Written by Johanes Koraag
Indonesia is a country, with more than 17.000 islands, spanning 5.000 kilometers -the same distance between London and New York. Hundreds ethnic groups and languages. Indonesia is also known as a democratic country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, believed that Islam entered the archipelago with strong influences of Persian and Indian culture emphasis on sufism. The existing Hindu-Javanese culture is more formerly rooted and mixed with trust local, no removed force, however, approached with tolerance.
However, sometimes the issue of tolerance between religious adherents, particularly between Muslims as the majority and other minorities, and the connection between ethnicity in Indonesia faces large challenges. Friction occurs in the middle of the increasingly multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Old differences that have never been a problem, now can trigger quarrels, strife, and even riots. The value of tolerance increasingly fading in the nations. The religious plurality of Indonesia has become a point of vulnerability of the nation.
As part of the ICRS and CRCS lectures at Universitas Gadjah Mada, staff staged a visit to Lasem followed by lecturers and students in early November 2022. This travel excursion carried the goal of students to experience the interreligious atmosphere of life in Lasem. Lasem is a city in the Rembang Regency, Central Java. Lasem was chosen as a destination for the study and analysis of tolerance due to its plural society.
The True Meaning of Tolerance
As defined by Dictionary.com, tolerance is a “fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinion, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” From its roots, the word tolerance (tolerare [Latin] = mutual, bearing) is more characteristic of sociology than theology. However, tolerance discourse is often associated with faith and religion. In terms of the social reality, every religious adherent is demanded to develop an attitude of tolerance one another, in what Peter L. Berger (1969) calls ‘the social reality of religion.’
Being tolerant means being capable to live in harmony with different people, beliefs, faiths, and ways of life, with mutual honor and respect and not trying to dominate one another. According to Aloys Budi Purnomo, “building true brotherhood, interreligious adherents in Indonesia is something to keep going endeavored even fought for.” The word ‘true’ is emphasized because in society often a fake brotherhood or ‘pseudo’ tolerance are observed outwardly. As seen in ethnic and religious violence in many areas of Indonesia. The propaganda and rhetoric that Indonesia is a religious and tolerant nation, becomes a hollow slogan when different groups views results in provocations and attacks. (Purnomo, 2003)
Meanwhile, tolerance in Lasem is displayed in togetherness in activities by groups from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. They considered tolerance has materialized if people from different backgrounds can come together in one space at the same time and do the same activity. The harmonious and tolerant situation there on the surface seen as beautiful and ideal. However, when we dig deeper, we will find a different reality.
Dimming Role of Ethnicity and Chinese Culture in Lasem
Abdurrahman Wahid (also called Gus Dur) stated, “Culture is something broad that includes the essence of life. In other words, culture is life, that is human social life. If eating is a need in nature, then the whole type of business for fulfilling the needs bases humans on it and the system born social thereof is culture. With this throughout the device economy is culture.” (Pergulatan Negara, Agama, dan Kebudayaan)
The Chinese community in Lasem owns its unique cultural characteristic, in forms of religious rituals and celebrating ethnic days. Their uniqueness includes various types of food and snacks in particular. Unfortunately, some of the ancient Chinese delicacies are gradually losing their charm. From the testimony of an old Chines figure, Agni Malagina, a sinologist and researcher of Chinese culture in Lasem, finds that many typical Chinese food and snacks have been lost. Malagina said, “In the old days, there was lots of Chinese snacks. The traders were Chinese men who carried boxes on their shoulders and moved around Lasem. After the Chaos of 1965, all of the confectionary snacks typical of Lasem were missing.
Fewer Chinese inhabitants choose to live in Lasem these days. This must be seen as an important social phenomenon, which not arise from a vacuum. There is a reason why a large part of young Chinese from Lasem choose to leave the city and reluctant to ga back. This leaves only the older generations of Chinese in the city. This leaves open questions of whether the economy is driving these decisions or whether the change in societal relations (i.e. less harmony) is the reason.
Traces of the presence of Chinese ethnicity in Lasem is only felt in certain places which seek to preserve the culture, like Rumah Merah, Batik Tiga Negeri Shop, and Cu An Kiong temple. Elsewhere, the visibility of Chinese in Lasem is greatly reduced. The remaining Chinese community in Lasem has lost their motivation to turn to raise their Chinese culinary inheritance. The Chinese culture has been swallowed up by hegemonic majority culture which demands Chinese minorities adapt themselves. The situation is getting worse with repressive government regulations.
After 1965, the New Order regime, under the command of President Suharto, forbid expression of Chinese culture. No religious activity and Chinese customs were allowed in public. This is listed in Presidential Instruction No. 14 of 1967, which states that if in practice religious Chinese displayed elements of “Chineseness,” It must be done in a private manner, the family, or individually. The state instructed that “the celebration of religious and customary Chinese traditional festivals must be done in a way that is not conspicuous to the public space.” (Dwi Ratna et.al., 2015)
Discrimination policy applied to the Chinese included: a prohibition of using the Chinese language, prohibiting the practice of Chinese culture openly, coercion to replace Chinese names with local names, and the closure of Chinese schools in all areas. This was done with the goals of assimilating and absorbing the Chinese into the local culture.
Prohibition by the state against Chinese culture effectively disrupted the traditions and practices of the Chinese. One of the few remnants of Chinese tradition in Lasem are the religious rituals as well as some historial artifacts, like houses and temples. These too, will disappear to history if there is no intentional care or preservation.
From the Lasem situation, several questions arise. Can we see the assimilation of Chinese culture by the dominant culture as a form of tolerance? Is the reason for the disappearance of Chinese culinary tradition due to the perception that they are haram? And, if so, is this good for the dominant religion and culture? From the life of the people in Lasem, we have much to contemplate about what is true tolerance. Understanding and practice in public about tolerance can be very different from the real meaning of tolerance. In Lasem, we find ‘a conditional tolerance.’ Meanwhile, true tolerance in this context means accepting and appreciating differences and living side by side without facing dominance. Do we really have true tolerance in Indonesia?