Written by Athanasia Safitri
Dramatic societal changes took place during the COVID-19 pandemic all over the world. This included the ways in which religious activities were conducted, not to mention the limitation of attending public worship spaces. It forced many people of faith to adapt and invent a new way to practice their religious tradition, even with the help of technology and digital platforms. Dr. Leonard Epafras spoke of the challenges experienced by religious minorities at Wednesday Forum held by CRCS and ICRS Universitas Gadjah Mada on March 1, 2023. The event entitled “Enduring the Gimmick and Polemics: Digital Performances of Religious Minorities During the Pandemic” was a brief report of a project he did last year along with four other researchers: Hendrikus Paulus Kaunang, Ida Fitri Astuti, Irfan Syaifuddin, and David Akbar. The researchers looked at the digital performances of religious minorities during the pandemic.
Epafras invited the participants joining the event to acknowledge how digital platforms affect both ‘acceptance and rejection’ from the society toward religions with the illustration of a particular religious community which turned the comments off on its social media accounts. Without even explaining further, we understand that religious minorities face hardship in society, therefore they may seek to avoid conflict by limiting the ability to comment on the group’s content. Another example shows debates which were made among religious elites when the Minister of Religious Affairs sent his greetings online on a religious holiday to an unrecognized religious minority. From these cases, Epafras presented one of the problems faced by the religious groups on the internet which is the limitation of the digital presentation of particular religions. Most of the content represents only general information from these religious groups and cannot be categorized even as public educational material about the religion itself. Another problem is controversial materials posted online, which sometimes can be considered as a gimmick from the state government for the religious minorities.
Digital religious content on both sides of the coin
Digital platforms may create a more democratic and pluralist social space for religious minorities. On the other hand, it can be taken as a channel to express hatred, misinformation, and misinterpretation when it is used irresponsibly and disrespectfully. However, we have witnessed in Indonesia how the state sets up framing to define religion and belief. In this case, we come to understand that there are only six religions which are acknowledged, some state-sponsored and non-state-sponsored beliefs, and many religious minorities and indigenous religion groups in Indonesia. The research itself, led by Epafras, is subject to only 15% of all religious minorities in Indonesia, which is 23 out of 179 groups. He concluded that the digital performance penetration puts Java Island as the most active area, with Facebook, YouTube, and websites as the top three media platforms used by religious groups.
The COVID-19 pandemic brings religious life to a different level of experience where people of faith face difficulties in practicing their religion during the lockdown, not only personally but also collectively. Digital performance clearly helped many religious groups. Even before the pandemic, the efforts for harmony have been sidelined by challenges from major religions and discrimination by state and non-state actors. With the lockdowns, many religious groups, including minorities, have been maximizing the role of digital platforms to reach out to their people of faith. Despite the shift in sacredness of religious traditions, digital technology is going beyond time and space to allow people to practice their religion. Religious groups then tend to put their service activity and rituals online so that more people can reach out and somehow become religiously assisted. A problem may arise when there is a complicated relation between digital inclusion and the politics of digital literacy occurring in particular communities.
Concerns on digital performances to follow
The initial findings of the research project present the challenges of digital performance for religious minorities related to the religious plurality in Indonesia. Gimmicks as commonly seen in our society, not to mention the conflict and polemics which are unavoidable, have been concerns whether we can continue prioritizing these digital platforms in extending religious dimension, and enhance spiritual growth of the believers and people in general. For example, although there are already active offline services, online mass is still provided in many churches to accommodate the ill and people with mobility challenges. Now that people are living a new normal life post pandemic, we are invited to reevaluate the way of living our religion with the help of digital technology.
In the discussion that followed his presentation, Epafras responded to several concerns addressed by the participants of the Wednesday Forum. Some may be still in the wind, since there is no definite solution to overcome these triggering problems. Politics about digital literacy, problematized conflict, public education on sacred religious activity are among those voiced during the discussion. Furthermore, discrimination of particular religious minorities, misinterpretation of thoughts on modern issues, and the danger of using digital platforms as a weapon to overstep boundaries in tolerance have been a threat to religious harmony that we may have to confront in the future.
The last question we can ask ourselves at the end of the discussion is whether we should go ahead in posting religious content for the sake of freedom of religion and freedom of speech and expression or if we must establish some kind of mutual understanding on digital platforms. The digital ills we are experiencing may harm freedom itself when we do not control or regulate specific policy to enforce religious tolerance. The next concern is the amount of digital performance we should carry out in order to improve our religious life. Once it violates other people’s rights on religious freedom and traditions, will it still be relevant to enhance religious engagement online amidst the physical and spiritual obstacles we are facing? Therefore, it is inevitable to nurture ourselves with the values of respect on all religious divisions for us to accept these differences and to improve concrete tolerance toward one another through dialogue, open forum, both physically and digitally.