Interfaith partnerships in the field of development: a way forward for religious pluralism in Indonesia?

  • Gustav Brown
22 February, 2018

Muslim-Christian interactions are growing more common in the field of development. Many of these interactions are fraught, with community activists questioning the motives of faith-based organisations (FBOs) run by those professing different religions.

Indonesia, a society that is 88% Muslim but committed to a state-managed form of religious pluralism, offers an example of how Muslim and Christian FBOs can coordinate activities to build trust and gain legitimacy among non-co-religionists. Equally, the success of organisational-level religious pluralism in the field of development stands in contrast to the many other domains where Indonesia’s system of managed pluralism is being challenged, undermined or degraded by religious populism.

Managed pluralism in Indonesia

Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens, which provides legal space for individuals to choose how (or whether) they want to observe their faith.

At the same time, the state privileges six officially recognised faiths: Islam, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese Confucianism. All citizens, with only a few exceptions, must register as belonging to one officially recognised faith, at least nominally.

Religious affiliation, in turn, determines the marriage, burial, and inheritance regulations to which each citizen is subject. Under this system, interfaith marriages are not generally performed, though they are occasionally recognised ex post facto). And while conversion is legal, individuals must officially register changes of religious affiliation with the Ministry of Religious Affairs – a move that carries with it significant legal and administrative consequences in all areas of one’s life. 

This system of managed religious pluralism emerged over several decades, and was a key element of both control and conflict resolution under Suharto’s authoritarian regime. After political transition in 1998, the newly democratic state affirmed its commitment to managed pluralism – notably, with the support of Muslim elites and mass organisations.

However, there are legitimate concerns as to whether managed pluralism can adapt to the era of social media and political populism, which in Indonesia has a religious rather than ethno-racial flavor. 

The system was designed to maintain equality and reduce areas of conflict. It has, for decades, done so by setting and maintaining barriers among religious groups, which in turn dampens competition – for resources, souls and so forth.

At the very least, the system creates the expectation that religious communities will be treated equally and protected from competition. But this can easily turn to disappointment and anger when the reality turns out to be quite different.

In flashpoint localities, Muslims cite Christian evangelism as provocative and aggressive, while Christians cite opposition to the building of churches and schools as a sign of their second-class status in Indonesia. For the former, the authorities do not provide enough protection from competition; for the latter, there is not enough fairness in how authorities treat the two faith communities.

These views are by no means ubiquitous. Other Muslim and Christian Indonesians would say that the system works fine. But the potential for misunderstanding and conflict exists; in some local communities, it is palpable.

Mistrust and managed partnerships in development

One area where managed pluralism continues to prove effective, however, is in the field of development. Here the impetus for managing pluralism has come from civic and social organisations, rather than the state – yet the rationale and implementation of managed pluralism very much follows the established state model.

Mistrust potentially complicates the work of faith-based organizations providing humanitarian relief and development aid, especially along the often-sensitive Muslim-Christian boundary.

After the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004 a number of Christian FBOs entered Aceh, a region known for its conservative approach to Islam. Many sought only to help the displaced and destitute. Others had ulterior motives.

A US-based charity, World Help, became controversial for a plan to raise Acehnese children in a Christian orphanage, where presumably they would be converted. Christian FBOs that did not proselytise were implicated by association. To this day, non-proselytising Christian FBOs struggle to overcome the suspicion that they are proselytising by stealth.  

Over the past decade, Indonesia-based FBOs have increasingly built managed partnerships in order to overcome this mistrust. The idea of managed partnerships emerged from the complexities of post-tsunami relief.

World Vision Indonesia (now Wahana Visi Indonesia, or WVI) was one of the non-proselytising Christian FBOs that came under pressure in the wake of the World Help incident. Its solution was to forge a partnership with the Indonesian Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah; together, the two organisations built a school in Aceh.

When some Acehnese Muslims expressed suspicions about WVI’s motives, Muhammadiyah publicly vouched for them. Later, this model would be taken up by other organisations.   

As Abdul Mu’ti of Muhammadiyah explained to me, these partnerships are reciprocal. While Indonesia is approximately 88% Muslim, many of its remote Eastern regions are majority Christian. There, locals often hold analogous suspicions of Islamic organisations – that they seek to convert, or more often that they seek to undermine the position of Christians in their communities.

As with evangelism-by-stealth, there is precedent for these fears: during the 1990s, Indonesia’s authoritarian regime enacted a form of affirmative action for Muslims in majority Christian regions, engendering resentment. Thus, managed partnerships with Christian FBOs help Muhammadiyah enter areas where its activities might otherwise engender hostility.

Today Indonesia’s major FBOs manage relations through the Humanitarian Forum Indonesia (HFI), founded by Muhammadiyah, WVI and five other Muslim and Christian FBOs.

The forum serves as a place for FBOs to discuss common problems, share knowledge and coordinate activities. HFI does not include all of Indonesia’s FBOs; the proselytising Christian and Muslim organisations that create or exacerbate problems between the communities are notably absent.

Consequently, HFI’s effectiveness in conflict prevention is limited. What it can do, however, is provide a structure for interfaith partnership in areas of common interest. By extension, it helps facilitate a narrative of cooperation and mutual aid, an everyday form of lived pluralism.   

Thus, at a moment when Indonesia’s state-managed system of religious pluralism appears weakened, Indonesian FBOs demonstrate the importance of visible, public cooperation across religious lines – not only at the elite level, where it is relatively common, but also in local communities. Equally, the ways in which Indonesian FBOs proactively manage relationships among themselves, and provide each other with mutual legitimation, may serve as a model for successful cooperation between Muslim and Christian FBOs outside Indonesia.

This post is part of a series on Religion and NGOs edited by R Michael Feener and Philip Fountain. Read their introductory post here and all posts in the series here.

The series has been produced out of a collaborative research project on ‘Religion and NGOs’ led by R Michael Feener, and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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About the author(s)
Gustav Brown