The Fundamental Roots of Interreligious Conflict in Ambon

By Subhan Setowara

(Researcher at RëSIST Malang)

THE INTERRELIGIOUS conflicts and civil violence that rapidly emerged in Indonesia following the fall of President Soeharto in 1998 has aroused controversy among intellectuals about the fundamental roots of the disturbances (Wilson 2005, p. xi). The roots tend to be complicated since the situation engaged both internal (religious) and external (non-religious) factors. The internal factors include a negative perception of religious adherents, which was mostly derived from tendentious assumptions, lack of religious awareness, and the incompetence of managing differences among the religions, while the external factors were typically deeply-rooted in political and economical interests (Wilson 2005, p. 5). The religious violence between Christian indigenous Ambonese and the migrant Muslim population in Ambon was the most instructive model of the heady mixture of these internal and external factors (Situngkir and Khanafiyah 2007, p. 2). This essay will argue that, while internal factors may have had a minor impact, however, it is apparent that the external factors, particularly economic and political interests, constituted the main cause of interreligious conflict in Ambon.

The root of interreligious violence in Ambon initially must be sought in a personal dispute between a Christian bus driver and two Muslim passengers at the Ambon bus terminal in January 19, 1999. The altercation swiftly soared into civil riots which entangled Christian and Muslim communities in the city of Ambon (Rabasa and Haseman 2002, p. 91). Moreover, within a few days of this incident, religious conflict extended rapidly throughout the island of Ambon and Central Maluku, catalyzing further conflicts in Aru, Kei, North Maluku, Tanimbar, Buru and even as far away as Lombok (Goss 2000, p. 8). Kirsten E. Schulze points out that the conflict series was the crystallization of “festering wounds” of past colonial unfairness against Muslims and current Christian fears, as well as by rumours of a Christian conspiracy to annihilate Islam (2002, p. 57).

The conflicts in Ambon and surrounding areas accordingly awakened religious sentiment at the national level, especially among radical Muslims in Java. Sukidi Mulyadi in his article entitled Violence in the Banner of Religion (2003) is convinced that religious sentiment was the most dominant reason for the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ambon. Mulyadi names the conflict as the clash between Laskar Jihad (the Jihad Paramilitary Force) on the Islamic side and Laskar Kristus (the Army of Christ) on the Christian side (p. 77). Moreover, he supports his opinion by calling attention to Juergensmeyer’s view that religious doctrines might bring people into hatred and hostility. Mulyadi also refers to some examples of world conflicts engaging religions which show that religion can have a dual function in a pluralistic society; the first is to foster peace, harmony, and civility, while the second is to stimulate interreligious conflict (p. 79).

The existence of Laskar Jihad and Laskar Kristus might be one of the most obvious pieces of evidence that religious entity was the fundamental root of civil violence in Ambon. In this case, Schulze (2002, p. 58) notices that Laskar Jihad was founded in January 2002 as an effort to protect Ambon’s Muslims from Christian attacks. In this context, according to Schulze, Laskar Jihad considered the conflict in Ambon as the product of “Christian conspiracy politics” and the “hegemony of World Christianity and Zionism in Indonesia”. He goes on to say that the organization aimed at inheriting the struggle of Salafi (early Muslim) tradition, where implementing Islamic law and establishing an Islamic state were the ultimate goals (p. 59). Subsequently, Laskar Jihad continued to exist as Islamic militant organization that combined social, educational, and humanitarian work with paramilitary actions (p. 60). As a consequence, the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ambon developed into tendentious assumptions. For Christians, Muslim community in Ambon intended to impose their national Islamic agenda, while Muslims assumed that Christians commenced the clash in order to threaten Muslims’ existence in the region (Rabasa and Haseman 2002, p. 91).

Nevertheless, to blame religion as the cause of civil violence in Ambon and surrounding areas is too simplistic. Christianity and Islam, based on the historical background in Ambon, had long-lasting peaceful and supportive relationship (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, p. 41). Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti (2002) for instance, in her paper entitled Migration and Conflict in Indonesia, connects civil violence in Ambon to migration policy in the Soeharto era. She argues that the fundamental root of the conflict was basically a result of the growth of the Muslim population due to internal migration. Formerly, since the Dutch colonial period, Christians had been the majority in Ambon, and they received favourable treatment from colonial masters, leaving them in charge of local bureaucracy and economy (Tidwell and Lerche 2004, p. 51). However, the influx of Muslims from other islands as a part of migration policy changed the ethnic and religious form of the region (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, p. 41).

The large increase in the Muslim population in Ambon had a significant impact on the economic and political circumstances in the region (Tidwell and Lerche 2004, p. 52). The gradual shift of political power in the region was underpinned by President Soeharto’s interest at the national level in the 1990’s to garner Islamic political support. Based on the International Crisis Group (ICG) report, Soeharto appointed Muslim Ambonese governors in Maluku for the first time, and Muslims obtained more positions in local bureaucracy (cited in Tidwell and Lerche 2004). Afterwards, the local government in Ambon recruited Muslims as employees and hence the situation really disappointed and discriminated against the Ambon Christians indirectly (Pudjiastuti 2002, p. 3). Diprose and Ukiwo (2008, p. 10) also assert that there were two main causes of conflict in Ambon and several areas in Indonesia during 1998-2002, namely the failure of Muslims and Christians in political power sharing and favouritism of the executive in resource allocation and decision making.

The political situation eventually broadened into economic competition between indigenous Christian and migrant Muslim communities that generated tensions, especially as the Muslims, whose educational level had improved, began to compete for the jobs within the bureaucracy and in the professions which had previously been the domain of Christians (Rabasa and Haseman 2002, p. 91). The arrival of settlers from Islamic-majority areas such as Buton, Bugis and Makassar had predisposed the local government policy to recruit employees from the newcomers rather than the native ones (Sterkens 2009, p. 63). Hence, the competition was unbalanced since Muslims had more opportunity to access jobs than Christians owing to their political advantage in local bureaucracy as well as their educational level. Accordingly, the indigenous Christians felt socially and economically marginalized as the result of the weakened role and capacity of government in managing socio-economic interest in the region (Smith 2005, p. i).

Furthermore, the fall of Soeharto in 1998 had a significant impact on the political and economic situation as well as the interreligious conflict between Muslims and Christians. During the New Order (before the fall), religious tensions were firmly regulated and controlled both by state policy and direct military. For this reason, the socio-economic gap between the two religious adherents as the result of migration policy was still undercontrol. The collapse of Soeharto changed many things. The New Order policy to appoint Muslims into local bureaucracy that formerly gave several political advantages later became one of the most inflammatory issues to engender interreligious tensions (CDR Associates 2001, p. 20). It is argued that the most likely trigger for the religious disturbances in Ambon was the failure of government after the collapse of Soeharto in dealing with latent frictions between local residents and settlers from Java and other several areas moving in under the New Order’s transmigration policy (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, p. 43).

From this perspective, it is comprehensible that political situation was the most noteworthy factor to arouse the tensions. Concerning this matter, the research conducted by The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre) found that several conflicts in Maluku basically were not caused by religious prejudices but by the clash of interests at the elite level in Jakarta which exploited religious difference (2001, pp. 2-4). Christopher Wilson also emphasises that negative stereotype between religious adherents in Ambon was not the main trigger of interreligious conflict in the region. For him, stereotype was only a side effect of economic and political interests (2005, p. 35). Moreover, Martin van Bruinessen declares that there is a common understanding among Indonesian political researchers that the civil violence was aggravated by power resistances among rival elites, or intentionally motivated by particular groups with the aim at weakening Abdurrahman Wahid’s government (2002, p. 117).

Thus, the incapability of the Government after the fall of Soeharto in dealing with democratic transition that evidently appeared in social disorder and economic crisis had considerable impact on interreligious relation in Ambon. The personal altercation between a Christian bus driver and two Muslim passengers mentioned before would not be the trigger of interreligious conflict if economical and political interests between Christian and Muslim communities were well-regulated (CDR Associates 2001, p. 20). Besides, the arrival of Java-based militia called Laskar Jihad to reinforce Muslim local group in Ambon was also the other impact of the conflict since the organization did not represent Muslim community in Ambon. In fact, Laskar Jihad had a national agenda to establish an Islamic state, which was essentially unrelated to the Ambonese Muslim community’s expectation to build harmonious relation with other communities in Ambon. For Laskar Jihad, Ambon was only a starting point, as can be seen from its involvement in Poso (Sulawesi) in the latter part of 2001, its establishment of training camps in Papua and its appearance in the restive province of Aceh (Schulze 2002, p. 58).

In conclusion, it is clear from the available evidence that external factors, particularly economic and political interests were the fundamental roots of interreligious tensions in Ambon. The situation was predominantly derived from the previous migrant policy issued by New Order Government and subsequently the collapse of national Government in regulating socio-economic gap between Christians and Muslims in Ambon. Meanwhile, internal factors such us religious prejudices and negative perceptions were only side effects of the conflict.

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[Tulisan ini pernah diterbitkan di Jurnal EFIS-PSIF Discussion 24 September 2010. Dilarang mengkopi sebagian atau keseluruhan isi tulisan ini tanpa izin penulisnya. Silahkan mengirim permohonan via email kepada penyunting di]


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