Field Notes article

Ethical Discernment and Coexistence

Photo Credit: Enda Nasution. 2009 Indonesian Presidential Debate.

It was a great pleasure and honor to participate in the “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies” conference organized by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in collaboration with the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah of Jakarta, Indonesia on July 10-11, 2017. I have been deeply impressed by the significant findings from the careful research on coexistence in Indonesia presented at the conference, featuring many foci and methodological approaches. I would like to highlight a few issues emerging from the conference that most attracted my attention.

Portraits of Human Struggles for Coexistence

As I listened to the presentations, most findings showed a positive dynamic at the grassroots, as communities found their place and space within their own historical contexts of pluralism. This is clearly shown in the cases of the ethno-religious identity of Chinese settlers and non-Muslim minority groups in Aceh, in the experiences, negotiations, and struggles of a number of Islamic groups in Java, and in the experiences of women voicing their strategic and practical gender interests amidst the rising patriarchy of some orthodox Islamist groups.

A positive dynamic does not mean the absence of conflicts; conflicts do exist among the groups researched by the ACI Indonesia working group. While a few conflicts emerged to the surface, others are contained at the level of perceptions. However, local positive dynamics have been damaged by the domino effect of a majoritarian democratic system in a country where the distribution of wealth is not just and is rather accumulated in the hands of a few citizens. Undoubtedly, in such a situation, money talks louder than vision, and money politics destroys the basic foundations of free elections and an equal vote for all citizens. Money politics also destroys neighborhood trust in communal living as mutual caring and engaging (rukun and srawung).

The Role of Individual Ethics

Photo Credit: UIN Jakarta. Dr. Syamsiyatun presents at the 2017 Beyond Coexistence conference.

One question I did not get a satisfactory answer to from the research conference findings is about the socio-ethical vision of people in positions of authority within a given community. While people’s environment is very important in shaping their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors towards those with different gender, ethnic, religious, and other identity markers, I do believe that each person has the ability to exercise agency, however limited. It is important to study more deeply how these individuals have struggled to accept or develop the social ethics that guide them in navigating the social psychology of plural identities and their respective different interests. For example, how have Chinese women of Aceh exercised their agentic power differently from their male counterparts in order to find their space in society? How have women asserted their various gender interests within the political landscape of patriarchal politics? Research led by Nelly van Doorn Harder and Farsijana Risakotta and their colleagues, presented at the conference, highlights such women’s agency exercised through societal associations, namely Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Women), and Koalisi Perempuan (Women’s Coalition).

The conference presentations portrayed the many confrontations and negotiations involved in creating social space for coexistence. There are always ongoing struggles and negotiations between advancing individual interests as portrayed in the democratic value of on person, one vote, and respecting familial as well as social harmony. The issues become more complex and interesting because each individual has multiple identities, willingly or unwillingly, such as: racial and ethnic group, gender, age group, profession, political affiliation, and religious denomination. Conflict and negotiation for coexistence take place not only between groups in societies, but also between the members of a community.

Modes of Discernment

How do individuals discern their choices regarding coexistence, both for their own identities and in their relations across difference? What sort of ethical compass do they consider or develop to guide their attitudes and behaviors? From the research conference presentations, we understand that religions, positive laws, as well as local cultural norms have been the major basis for Indonesians to develop their ethical views and attitudes. However, it is apparent that there are contestations and sometimes ambiguities, between these three sources of ethical values. For instance, on questions of democracy: a few segments of Indonesian society believe that democracy is not compatible with their local culture, nor is it compatible with their beliefs or religion. However, as citizens they must uphold that practice because it is sanctioned by the positive law. So, there is an interesting question about how deeply, or in what ways, religions and positive or national laws play a role in Indonesians’ modes of discernment, whether individually or collectively as members of associations, political parties, or the like. These questions can be applied to various groups in our societies—such as our diverse political, religious, social, and ethnic groups. What kind of ethical values have the groups under study developed to see their place in Indonesia? How do they construct their perceptions of leaders within a democratic and majoritarian political system? In such a system, what are the political spaces available for minorities in terms of economic access and distribution, race and ethnicity, religion, age group, and other socio-political markers within a democratic Indonesia?

The Way to Coexistence

Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal. Examining ballot paper for the Bandung Mayor Election 2013.

I have seen a pattern of rising identity tensions during elections, be they for members of parliament, local majors, or the president. Political parties have instrumentalized voters’ identities to generate support for their candidates, even by demonizing the identity markers of opponents and their constituencies. Such a massive effort to polarize identities in order to win political support and votes has left deep scars in the minds and hearts of many Indonesians. I believe our forefathers and mothers who struggled for independence and imprinted our national aspiration for freedom as manifested in the Muqaddimah Undang-Undang Dasar 1945 (the Preamble of the Constitution) would weep knowing their fellow children citizens were fighting each other in order to advance limited group interests rather than be guided by our common ethical values of creating an independent Indonesia. I’d love to end this short reflection by quoting our normative, ethical, and legal vision of coexistence in Indonesia, because I am convinced this can be our common guide for equal citizenship and for just, peaceful co-existence:

Whereas freedom is the inalienable right of all nations, colonialism must be abolished in this world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice;

And the moment of rejoicing has arrived in the struggle of the Indonesian freedom movement to guide the people safely and well to the threshold of the independence of the state of Indonesia which shall be free, united, sovereign, just and prosperous;

By the grace of God Almighty and impelled by the noble desire to live a free national life, the people of Indonesia hereby declare their independence.

Subsequent thereto, to form a government of the state of Indonesia which shall protect all the people of Indonesia and their entire native land, and in order to improve the public welfare, to advance the intellectual life of the people and to contribute to the establishment of a world order based on freedom, abiding peace and social justice, the national independence of Indonesia shall be formulated into a constitution of the sovereign Republic of Indonesia which is based on the belief in the One and Only God, just and humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom of deliberations amongst representatives and the realization of social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.


Some References:

  1. Dean G. Pruitt dan Jeffrey Z. Rubin, Teori Konflik Sosial/Judul asli Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2004).
  1. Departemen Agama RI, Konflik Sosial Bernuansa Agama di Indonesia (Jakarta: Departemen Agama RI 2003).
Siti Syamsiyatun
Siti Syamsiyatun is currently Associate Professor in Islamic Thought at Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga. She earned a PhD in Politics from Monash University in 2006. Since 2010 she has been elected the Director of ICRS (Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies), a consortium of three leading universities in Yogyakarta, as well as named Board Member of Indonesia. Her publications include Pergolakan Puteri Islam (Muhammadiyah Voice Publishers, 2016); Serving Young Indonesian Muslim Women: The Dynamic of the Gender Discourse in Nasyiatul Aisyiyah 1965-2005, (LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010); and “Women Negotiating Feminism and Islamism: The Experiences of Nasyiatul Aisyiyah 1985-2005” in Indonesian Islam in a New Era: How Women Negotiate Their Muslim Identity, S. Blackburn, B. Smith, S. Syamsiyatun (Eds), (Monash University Press, 2008).