The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar shows that it can be a formidable challenge to live as a minority group in an oppressive society. Minority voices cannot resound too loudly, they have to hush their sadness or joy, be careful in expressing their aspirations, so that the powerful majority does not alienate them.
It is not entirely about ethnic or religious differences. In many parts of the world, conflict and tension arise because majorities feel superior, while minorities see themselves otherwise, regardless of religion or ethnicity. The combination of unchecked majority arrogance and the apathy of a minority can spiral out of control into a humanitarian tragedy.
In my hometown of Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara, the Muslim minority is actually a relatively lucky group. We live in harmony with Protestants and Catholics. There’s no room for prejudice and intolerance. The outbreak of violence between religious groups in November 1998 has taught us that no-one wins in such a conflict. Winning becomes charcoal, losing is like ash, as the Indonesian saying goes.
The spirit of harmony in our city is pretty strong. I was shocked when a speech by Victor Bungtilu Laiskodat, a National Democratic Party (NasDem) politician from Kupang, was labeled hate speech after it went viral and made headlines across the country in August. Accusing Victor of insulting Islam, several organizations, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the Indonesian Muslim Forum (FUI) and the Islamic Preaching Council (DDII), threatened to start a national campaign to defend their religion, a move that echoed similar protests against former Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
Even the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) got involved to prevent provocation. It was a political speech, so the issue should be resolved through legal or political channels. Until now, the police are still investigating the case.
I have no desire to judge who is right and who is wrong. I only regret how this political speech from East Nusa Tenggara went viral and provoked a nationwide response, involving the FPI, FUI and DDII – all of which are far away in Jakarta.
Not many know that at the same time, the indigenous Nataia community and Catholics in the village of Aeramo in Nagekeo district, also in East Nusa Tenggara, were busy helping the local Muslim community build a mosque.
On Aug. 10, the village’s Catholic majority took part in the cornerstone ceremony. The village head, Serevinus Mena, himself a Catholic, said that while religion is important, brotherhood and friendship matter more. He realized that the new building was necessary, as the last one, built in 1983, was no longer fit for purpose, both in its structure and size.
For the Muslim minority in East Nusa Tenggara, what happened in Aeramo village was not by chance or coincidence. It was part of a historical process. More than 200 years ago, the Baitul Qodim Mosque in Airmata village became the first Islamic place of worship in Kupang. It was built by Muslim sailors from East Flores and the village’s Christian community.
This story was similar when the mosque in Airmata was renovated in 1994. On a Sunday, the local priest asked the head of the mosque, Imam Birando, to stop the construction work because it disturbed a church service. The imam agreed. In the afternoon, members of the congregation left the church and showed up in droves to help the Muslim community renovate the mosque.
It is perhaps not surprising that, when the religious conflict broke out in Kupang in November 1998 and dozens of mosques were burnt down, Baitul Qodim was one of only three left untouched. Airmata residents knew that the mosque was built with the sweat and tears of both Muslims and non-Muslims.
It is not only Muslims who have benefited from the tolerance in East Nusa Tenggara, however. Non-Muslims have too. Let me take you on a visit to Ilawe, a small corner of Alor district, where you will find a church called GKPB Mata Jemaat Ismail, better known as Ismail’s Church, which was built in 1949.
It is unusual for a church to bear the name Ismail. But according to village elder Ahmad Karim Alen and the church’s priest Mesak Lobanbil, it was named after a Muslim man who co-founded the Christian house of worship.
The local authority initially refused to issue a permit for the construction of the church, as there were only four Christian families in the village. But then several Muslims volunteered to add their names to the list, so that all requirements could be met.
That is a clear example of harmony in East Nusa Tenggara. Here, Christmas and Eid are often celebrated by all. During Christmas, members of the Muslim community visit the houses of their non-Muslim neighbors. When it’s Eid, Christians pay courtesy calls to Muslim houses. They enjoy the food and sweet Eid cakes, and often attend the Ramadan celebrations and Koran reading competitions. It is quite common for non-Muslims to be involved in the organizing committees of Eid events.
Most students at the Muhammadiyah University of Kupang (UMK) – an Islamic institution – are non-Muslims, with around 70 percent of them Christians, school records show.
The story of East Nusa Tenggara’s Muslim minority is an interesting example, because the province, according to the 2010 census, has the lowest Muslim population in Indonesia – only 9 percent, lower than Bali (13 percent) and much lower than Papua (16 percent), North Sulawesi (31 percent) and West Papua (38 percent). In contrast, the country’s total population is around 87 percent Muslim.
In the four other Muslim-minority provinces, religious harmony and tolerance are also strong. In Papua, they have a saying: “One hearth and three stones,” which symbolizes how local wisdom is made up of different religious traditions.
A traditional hearth uses three stones that are neatly arranged so cooking pots can be balanced on top and wood can be easily slid underneath to make a fire. The parable says the three stones represent Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. Without the three stones, the balance in society would be shaken. This type of analogy is found not only in Papua, but also in other eastern Indonesian communities, including East Nusa Tenggara.
In North Sulawesi, a long time before Indonesia became independent, followers of Imam Bonjol, Pangeran Diponegoro and Kyai Modjo arrived in the province and blended in with the local community. Dozens of Muslim soldiers who followed Kyai Modjo and arrived at that time went on to court and marry Tondano Christian girls from Minahasa.
The history of tolerance in Bali is also worth considering.
When traveling to the island, one can visit Puja Mandala in Nusa Dua, Badung, which is often referred to as a symbol of Indonesia’s diversity. In the complex, you will find five places of worship: the Great Ibnu Batutah Mosque, the Maria Bunda Segala Bangsa Catholic Church, the GKPB Jemaat Bukit Doa Protestant Church, the Pura Jagatnatha and the Vihara Buddha Guna.
These stories are all good examples of Indonesia’s pluralism. But there are still many bitter stories that are impossible to forget.
My family still remembers clearly the destruction of our village mosque in Oebufu village in Kupang, and how we were forced to temporarily flee to Madura, East Java.
Nineteen years later, we don’t forget, but we are not vengeful. We have learnt and grown from that experience.
We also hope the conflicts of the past, which involved Muslim minorities in Ambon, Poso and Tolikara, will become a lesson for our nation. At the present time, we need to be mindful of several sensitive issues. Negative political campaigns against non-Muslim leaders, desires to establish an Islamic state, terrorism and the misguided use of the term “kafir,” can inspire hatred against Muslim minorities.
By writing this, I do not wish to say that all minorities are tolerant. Those in a majority can also be tolerant, and those in a minority can also be extremely intolerant. I just want to call on Indonesian Muslims, who usually find themselves in the majority, to once in a while consider what it means to be a minority. By doing this, maybe we’ll be able to appreciate more the beauty of peace and harmony in diversity.