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What is the state of Religious Pluralism in Indonesia?

CMIP group shot

Held on April 11th and 12th, 2019, five days before the Indonesian general election, the 5th Cornell Modern Indonesia Project (CMIP) Conference, “The State of Religious Pluralism in Indonesia,” brought together researchers and scholars working on issues surrounding the contemporary state of religion and politics in Indonesia. In a convergence and timeliness of themes that surround ideas about religious tolerance in the 2019 Indonesian general election, the conference focused on the past, present, and future of religious pluralism in the country.

The complete list of conference presenters and the conference schedule

In her opening address, Chiara Formichi, Associate Professor in Asian Studies at Cornell University, and the conference organizer, addressed these current issues as they relate to Indonesia’s past by asking the conference attendees and presenters to use history to complicate discussions around the present state of religious tolerance and intolerance in Indonesia. “As a historian of Islam in Southeast Asia with deep concern for current issues in the country, the questions I have been envisioning and fleshing out between today and tomorrow . . . hinge on the intersection of Pancasila as a philosophy and ideology . . . and the historical and political trajectories of the reality of tolerance in Indonesia today,” Formichi said.

The workshop was one of several conferences from CMIP, which over the last decade has put together workshops on the state of the field of Indonesian studies, the politics of Indonesia, music in Indonesia, and visual arts and media in Indonesia. Presently led by Director Eric Tagliacozzo, Professor of History at Cornell, CMIP publishes the journal Indonesia, as well as having published over 75 other individual works on the country.

The “State of Religious Pluralism in Indonesia” sought to address the state of religious pluralism in the post-Suharto era (1965-1998) with case-studies from across the religious spectrum. The conference began with an opening panel of two keynote speakers, Robert W. Hefner, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, and Sidney Jones, the Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict in Jakarta, each of whom spoke about issues surrounding democracy and Islam in Indonesia today. Both Hefner and Jones analyzed the majoritarian turn in Indonesia, and the repercussions of anti-pluralism within Indonesian democracy for the future of pluralism in the country.

The conference continued on Friday with subsequent panels titled “Active Intolerance,” and “Minorities and Nationalism.” Kikue Hamayotsu, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois continued discussions around the majoritarian Islamic politics in Indonesia by analyzing Moderate-Radical Coalitions, while Evi Lina Sutrisno, Research Fellow at the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia described her current fieldwork in Tuban, Indonesia, and issues over idolatry between communities of different religions. Friday finished off with a set of presentations from Lorraine Aragon, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel and author of Fields of the Lord: Animism, Christian Minorities, and State Development, and Silvia Vignato, Associate Professor at the Univerita degil Studi di Milano-Bicocco. Aragon presented on the place of Animism within Indonesian religious pluralism today, while Vignato commented on the current state of Medan, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious city in northern Sumatra.

On Saturday morning, Cornell Associate Professor Marina Welker chaired a panel titled, “Local and Global,” which featured presentations from Jim Hoesterey, Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University, and Michel Picard, from the Centre Asie du Sud-Est in Paris, France, each of whom articulated the ways in which transnational forces influence religion in Indonesia. The conference concluded with a panel aptly titled, “Debating “(in)tolerance,” which featured presentations from Christopher Duncan, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark, and Tom Pepinsky, Professor of Government at Cornell. Both Duncan and Pepinsky presented on recent research they had done in Indonesia: Duncan highlighted the myth of religious pluralism in Maluku and North Maluku in the years after the sectarian violence of 1998-2005, and Pepinsky discussed survey analysis of leading political leaders in Indonesia on their ideas of tolerance towards non-Muslim people in Indonesia.

Throughout the weekend discussions around each paper were lively, with questions pertaining to speakers’ methodologies, theories, and conclusions worked over in spirited question and answer sessions. Although the conference focused on Indonesia’s religious realities, each panel brought out core questions around religious (in)tolerance applicable in many countries and societies across the globe.