The air conditioning hums quietly. Neon strip lights illuminate the seminar room on the third floor of the postgraduate studies building at the renowned Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. They shine down on a mixed gathering of students, the diversity of which is immediately evident: headscarves alongside loose flowing hair, batik shirts alongside polo shirts.
The Muslim Ahmed from Egypt sits next to the Protestant Jerson from the Philippines. The Catholic Indonesian Yohanes opposite his compatriot Nina, a representative of the Muslim minority Ahmadiyya community.
Just as they do every week, doctoral students at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) are meeting for what is known as the Wednesday Forum. The discussion is conducted in English, and today's subject is the root causes of the conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand.
Over the past few weeks, discussions have focussed on subjects such as: "Relevance of Gandhian Philosophy in the 21st Century", "Religious Relations in Tamilnadu" and "Protest through Pictures: Gendered Forms of Coptic Christian Visual Culture".
The ICRS hosts the country's only PhD course in religious studies to be run jointly by a Christian, Muslim and religiously neutral university. Since 2007, the UGM, the Christian university Duta Wacana and the Muslim university Sunan Kalijaga have been working together to educate doctorate students in a programme lasting four years.
Reflecting the pluralist character of society
"For some of our students, it's the first time they have shared a classroom with people of a different faith," explains ICRS Director Siti Syamsiatun. "Religious education in Indonesia is very exclusive, both at state and private schools," says Siti, commenting on what motivated the founders of the ICRS.
"Muslims learn about Islam. Their teachers are Muslims. Christians learn about Christianity. Their teachers are Christians. At an elementary level, that may be sufficient. But not at university level," says Siti. "And in any case, it does not reflect the pluralist character of our society at all."
Religious pluralism has a long tradition in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim-majority population. But this image of peaceful coexistence has begun to show cracks in recent years.
Media reports from Indonesia have been focussed primarily on bad tidings – the terrorist attacks on Bali and Jakarta for example, or the introduction of Sharia law in Aceh, local Muslim opposition to the construction of Christian churches and other centres of worship, and the hounding of Christians or homosexuals by radical Muslim mobs.
Not to mention the decision by the country's constitutional court at the end of April to reject a revision of a blasphemy law from the year 1965, which is repeatedly used to justify the persecution of minorities, because it defines blasphemy as the "distortion" of the central tenets of the six religions officially recognised in Indonesia – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
A deathly silence under Suharto's rule
Zainal Abidin Bagir, Director of the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies (CRCS) at the UGM, one of the three pillars of the inter-faith PhD programme, has campaigned hard with his colleagues through a policy paper arguing for a revision of what he believes is a discriminatory paragraph of the law.
In addition, every year the centre publishes a report on religious coexistence in Indonesia, which highlights both positive and negative developments, as well as outlining recommendations to government, parliament, the judiciary and the nation's religious organisations on how best to safeguard this pluralist society.
"Of course it disappoints me when the judges don't follow our recommendations, as in the case of the blasphemy law. Of course I am concerned by the conflicts between religious representatives, as well as the increasing politicisation of the region," says Zainal. "But we have to be realistic. A consequence of freedom is that we also listen to those voices that were previously suppressed," says Zainal, in a reference to the supposed harmony during a period of dictatorship in Indonesia lasting more than 30 years, a time when instead of dialogue, Suharto's iron rule resulted in something more akin to a deathly silence.
The media even came up with an acronym for the taboo: SARA. It was an unwritten law not to report on problems between suku (tribes), agama (religions), ras (races) and antar golongan (various groups).
Growing intolerance despite dialogue
Indonesia has been a democracy since 1998. And it is viewed as imperative that conflicts of interest are resolved through dialogue. The dismantling of prejudice is part of that process, as the ICRS doctorate student Yohanes Slamet Purwadi experienced first-hand: "My experience had been very bad," reports the 44-year-old, who teaches philosophy at the Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung. "My church was closed after protests by Muslim residents. I perceived Muslims as anti-intellectual and generally fanatical."
Yohanes says that after two years' study at the ICRS, this perception of his Muslim compatriots has changed. "As has their view of the Catholics," he adds.
Franz Magnis-Suseno, a German Jesuit priest with an Indonesian passport who is in demand internationally as key player in inter-faith dialogue, has placed great hope in the young generation and programmes such as that of the ICRS. "Within elite intellectual circles of the Muslim majority society there is a growing number of very pluralist representatives," says Magnis-Suseno.
He is however concerned "that grassroots intolerance appears to be on the rise, due to the increasing influence of radical groups and political movements that increasingly play the Islamic card."
No division between academic and theological religious studies
The patient bridge-builders of Yogyakarta have set out to spawn a new generation of leaders, who will then work to promote dialogue across broad sections of the populace.
In order to do this, the consortium aims to unify basic approaches that are, in the view of ICRS founder Bernard Adenay-Risakotta, too far apart: "Our programme is neither a mono-religious one that only sees religion from a particular perspective, nor is it a secular one that portrays religion as merely an object for study." In this regard, the ICRS aims to avoid the separation between academic and theological religious studies, an approach often in place in the West.
At the same time, through exchange with people of different faiths and those with no faith at all, the programme represents a huge enrichment of what has up to now been a course of study dominated in Indonesia by mono-religious themes.
Exchange with foreign intellectuals
The perspectives of those who study at the ICRS extend further than the parameters set down by their own particular religion. This is also as a result of the interdisciplinary approach of the PhD programme, which encompasses not only religion, but also sociology, anthropology and history. It is further ensured by the extensive variety of courses on offer and the literature archives at the three participating universities.
It is also ensured by the international network of the ICRS. Foreign intellectuals regularly come to Indonesia to hold discussions with the students. Guest professors include among others Amina Wadud, who hit the world headlines in 2005 when she publicly led Friday prayers for both Muslim men and women in New York. Wadud's talk on "Gender and Pluralism" at UGM in August prompted much discussion among students and guests.
The guest lecturer Robert Hefner brought along his own "food for thought" that same month. The director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at the University of Boston is the author of Civil Islam - Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia and has just edited the volume Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education. Hefner impressed his audience not only with his fluent Indonesian, but also with vehement criticism of voices such as Samuel Huntington, who issue blanket accusations of a democracy deficit in all Muslim countries.
Apart from joining debate sessions of this kind, the students of the ICRS also go to a foreign university for a guest semester. Up to now, exchange programmes have primarily been set up with US universities, but ICRS governors are increasingly looking to cooperate with European institutions.
Hans Küng, theologian from Tübingen and global ethicist, recently paid a visit to Yogyakarta, and had 450 students at the UGM spellbound. "Küngs relentless calls for dialogue and his approach, to view religion in the larger context of social life, economics and politics, is very close to the message we are trying to get across here," says CRCS Director Zainal Abidin Bagir.
Explaining why this task at times requires a great deal of patience, he adds: "We have to take our society as it is. We don't have another one."
Edited by: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de