Toward a More Peaceful Society

Yenny Wahid discusses a new people-to-people partnership between the US and Indonesia to promote tolerance and pluralism

By Mary R. Silaban and Gilang Ardana
Friday, November 4, 2016

As countries with strong and varied religious traditions, the US and Indonesia can learn much from each other on issues of tolerance within a diverse society. This was the thinking behind a joint declaration by President Joko Widodo and President Barack Obama in October 2015 during President Widodo’s visit to the US, which led directly to the creation of the Indonesia-US Council on Religion and Pluralism.

The council, which held its inaugural meeting in Yogyakarta in August, is an independent, bi-national, and non-governmental body consisting of religious leaders, scholars, civil society figures and media executives from both countries.

It aims to be a platform for both countries to increase religious understanding, mutual respect, and collaboration; identify and foster positive civic and religious education models that promote analytical thinking and respect; as well as to empower civil society to deter violent extremism.

Currently it has two co-chairs, from the US, Imam Jihad Turk, the founding president of Bayan Claremont, an innovative Islamic graduate school in California; and Yenny Wahid, the director of The Wahid Institute, representing Indonesia.

To learn more about the council, its goals and methods, AmCham Indonesia met with Yenny Wahid. Given her experience as one of the country’s leading activists for the promotion of pluralism, tolerance and understanding, we also asked her views on these issues in Indonesia and the US.

AmCham Indonesia: How did the US-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism start?

Yenny Wahid: When President Joko Widodo went to Washington, DC in October last year, there was a sort of an agreement stated in the joint declaration between the two presidents that there would be a deeper partnership over religious tolerance issues. However, this partnership is not to be done through the government-to-government track, but rather through the people-to-people track, with the governments’ help. It was also decided that USINDO [The United States-Indonesia Society] will facilitate all the projects in this program.  

We want to retain the independence that we have from the government due to our people-to-people concept. So in our funding, the government does not have a nibble at it. This independence from the government can also make us critical on some issues. The first meeting has already happened in Yogyakarta and during that meeting we formed our executive committee, with me as co-chair from Indonesia and Imam Jihad Turk from the US.

The main objective [of the council] is to deepen the relationship between the two countries on certain issues, in this case religion and pluralism. This matters because both countries are known for their multicultural societies and each have their own challenges. So, there is a wish that we can both learn from each other through this medium. Indonesia can share how to manage society as the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, who are quite moderate, and the US can share about freedom of expression, the separation of religion and state and many other things.

The Council has representatives from all five main religions in Indonesia, including minorities like Confucianism, and consists of a board of advisors and executive officers. We also have members from various backgrounds, from religious leaders to scholars and former government officials.

Do you think the values that the US has, such as a clear separation between religion and state, are possible in and/or positive goals for Indonesia?

Each country has its own challenges and characteristics because of the different sets of rules applied in the country due to its Constitution. In the US, there is a clear division between church and state, whereas here [in Indonesia] the line is more blurry. For example, there is no room for atheism in Indonesia. But in the US the big debate is usually between the religious groups and rational ones [atheists]. In Indonesia, the debate is about the tyranny of the majority over the minorities and it happens all across Indonesia.

We are hoping in the future that we will have a lot of exchanges of information so both sides can learn from each other to solve the issues they have.

Do you think Indonesia is wasting its resources and time in having to deal with all these religious conflicts?

First of all, we need to understand that this is not only happening in Indonesia, it’s a global phenomenon. I think what Indonesia needs to do is to manage its key priorities and figure out where to put the religion issue and Indonesia needs to learn from other countries’ experiences as well.

The religion issue is not just about religion, but also about politics that uses religion as a tool. In many other countries we can find similar cases, but packaged differently. For example, immigration issues in US politics, or ethnicity and religion issues in our upcoming Jakarta governor election. However, they are all basically the same thing, which is using people’s fear so that they react in a panicky way. This is how conflict is created. What we need to do is to build resilience for the society in this country to counter that, and see things in a more rational perspective.

Bigotry and hatred have always existed. But now, with the help of social media, the speed at which information travels is different than before. The multiplying effect of information is rapidly spreading, even before the source of information itself gets verification on whether it is a hoax or the truth.

There is also the influx of radical thinking coming from abroad, where we are being influenced into thinking in a black and white way, especially Muslims after the Wahabi influence coming in from the Middle East. But this has been going on for 30 years, so it is nothing new, it is just in the past people were not exposed to that as much as they are now. But not only radical Muslims, there are radical Christian missionaries coming into Indonesia with their influence. Social media, one-on-one meetings, preaching and now politics all play a role in amplifying the message.

How mature are Indonesians in differentiating between religion itself and religion used as a political tool?

Look at the US, for example. You would have thought that with hundreds of years of tradition in democracy, the US would be more mature than many other countries. But then you have the current presidential election and it makes you wonder. So it is not about maturity. I do not know what is missing and what we need. I think the concept and tradition of critical thinking is very strong in the US, but then why do people still absorb information without digesting it first? Why do people allow politicians to make these factless comments?

Indonesia actually needs to develop critical thinking and strengthen our tradition of tolerance. It is actually already in our traditions and DNA, this is how we were brought up. But we need to dig deeper and unearth that tolerance tradition and use it in our daily conduct.

For example, in Kudus, a town in Central Java, they have a local dish soto kerbau made from buffalo meat. It started because Sunan Kudus, who was a prominent Islamic leader in the past, told his pupils to not slaughter cows in respect for the Hindus who were living in the area. We do not have to go beyond our own borders to find these kind of stories and we are living it in our modern life now.

I think we turned into a less tolerant society like what we see now mainly because of politicians playing around with religion.

In the US as well this is happening, even with the fact that most immigrants are the biggest contributors to their economy compared to the ones receiving social welfare funds. American politicians often say otherwise without any fact checking just to please the frustrations of the anti-immigrant supporters.

Another example is when the US went through the Prohibition era, the banning of alcohol. Indonesia is going that way just now. But we can learn to assess the law by looking at the US experience during those times – that hurt business, and not only that the sale of illegal and bootlegged liquor was so widespread that it became very dangerous.

How serious is the government in handling this issue?

The government is taking this seriously. But this issue is a sensitive one. Sometimes the government feels lost on what to do, and we find it with other issues as well. That is why we need to strengthen the understanding of civic rights among government officials. Maybe the central government understands this, but local governments don’t. So there are plenty of rights of the people that have not been fulfilled by the local governments.

What programs is the Council planning?

Our main program is case studies and the exchange of information and lessons learned between the two countries.

One of the programs that we can offer to the US is on deradicalization. For example, there are many actors in Indonesia who are effective in deradicalization programs, from law enforcement to the civil society. In the US, civil society is not yet in sync with the government. We can show them the model to make civil society keep its independence but still be able to help the government so that there would not be any suspicion between the two groups. In my own foundation, we often invite ex-terrorists to talk to people about their past as part of the deradicalization process.

We also have lots of exchange programs between scholars, students, youth and basically anyone who is interested. There are also conferences to sharpen our ideas and determine how to deal with the issues. Research is also key because in that component there is counter extremism. Without any good research, we cannot come up with a good program. We also look at education models, both religious and moral education, that could strengthen religious understanding and tolerance.

We also have programs designed for youth. For example, facilitating youth in the digital world, how to get them more concerned about tolerance and engaging them to promote tolerance. These will be conducted in both countries. Our working group discussions are done through Skype to keep them going effectively. We are hoping the results of our research will be useful for the governments.

How do you plan to engage with corporates to support the Council?

We will try to engage with them through conversations and offer them the opportunity to support the funding of one of our programs, whether it is the exchange program or research, any kind of support is welcomed. We would even appreciate it if they offer technological support rather than money.

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