Apr 13, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

The fear and the fury

Development, it seems, cannot occur without widening the gap between rich and poor. Our people do not demand egalitarianism, only that those more fortunate do not become greedy, selfish and willing to use violence. Eviction is not some issue drummed up by malcontents. It is fact. And evictions too often take place not in the public interest, but for economic development projects mainly for the benefit of those who are already well off.

Many people are now threatened with loss of home, occupation, or land, even expulsion from the only social environment they know. And this by force, hardly ever preceded by negotiation of any kind, often instead accompanied by straight out physical brutality. Evictions of this sort cause little people much distress. So we have a community that has experienced violence, usually at the hands of authority.


The community has a crying need for a much greater degree of democratic openness. One of the factors that have led to the present explosive situation is the lack of proper channels by which people can give voice - loudly but peacefully and not in a destructive way - to their disappointments, hopes, demands, criticisms, and expressions of blame and praise.

All of these feelings must now be suppressed, and as a consequence the atmosphere becomes stifled and tense, until the smallest incident can spark a riot. During the riot there is a release of pent-up emotion, creating almost a carnival spirit. People revel in an environment free of the stifling restraints of the daily routine. That their actions cause destruction of other people's property hardly occurs to them.


We are undergoing rapid transition from traditional to modern patterns of living, from the known to the unknown. People are feeling threatened. Groups are feeling threatened. They feel threatened physically. They fear tomorrow, fear being evicted, fear losing their cultural identity.

That is why they cling to traditional allegiances, ties of religion, the ethnic group or the family, for identity. Changes and distorted reports of change cause bewilderment, and commonly make people become inward looking and aggressive. Religion and ethnicity become decisive factors for people who feel threatened.


It would be naive to regard the disturbances in Situbondo and Tasikmalaya as unconnected with religious issues. It is not that religious harmony does not exist in Indonesia, but we are right to be very sad at the large number of churches burnt and wrecked there. No other country at peace has a record as bad as that of Indonesia in this regard. Only in Bosnia, in the depths of civil war, did the incidence of mosque and church burning compare with it. In just three years, more than 200 churches have been destroyed and burnt in Indonesia. It is a great many.

But neither should the events be over-stated. Even on Sumatra and Java, Christians are free and able to worship. Their difficulties are mainly confined to the building of churches. It is not that religious tolerance has ceased to exist in Indonesia. But it must be admitted that the situation is fragile.


At the official level, in formal conferences or meetings of religious experts, it is customary for niceties and declarations of mutual esteem to be exchanged. But it is amazing how often we hear of religious speakers ridiculing and denigrating other faiths. And of books, sold openly to the public, that are full of derogatory argument and cheap and false accounts of the teachings of one religion or another. For decades now we have been hearing of this sort of thing.

We should not be surprised if we are now reaping the fruits of these hate campaigns. And we would be very mistaken to disregard the direct links that exist between religious attitudes and the present disturbances.

It is important that the Christian community should not draw improper generalisations from the recent disturbances. The fact that a church was damaged in a riot should not lead Christians to judge the followers of other religions as evil. Jesus Christ never taught such an attitude. And an overwhelming majority of non-Christians also regretted the events that took place during the rioting. Among the followers of every religion there are those who are good and those who are not good.


Religious attitudes are often determined in part by demography. The followers of a religious group that is a minority within a certain community might have quite an open attitude, whereas the followers of the same religion, when in a majority, might become intolerant and closed in their attitude to others.

In these times of revolution in the mobility of communities, religious leaders need to remind the members of their respective congregations of the inevitability of pluralism. It is no longer possible for areas to be occupied solely by the members of one particular ethnic or religious group and closed to all others. In other words, in the specific conditions of diversity that exist in Indonesia, there is a need for religious leaders with a broad view, a national consciousness and a non-partisan determination to guard religious harmony.

Prof Dr Franz Magnis-Suseno, SJ, is the Director of the Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta. This article was extracted from Mutiara, 28 January 1997. John Gare was the translator.

Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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