A Discussion with Dicky Sofjan, Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies

With: Dicky Sofjan

May 2, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in May 2016 student Breanna Bradley conducted an interview with Dicky Sofjan, who works at the Indonesian Consortium for Interreligious Studies (ICRS). Sofjan discussed his work at ICRS, religious diversity in Southeast Asia, and a new project to create an interfaith weather station that will help preempt and prevent intrareligious and interreligious conflicts.
Can you give an overview of both your academic and professional career, highlighting some of the most important work that you’ve done in terms of interreligious studies?

I joined the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies in 2011 and that marked my return to academia, because after I received my Ph.D. in political science in 2006, I worked for various international organizations and took a break from academia. One of the things that drew me to ICRS was the interreligious studies program. We offer a Ph.D. in interreligious studies, which is an international, interdisciplinary, and interreligious program. Right now, we have 64 students from 12 different countries including India, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar and the United States—we are very glad to have the various exchanges with scholars, professors, and researchers from all over the world. We like to think of our work as providing upstream solution for interfaith relations and other problems facing Indonesia, Asia, and the world. We engage a lot of religious leaders from various faith traditions, along with international faith organizations in the region. We are very happy with our work because we are getting a lot of support and are partnering with many universities across the globe. This has provided ICRS with opportunities to share research through our expanding network.

My academic background has been more along the lines of international relations, political science, and public policy within Muslim countries and societies—mainly Indonesia, Iran, and Malaysia. In addition to being faculty in ICRS, I also teach in the master’s program in political science at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Classes I’ve taught include identity and multiculturalism in the context of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Right now, one of the flagship programs I am leading is a collaborative research project on Religion, Public Policy, and Social Transformation in Southeast Asia involving eight Southeast Asian countries and the United States. We focused on different themes every year. The first year examined managing religious diversity, and we held an international research conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2014. In the following year, we held a conference on religion, identity, and gender with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The third year focused on religion in the public sphere and was held in Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. We have come out with one edited volume, which was published by Globethics.net in collaboration with ICRS and the Henry Luce Foundation. I’m in the process of publishing the second year’s edited volume, and we should have the third volume published by January 2017.

Could you give me an overview of what you’ve found thus far through your collaborative research project?

One of the first things we found is that there is very little research on the relationship between religion and public policy. We don’t quite know how public policies play a part in religious development dynamics and interfaith relations within and among communities in these countries.

We found various ways in which we can look at the relationship between religion and public policy in the different countries in Southeast Asia. For example, Indonesia has a pluralistic society with well-known diversity. With the wave of democratization and reformation in the late 1990s, there have been many changes in the ways we look at religious diversity and how we manage various religious communities—whether it be the more mainstream groups, such as the Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians—or the religious minority groups such as Shi'as, Ahmadiyyas, Daoists, Sikhs, and Baha'is, which are struggling to gain acceptance and social recognition. If you look at the different Southeast Asian countries involved in the project, you see a really different dynamic. As mentioned earlier, this is in part because of the divergent social and political systems in place in these countries. But it also has to do with history—how religion came about, how it was spread, by whom, and in what manner.

The first year, our focus was on managing religious diversity, and we saw many different ways that Southeast Asian governments manage religious majority-minority relations. Looking at the ongoing news about the problems in Myanmar with the persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas shows that this type of research is needed because it provides a different, more comparative way of looking at the relationship between religion and public policy.

What do you think is the largest challenge facing Indonesia in terms of the relationship between public policy and religion?

Well, for one, people don’t really see the connections. People tend to think that religion is about the sacred or divine, while public policy is seen as a secular, mundane business that doesn’t come to mind as something that would have an effect in a large way on religion or religious development. However, there have been some policies that have had a problematic effect on religion. For example, Indonesia’s Law No.1, effected in 1965, which still applies today, supposedly recognizes only six religions in the country: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. If you look at the religious categories themselves, they are problematic, because some people don’t consider Buddhism or Confucianism to be a religion, but rather a philosophy, a way of life, or a distinct culture. Regardless, these categories are used and often abused by the government, the security apparatus, and some intolerant groups in Indonesia to persecute minority groups and the religious others.

Within the category of Islam, for example, what is considered to be the “correct” form of Islam is Sunni Islam, and anyone embracing non-Sunni Islam, such as Shi'a or Ahmadiyya Islam, is regarded as a non-Muslim by some intolerant groups. Many of these intolerant groups have used this law as a justification for their intolerant behavior and actions toward the religious others in the country. The same can be said of various intolerant Christian groups and their behaviors toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses. One can also see a more or less similar treatment of those who practice the agama Nusantara, or the local religions and belief systems that are rampant throughout the archipelago.

You’ve mentioned a lot of different minority groups. Do they all live within the same region of Indonesia?

No, you can find minority religious groups pretty well dispersed. In the case of the Shi'as, for example, there are some pockets where they reside, such as Jakarta, Bandung, Makassar, Yogyakarta, and South Sulawesi. But, if you look at the history of Indonesia, the presence of Shi'a Islam has been quite prominent for many centuries. In fact, one could argue, as I did in my edited volume on the History and Culture of the Shi'as in Southeast Asia, that the Shi'as were the first to establish an Islamic kingdom in Nusantara (archaic name for Indonesia). And there is substantial evidence to support this claim. If you look at its insignias of the Peureulak Kingdom, situated in the eastern coast of Aceh, the symbolisms seem to place emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad’s household, or, those who were known to be the “Partisans of Ali” who played more important roles in Shi'a than in Sunni Islam. For example, I just returned from a research stint in South Sumatra in a city called Bengkulu where the main annual festival celebrated there is called Tabot, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of the Prophet’s beloved grandsons and the third leader in the Shi'a lineage. If you go around the city and look at its icons and architectural symbolisms, they all attempt to maintain the collective memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Due to its popularity and interest among the tourists, the Tabot festival has now been consistently part of the official tourism program of the local government there. Unfortunately, most contemporary, mainstream Muslims in Indonesia do not recognize or appreciate this historical element as an important part of their Muslim identity and their own understanding of how Islam came to the shores of Indonesia. The same is evident in many parts of Indonesia. I therefore think more research needs to examine this field.

You mentioned that you also teach classes. Could you speak a little bit about the classes you currently teach?

Well, this semester I am not teaching classes at the ICRS, but usually I would teach under the rubric of religion and contemporary issues. This would include topics such as religion and politics, the government, human rights, identity, and multiculturalism. We usually decide upon this doctoral seminar by looking at the needs of our incoming students. More often than not, our students need to be exposed to the theoretical underpinnings of religious identity, diversity, and multiculturalism. It is equally important for them to engage in research from a perspective other than their own religious tradition or background. For me personally, I enjoy getting my students to think about and appreciate how religious differences are perceived in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the world. We try to lay out the principles in the way we understand religions because people are drawn to think in binary terms. They either take the particularistic or universalistic understanding of religion. So our students have a whole range of perspectives about religion and how religion plays out in society or in their communities.

We also stress at ICRS that we do not want to see normative research that is geared toward religious dogmas or specific doctrines. Rather, we prefer to approach religion from a social scientific perspective. And this has been one of our greatest challenges. Many of our students come from seminaries or theological schools whereby they have been trained to view the world from a particularistic understanding of religion. Thus, it has been difficult for some to migrate from such a habit of the mind to a scholarly, intellectual, or objective mode of thinking. For that matter, we try us much as possible to rope in our students in our various research projects to get them actively involved in research-based learning.

At ICRS, we try to maintain a balance in the way we deliver content and materials to doctoral seminars. More often than not, we have two professors for our doctoral seminars: usually one Muslim and one Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucian. We also try hard to maintain gender balance and have one male and one female professor for each seminar. This way, our students participate in seminars that are not only religiously diverse, but they are also exposed to gender perspective and analysis.

You mentioned when first-year students come into your program, they often need to be exposed to a new way of thinking about religion. With that being said, how do Indonesians typically approach the ideas of multiculturalism or interreligious relations in their communities?

I think for many Indonesians, the idea of multiculturalism is deeply embedded in their minds, thinking, feelings, and hearts. Since 1945, the Republic of Indonesia has been committed to multiculturalism through the Pancasila state ideology, which carries with it five basic principles of life and living within the framework of the post-colonial nation-state. However, one can be critical of the principles and ideas embedded in Pancasila, specifically the belief in the oneness of God, which obviously gives preference and preeminence to monotheistic religions as opposed to other forms of belief systems.

Nonetheless, you can sense the inherent tolerance between and among religious communities in Indonesia. However, there are problems here and there. I think one of the problems relates to the fairly recent spread of democracy post-reformasi (Indonesian political reform since 1998, following the downfall of Suharto’s New Order regime), specifically in terms of freedom of speech. Some Indonesians are still trying to grasp the difference between practicing freedom of speech and engaging in hate speech, while denouncing the religious others. This is something that we have seen increasing exponentially in post-reformasi. With the rampant use of social media, the problem has been further exacerbated. These changes have created new problems with respect to how some groups in society seem to hold a monopoly over absolute truth and are expressing themselves in ways that are inconsistent with the kind of ideology and societal norms that Indonesians have worked so hard to create.

Another example adding to these issues is the persistent war in Syria. In the past five years or so, the war has contributed to increasing intolerance, especially against the Shi'as, who are seen as the public enemy number one because many Indonesians perceive Bashar Al-Assad as being pro-Shi'a, supported by Iran and Russia. There have been a lot of similar developments lately, and I think the government needs to step in and try to get people to better understand how these developments are negatively influencing our society, and have deteriorated the state of interreligious relations in the country. And that is where our work comes in. We have been intensively engaging academic and religious communities, the media, and policymakers, inviting them to our workshops and conferences. Fortunately, they are open in trying to see and approach these problems from different angles. One of the most recent initiatives is through the creation of a prototype system on an interfaith weather station, which was supported by the U.S. State Department.

That sounds like a really interesting project. Could you explain it in more detail?

The main objective of our project is to preempt, prevent, and mitigate intrareligious and interreligious conflicts. The interfaith weather station idea developed out of my restlessness about the persistent, ongoing, and seemingly increasing intrareligious and interreligious conflicts in Indonesia. Scientifically speaking, my concern posits on the shortcomings of post-factum analyses. After engaging in post-factum analyses on conflicts throughout my research, I began to ask myself: Is there any way to prevent these conflicts? Is it at all possible to develop an early warning system to preempt such social disasters?

Our prototype system will be the first of its kind. However, we have been inspired by and learned a lot from the tsunami early warning systems that we have here in Indonesia, following the catastrophic disaster, which occurred in December 2004 in Aceh. The logic is simple: we cannot stop tsunamis from happening, but, being able to better predict when they might occur will help mitigate potential damage and loss of lives. The same logic applies to our interfaith weather station prototype system; while conflicts are always going to happen in some shape or form, by being able to predict when and where they will happen, we can reduce casualties, damages to property, and avoid having the conflict spillover to other places.

However, we have encountered some struggles in the research process. Defining religious conflict itself is highly problematic. I believe that there is no such thing as a purely religious conflict. Some, if not most of it, stems from political, social, and economic factors. With that being said, any conflict that carries a religious element can be considered our main target of analysis. What we have in mind is to have monitoring offices in some provinces and monitor various forms of social activity and interaction to look for symptoms of intolerance, which could potentially create conflict or generate collective violence. In constructing the interfaith weather station, my team and I have developed broad categories such as: sunny, cloudy, drizzly, rainy, and stormy, each having its own conceptual and operational definitions. Ultimately, we hope to create a mobile application that will show the state of interreligious relations in Indonesia on a dashboard, and weather forecasts for various provinces and districts. As a starter, we have begun our prototype system with four provinces: Jakarta, Yogyakarta, South Sulawesi, and Central Sulawesi. We plan to expand this prototype system to include not only other provinces and districts in Indonesia, but also other countries in Southeast Asia. I am already in talks with friends in Malaysia and Singapore. The European Union has expressed its interest in supporting our project. But we are open to any and all kinds of proposal for collaboration.

What is the one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

Well, I would like to see more mutual respect and cooperation between and among the vast number of religious communities in Indonesia. But more importantly, I would like to see some reform in the education system. In Indonesia, religion is a part of the curriculum in our public school system. However, most students only learn about their own religious tradition. There is not enough of interreligious, cross-cultural learning, or even attempts to learn about the religious others. Fortunately, I had the privilege to attend junior and secondary schools in London. And in their schooling system, there is an effort to have students to learn about different religious traditions. I thus learned about the major religions there: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Judaism, Rastafarianism, to name a few. This is what is lacking in Indonesia. We need to appreciate religious diversity and differences from an early age. This could be accomplished by learning about the different religious traditions in Indonesia instead of focusing solely on one’s own tradition.

What do you enjoy most about the work you are doing?

I love doing research. I love going out, meeting and interviewing people. It’s something that I am most passionate about. It’s a part of who I am. I often tell my students that research is a journey of self-discovery. I really enjoy the fact that there are so many things to be learned about everything, including religion. I see myself always as a student—whether it be a student of Islam, a student of religion in general, or a student of interreligious relations. For me, such a learning process takes place through research and meeting people and observing their work.

I believe that the more we learn about religion, the more we learn about ourselves. The more we learn about the religious others, the more we learn about our own religion, and the more we realize that there is only one religion, and that is humanity. All religions begin and end with humanity. This message relates to the universalistic understanding of religion that has yet to be explored and appreciated by many religious societies and communities, not to mention the laypeople. The more we talk about it, the more we will understand that we are all in this together. There is a verse in the Qur'an that points to this: if God had intended that all human beings be the same and worship in the same way, he could have easily done so. He would have said, Kun (be) and it would have been that way. However, he didn’t. So, it is all part of a divine plan. Thus, we need to work together to respect each other and create this mutual understanding to build upon our humanity. And, that is where interreligious work comes in. The more we talk about the universal aspects of religion, the better. And the more we realize that we are all brothers and sisters in humanity.

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