Asia Program

Events

Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Indonesia: A Crisis of Nationhood?

June 16, 1999 // 12:00am

By Alexei Kral

Christine Drake, Professor of Geography, Old Dominion University
Howard M. Federspiel, Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University
Joel C. Kuipers, Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs, Chair, Anthropology Department, George Washington University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center.

Recent Indonesia seminars in Washington have focused on speculation regarding the June 7th elections. This seminar put the election in context by examining the deeper issues of Indonesian nationhood and the problem of ethnic and religious conflict. Moving beyond the usual political and economic analysis, this seminar approached these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective with scholars representing three different fields, namely a geographer, a scholar of Islam and politics, and an anthropologist.

Christine Drake discussed the tension between centripetal forces fostering national integration and centrifugal forces tearing Indonesia apart. She noted that economic disparity is a dangerously divisive force, but stressed that the forces binding the country together are stronger. Government policies stressing unity in diversity, the propagation of a national language, reinterpretations of Indonesia's history to make it more integrative, common materials for education, the development of transportation and communications nationwide, and radio and television serve as strong forces for Indonesian unity. Drake observed that Indonesia has the advantage that its diversity is ubiquitous. Cultural, social, and economic variations form complex crisscross patterns, so that no one regional, ethnic, or religious group is divided from the others in all features.

Howard Federspiel commented on Islam's impact on national identity in Indonesia. He noted that the Indonesian Muslim community has been fractionalized. The Suharto government (1966-1998) outlawed the use of religious symbols for political identification and demanded that all organizations be tolerant and inclusive. Although 85% of Indonesians identify themselves as Muslim, the Muslim community is not a key political actor. Federspiel cited three key political actors: the army, the technocrats, and the Office of the President. While politics and economics tend to be national in scope, societal problems are more regional and local, reflecting tension among groups. The conversion of nominal Muslims to Christianity causes particular tension, as Muslims believe that Christians are using economic incentives to draw converts from their communities. Federspiel concluded that even if the Muslim community succeeds in increasing its political participation, this would not necessarily lead to greater Islamization.

Joel Kuipers examined the cultural institutions for dispute mediation in Indonesian society. He focused on Musyawarah Mufakat (deliberation with consensus), the institution which Indonesia's founders cited as central to Indonesian identity. Musyawarah Mufakat emphasizes resolving differences through discussion, deliberation, and consensus. Political elites have stressed this concept for years in order to create legitimacy for their decisions. Kuipers argued the concept exists as an ideology or a hope rather than as a means for Indonesians to mediate disputes. Indeed, a failure of this type of negotiation was blamed for an ethnic riot last November. Kuipers noted that most of the rural population, i.e. the majority of the population, does not trust the formal legal system for settling differences. Instead, many villagers simply accommodate and wait for revenge. Today, the nationalist rhetoric of self-sacrifice to form consensus is less convincing for Indonesians. Kuipers concluded that Indonesian schools must teach more about rights. In addition, he recommended that Indonesia and the aid community devote more money for legal training and legal infrastructure.

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