The Recent Decline of Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia: Causes and Challenges

Protesters at a rally against the embattled Christian Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017. Source: Associated Press.

A Four-Part Series on Political Islam and Pemilu 2024 – Part 3: The Recent Decline of Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia: Causes and Challenges


Indonesia has recently ranked among the most religious countries in the world. One contributing factor that places the country high in the rank is the perception that the belief in God is necessary to have good values.  This depicts how strongly religion affects Indonesians on a regular basis.

Religion is not only a matter of faith, but also identity. The latter has been increasingly influential since the wave of polarisation in the society from 2014 to 2020. Consequently, there is an increasing trend for people to perceive each other in a black and white perspective, particularly towards the minorities. This condition gradually creates social segregation between Muslims and non-Muslim in Indonesia, thus threatening the country’s spirit of pluralism that has existed for decades. This has been a long concern for policymakers, especially those who wish to revive interfaith dialogue in recent Indonesian context.

Heightening Wave of Polarization

It is worth noting that interfaith dialogue has been integral within Indonesian society with aspects of local wisdom teaching Indonesians how to co-exist in a space with multiple identities. But such platform seems to be on the decline recently, particularly when religious fanaticism continues to become more pronounced among the Indonesian society.  Consequently, this has led to a polarization wave.

Currently, the impact of this wave is more evident in daily social interactions especially with its declining use by political parties as a tool. This decline is likely taking place because the elites themselves do not necessarily consider identity as an important tool in their political play, although this warrants a further study.  To illustrate this point, nationalistic or religious identities are usually in full display, for example, in foreign policies (such as the push to take back air space in Natuna) or in the attire the elites wear (such as songkok, sarung, hijab, etc.). President Jokowi is especially an expert in the utilization of symbols in official events, ostensibly for political purposes. It is different from members of the society who seriously embrace identities as an integral part of their lives.  

A notable example is how exclusive neighbourhoods have mushroomed in Indonesia, limiting inter-community interactions. While this type of segregation warrants further examination, it provides insights to the occurrence of recent local conflicts fuelled by interreligious schism in several parts of the country, such as a ban of church construction, a degree of anti-Chinese sentiment and some forms of religious minorities discrimination. More specifically, people are seemingly more easily anxious around and less accepting of those of different faiths.

The Need to Regenerate Prominent Proponents of Interfaith Dialogue

Arguably, such polarization has also led to the recent decline in interfaith dialogues in the country. My latest research shows how polarization is not merely a consequence of political contestation, but instead a competition for survival. This shift eventually contributes to a decline in interfaith interactions that would consequently put Indonesia in reverse, considering how this multicultural country has been a role model in the promotion of religious tolerance for decades.

A major factor causing the decline of interfaith dialogue is the insufficient regeneration of leading proponents of interfaith dialogue today. These proponents are generally prominent religious scholars who are focused on interfaith communications.  In the past, these included figures such as Abdurrahman Wahid (colloquially known as Gus Dur), Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya (popularly known as Rama Mangun), Gedong Bagus Oka (also known as Ibu Gedong) and Dr. Th. Sumartana.

These four figures represented some of the major religions in Indonesia: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. Despite their differing religious beliefs, they shared the same values that emphasize on humanity and the spirit of peace. The ability of both values to transcend religious lines in Indonesia are crucial for interfaith communication.  

These four pluralist activists also had unique ways to promote interfaith dialogue in Indonesia. While Gus Dur and Sumartana were more concerned with minority issues, Ibu Gedong and Rama Mangun focused on peacebuilding activities and developments for the poor.  Furthermore, the four figures engaged in intellectual discussions that attracted large-scale youth participation. Collectively, these factors were the reasons interfaith dialogue in Indonesia operated in the sphere of intellectual activism. Despite the proponents’ different religious affiliations, people at that time were receptive to not only listen to their views but also others’. In addition to their individual endeavours, these four proponents were also the patrons of various peacebuilding efforts in Indonesia, especially during the transition period from authoritarian to democracy systems in early 2000s. 

Based on the values of humanity and the spirit of peace, previous interfaith dialogues demonstrated the importance to acknowledge human’s existence rather than passing judgements on the others’ way of life. Adopting such tenet facilitates the tackling of religious views which are tinged with chauvinistic tendencies. Unfortunately, such tendencies are becoming increasingly common issue with some individuals becoming extremely insular.  

This problematic worldview is clearly observed in the stark political polarization during the 2019 General Election (Pemilihan Umum – Pemilu). Arguably, one driver for this polarization is the lack of mutual dialogue to bridge different identities and assisting them to find common ground. Consequently, the two values that were espoused by the four proponents became more muted in current social interactions. It is, thus, crucial for current interfaith dialogues to re-instil these values into the community today.  

Easier Said than Done

Additionally, there is a need to stimulate the regeneration of proponents and introduce contextually relevant narratives as well as discourses into the interfaith dynamic. It is important to note that today’s context in Indonesia is different from 20 years ago during the transition period to democratic system. Today, there is a growing influence of religious fanaticism in the public sphere that threatens the good inroads made by past and ongoing interfaith dialogues.

Ominously, there is insufficient regeneration of proponents which suggests the youths’ lack of enthusiasm for this good fight. This means that while past key peacebuilders figures had influential role in engaging people to partake in interfaith dialogue, current generation of figures have not attained that level of influence.  Owing to this, there are two issues to address at the moment: 1) regeneration of proponents and; 2) development of contextually relevant narratives.

The Need for a Regeneration

The difficulty of becoming a prominent proponent of interfaith dialogue is to gain wide, public acceptance. At the time when some in the Indonesian society lean towards conservatism, it becomes challenging to foster a space where people from different identities can be accepted and heard on equal footing. This consequently hinders any interfaith-based campaign to reach out people across the religion border effectively.

Another difficulty is personal influence. Previously, interfaith campaigns were led by key figures who were always successful in attracting people to join and participate, owing to their charisma. This has changed since the advent of social media, where anyone can assert their degree of influence as well.

Particularly in today’s context, it has become harder for a proponent to gain prominence when it is easier for anyone to gain attention via social media. In such a competition for attention, however, the personal charisma and intellectual capacity are two important qualities for potential proponents to gain traction. Possessing both qualities would also have a higher chance of influencing audiences to consider their narratives and pushing forward the agenda of interfaith dialogues.

For example, Gus Dur was a charismatic Islamic scholar with immense following in rural areas. His pull factor was so robust that his followers nurtured Gus Dur’s pluralistic vision into Gusdurian, a civil society movement focusing on equality, peacebuilding and tolerance across the archipelago. Coupled with pro-poor and pro-peace approaches, figures like Gus Dur were extremely successful in drawing the attention of the people to the importance of pluralism in a multicultural society.

Additionally, there are differences in approach adopted by previous and today’s proponents of interfaith dialogues. While previous proponents tended to adopt a populist style that ensured a mass grass-root following, the current ones seem to focus on empowering the community. This new paradigm lacks a mass-scale appeal and an organic identity and merely functions as a movement based on interests. In other words, there is a paradigm shift from intellectual to empowerment movements in the conduct of interfaith dialogues. This condition, consequently, renders current interfaith dialogues to operate in small circles.

As a result, people’s understanding of interfaith principles is now localized according to their groups. Thus, people’s attachment to the interfaith process is not as strongly committed as in the past. This condition surely signals a concern because people could no longer be as open-minded to accept other people in a larger setting.

The Need for Revised Narratives

There is also an urgent need to revise the narratives and discourses engendered in interfaith dialogues. Specifically, there is a need to swap abstract concepts with realistic values to facilitate the accessibility of interfaith dialogues to the people. In the past, particularly during the authoritarian era, people became idealized with democracy values such as equality and justice that would be applicable in diverse society context. The transitional period in early 2000s enabled interfaith dialogues to draw support from these people.

As the Indonesian society grew, evolved and exposed to various domestic tribulations, including a period of turbulent identity politics in the last five years, interfaith dialogues today should adopt new narratives that respond to today’s challenges. The need to revitalize the unity in diversity spirit is one such challenges.

Without contextually relevant narratives, today’s proponents are hindered from rising to the level of their predecessors. Past narratives emphasized pluralism and diversity, but today’s context demands the expression of piety in the public sphere. This shift necessitates a similar shift in the interfaith process, one from intellectual activism to advocacy.

In advocacy, it should focus more on intergroup dynamics and how people should approach the majority-minority rift, especially as the minorities continue to be subjected to various forms of discrimination and persecutions. More importantly, one of the main objectives should be to promote acceptance that minorities are also a part of the society. By doing so, proponents can respond to society’s concerns effectively and have a lasting impact on them.

Glimmer of Hope for Interfaith Dialogues

Having said this, there are at least two modern organizations that inherit the spirit of their founders’ activism in promoting intellectual-based interfaith dialogues. These two organizations remain effective in promoting interfaith dialogue because they regularly hold series of interfaith short courses and trainings for students.

One such organizations the author engaged was an interfaith women community, Srikandi Lintas Iman. It is mostly comprised of women from various backgrounds with a mission to facilitate an inclusive communication to promote tolerance in the society. Srikandi Lintas Iman also aims to bridge the gap between minority and majority groups. Both of these missions are relevant to combat today’s prevalent intolerance views.

This organization hopes to mould their members into agents of change in the community and their respective families. Although the group often faces challenges from conservative groups, they persisted in their mission to promote interfaith dialogue. One of the challenges they often face is accusation of hidden proselytist agendas. The conservatives argue that mingling with different believers could weak the upbringings faith. Unfortunately, there is a lack of protection conferred by the local government to Srikandi Lintas Iman since the public officials tend to avoid trouble with the conservatives.

Likewise, Institute for Interfaith Dialogue (DIAN-Interfidei) also has similar concerns: to nurture the legacy of its founder Sumarmata in promoting interfaith dialogue. By cooperating with schools in Yogyakarta, it hopes to nurture tolerance among students, who are encouraged to be agents of tolerance themselves among their peers.


The upcoming Pemilu 2024 should encourage candidates and parties to adopt pluralist and populist style rather than promoting polarization style. Since the last two elections resulted in polarization that created complications in daily social life, more candidates or parties should adopt pluralism rather than polarization elements in their campaign.  The main reason behind this is to save Indonesians from deepening polarization.

In my sensing, the current centre-left or centre-right parties might still be favoured by the voters as these ideological positions basically represent the neutral and balanced political stance. It may be beneficial for candidates to adopt pluralist style to reach out more potential voters rather than focusing one segmented group of voters.

This campaign shift would surely diminish the utility of identity politics as a political weapon. This shift could also usher the revival of interfaith dialogue since it would inform the people of the societal divisions that might emerge after the elections. Coexistence among different groups should be promoted rather than denied. Thus, promoting interfaith dialogue as part of an inclusive and peaceful agenda for Pemilu 2024 could be a good step.

Nevertheless, the decline of interfaith dialogue in Indonesia could be one of the reasons behind social segregation in today’s context, particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims. The strong religious sentiment, unfortunately, seems to incorporate zero tolerance towards others when confronted with people from different identity groups. Although there is no ideal template to conduct an interfaith dialogue, the process itself should continue to exist. This is a new hope for one of the main defenders of Indonesia’s pluralism.

Part 1: Political Islam in Indonesia: Looking at Pemilu 2024 and Beyond

Part 2: Sharia Politics in 2024: Ideology or Commodity

Part 4: Identity Politics and Pilpres 2024: Learning from Aksi 212

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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