Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Religion, peace and conflict

Ignas Kleden, Sociologist, The Center for East Indonesian Affairs (CEIA), Jakarta, ceia@centrin.net.id

In Indonesia, religion seems to be a safe base for people to fall back on. People faced with pressing difficulties tend to seek security in their religion by relying more on their religious community, taking God more seriously and relearning their prayers. However, religion is not only a means of rescue in the private domain. Social problems and political troubles are often seen in relation to religious life.

One can easily come across social critics or high-ranking politicians who contend that corruption, bribery and poor public governance in Indonesia are due to a lack of religious awareness. In the same vein, juvenile delinquency, new permissiveness in urban life and a conspicuous lifestyle are believed to result from a decrease in religious discipline.

People are more inclined to offer an easy explanation for the social and political problems by referring to the degree of one's adherence to religious norms, which one is supposed to implement as a member of a religious community.

Social problems originate first of all in a social structure, hence social development and social changes should be tackled accordingly. The same can be said of political problems. A good citizen is not automatically a good follower of a particular religion and vice versa. There is no guarantee that a faithful follower who regularly attends religious services will become a faithful taxpayer.

It is also very uncertain that those who say their prayers without fail will have more sensitivity toward justice and injustice. Indonesia is a religious country per excellentiam and yet it is still one of the most corrupt states the world over.

On the other hand, people who bravely sacrifice their lives in defense of human rights, or for the rights of children, minorities or any other underprivileged group, turn out to be not always those who practice the obligations assigned by their religious norms. From a formal point of view, these people are not so much good religious followers as they are good citizens.

It seems that, linguistically speaking, the Indonesian language does not have the vocabulary to enable that needed distinction. The Indonesian word beragama comprises both one's membership in a religious community and the degree of personal internalization of religious values. There is no equivalent in Indonesian as of yet for the concepts of religiosity and for belonging to a denomination. As a result, people tend to equate the spiritual dimension of living religiously with the organizational aspects of one's membership in a religious-based grouping.

The lack of a distinctly differentiating concept seems to become not merely a linguistic deficit, but also indicates a sociological deficit. People tend to equate a formal adherence to a religious institution as a spiritual struggle for perfection.

Psychologically speaking, religion is not only a membership group but also a reference group. It is not only a physical collective made up of members as its constituents, but also a place where one identifies oneself according to the certain knowledge, ideals, norms and values of that group.

The lack of this distinction might not be recognized theoretically. However, it brings about serious consequences, whose manifestation is discernible in the practices of religious teachings and religious education.

If religion as a membership group is emphasized, it will tend to become inward-looking, rigid and exclusive. Conversely, if the dimension of a reference group is given the main attention and accentuation, a religion tends to become outward-looking, inclusive and tolerant. This happens to be the case because people can refer to and appreciate the same values they share with each other, although they might belong to different religious communities and come from different denominations.

The inward-looking and exclusive attitude or the outward- looking and inclusive inclination is often reflected in religious education. But are children and students taught and motivated to respect and love one another as members of a religious community, or first and foremost as human beings?

Are people from other religions treated as fellow travelers in the common search for the truth and the common struggle for perfection, or are they just discarded as the miserable who are led astray by undesirable signs of darkness? Is salvation then regarded as an attribute of a social group or the fruit of one's perseverance in certain values and norms?

It is often underestimated that political affairs have a lot to do with the instructional atmosphere and educational situation in classrooms and lecture halls. Instruction in religion is a good case in point.

If religion is introduced as a reference group with an inclusive nature, it can become a way to help understand and respect other people, even if they come from different denominations. They are perceived and seen as fellow human beings, the very bearers of human rights, who deserve our recognition and respect even if they turn out to become murderers or executors of high crimes.

But if religion is treated only as a membership group, which is self-contained and exclusive, the outsiders will be easily faced with suspicion, misgivings, prejudice and even animosity. Those who are not with us must be against us.

Therefore it is up to religious teachers and spiritual educators if they want to make religion a means of building integration that is instrumental to long-lasting peace, or whether they turn out to contribute unwittingly or consciously to the distribution and proliferation of hatred, in which many ongoing conflicts might have originated.