Religion and Politics in Central Java (Shh! Don't say it too loud!)

Catholic Minority, Muslim Majority…and yet…

My two classes taught at Sanata Dharma University helped me understand better some of the issues facing Indonesians as they continue to navigate their society’s transition into the current global context. The country won its independence from the Dutch colonialist regime only after WWII in 1945 and has struggled with the balance between religion and secularism in ways similar to India…which is to say, with great difficulty, conflict, and ongoing tension.

A Little Background on Islam in Indonesia

If you are wondering why Indonesia might warrant international attention regarding religion and secularism, the answer is that there are more Muslims here than anywhere else in the world. Basically, there are two varieties: a traditional kind of Islam that had no trouble co-existing with other religious traditions, and a more recent and conservative type that strives for an Islamic state ruled by sharia laws (or laws derived from the Qu’ran/Koran). The former began in the 1500s as traders from India settled in Indonesia and practiced their religion. It later grew in strength as a reaction to Dutch colonial rule and the imposition of Christianity. The conservative type, called “puritanical” Islam by students in the class, is of course a fairly recent phenomena and is tied up with political parties and populism that, once again, is a response to corrupt and authoritative government.

It may be a naive kind of hope but many people worldwide think that the future of Islam worldwide could be modeled on the traditional type found here. Another version is the kind developing in the U.S. and Northern Europe, which appears to not be at odds with civil society and pluralistic religious traditions. Just as many contemporary Christians know that the Bible has to be interpreted as both a sacred and historical text–with some “laws” appropriate for desert, patriarchal cultures 2000 (and more) years ago–likewise more progressive types of Islam understand that the Qu’ran and sharia laws were based on an ancient social order, and that some moderation of the early rules are possible without violating the spirit of the religion.

Back to the Classes

The first class (mostly grad students in English education) had the theme of “Religion and Globalization” (with about 50 attending) and the second “Experimental Buddhism” (with around 30). Prof. Budi Susanto, S.J. (an anthropologist who got his Ph.D. from Cornell and who was introduced to me by Prof. Susan Rodgers at Univ. of Holy Cross) kindly permitted me to supplement his regular course content with these two talks.

In the R&G presentation (based on a Powerpoint slide show I put together in Tokyo, sitting on Max’s sofa and using his laptop) I tried to sketch the different historical forces that have contributed to this unique moment at the dawn of a digital era. I then pointed out some of the characteristics of globalization before moving on to how religious leaders can be simultaneously “within” globalization and “against” it as well (thanks Ugo Dessi, in Japanese Religions and Globalization, for this astute observation).

I asked for the students to contribute 3 questions regarding R&G in any context, and here are a few that caught my attention:

So did Religion come from God or from people?
How can R. walk in harmony with globalization?
Do you think Indonesia would be a better place if R. were separated from society, so people could have religious freedom (like in the U.S.)?
How will your research into R. and Globaliz. contribute to society?
Are there any regulations about R. in the U.S.? Is there a govt. department of religion?
Do you think globaliz. will gradually delete the exact value of a religion?
After hearing that R. has multifaceted meanings, does God also have multifaceted meaning, or is there a singular meaning?
Do you think R. has to be rational?
Is it true that children who have been taught religious values are smarter than those who haven’t?
Does God have religion?

The second class a couple days later (whose students were in Religious Studies) explored the idea of “experimental” Buddhism in Japan as well as a methodology for doing multi-site ethnographic research–something cultural anthropology is still debating as to whether or not it can substitute for the old-fashioned, hunker-down-for-a-year or more approach.

I broadened the context and put some of the characteristics of an “experimental” approach to religion on a whiteboard. (Briefly, these include a pragmatic, rational, and situational application of selective religious resources in order to deal with a particular issue within a person’s life. What religious methodology will work to help an individual or group realize a particular goal or agenda? There is a hypothesis, a method, a testing, and an observation of results, thus the relevance of the term “experimental” for the topic).

We chose some “issues” in Jogja where the idea of multi-site research might apply. From consumerism and new shopping malls to saving the shadow puppet theater, the class worked in small groups to discuss both the method and how religion gets involved in these issues. The photo below is of the second class.


Several members lingered afterwards to talk further. They are fed up with the “puritanical Islam” that is gaining strength in Indonesia, and feel their civic rights as Catholics and Buddhists are threatened. “What can we do?” they asked. All I could offer was to make sure they know their rights according to the Indonesian constitution as well as the law of the land. They can then use those benchmarks to remind more aggressive religious types about tolerance that is protected by civil law.

What was especially fascinating to learn was how, shortly after independence, many Muslims converted to Catholicism. It was clear to them that since many of the country’s elite were Christian, if they wanted their children to advance in society, they needed to be aligned with the powers that be. Two professors I talked with said many conversions took place in their parents’ generation, and so they identify themselves as being first or second generation Catholics/Christians.

I don’t know what percentage of Sanata Dharma university students are Muslim, but I would imagine it is pretty high. At least half the women in the first class (English education M.A. students) were wearing the headscarf (hijab). I was told by another professor that many Muslim parents (and schools) clearly recognize that Sanata Dharma is the place to go for quality education in English, pharmacy studies, business administration, and so on, and they have no hesitation about sending their children there.

A final note about politics. There was a brief mention in the Jakarta Post about the 15 year anniversary of student uprisings against the government in 1998. While Jakarta was the hotspot, Jogja also had its share of street demonstrations and violence. At USD, a student with the given name “Moses” was killed while protesting, and so the city street flanking the university to the south is named after him.



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