Bandung School of Peace is leading the fight against intolerance in West Java
Fanny Syariful Alam
On 15 February 2020, more than six thousand people marched through the streets of Bandung in an interfaith parade. Witnessing the festive atmosphere, it would be easy to assume that West Java’s capital city truly was a bastion of religious tolerance, inter-faith harmony and national unity; that it was, in the words of a recent municipal campaign, Our Home Together.
But there are many for whom Bandung might not feel like ‘home’: Ahmadis, whose mosques have been destroyed; Christians, whose Christmas celebrations have been curtailed; Shia Muslims, whose celebrations of Asyura have been picketed; and LGBT Indonesians, whose very existence was described as ‘dangerous’ by the city’s current mayor, and who face increasing restrictions on their freedoms. Indeed, with Jakarta’s Setara Institute consistently ranking West Java as the least religiously tolerant province in all of Indonesia, Bandung’s vision of itself as a home for everyone feels like more of an aspiration than a reality.
Tolerant outlooks and the acceptance of difference cannot simply be asserted in political slogans. They have to be carefully cultivated within the population. Grassroots and social organisations can play a crucial role in this endeavour. In West Java, the Bandung School of Peace (BSOP) is one of the institutions leading the fight for a better future.
Origins of BSOP
It was in January 2018 that my friend Lioni Beatrix Tobing first contacted me to discuss ways we could introduce the young people of Bandung to the fields of peace and conflict resolution. In 2006, Lioni had spent three months training at the School of Peace International in India, and had since become the national coordinator of School of Peace Indonesia. Perhaps, she thought, she could use this knowledge and experience to help curb the intolerance that seemed to be proliferating within our city. She reached out to her friends, I reached out to my activist networks, and with their support we were able to make her vision a reality. Around thirty people came to our first meeting, where Lioni introduced the principles of peace, conflict and conflict resolution. Things continued like this for three months.
In May 2018, Lioni moved to Yogyakarta, and I took over the running of what we now call the ‘Bandung School of Peace’. I wanted to build on what we had already done to address more local issues, specific to Bandung. Together with some of our very first members, we identified three themes on which to focus: religion and conflict; gender and conflict; and the persecution of political (and other) minorities.
We meet every Saturday, inviting speakers, including academics, practitioners and activists, and continue to make use of the peace tools Lioni taught us – including critical thinking, critical reading, art and craft. But our focus now goes well beyond peace and conflict resolution; we introduce young people to social issues and the principle of human rights, heightening their feelings of empathy and tolerance and developing their ability to engage with each other.
Making a difference
By allowing our members to interact directly with people whose lives are very different to their own, we can promote mutual understanding and overturn misconceptions. One Saturday, for instance, we invited two representatives of Perjalanan, a local belief system, to speak to us. Our members had lots of questions. How did Perjalanan conceptualise God? How did they recite their prayers? What were their holy books? Did they even have holy books? We were all curious to know more! But that curiosity was being shaped by some of the prejudices and assumptions that remain widespread in Indonesia, such as the idea that a local belief system is not a legitimate ‘religion’, and that sacred scriptures are a necessary part of ‘religious’ worship.
The guest speakers were able to answer our questions. They explained that they too believed in God, and that although they did not have any holy books as such, there was a longstanding tradition of their religious leaders writing documents that could offer valuable ethical and spiritual guidance. Far from being heretical, or practitioners of black magic, they had even secured permission from the provincial government to officially register their belief on their identity cards.
Members who attended the session said it had changed their perspective, allowing them to feel more tolerant and accepting of religions they were once inclined to discredit. The candid conversations made possible at BSOP has helped to increase the social acceptance of Perjalanan adherents, whilst broadening the minds of Bandung’s Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.
Another memorable meeting was held after one of our members, Jiva, shared an essay he had written. The piece explored what the future would be like for straight men if women and LGBTIQ people attained full equality. It generated a lot of debate in our WhatsApp group, and so we decided to delve into the topic further. We invited Prof. Aquarini Priyatna, a specialist in literature and gender studies at Padjadjaran University, to speak with us. Prof. Aquarini introduced us to the idea that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were opposite poles of a continuum, and that every human was born with both masculine and feminine attributes. This complexity, she explained, was overlooked in childhood socialisation practices, which assigned fixed labels of ‘male’ or ‘female’ to people.
Through a spirit of critical debate and intellectual curiosity, we were all able to learn much more about gender and sexuality; broadening our horizons. Interestingly, Jiva, who teaches Islamic religious studies in a public high school, said that he had always been opposed to the principle of LBGTIQ equality. After coming to BSOP and attending sessions like this one, however, he has become more tolerant and empathetic. He has even made some LGBTIQ friends. Other members report similar transformations. One member, Diksi, has told me that since joining BSOP he has ‘become more human’ and now finds it easier to respond to difficult situations compassionately. Before, he was always looking for someone to blame. For another, Stella, the biggest benefit has been the direct access BSOP provides to reliable and relevant sources of information, coupled with its commitment to debate and critical thinking. These are tools that she thinks will help her and her peers to spread the message of inclusion and tolerance across Bandung.
For an unfunded organisation entirely reliant on the generosity of friends and allies who are willing to share their expertise or offer us meeting rooms, BSOP has been a tremendous success. It has even received international recognition from countries as far afield as the Netherlands, South Africa and the USA.
But BSOP is first and foremost an institution for the city of Bandung, and here we still encounter many barriers. When we tried to formalise our movement, reaching out to local schools to see whether we could contribute to their extra-curricular programmes, we hit a dead end. Most school principals rejected our offer, claiming their students were most likely ‘not well prepared’ for what we had to offer. More recently, a municipal official with responsibility for young people’s issues, reached out to us, suggesting that we expand our activities to reach even more young people. Yet he felt unable to declare his support for our activities publicly given the hostile official stance that Bandung’s local government takes towards Shia and Ahmadi minorities, as well as towards LGBTIQ people. While such attitudes persist, it’s hard to know how we can approach the government and suggest policies for supporting minorities – even though we have many great policy ideas coming out of our discussions.
Sadly, it seems that Bandung is not yet the tolerant and inclusive city depicted in the interfaith parade and ‘Our Home Together’ campaign. A lot of progress still needs to be made. But in the meantime, and as a first step, the Bandung School of Peace offers a safe space where young Indonesians can express themselves freely and without anxiety, learn how to listen, and give and receive unconditional respect. And it is a space that is truly open to everyone – no matter who they are.
Fanny Syariful Alam (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regional coordinator and program director at Bandung School of Peace Indonesia.