At first, I was beaming with proud to hear the “good news” that Indonesian Minister of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali would accept the proposal of a dialogue to resolve the “Sampang tragedy” between local Sunnis and Shiites, who were recently involved in a violent conflict that resulted in three deaths, tens of injuries (including women and children), and the destruction of the school and mosque. Other followers of Shia, the targeted group, were found hiding in a forest out of sight from the angry attackers—the Sunnis.
However, I was soon dismayed by his “silly” comments noting that conversion of Shi’a followers to Sunnism is the best solution to avoid further attacks as was the case of Ahmadis (the followers of Ahmadiyah sect) in some places in West Java, who were forcibly converted to Sunnism.
Dialogue, thus, is a means of converting Shiites.
Rather than protecting the religious and individual rights of the Shiites as a minority group and the victims in the “Sampang clash,” the Minister even “terrorized” them, theologically, by denouncing Shia as a deviant Islamic sect, and that the conversion of Shiites to Sunnism, which he believes as a “true and right” Islamic school of thought (mazhab), became an “apt answer” to resolve the intergroup violence in Sampang of Madura and other anti-Shiite riots in Indonesia.
Still, rather than condemning the attackers as human rights criminals that need to be brought to justice, the minister’s insensitive comments seemed to give “endorsement” to the perpetrators.
No wonder then that many human rights activists, interfaith dialogue practitioners, and moderate religious leaders in the archipelago, including Said Aqiel Siradj, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest independent Muslim organizations, strongly criticized the minister, and urged him to publicly apologize and retract his previous statement that denounced Shia as a deviant sect. A graduate of Mecca’s Umm al-Qura University, Said, along with other moderate Muslim leaders, moreover, regarded Shia as part of Islamic religion, which all Muslims, whatever their sects, schools, parties, and organizations, need to show respect.
I agree that dialogue is needed to resolve disputes and achieve reconciliation among the conflicting parties, but its main goal is not to convert the Shiites. Rather, the primary objective of it is to attain mutual respect and understanding between Sunnis and Shiites. No doubt, dialogue is a vital “cultural approach” for establishing inter- and intra-religious harmony and peace. Dialogue in this context does not mean “face-to-face conversations” in seminars, discussions, workshops, or other public debates and formal forums; instead it is an ongoing communication process to understand thoughts, minds, worldviews, teachings, systems of belief, and philosophies of life of other communities.
As its most basic, religious dialogue is a simple concept: persons of different faiths (or different sects and schools of thoughts—mazhab) meeting to have a conversation. But the character of the conversation and the purpose of having the talk are not simple to describe or categorize since they cover a variety of types. Professor of interreligious dialogue at Temple University, Leonard Swidler, as cited by David Smock (2002: 6) in the book Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding, describes religious dialogue as “a conversation among people of different faiths [or the same religion but different sect] on a common subject, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that s/he can change and grow.” Swidler, moreover, affirms that religious dialogue can operate in three areas: the “practical” (collaboration of different religious groups to help humanity), the “spiritual” (experiencing “from within” by participating in the religious practices of other groups), and the “cognitive” (seeking knowledge and understanding of the others).
Dialogue is, thus, a cultural bridge to air deadlock, to enhance mutual awareness, to foster joint activities, and even to transform relationships between members of conflicting groups. Dialogue is an effective communication tool to create mutual understanding and mutual trust among warring parties. Tensions, disturbances, and conflicts happened because of a lack of communication. Human rights’ violations occur, for the most part, because of a lack of dialogue. Dialogue, then, requires commitment and willingness to seek “other truths,” not to force “our truth to others.”
In brief, religious dialogue can take a wide variety of forms, ranging from joint appeals by high-level religious leaders for an end to fighting, to attempts to develop mutual understanding and the recognition of shared values and interests, to grassroots efforts to encourage repentance and promote reconciliation. These types of ongoing, healthy and constructive dialogue can function as a way to move from the perspective of, in Milton Bennett’s terms, “ethnocentrism” to “ethnorelativism.” In his “Towards Ethorelativism,” Milton Bennett (1993, 1-51) defines the word “ethnocentric” as “assuming that the worldview of one’s own culture is central to all reality,” while fundamental to ethnorelativism is “the assumption that cultures can only be understood relative to one another and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context.”
Those who have actively engaged in interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural encounters realize that moving from an ethnocentric perspective to an ethno-relative one is a lengthy, tiring journey. Here, those involved in the dialogue process need a strong commitment, significant motivation, and sincere intention to totally engage with “outsiders” for the sake of inter-group peace, tolerance, and harmony.
Given the vitality of dialogue for resolving conflict, Hans Kung, president of the Foundation for a Global Ethic, one of international NGOs promoting religious dialogue and peace, noted that dialogue is the key for the creation of global peacebuilding. And the key of successful dialogue, Kung reminds us in his A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, lies in the search of the foundations of each religion. One cannot condemn other religions or sects as deviant or illicit based on his/her own believes.
Only through a religious dialogue, as the way I sketched above, can the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Sampang and elsewhere in Indonesia be wisely resolved. Otherwise, the tension will become a ticking bomb in the years to come.
Source: The Jakarta Post