2012 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 5, by Maja Šoštarić

Fixing the House: The Challenge of Tolerating the “Other” in Public and in Private

Maja Šoštarić

“Imagine that a rat somehow enters your house. What do you do? Essentially, you have two options. One is to kill the rat. Another one is to fix the house.”
(Indonesian kyai – Islamic scholar, during a visit to a pesantren – an Islamic boarding school)

I have witnessed many an interesting, bizarre, or even tragicomic scene during my two-years work in Bosnia focusing on transitional justice. Coming from neighboring Croatia, I have always found the Bosnian mentality somewhat similar to my own. Yet, the Bosnian sarcastically painted sense of humor is something unique that cannot be found anywhere else in the Balkans. I deem it to be by far the best tool for accurately portraying some truths regarding the country’s perplexing political situation, like that scene from Danis Tanović’s 2001 Oscar-winning movie where a Serb and a Bosniak, trapped in an improvised bunker between the opposing armies, quarrel over who started the war, although they might die under a sniper any minute. But eventually, it’s not the sniper that kills them, but their own haggling.

One real-life scene from my professional life in Bosnia is a case in point. During a public debate, a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared their deeply moving war stories of hunger, torture, and detention, recognized the suffering of the other sides and talked about reconciliation and coexistence. This was indeed something new for the audience present in a packed room on a chilly winter day. The international community must have been very content, for the “value-for-money” ratio finally looked larger than one.

Yet there is another side to the coin, as there always is. Immediately following the debate, I was fortunate to sit down for a cup of tea with the abovementioned three gentlemen, who were smiling to each other, to me, and to the rest of the world. No surprise, then, that I was enormously taken aback to discover, with the stage lights down and off the record, that these three men did not agree on virtually anything. One of them claimed to have been detained in a camp of which another man was denying the mere existence, and the third man was supporting the argument of the second one. As loyal followers of Balkan movies will have guessed, I left them cursing at each other and yelling, all at the same time. (I only heard, from a safe distance, that it was something about you, us, them.)

Is peacebuilding, therefore, just a colorful circus show, a never-ending performance to make believers of those who choose to believe? Is, by extension, tolerance (and hence intolerance as well) something that is exclusively reserved for the private realm, at least in the Western liberal intellectual tradition?[i]  If that is the case, we are very much facing the rat problem mentioned in the caption. What follows from that argument, then, is that the house should be fixed. The first step to proceed, if we think more about the kyai’s valuable advice quoted in the above epigraph, is to identify the hole through which the rat squeezed in, also allowing for the fact that the problem does not have geographical, cultural or social borders: any society can be seen as a house, and any type of intolerance as a rat.

These thoughts were on my mind as the bus I was traveling on this summer stopped in front of a mosque and a church – not one after another, but in fact, one next to another. In the Yogyakarta province, Indonesia, a mosque and a Protestant church share the same address. I was on the bus full of curious minds from all over the world. The bus has just arrived in front of the church and the mosque in order to obtain an insight into how local Muslims and Christians coexist peacefully. The persons on the bus have all read something about the numerous interreligious clashes and disputes in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, whereby the Muslims and all others also coexist with several Islamic subgroups not associated with or recognized by the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims.[ii]

Moreover, we have all heard stories about the Indonesian constitution that foresees six official religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism) to one of which everyone has to belong, and where atheists, or those who refuse to declare their religion, are severely punished. But when one is in the country, stories like that are difficult to believe, judging from the smiling faces around every corner. Therefore, one cannot help but wonder whether the Indonesian people, similarly to the Bosnians and pretty much everyone else on the planet, sometimes only perform.

By performing, of course, I do not mean theater as much as life. But the metaphor of performance found applicability while watching with others the Ramayana ballet in Prambanan Temple in central Java. The content and structure of the performance finds parallels in how one makes sense of “fixing the house.” A traditional Javenese ballet, it is based on the prominent epic and performed in four acts, or, as they call it, episodes. But, the reader is now wondering, how does the ballet play out along the public-private debate? Does the message it conveys and the way it is performed tell us something more about tradition, tolerance and violence?  In the first episode, the main hero, Rama’s wife Shinta, is abducted by Rama’s most bitter adversary, Rahwana. In the second episode, Rama, helped by Sugriwa, the ape envoy, is trying to reach Shinta, while in the third episode Rahwana is already waging a war against Rama. Rama kills Rahwana in episode four, and, of course, reunites with Shinta, and they live happily ever after.

So let the story of tolerance in private versus public (in Bosnia, Indonesia, and everywhere else) and about a summer school that has the rare courage to address the issue (in private and in public), be told in four episodes as well, for the author of these lines still naïvely, but passionately, believes in happy endings.

Episode 1: ISSRPL – Locating the Problem

The curious minds hopping off a bus are the participants of the 2012 International Summer School of Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) held on two Indonesian islands: Java, being the majority Muslim area, and Bali, being populated mainly by Hindus. By bringing together an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group of participants (28 fellows from 18 countries) to a country that is equally ethnically and religiously mixed, the school organizers aimed to create small “communities of trust,” as the school director, Boston University professor Adam Seligman, puts it.

Generally, the summer school involves approximately 25-30 fellows coming from about 20 different countries. The yearlong discussion on tolerance and living together differently was started in the Balkans, where, as pointed out in the introduction, it is still a very delicate issue. The first ISSRPL was held in 2003 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, followed by other Balkan-located schools in 2004 (Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 2006 (Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Boston, United States) and 2011 (Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria). The logo of the school is also closely related to the Balkans: it represents a design of the Čaršijska Mosque in Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was destroyed in 1992-93 and reconstructed in 2003.

Through an intense degree of interaction, and combining cognitive (academic) and emotional aspects, the ISSRPL fellows learn about the country they find themselves in, but also about the people with whom they spend the bulk of their time: other participants of the school. Building on the premises that knowledge is collective (social) and that people build real, active communities (something that is deeply anchored in human nature) by doing together.

Unlike most programs in interreligious and interethnic dialogue, the summer school does not stress what we have in common with the other, but accepts and attempts to build precisely on our differences. That is a challenging undertaking, vastly avoided or at least ignored, precisely because difference is the root of every conflict, be it difference in standpoints, provenance, religion, or levels of wealth. Focusing on the root of conflict is, doubtless, the most targeted way to solve it. By the similar token, addressing difference in the context of the contrast-painted societies is probably also the most efficient method of dealing with difference.

Episode 2: Telling Them What They Want to Hear – a Recipe for Tolerance?

Back to the curious minds from the beginning. Similarly to the ape envoy from Ramayana, they are far from listless and drifting. In the next scene, we see them in a Protestant church, holding some pink lunchbox gifts, eating oranges and listening to the pastor. She is telling them how they, the Christians, have absolutely no problems with their Muslim neighbors. And the Muslim neighbors, who invite everyone to the mosque, concur. All is well, thank you for asking. Yogyakarta has been declared, according to some survey, the happiest city in Indonesia. And according to some other survey, Indonesia, the presenters hurry to add, is indeed the happiest place on the planet. Hence, Logical Reasoning 101 suggests: Yogyakarta is the happiest city on Earth! Some of the curious minds are immediately frowning, and we should forgive them, for doubt is the ultimate quality of those being curious. The question that imposes itself is: could it be that this is just an appearance, something similar to the introductory show performed by my three Bosnian peacebuilding friends? The group leaves in a state of doubt.

A Balinese intellectual gives them an opposite perspective, in a lecture held in a heavenly resort with palms, pools and all other predictable requisites of paradise, in Ubud, Bali. “The tourist heaven you see here”, he points out, “is nothing but the way we make our living. In reality, it’s completely different. Look around. See for yourselves.” The group does just that, trying not to be deceived by the fabulous odor of the yellow plumeria flowers which can be found all over the island. And indeed, truth is out there, as the “X Files”, a TV show popular in the 1990s, suggests. At times, it seems that the Balinese identity, with everything offered for sale, has been constructed merely for purposes of the tourist.[iii]

In a Javanese Catholic church, a priest, looking and speaking like a textbook example of Christ’s shepherd, gives a memorable Sunday sermon. Essentially, he speaks about three people: Udin, a journalist of a local newspaper in Yogyakarta who was probably killed by a politician whom he had associated to corruption; Marsinah, a female worker, who was murdered after she had led a mass labor protest against the corporative owner where she worked. The case was closed without any decision by the court; and Munir, a human rights activist who was poisoned on a flight by military secret agents. Udin, Marsinah and Munir are today’s prophets, the priest concludes, for they were ready to suffer in order to make this imperfect world a better place for the rest of us.

The core of the problem lies exactly in the public sphere. The reason why the honest and profound Bosnian reconciliation process so far has not translated from the public to the private, and vice versa, and why some people in Indonesia publically insist on impeccable harmony within society, while human rights violations still occur in suspicious and dodgy corners far away from sun and the sea, is the inability to grasp the very concept of tolerance, whom one should tolerate, and where. Tolerance “involves accepting, and abiding or accommodating views that one rejects. It calls us to live in cognitive dissonance and presents contradiction as a sought after goal. We are obliged to “bear” what in fact we find unbearable.”[iv]

Often times, tolerance is confounded with indifference – an elegant solution that is based on the premise that a realm of privacy is not to be broached at any cost, and that therefore, tolerant or intolerant views should be removed from public discussion. This is where the issue of space becomes pivotal, too. At home, we think what we want to think, and we say what we want to say, because we are free. Outside, in public, we do not really care (What is there to be tolerant about when it comes to Aborigines if I reside in Buenos Aires? Why on Earth do I have to have an opinion on the Tutsi, or even, God forbid, empathize with them, if I live in Montenegro?), or, in the best of cases, we pretend to care while simultaneously acting completely opposite. That, or so we seem to be taught, is the way to achieve world peace and to coexist with the “other”.

Episode 3: Tolerating vs. Confronting the “Other”

Then, again, who is your “other”? The “other” is obviously not a Tutsi from Kigali if you have spent all your life in Podgorica. On the contrary, it is someone who enters your own, private, comfort zone. The “other” is precisely that person claiming to have been detained in a camp that “your” army set up. The “other” is that Christian building a church in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood; the “other” is also a Jew in Bosnia, where he or she cannot actively engage in politics, or a Jewish observant in Indonesia, where he or she cannot tick a box which says “Judaism” on an ID card, for there is no such category; the “other” is a Muslim in the Paris banlieues or the London outskirts; the “other” is a Chinese on the island of Java, who has never learned to write or to speak Chinese, but has also never really been accepted as an Indonesian; the “other”, too, is that annoying human rights activist who does not stop reminding the world of child labor in your fabric. It seems that the world has plenty of “others”!

Deranged dictators and their policies (though not only) are, as a rule, obsessed with “otherness”. Hitler’s Endlösung (Final Solution) had the objective of exterminating every single Jew in Germany, and then beyond. Saddam’s gassing campaigns during Anfal targeted helpless Kurds in selected areas of Iraq, and Milošević’s insane policy of etničko čišćenje (ethnic cleansing) was systematically conducted against non-Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Throughout Indonesia, in 1965, everyone was suspected to be a Communist and as a consequence, thousands of innocent people died. Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, went so far as to kill all the people wearing glasses, for they were deduced to be intellectuals, and therefore enemies of the Angkor, the civilization of Kampuchea established by Pol Pot.

Africa, too, is not spared of such abominable stories. Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis was, similarly to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, replete with cases of war rape, with the scope of humiliating the opponent to the core. Moreover, Uganda’s infamous fugitive Joseph Kony has committed unthinkable atrocities leading the ironically named rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (previously also dubbed the Holy Spirit Movement) and aiming to establish a state based on the Ten Commandments. The ongoing crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are closely related to this issue.

Punishing “otherness” can also occur in a less brutal manner, of course. Recently an American Muslim in Lombok, Indonesia, was sentenced to five months for religious defamation because during Ramadan in 2012, he pulled out the plug on a mosque’s loudspeaker claiming that the loud voice disrupted the guests at his guesthouse.[v] Likewise, “others” are in many cases held at a safe distance. For instance, the Palestinian people in Bethlehem cannot exit their town, secluded by a wall, and go and visit relatives in Jerusalem, only 8.5 kilometers away, without an official Israeli authorization that is extremely rarely granted. Similarly, Bosniak people in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have not been to the Croat part of the city for more than twenty years and vice versa. Moreover, both Bosniaks and Croats also swear they will never do so, ever.

Episode 4: Knowledge of vs. Knowledge for Tolerance

But where does this discussion lead us? Now, imagine the group consisting of a Ugandan Catholic, an Indonesian Pentecostal, a Zimbabwean Anglican, a Bosnian Muslim, an Afghani Muslim, an Indonesian Hindu, an American Jew, and a Croatian Catholic. These people all carry along certain views of those who are “other” to them. Perhaps they think of these others as dangerous; perhaps they are skeptical about them; perhaps they see them with a nuance of neutrality, even indifference, when not in direct contact with them. In any case, there is always a certain level of mistrust in interacting with the “other.” Learning about the “other” in an academic way is useful, but it is only the part of the process (Seligman calls this “knowledge of”).

The most distinctive premise of the school, however, is to link this “knowledge of” with an even more precious form of knowledge: “knowledge for.” Imagine a long day of lectures on the Indonesian constitution or Balinese identity; visits to the Merapi volcano by motorcycle, the breathtaking Prambanan, a collection of 240 Hindu temples, or the Kotesan Buddhist village in Java; or worships like the Jewish Shabbat prayer, the Muslim Juma’t Prayer, the mass in the Javanese Catholic church, or the Shiwa Buddha tooth-filing ceremony in the midst of the rice fields of Bali.

After such a full day, when the abovementioned group of people, heterogeneous in everything one can be heterogeneous in – age, gender, race, religion, language, and built-in conceptions of what is acceptable and normal – has dinner together, dances together, sings on a bus, goes to swim, or cooks together, they necessarily build a closer community. They have shared experiences (for they have just returned from a long day and there is a lot to talk about), and they become more open to talk about some more personal issues, such as conflict, belonging and identity. That is, then, the “knowledge for.”

One particular moment that struck this author and which instantiated all that was said thus far, revolves around a young woman, whose provenance I will not disclose for her own safety, and who is the most impressive person I met during the ISSRPL in Indonesia. Young as she is, she leads an unthinkable life for the majority of us participating in the school, some even more than twice as old as she is. Her life consists in constant fear: how will she get to university? What will happen with her and her sister? Is somebody she knows going to get beaten up or killed? She has been trying for several years to set up educational programs for women in her country’s rural areas, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles and risking her life on a daily basis.

And in the midst of Bali, the hallucinating paradise, something entirely unplanned happens: the young woman suddenly breaks into tears. And what follows, to me, is the core of the ISSRPL: Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all over the world sit still and listen to the girl’s sobbing. No one is trying to console the young woman with some wise words, proverbs and catchy phrases. Importantly, no one is trying to say: “You know, I understand you, for what is/was done to my people is equally bad”. The only gesture coming from all those present, the Muslims, Jews, and Christians, is that of silence, gradually turning into many tears. Certainly, no one was being tolerant in relation to the girl, for there was nothing to tolerate, given no geographical or historical connection between our realities and her quagmire. But, equally, no one was being indifferent. That is the point where empathy jumps in, or, as Dominique Moïsi has so wonderfully put it, the “geopolitics of emotion.”[vi]

That is, in brief, also what the experience of the ISSRPL teaches us. You actually do not have to tolerate your distant “others”, those you do not live with or are not connected to in any way, because their behavior does not affect you. But you can at least try, once in a while, to see the world from their shoes, and compare to what you see from yours. It is a refreshing experience. And that is exactly what happens when you have some forty people from all over the world discussing the limits of power of Yogyakarta’s sultan under a tree just next to the Prambanan temple.

The near “others”, on the other hand, are a more challenging group to deal with. Not only do you have to try to understand what they are going to do next, but you also have to tolerate them (as much in private as in public, in order for the concept of tolerance to really work) so you can all coexist peacefully. When the ISSRPL fellows go back to their countries of origin, this second, much bigger, challenge immediately arises. One thing is certain: You do not merely study the “other” like you study country flags, Amazonian vegetation, or architectural styles. Much more is at stake. You live with the “other”, acknowledge the differences between that other and yourself, and learn to accept them. It is, indeed, astonishingly simple, and, what is more, it guarantees the “happily ever after” ending. The house is safe; the rats will not return.

All that said, I have to note that normally I am genuinely disinclined to appreciate the texts ending with a verse, or, even worse, a whole strophe. It is just so cliché. But, wishing to leave the confused reader with something tangible, or at least memorable, after hearing a whole lot about tolerance, Ramayana, Indonesia, Bosnia, rats, the problem of otherness, and in particular, the ISSRPL that assembled all those puzzle pieces together into a beautiful mélange, I will close with a poem, for a simple reason. I do not believe that anyone has ever made such a powerful point in fewer words than this particular maestro, on why tolerance is a matter of sheer necessity:

The blood, the soil, the faith
These words you can’t forget
Your vow, your holy place
O love, aren’t you tired yet?

(…)A cross on every hill
A star, a minaret
So many graves to fill
O love, aren’t you tired yet?
–Leonard Cohen, The Faith

Author Bio

Maja Šoštarić, a 2012 ISSRPL Fellow, has a PhD in Political Science from University of Vienna with research stays in Paris and Osaka, a postgraduate diploma in International Studies from Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, as well as a Master’s in Economics from Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. She has worked with a number of international organizations, NGOs, and think tanks. Her primary interests are diplomacy and international affairs, human rights and languages.

[i] Seligman, Adam B. 2003. “Tolerance, Tradition and Modernity.” Cardozo Law Review no. 24 (4):1645-1656.

[ii] Hefner, Robert. 2011. “Where have all the abangan gone? Regionalization and decline of non-standard Islam in contemporary Indonesia”. In: Politics and religion in Indonesia. Syncretism, orthodoxy and religious contention in Java and Bali. Edited by Michel Picard and Rémy Madinier, 2011. Routledge, London and New York.

[iii] Picard, Michel. 2008. “Balinese identity as tourist attraction: From `cultural tourism’ (pariwisata budaya) to `Bali erect’ (ajeg Bali)”, In: Tourist Studies; 8; p.155.

[iv] Seligman, see supra note 1, p. 102.

[v] Bagir, Zainal Abidin, 2011. “Defamation of Religion Law in Post-Reformasi Indonesia: Is Revision Possible?”, Gadjah  Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The paper was first presented “Law and Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia” Seminar, 17-18 December 2011, organized by Asia Research Institute and the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore.

[vi] Moïsi, Dominique. 2008. “La géopolitique de l’émotion: Comment les cultures de peur, d’humiliation et d’espoir façonnent le monde”, Flammarion, Paris.