Indonesia a model for interfaith dialogue

On Thursday, September 23, Dr. Bernard Adeney-Risakotta gave a lecture entitled “Interfaith Dialogue in the World’s Largest Islamic Country: Religion, Society, and Politics in Indonesia” in Rockefeller Hall. The talk was supplemented by informative visuals and bullet points via a Power Point presentation, and dealt with many issues of religion and inter-religious dialogue in Indonesia today. The lecture portion was followed by a questions section during which members of the audience were invited to voice any concerns they had.

Dr. Adeney-Risakotta is the director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), which is an international Ph.D. program in inter-religious studies. He has been a leading scholar in interfaith studies in Indonesia for more than 20 years, and his wife, Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta, who provided some of her own insight during the questions portion of the event, is an anthropologist and theologian in inter-religious education.

Adeney-Risakotta began the lecture with a personal anecdote drawn from his many years of experience in the sphere of religious studies. His story pertained heavily to the issue of global religious diversity. He explained that sometime after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, he had been asked to be a part of a panel that consisted of Muslim speakers and had correctly assumed that he was supposed to represent the American point of view.

After he gave his talk at the event, he listened to the remaining young Muslim speakers give their own fiery talks, all of which contained very anti-West ideas and rhetoric. He then told the Vassar crowd that as this was happening, he felt heat rising in him, because, according to him, what was happening to these young people wasn’t fair and was influencing their views in a destructive way. He continued, “I felt rising in me a sense of the great unfairness of the portrayal that was going on.” He relayed that at this point, stood and faced the crowd.

Adeney-Risakotta proceeded to announce to the crowd, “You know, America is a whole lot worse than you think it is. But it’s also a whole lot better.”

He then went on to argue that it was not just to compare the most biased and hateful voices of one civilization with the ideals of another, and to ask the Muslims in the room if they would want Palestine speaking on behalf of them. According to his telling of the story, at this point he addressed the audience once again. “I’m an American. I’m a Christian. Am I your enemy?” he charged. After a long silence, an old Muslim man responded to him, answering that Adeney-Riskotta was not their enemy but that the enemies of Islam were their enemies.

With that tale concluded, Adeney-Risakotta launched into his lecture that focused specifically on interfaith interactions and interdependence in modern Indonesia. First, he covered the history of religious diversity in Indonesia, explaining that the country had a “far better record than Europe for religious tolerance,” and detailing the arrival of people of each religion to the county.

He explained that the people of Indonesia are free to follow indigenous religions or major religions, but that due to lack of legal definitions, there is no special protection for indigenous religions by the government. Additionally, according to Adeney-Riskotta, there are laws in place against defaming religions that you do not belong to; thus, Adeney-Risakotta suggests that in Indonesia people display a degree of individual acceptance. She explained, “[People] feel free to believe whatever [one] wants to, but shouldn’t propagate it.”

The next slide dealt with three paradigmatic events, which dealt with the tragedy of 1965-66, the transition period after the fall of Indonesian President Suharto, which lasted from 1998 to 2004, and the Bali bombings of September 11, 2001. Adeney-Risakotta revealed that after the latter occurred, people were approaching him on the streets of Indonesia because of what his physical appearance and expressed identity and repeatedly apologizing to him and expressing remorse. He then remarked that eventually, once the War on Terror began, these attitudes seemed to change.

Dr. Adeney-Risakotta seemed very hopeful for the future, however, and used Indonesia as a model of successful, peaceful coexistence and empathy between people of different religious groups. The people, he said, understand that issues of religion are far from black and white, and that there are as many clashes within certain religious groups as there are between different ones. He pointed to certain hopeful signs in Indonesia, including the growth of health, education, and prosperity, as well as the end of exclusive executive control Muslim political parties had over Indonesian politics. It is important to note that many successful political figures themselves who are Muslim do not align themselves with political parties that support the institution of Islamic law in Indonesian politics.

Co-president of the student organization the Vassar Islamic Society Farah Aziz ’16 advertised the event to her club members and ended up attending it herself. Of the event, Aziz explained in an emailed statement, “While I didn’t find the idea of an interfaith society in Indonesia a new concept because I’ve grown up hearing about Indonesia’s diversity and pluralism, I think a lot of people in the audience found it very enlightening.”

When asked is if she shared in Adeney-Risakotta’s optimism concerning Indonesia and its imagined future for the world, she responded, “I think that generally, people have this misconception that religion has no room in the modern world.”

She continued, emphasizing the ways in which religion can positively influence the lives of Indonesians and people around the world, more generally. “In today’s context, people still use religion and spirituality as vehicles for seeking a purpose in life through a broad range of interpretations that have branched from the more traditional practices of the past,” she said.

Aziz went further, praising Indonesia’s ability to create spaces where different religious groups can find common ground and peace. “With that in mind, I think people are more open-minded to openly talking and learning about other beliefs through these inclusive ideas that shape Indonesia today. So yes, I’ve always been optimistic about a more-Indonesia based world model and I think this lecture just confirmed what I’ve always believed in,” she stated.

For information on the topics discussed in this lecture, or for a space to discuss questions and differences of faith and spirituality, contact the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

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