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     Volume 11 |Issue 45| November 16, 2012 |


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For Tolerance or Fanaticism?

Samsul Maarif

Indonesia is a country where religious education is taught to school students probably in the most extensive way in the world. Religious education is compulsory for students from elementary to high schools.

On the other hand, the country is also a place where violence involving different religious groups is rampant. Conflicts between followers of a religion or different religions have marked the country's history.

One may therefore ask: "Is there any correlation between the two facts?"

In public schools, all official five religions, except probably the newest, Confucianism, are taught as compulsory subjects. Students have the right to study the religion they embrace, which may suggest that the national curriculum promotes pluralism or at least acknowledges religious diversity.

The Indonesian curriculum adopts the "monoreligious model". Photo: Zahedul I Khan

In line with the National Education Law, the curriculum requires that each public school provide a course(s) of religion according to the religion their students believe and adhere to.

If a school has Muslim students, it must provide courses on Islam. If it has few Buddhists, for instance, the school does not have to hire a Buddhist teacher, but it requires its students see someone in a Buddhist community from which they can learn Buddhism and earn credits for the courses. This rule is seemingly a way of accommodating religious diversity.

The way the curriculum of religion works is that Islam can only be taught to Muslims, and not to others. Muslim students in a school are not facilitated to know about other religions, even though other religions, like Christianity or Hinduism, are taught in their schools. Students are segregated in studying (their own) religions.

The curriculum clearly adopts the "monoreligious model". The model, as Carl Sterken explains, emphasises that norms and values of religion being taught for students to comply with. A truth claim is accepted and unquestioned. Moreover, religions in this model are perceived mainly as dogma, and so taught dogmatically.

Students therefore are not to learn religions of others. They are prevented from studying other religions in order to keep the truth claim of their own religion unquestioned and unchallenged.

Sterkens elaborates that unquestioned truth claims have two variants: exclusive and inclusive. The claim is exclusive if other religions are viewed as positive insofar as they have similarities to the claim. It is inclusive if other religions are considered positive as far as they share the basic, fundamental element of religion. For instance, as long as a religion has a doctrinal concept of the oneness of God, it is positive to Islam. According to Sterkens this Islamic truth claim is inclusive.

If the national curriculum religious education adopts the monoreligious model, can we expect students, who take courses of religions for nine years, to learn and practice religious tolerance?

What is clear about the curriculum for the nine years of education - from elementary to high level - is that it focuses on dogmatic and ritual aspects of a religion. Religion is taught so that students may become religious. Nothing of course is wrong with being religious, except if it leads to "fanaticism" and a belief that only one's own religion is valid to exist.

Such national curriculum seems to contribute to religious fanaticism, though not necessarily the "active" one, which justifies violence in the name of religion. Cases of this include, among others, acts of terrorism and attacks on minority religious groups considered deviant or blasphemous.

One may argue that such an "active" fanaticism is quantitatively too small for accounting impact of the national religious education.

None should disagree with this argument.

The "passive" kind of fanaticism is, however, widespread. It is sadly surprising to hear responses of people on cases of attack on minority religious groups that the use of violence against them is legitimate. These people are neither militant members of an extremist group nor politicians.

They are farmers, villagers, taxi drivers, warung (kiosk) owners or other kinds of lay people. They are too busy with their survival, but when they hear that followers of non-mainstream religious group come under attack, they tolerate the act of violence. They are much more scared of religious differences than violence.

When asked about their responses, they replied, "That's what we learn in schools. That's what all preachers have said about, haven't they?" These people were referring to what they learned in classes and what they heard from sermons in places of worship.

This qualitative account corresponds with findings of a survey conducted by the Indonesian Survey Circle and the Denny JA Foundation announced on October 21. The survey revealed that most Indonesians are not comfortable living with others with different religious backgrounds.

The survey also found that people whose educational level was not higher than high school had strong attitudes of intolerance toward other believers. This discovery should logically indicate that their attitude of intolerance, or fanaticism in my term, was influenced by their exposure to religious education during their nine years of study in school.

If religious education does not contribute to fanaticism — one may be reluctant to argue so for whatever reasons — it fails to prevent the educated from such attitudes.

This does not mean that religious education has contributed to fanaticism, intolerance or hostility against other believers. Such attitudes are surely caused by many factors. Many stakeholders should together bear the responsibility.

The question left is how effective is the national religious education in promoting tolerance. As long as the monoreligious model remains in place, the outcome would be either fanaticism and intolerance (active or passive) or permissiveness toward fanaticism and intolerance.

The writer is lecturer at the Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School of Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. This article was published in the The Jakarta Post; republished with permission.


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