What began as a small online space organized by Indonesia’s Baha’i Office of External Affairs to explore foundational spiritual principles amid the global health crisis has expanded to include over 200 social actors, government officials, and representatives of diverse religious communities.
Musdah Mulia, a prominent Islamic scholar and women’s rights activist who has collaborated with the Office in holding the gatherings, comments on the character of the spaces, stating: “They are very positive and constructive in efforts to build peace in Indonesia. They involve people from different beliefs and religious backgrounds and help to bridge the differences among them. These gatherings have become a meeting place to foster friendship with each other and to eliminate prejudice and stigma.
“We have to reorient our religious views to make a positive contribution to humanity. We should not be attached to the symbols and accessories of religion.”
Rina Tjuna Leena of the Baha’i Office of External Affairs, says that the diversity of Indonesia’s 270 million people as well as its founding principles—known as Pancasila—create fertile ground for hopeful conversations. “Many people feel a longing for a society that truly reflects the principles of peace and unity that are core ideals of the country: that faith should unify us rather than divide; that we are one people across the 17,000 islands of Indonesia; that our society strives for fair-mindedness and social justice for everyone.”
Acknowledging the significance of the meetings, the head of the Centre of Religious Harmony in the Ministry of Religion, who was a moderator at a recent gathering, asked for the rich insights that are emerging from these discussions to be sent as recommendations to the ministry for consideration in policy development.
Among the issues being examined in the gatherings has been social inequality and the divisions between majority and minority groups. Noting the need for conversations to get at the root causes of stark divisions, Mrs. Leena says, “Society today is based on the assumption that human beings are different from each other, are in competition, and will use power to manipulate others.
“Unless the principle of oneness is understood fully, there will never be a long-lasting solution to the issues we face. This requires a new conception of the relationships between all members and elements of society in terms of the power of unity and love. Such relationships would not become a means of domination but of encouragement and inspiration.”
Participants of the gatherings are drawing on insights from the discussions to stimulate thinking in their own areas of work.
Agnes Dwi Rusjiyati of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission reflected at one seminar about the implications of the Baha’i principle of unity in diversity for her work as a media regulator. “The media does much to shape perception. Too often, it has been used as a tool to stoke division. But we can take steps to create a media environment that acts in a more positive direction, such as providing encouragement through coverage of those things that unify people and strengthen the social fabric.”
When discussion turned to the role of religion in a world of rapid technological change, Amanah Nurish, a professor of religious studies, pointed to the Baha’i teaching of the harmony of science and religion. “This principle helps us see the critical role that both science and religion play in the modern world. Scientific progress needs to be guided by a spiritual and moral commitment to apply it appropriately. At the same time, developing a scientific way of thinking helps us tell what is true from what is false and frees us from religious ignorance and prejudice that have become a source of conflict.”
As participants have come together for intellectually stimulating discussions, many have found an even deeper connection through regular prayer gatherings held by the Office of External Affairs. Prayer is recognized as an important part of life in Indonesia, but coming together across faiths to share in this act was a new experience for many.
Mrs. Leena says, “In a short span of time, these seminars have shown in a small way the kinds of conditions in which barriers can come down. This is one of many steps that needs to be taken in a long process of social transformation.”