in several things that I have observed.
First, there is a tendency for a number of religious people to live in the past instead of looking to the future. They have this tendency to sentimentalize past conflicts, wars and prejudices.
Second, after reformasi, some people have been fanatical regarding the formal aspects of religion, such as places of worship, rituals and other symbols, instead of the function of religion itself, which is to build up civil society as well as spread justice for all human beings.
Third, and this is something that really worries me, the mentality of our religious groups is to grasp as much power as possible. These kinds of groups use religious issues for political gain.
Sampang is just a small dot on the bigger picture of our religious life that has been destroyed by these factors.
Furthermore, both the police and the Indonesian Ulema Council [MUI], who are supposed to play a role in keeping the peace among religious groups, are often idle when it comes to religious-based
Do you see similarities between the attack against the Shia minority in Sampang on Aug. 26, and other conflicts with religious overtones, such as in Maluku or Poso?
Yes, I do. In my book [‘Baku Bae’: Grassroots movement to stop conflict and violence in Maluku, 2004], I draw a parallel between the religious-based conflicts in Indonesia and forest fires.
Three factors trigger forest fires: dry grass or foliage, winds and a spark.
The three factors [leading to a setback of religious life] have made our religious life just as fragile as dry grass. It simply needs a public reaction, or a gust of wind, and a small spark of fire, which in the Sampang case was triggered by the family feud between a Shiite religious leader and his brother.
In addition to the “small spark of fire”, in many regions, including Jakarta, there are many examples of how religious issues can be used as a political weapon, especially during local elections. The emotional condition of our people allows this phenomenon to persist.
West Java has quite a large population of Shia followers. Do you think what happened in Sampang could happen in the region?
Unlike in Sampang, where the population of the Shiites is very small compared to the majority of Sunni, the number of Shia followers in West Java, particularly in Bandung, is quite large although it is still a minority.
In addition, in Bandung, there is a quite respectable figure [Jalaluddin Rahmat, a Padjadjaran University communications expert and also chairman of the Indonesian Ahlul Bait Association or Ijabi]. Therefore, it would be quite difficult for the Sampang incident to be repeated in West Java.
However, given the number of public protests against the Shia group in the province, and due to a number of violent acts against minorities in West Java in the past few years, it would be very wise for the Shiites in the region to immediately consolidate themselves with civil society as a preventive measure.
What do you think are the factors that could discourage potential conflicts?
The mass media can play the role of calming down tensions within society. Currently, there are a lot of Indonesians who seem to be easily irritated when reading, watching or listening to distorted information.
Therefore, it is very important for the media to be proactive in clarifying, verifying and confirming [in their news production] especially when related to religious conflicts.
The media is very important in preventing tension, which can expand into violence.
Also, we must urge the two biggest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, to control escalating resentment toward minorities.
Both NU and Muhammadiyah have been quite successful in maintaining tolerance in Indonesia. At least, thanks to those two, conflicts within our country have yet to become like those in the Middle East.
It is vital for the two organizations to do something in times when religious-based conflicts are increasing.
Both NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj and former NU leader Hasyim Muzadi have expressed their views that Shia is part of Islam. We just have to wait and see if either of them can put his words into action.