In 1999, just months following the downfall of Suharto dictatorial regime, and continuing for more than three years, the Moluccas, stretching from North Maluku and Ambon to Banda and Southeast Maluku, experienced tragic sagas of Christian-Muslim violence. The communal conflicts took some tens of thousands of casualties, resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and caused the deliberate destruction of urban and sub-urban areas. Apart from the 1975 and 1999 military onslaughts in East Timor (now Timor-Leste) and the 1965/66 anti-Communist pogroms, communal conflicts in the Moluccas were the most shocking violence ever seen in the history of modern Indonesia.
Focusing on North Maluku province, this book (Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia, by Christopher Duncan) is an attempt to explain and ‘make a sense’ of this dreadful event. Much has been written about this interreligious violence, either by Indonesian scholars or Western observers. Most writing on the Moluccas’ collective conflicts focuses mainly on two aspects, namely causation and chronology.
Scholars focusing on the root causes of the Moluccas violence usually put emphasis on (1) the legacy of the New Order’s unjust policies and (2) the political economic dimensions, while those emphasising chronology tend to document, in Duncan’s phrase, ‘the who did what to whom, where, and when’ (9) aspects of the violence. Duncan’s study in this book emphasises at least three significant issues or themes that are greatly missing from most previous and existing works on the Moluccas conflict.
These three issues are, first, the historical legacies of colonial (Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese) and post-colonial government (Old Order and New Order) and society, including the role of European Christian missionaries (Spanish Catholics and Dutch Reformed Protestants) as well as local Christian leaders and ministers that could provide a fertile ground for the Maluku conflict to erupt (22–46).
Duncan argues that the Dutch Reformed Christianity in particular, added with contemporary American-typed Pentecostalism, have contributed to the destruction of local traditions and cultures as well as a process of ‘militanization’ of North Moluccan Christians. Not only Christianity, the book also describes the role of reform Islam and reformist Muslim organisations that reached the region before Indonesia gained its independence in 1945 that, like Reformed / Pentecostal Christianity, could contribute to the ‘radicalization process’ of local Muslim societies.
As for the historical part, the author makes another crucial point that, unlike local narratives that tend to portray Christian-Muslim harmony before the communal violence, he depicts the prolonged history of North Maluku’s Christian-Muslim rivalry and tensions ever since the Spanish colonisers landed in the region. The second essential issue analysed in the book deals with post-violence situations, reconciliation, and peacebuilding (105– 168).
Unlike most previous studies of the Moluccas violence that primarily focus on the explanations and analyses of roots, actors, and dynamics of the conflict, the book not only examines the ‘nature’ of the fighting but also discusses issues of post-violence conditions, including how local societies struggle to achieve just-peace and civil coexistence. The third vital issue, which comprises the bulk of the book’s arguments and analyses, concerns the role of religion, which includes beliefs, identities, social networks, material culture, texts, symbols, teachings, discourses, or imagery, in the conflict settings of North Maluku (1–21).
It is imperative to note once again, that most scholars of the Moluccas conflict mostly ignore the role of religion or omit religious framing for the fighting, arguing that the underlying motives of actors engaged in the violence are merely politics and economy. For them, religion is only used as a tool to attain political and economic aims.
In other words, the creed is used to conceal the greed. In contrast, building on narratives of ‘grassroots actors’—both perpetrators and victims—Duncan argues that religion, while acknowledging political and economic factors, does matter in the conflict and contributes to influencing Christian fighters and Muslim militias on the ground.
Unlike claims made by most observers of the Moluccas conflict, Duncan found that ‘political and economic issues were actually just camouflage for the true religious goals of the violence’, namely ‘the destruction of a particular religious community’ (3). Building on Bruce Lincoln’s model of religion, which divides religion into four domains of varying significance: discourse, practice, community, and institution, Duncan provides explanations of how religion worked and functioned during the communal strife by paying attention to the central role of identity politics, religious networks, and elites, as well as religious ideas, symbols, and actions.
By paying heed to these vital domains of religion, Duncan suggests that any attempt to analyse interreligious violence, like that of North Maluku, one needs to incorporate ‘narratives of divine interpretation and performative acts of violence that call on religious discourse’ (5), alongside an analysis of political economy of the conflict. As Duncan makes it clear, interpretations and reinterpretations of religious narratives and discourses produced and reproduced by North Maluku’s local actors of violence— within Christianity and Islam—could influence, shape, reshape, and sustain the mayhem.
By focusing on narratives and perspectives of ‘those who did the killing or witnessed the dying’, and not the ‘objective academic analysis based on media reports and interviews with regional and national elites’ (8), Duncan makes a compelling argument of how religion influences people’s violent actions in the North Maluku conflict.
In brief, for Duncan, while religion never acts autonomously as a cause of conflict, ignoring its role completely would preclude a proper understanding of the North Maluku violence. Notwithstanding its enormous contributions for the studies of the Moluccas conflict, the book has some weaknesses that call for further review. It does not elaborate the plurality of Muslim groupings, including reformist ones, which might have played a different role during the turmoil.
As well, it does not explain profoundly particular religious texts, ideas, teachings, symbols, and discourses used by local Christian fighters and Muslim militias to support their violent acts during the communal riots. What or which Biblical/Christian or Qur’anic/Islamic narratives that were employed and produced by local religious groups to support violence and vengeance. While arguing religious contributions of violence, the book also does not discuss religious potentials for peacemaking and reconciliation.
In the conflict settings where religion plays its important part, ‘religious ambiguity’ always takes place. This is to say that while religion can be used or misused by ‘religious extremists’ to heighten and sustain their violent deeds, it can also be productively utilised by ‘religious peacemakers’ to boost reconciliatory and peacebuilding endeavours.
Even during the course of violence, religious actors tend to use ambivalent, complex, plural religious resources for different purposes, whether to support and intensify tensions and violence or to endorse intergroup harmony and peace. The biggest challenge for a researcher of a ‘religious conflict’, which Duncan missed, is how to engage with these particular religious groupings— the radicals and peacemakers—and excavate their understandings and interpretations on the role of religion for social relations during and after the violence.
As well, more importantly, a researcher of a religious conflict needs to pay attention to the shifting phenomena of local religious actors in the conflict settings: from a radical to a peace activist, for instance. The book regrettably does not highlight this issue. Despite these lacunae, however, the book is no doubt a welcome edition for the studies of religious conflict and conciliation, not only in North Maluku or Indonesia but also in other parts of the world that are plagued by interreligious tensions.
Source: Anthropological Forum