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Jakarta Post

Tolikara and the paradox of tolerance

  • Bonni Rambatan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 22, 2015   /  08:43 am

Media reported that on Eid last Friday, GIDI, a Christian group in the Papuan regency of Tolikara caused a riot while trying to disband a group of praying Muslims, leaving one dead, over a dozen wounded and one mosque plus numerous shops burned to the ground.

There is a strange phenomenon in almost all of the critical reviews regarding the Tolikara incident. Most are quick to warn us how this should not be seen as merely a religious incident and look at the structural causes of violence: How living conditions in Papua are horrible, how many are marginalized, hence making a perfect breeding ground for violence and so on.

That'€™s fine, but why does the general public never speak of violence this way when the perpetrators are Muslims?

When Muslim fundamentalists commit violence, we mock them endlessly.

My point, of course, is not that we should start calling the Papuans evil '€” conservative reactionaries have done this numerous times '€” but that we should not discriminate between what happened in Papua and other religious conflicts around the world.

I think that the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies of Gadjah Mada University, which stresses that this should not be seen as a larger part of national and global religious conflict, is wrong in this regard.

If it has acknowledged that religious conflicts are never about religion, why shy away from placing the Tolikara incident in a global context of religious conflict?

Some would say that incidents like these are not about tolerance. But they are precisely about tolerance '€” recall the still-ongoing Rohingya incident and how fundamentalist leader Ashin Wirathu put it: '€œYou can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog.'€

Rather than being hypocritical, does this not paint the true face of tolerance today?

We tolerate people who are different than us, as long as they stay out there, in the distance. People can grow beards, wear religious clothes and walk with their wives in black burqas, but we feel uneasy when they enter our malls.

Is this not also the logic behind GIDI'€™s acts? A full report of the incident said that a warning was given almost a full week in advance (which raises questions as to
why security seemed so underprepared, but that is another can of worms) to carry out Eid prayers somewhere else.

Aside from pointing at the marginalization and displacement of many Papuans and their struggles with immigrants and urbanization as a specific case, and denying the reality of vocal claims of religious tolerance at play in the conflict (i.e. '€œWe will tolerate you if'€¦'€), then, I claim it would be much better to fold the former into the latter, and see that this is a problem inherent in the concept of '€œtolerance'€ itself.

For what is tolerance if not respect at a distance? And what is the world today if not a constant shift of goods, people and technology that, more and more, erodes distance and, with it, the possibility of a tolerant life?

 Yes, it'€™s true, religious conflicts are never about religion '€” in Papua or anywhere in the world. They are always about alienation and marginalization from causes other than religion.

But they are also about a group of people trying to find meaning by fighting back a specter they have created for themselves.

We cannot deny that the creation of this specter has deep roots in religion and other signifiers of difference, and therefore has everything to do with tolerance/intolerance dynamics.

It is precisely for this reason that we must place the Tolikara incident in the bigger picture of global religious conflicts, next to Rohingya, Reclaim Australia, and, yes, even the more terroristic ones such as Boko Haram and the IS (Islamic State) movement.

Although it is undeniable that the normalized structural displacement of the people in Papua has contributed significantly to making it a fertile breeding ground for conflict and that religious and cultural norms often play a part in extinguishing these conflicts, it is also hard to deny that these conflicts are almost always pregnant with religious and cultural fundamentalisms.

After all, when structural causes cannot be expressed because we keep saying the common people will never understand the complexities of banks and corporations, what choice do we have but to express it in such fundamentalisms?

Yes, we should look at structural causes, but that should not make us shy away from the issue of tolerance and its paradoxes. The two are always already inextricably linked in this only language of unfreedom that we have.


Religious conflicts are never about religion '€” in Papua or anywhere in the world.


The writer runs the online publication Southeast Asian Social Critique.