From 25 to 27 January, Indonesia and the United States took steps to strengthen their socio-cultural ties by co-hosting their first bilateral interfaith dialogue in Jakarta.
The meeting was attended by a 20-member delegation from the United States, which included US government officials, bishops and civil society. From Indonesia, the 30 participants included members of the two largest Indonesian Muslim organisations – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, as well as Christian, Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders and religious studies scholars from local universities.
Zainal Abidin Bagir, a Muslim scholar at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies in Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University – which has sent dozens of students to attend religion courses in the United States and vice versa – said the meeting was also important for Indonesian participants to gain exposure to Americans, which allowed them to learn about the United States and the policies which contribute to upholding the rights of its Muslim minority.
“Greater interaction will allow for better understanding because … certain hardliner groups regard the United States as their number one enemy because they think the country has cracked down on Muslims worldwide,” said Bagir.
Participants in the US-Indonesia interfaith conference agreed to cooperate on four issues – poverty, education, climate change and good governance. However, the joint declaration they produced does not detail specific types of cooperation that need to follow the conference. Without committing to and implementing specific initiatives, the conference risks being just an opportunity for talk without action.
Along these lines, Jean Duff, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty, suggested that the joint declaration could form the basis for enhanced communication and understanding amongst civil society groups in Indonesia or the United States, specifically about the practice of Islam in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, which differs greatly from how Islam is practiced in the Arab world.
Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, is often described by Western governments as a model where the Muslim majority can coexist peacefully with people of different religions. The constitution upholds the rights of minorities and the government does not form its national policies on the basis of religious principles.
According to one participant, William F. Vendley, Secretary-General of Religions for Peace, a New York-based non-governmental organisation, “The US government is enormously impressed with both the Indonesian government’s and the people’s commitment to pluralism. They welcome diversity.... They see Indonesia as a model for a religiously diverse society functioning in a harmonious and peaceful fashion.”
Indonesia was among the first countries to promote extensive interfaith dialogue in international forums as a means to root out terrorism triggered by misperception and the absence of constructive interaction among people of different religious backgrounds. The government has initiated bilateral interfaith dialogues with a number of countries, including Austria, Canada, England, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Russia and Vatican City. Regionally, Indonesia has participated in interfaith dialogues organised by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM).
As part of the meeting, participants also visited a Muslim boarding school – known as a pesantren – for a window into the lives of the students. Many misperceptions exist about these schools, which are often mistaken as institutions generating young terrorists. This is not the case in the vast majority of schools, many of which ensure that students can compete academically with those studying in regular, non-religious schools.
The head of the US delegation, Pradeep Ramamurthy, Senior Director for Global Engagement at the White House National Security Council, said Washington was looking forward to working together with religious groups in Indonesia that have the capacity to mobilise and deliver the necessary action to resolve a wide range of issues. Indonesia’s religious organisations have long-running programmes aimed at improving the livelihoods and living standards of grassroots communities.
The relationships resulting from this workshop just may provide the necessary impetus to shift the public perception of Indonesia from one of bombs and extremism, to that of a peaceful partner with the United States, demonstrating the true face of Islam in Indonesia.
* Lilian Budianto is a journalist with The Jakarta Post, a Jakarta-based, English-language newspaper. The views in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Jakarta Post. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).