A helpful way to examine the relationship between Christian and Muslim communities in Indonesia is to examine the way the mainstream media have treated the issue. Articles published over the past 40 years offer a fluid and confusing picture.
The Christian community would have been delighted in 1962, when Soetedjo Dirjosoebroto, a Muslim, wrote for an Indonesian Catholic Magazine. In his article, ‘The Role of the Catholics in Freeing West Irian from Dutch Occupation’, the author recognised the significant contribution made by the Catholic Church to the cause of independence.
The article reflects the generally good mutual relationship between the two religious communities. The expression of Islam in Indonesia has been conspicuously moderate, tolerant, and progressive.
But the harmony was not uninterrupted. Conflicts between the two communities occurred periodically. In January 1970, for example, we read that a Catholic school in Jakarta was attacked and burnt down by Muslim radicals. Despite this disturbance, however, Cardinal Justinus Darmojuwono on 30 March 1970 was reported as welcoming Muslim clerics to discuss the responsibility of both the Christian and Islamic communities to create peace in Indonesian society.
Most Indonesian Muslims say, 'We don’t live like Middle Easterners. Jamaah Islamiah – an Indonesian extremist group – does not represent the majority of Muslims in our country.' This is largely true. But the relationship in Indonesia between Christianity and Islam, which some have described as love-hate, has continued to be marked by tension.
This conundrum leads Christians to be perplexed about how to respond to Islam. They feel that they have tried to be generous, but that they have often been treated in hostile ways. On the other hand, Muslims have also expressed their concern about Christians. The popular presumption that Christians are rich and exclusive, and that churches are mainly composed of Chinese-Indonesians, complicates Muslim attitudes. Moreover they have grounds for suspecting that some Christian denominations try unceasingly and aggressively to convert Muslims into Christians. Ordinary Muslims are unable to recognise the differences between Christians and churches. They generalise that all Christians are engaged in efforts to make Muslims Christian.
Theologically speaking, Christians accept Muslims as their companions in the same journey to the one God. As a minority, Christian communities have been liable to attack. But for the most part they recognise that in conflict their main defenders have been Muslim leaders.
Islam in Indonesia is not monolithic. But it has generally engaged with other faiths, adopting and adapting the cultural traditions of the various people who practise Islam. In addition, Indonesian Muslims have had no problem coping with the demands of the modern world.
Indonesian Muslims, too, are unique in tolerating without outrage the conversion of their people to Christianity. In some other countries, to renounce one’s Islamic faith is a crime, one that is even punishable by death. Still, churches in Indonesia have rarely accepted adult converts.
A reading of the history of the last 40 years has not produced a uniform picture of Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia. Indonesian Islam reveals itself as unique. It invites reflection by those who wish to understand contemporary Islam. A Christian theology of religions, in particular, has the opportunity to explore more deeply the connections and differences between the Christian and Muslim faiths.