Tue, 07 Nov 2000

Meeting focuses on 'separate' entities

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE, Australia (JP): At first sight, the idea of holding a conference on religions, culture and violence in Melbourne, sounds brave, if not altogether futile. Melbourne is one of the best cities in the world to live in, and while instances of violence occur, they are not on a large scale. How much interest would it attract? How many people would see the relevance to their lives of the topics on offer?

Wrong presumptions. The talks entitled "Religion and Culture in Asia Pacific: Violence or Healing?" held from Oct. 22 through 25, was attended by some 300 participants, some from overseas.

Co-sponsored by The International Movement for a Just World, the Uniting Church of Australia and Pax Christi, it was held at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Melbourne.

The issues raised were deeply relevant. Soberly addressed were the topics of Australian Aboriginal reconciliation, the question of majority vis-a-vis minority cultural and religious groups in relation to economic and political power, and the recent and ongoing seemingly interreligious conflicts and violence in different parts of the region.

Particularly relevant to Indonesia today is the increasing animosity between Islam and the West. Chandra Muzaffar, a professor and member of the International Movement for a Just World, spoke of the danger of bigotry and the obsession with financial gain in the present world, and how these aspects had transformed human character for the worse. He also warned against seeing Islam and the West as two separate entities.

While it is true that history records rivalry and resentments between Islam and the West, the source of clashes have been more political and economic than religious. In fact, there has been intellectual and social interaction between Islam and the West for centuries.

In a separate interview, Muzaffar mentioned another aspect which contributed to the mutual suspicions between the two communities. While Muslims, in general, remained attached to religion, Western societies were becoming more secular. This tended to lead to different ways of evaluating social issues.

For instance, many Muslims would feel uneasy about same-sex marriage, while the presence of a big secular group in Western society makes it more acceptable in the West.

"Even some religious segments in the West are increasingly accepting it", said Muzaffar. He emphasized the need for more bridge-builders on both sides, for people in each community to straighten out the distortions that had caused the escalation of violence.

"The reality is, the West is very much part of us. The West is within us, around us. We can't run away from it. I'm speaking to you in a language of the West. Many aspects of the West are affecting our lives, such as a lot of our political systems, many ideas about the economy are derived from the West, social relations, so many things," he said.

"So what you have to do is to learn how to engage the West. Pick out what is good and discard what is bad."

Muzaffar added that Western people had also been learning from Islam. Many, indeed, have been attracted by its strong sense of community and spirituality.

A panel called the Indonesia Roundtable discussed the current situation in Indonesia, where there appeared to be no real end to the conflict between Muslims and Christians.

Azyumardi Azra, rector of the Indonesian government-run IAIN Islamic Studies Institute in Jakarta, described Muslims' perception of Christians, which participants at the session found enlightening and challenging at the same time.

Basically, the inherent evangelistic aspect of Christianity had caused unease, even fear, among Muslim communities, because evangelism by nature encroaches upon other religious communities. This suspicion and fear had also been reinforced from time to time by various events.

He cited, among others, the discovery of pamphlets in the early 1960s which Muslims believed were produced by Christians, detailing plans to Christianize Indonesia on a large scale, of documents in July this year which Muslims believed to have been put out by the Doulos Seminary, revealing plans to convert Muslims by unfair means, such as the provision of medical and counseling services.

In the meantime, some Muslims have been aspiring to make Islam the basis of the Indonesian state. These are clearly ingredients which have the potential to make both communities vulnerable to manipulation and incitement by political opportunists.

Responding to Azyumardi's paper, Herbert Feith, a long-time lecturer in Indonesia, gave a political scientist's point of view, pointing out that successive governments had been weak in reining in violence perpetrated against non-Muslim communities.

Adding to the dimension highlighted by Feith was sociologist Arief Budiman's view that Islam as a major religion was interested in maintaining the status quo. Many Islamic leaders, according to Arief, are resentful of the push for change from more educated Christians as well as Muslims.

Like Feith, Arief believed that former president Soeharto used Islam as a political tool, by using religion as a criteria for government appointments, creating resentment and anger on the part of non-Muslims.

By equating Islam with poverty and Christianity with wealth and the pathway to the modern West, many political opportunists easily use the religion card to mobilize people so as to gain political strength.

Nuim Khaiyath of Radio Australia gave a journalist's perspective of the sectarian conflict in Maluku, where members of the Muslim and Christian communities, who had until recently been living in relative peace, now see each other as mortal enemies.

Muzaffar's allegory that members of the different religious communities have mistaken the light for fire seems apt. Instead of taking advantage of the light shone by their religions for further enlightenment, many have used it to burn the "others".

As Muzaffar said, "The lamps may be different, but the lights are the same."

The writer is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.