The Patterns of Religious Conflict in Indonesia (1990-2008)

The Patterns of Religious Conflict in Indonesia (1990-2008)

Executive Summary

The goal of this study is to reveal the patterns of religious conflict in Indonesia between the period of January 1990 and August 2008. We chose this period in order to analyze in depth the various incidence ofreligious conflict that happened over three periods of regimes: the authoritarian New Order (1990-1998), the early transition to democracy period (1998-2004), and the more recent democratic period (2004-2008). The data sources for this study were drawn from reports in Kompas daily and Antara news agency, two of the most reliable national media sources in Indonesia.

In this study, we examined the religious conflicts in terms of whether they were solved in peaceful or violent manners. The study also examined the underlying issues causing the religious conflicts (communal, sectarian, terrorism, moral, or others), their geographic spread, actors and victims, and how the security institutions responded to them.

The following are the key findings:

First, in terms of intensity of the incidence, two thirds of the religious conflicts in Indonesia took form as peaceful actions, and onlyone third were as actions of violence. This shows that the Indonesian people are capable of resorting to peaceful means when responding to religious conflicts.

Second, in terms of timing, most actions of  violence, after the three regimes were compared, happened during the transitional democratic regime. This shows that the opportunity for public participation ushered in by the new democratic era, after lengthy repression during the authoritarian New Order regime, had not yet been accompanied fully by a well-functioning security apparatus. This finding was supported by the fact that peaceful actions in the wake of religious conflict were dominant under the later more established democratic regime.

Third, whether in the form of peaceful or violent actions, most of the incidences of religious conflict were caused by or related to disputes stemming from communal issues like conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities and blasphemy against religions. However, there were geographic variations as to what triggered conflicts. In Maluku, North Maluku and Central Sulawesi, the conflict triggers were predominantly communal issues were. Meanwhile, in areas like West Java and Banten moral and sectarian issues caused most of the conflicts. In Jakarta religious violence was linked more to terrorism and moral issues.

Fourth, in terms of actors, most actions of violence were committed by community groups while religious groups that were often perceived as the major players only ranked third (after terrorist groups) in terms of  their involvement in violent actions. The perception of the involvement of religious groups was only confirmed insofar as their involvement in peaceful actions.

Fifth, violence related to communal issues had resulted in the highest number of human casualties and property damage. Meanwhile, violence related to moral issues ranked second in terms of the losses inflicted.

Sixth, the information obtained from Kompas and Antara on the role of security forces in the incidence of religious conflict had been inadequate. However, despite the limited information, the study was able to show that ingeneral the security forces had performed their tasks well. In addition, Kompas’ descriptive reports of incidences of religious conflict, except for cases that resulted in a large number of casualties and/or property damage, tended to be limited. Similarly, Kompas had given only limited accounts of the role of security forces during the incidences. In this regard Antara provided a more detailed description of the role of security forces.

Seventh, there was a possibility that the data obtained were biased since both Kompas and Antara are media with a national news scope. The number of incidences could have been higher had this study obtained its data from the local, either provincial- or regency/city-level media sources. That said, however, the data obtained from the two national media sources could still serve as valuable initial database that provide a general description of religious conflict in Indonesia between 1990 and 2008.

Based on the above key findings wepropose four recommendations.

  1. The study shows that the Indonesian people are capable of responding to issues triggering religious conflict through peaceful means. In the future the challenge will be to encourage people to resort to peacefulmeans as their first act of choice when responding to issues triggering religious conflict. Therefore, it is necessary to design a program that can help to improve the public’s understanding and capability of how to promote strategies for peaceful actions as a means of responding to issues triggering religious conflict. In light of the fact that the actors committing the various acts of violence with religious undertones were communal groups rather than certain religious groups, such programs should be designed to reach sections of the society as wide as possible.
  2. The key issues that triggered the religious conflicts varied from oneregion to another. Therefore, efforts dealing with religious violence should be designed to address the key trigger issues in each region. Programs promoting harmony between followers of different religions (inter-religious) should be a priority in eastern Indonesian regions like Central Sulawesi and Maluku, whileprograms to promote harmony among members of a religion (intra-religious) are more important in western Indonesian regions like Banten and WestJava. Likewise, in western Indonesian regions, serious attention should be given to helping people develop their capacity to resort to peaceful means when responding to moral issues that often triggered incidences of religious violence. This is ofcourse related to the readiness and firmness of security forces to uphold the law and to protect citizens in accordance with the law in the places that had often become targets of destruction when moral issues were made excuses for committing violence.
  3. The study shows that each regime faced different issues of religious conflict. If a study is to be made again to look for how to best respond to the contemporary incidences of religious conflicts, the use of the national media like Kompas and Antara as the main data sources will be inadequate. This report thus recommends a follow-up study using provincial- and regency/city-level media asdata sources in order to understand the patterns of religious conflict in Indonesia that happened in a more recent period.
  4. Reports by non-media sources like the police and nongovernmental organizations data that might have escaped media attention, even by the local media, should be used. It is hoped that through the use of more varied data sources a more comprehensive and detailed picture of the patterns of religious conflict in Indonesia and the efforts that the Indonesian security institutions had made indealing with those conflicts can be produced. ***


It is our hope that this study is useful for the strengthening of the discourse of pluralism in Indonesia. We also hope this study is useful for further studies on similar issue.

This study was possible through the cooperation between YWP and Program Magister Perdamaian dan Resolusi Konflik, Universitas Gadjah Mada (Postgraduate Program for Peace and Conflict Resolution-Gadjah Mada University/MPRK-UGM), and The Asia Foundation (TAF). In addition to this joint effort, we are also collaborating to run the Police, Civil Society and Religious Conflict in Indonesia program to contribute to the protection of religious freedom in the country by ensuring that religious conflict is solved through peaceful means.


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