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World Interfaith Harmony Week Opens To Grisly Sectarian Violence

This week, newsreaders brave enough to watch the Human Rights Watch video shuddered as they witnessed the graphic February 6 lynching of followers of minority sect Ahmadiyah, attacked by a machete-wielding mob of Indonesian Muslims as they prepared to worship in a Banten, West Java neighborhood.  Two days later, angry mobs in Temanggung, Central Java rampaged and set churches ablaze, incensed that a defendant did not receive the death penalty for blaspheming against Islam.  Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, and embraces a state philosophy of pluralism and tolerance; however, the nation is rapidly gaining notoriety for some of the worst religious violence in the past year.  In fact, religious extremism and sectarian clashes are probably Indonesia’s most defining characteristics at this point in the news cycle.

What few people do know about Indonesia is that, this week, several of its religious leaders are celebrating the first United Nations Official World Interfaith Harmony Week to convey “the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship… based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions”.

Considering the inauspicious events that heralded the conference opening, it’s tempting to dismiss the effort as ineffective window-dressing.  But we should not disregard the importance of the Interfaith Harmony Week being observed in Jakarta, even as the rest of the country seems deaf to its message.  Just 15 years ago, Indonesia was under the dictatorial rule of Suharto, internet access was spotty and expensive, the media outlets under strict censorship.  To even suggest that religious conflicts periodically flared in the archipelago was a punishable crime.  There would have been no presidential condemnation of attacks on Christians, because Indonesians would not have read about it online.  No national discourse would have taken place on the lynching of the Ahmadis, because the massacre would have gone unreported – indeed, the very existence of a runaway Islamic sect would not even have been officially acknowledged.    The opening of a dialogue about religious co-existence – amidst two real-time examples of the conflicts faced by Indonesia’s leaders – is a meaningful step towards actually realizing the goal.  The fact that the Chairman of Muhammediyah, Din Syamsuddin can sit in the same room as Indonesian Confucians representative Wawan Wiriatma is, believe it or not, progress.  Considering that Muslims in the next town over are slaughtering their neighbors for worshipping a different Islamic prophet, this conversation does not come easily.

Of course Indonesia needs to take much bigger steps to address sectarian violence against its citizens, and its leaders need to be a lot less coy when discussing the issue.  Din Syamsuddin called for religious tolerance and better communications, but refused to comment specifically on the Ahmadi massacre.  Hasyim Muzadi, former chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, characterized the recent attacks as a result of ‘provocation’ from interfaith organizations who have called attention to religious intolerance, implying that to report the conflict is to incite further conflict.  But Indonesia’s participation in the Interfaith Harmony Week shows that its leadership is aware and concerned, and perhaps most telling, responsive to international pressure to take at least a symbolic stand against extremism.  As long as they will engage in the dialogue, we must consider them a partner who is willing to improve their record – and window-dressing is better than a closed door.

By Kathryne Gadarian, World News Editor

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Posted on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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