Negotiating Religious and National Identities in Contemporary Indonesian Islamic Education

By Pohl, Florian | Cross Currents, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Religious and National Identities in Contemporary Indonesian Islamic Education


Pohl, Florian, Cross Currents


Indonesia's political transformation since the fall of Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime in May 1998 has been nothing short of remarkable. For the third time, general elections were held in July 2009 in which Indonesians elected the national and regional legislative assemblies and directly chose a president. Largely peaceful and supported by organizations from a wide ideological and religious spectrum, these elections measure as a great success in the country's ongoing democratization process. Recent surveys, moreover, show the general openness and moderate outlook of the Indonesian Muslim population on questions of democracy, civil rights, and interfaith tolerance (Esposito and Mogahed 2007, Mujani 2007). (1) This trend toward participatory politics, perhaps surprisingly to some, has coincided with a notable resurgence of Islamic identity among the majority Muslim population. Measured by such indicators of personal piety as belief in God and performance of the five daily prayers, Indonesian Muslims rank well ahead of their sisters and brothers in other Muslim-majority nations (Hassan 2007). Similarly, polling data suggest growing support for Islamic-based law among a strong majority of Indonesian Muslims (Pew Global Attitudes Project 2011).

The perceived tension between these two currents has raised the question of how compatible the formation of a democratic public and political sphere is with the persistent revival of Islamic identity among the majority Muslim population. Such concerns have been heightened by a growing number of inner-and interreligious conflicts. The list of some of the most visible events includes the 2005 fatwa of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) condemning pluralism, secularism, and liberalism (Gillespie 2007), the violent attacks by members of Muslim vigilante organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) on participants in a rally for religious freedom at Jakarta's National Monument in June 2008, and, since 2008, a string of attacks on Christian and Ahmadiyah places of worship, particularly in West Java (International Crisis Groups [ICG] 2010). Finally, the hotel bombings of July 2009 in Jakarta, which were reminiscent of attacks in Bali and Jakarta between 2002 and 2005, are the latest reminder of the threat militant Muslim groups pose to communal harmony and peace in Indonesia.

Building trust across ideological and communal boundaries and promoting a public discourse marked by civility and respect for the rights of others are particularly significant within a country that is as religiously diverse as Indonesia. In light of inter-and intra-religious tensions, the need arises for new frameworks that allow the accommodation of religious diversity in a context characterized by strong confessional identities and convictions. Increasingly, this need is impacting how educational systems engage issues of religious diversity, co-citizenship, tolerance, and mutual understanding in their schools and curricula. Whereas experiences of ethnic and religious conflict have led to interfaith-oriented models of religious education in some Muslim-majority countries, such more inclusive approaches to religious education still are the exception in Indonesia. The continued prevalence of confessional models, however, does not indicate a lack of concern among Indonesian Muslim educators for civic education, inclusive citizenship, and interfaith harmony. This article highlights important educational programs and approaches through which different Islamic institutions have responded to the pluralist-democratic transformation in the post-Suharto era. These developments, it will become clear, not only reflect broader social and political trends but also indicate the significant political role Indonesia's Islamic schools play in shaping the ongoing public discourse on Islam and multi-religious citizenship.

Islamic education and Muslim schools in Indonesia

Islamic education is a potent source of identity formation in Indonesia. …

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