For at least the past 10 years, there has been many examples of interreligious or interfaith dialogue carried out by peace activists or activists of faith-based organizations in Indonesia.
These conversations are more commonly seen in areas previously ravaged by religious conflict, such as Maluku, as an effort to rebuild peace in a post-conflict situation.
In Maluku, activities such as “live-ins”, where Christian leaders stay with Muslim families for a couple of days and vice versa, became popular among local peace activists, many of who were former combatants or victims during the 1999 conflict.
However, such activities are not limited to areas directly affected by conflict.
Activists have initiated interfaith dialogue in other areas, as tension as an result of the conflicts in Maluku and other regions such as West Kalimantan and Sulawesi, was also felt strongly in various areas in Java.
As a result, because of the perceived radicalization among Muslims, many Islamic boarding schools or pesantren, for example, have become the target of non-governmental organizations to introduce interfaith dialogue with support from various foreign agencies.
Faith-based organizations have enthusiastically welcomed such initiatives.
The usual reactions when initiating such dialogues, being accused of “watering down” or compromising people’s religious identity, was overcame as people maintained their enthusiasm to resolve past conflict, accepting everyone else’s religious identity and turning over a new page in the relationship.
However, after more than 10 years, the results of interfaith dialogue appear to be somewhat superficial.
Some participants of interfaith dialogue have admitted that most of the time there is an inclination to reach consensus, regardless of whether such agreement is truly felt among participants or not. Tangible action has been there too, but mostly in the form of modest interaction between people of different faiths, and it has become less and less relevant.
Mostly the dialogue covered the same platforms that had been previously covered, accompanied by very similar activities. Facilitators of the dialogue tended to repeat the same sentiments often without realizing that they achieved nothing more than almost empty rhetoric.
This indeed constitutes a very early stage of interfaith dialogue, which later should not only include conversation and small amounts of human interaction, but also more tangible and strategic cooperation on various levels.
In Ireland, for example, Muslims and Christians are neighbors who live on the same streets. They go to the same shops and their children go to the same schools.
In the city of Ambon in Maluku people of different faiths work together at the same government offices as civil servants and many of their children go to the same schools, but their homes — even in the capital Ambon — are still religiously segregated. This shows that interfaith dialogue needs more than just gathering together people of different faiths.
Encouragingly, the trend of interfaith dialogue has currently been moving toward a more substantive and meaningful collaboration, which is expected to have much a deeper and long-lasting impact on society, not only with regards to religion, but in a broader sense as well.
It is important to quote Din Syamsuddin, former president of Muhammadiyah, the oldest Islamic organization in Indonesia, that people of faith should now avoid unnecessary theological discussion or exchange because it will never reach agreement, but should instead work together to combat shared enemies, namely poverty, environmental destruction, climate change and other strategic humanitarian issues.
This trend has also been encouraged on the global level, for example, leaders of faith-based organizations, including Din Syamsuddin, support the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
These goals include no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, peace, justice and strong institutions.
People of faith should work together to combat shared enemies, such as poverty and environmental destruction.
Din said that the role of religious leaders is unique because it adds “spiritual meaning” to humanitarian issues, in this case the SDGs. Moreover, believers would almost always sincerely follow what their respective leaders recommend, accelerating the implementation of the initiatives.
As an example, leaders of Indonesia’s faith-based organizations recently initiated SIAGA BUMI (Indonesia Bergerak Menyelamatkan Bumi — Indonesia’s Movement to Save the Earth) to help tackle haze problems among others. Taking a role as a pressure group, it successfully pressed the government to take action against certain corporations that had used slash-and-burn methods to clear land, the major cause of forest fires.
Another example is cooperation between Vienna-based King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) and New York-based Religions for Peace (RfP), which is also involved in a project with Jakarta-based Centre or Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations (CDCC).
The project, which is called the Multi-religious Collaboration for the Common Good (MCC) focuses on three main issues: interfaith dialogue, interfaith dialogue in education and interfaith dialogue in children’s wellbeing.
The last two are clearly examples of concerns that are genuinely shared among people, particularly educators and families regardless of their religious backgrounds.
Their recent workshops showed how these kinds of concrete issues can successfully rejuvenate the spirit to work together, unite people of different faith and foster productive relations among them.
They recruited and involved experts in relevant fields to help find substantial solutions to current problems. Here the role of religious leaders is imperative to encourage their followers to collaborate and work together to resolve issues of shared concern and, if needed, to give a theological rationale for action taken.
The role of religious leaders in shifting interreligious dialogue from a mere encounter between people of different faith toward a more meaningful and substantive collaboration looks promising.
Hopefully interfaith connections will be strengthened and such cooperation will have a long-lasting effect on the development of a more peaceful and constructive coexistence of diverse religious groups within society.
The writer is lecturer at Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University, Executive Director of CDCC (Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations) and secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Division of Central Board of Muhammadiyah, the oldest Islamic organization in Indonesia