Jakarta. As part of the project "Life of Muslims in Germany" the Goethe-Institut Jakarta invited a group of Indonesian intellectuals and academics to take part in a recent study tour to the cities of Berlin, Hamburg and Goettingen. For two weeks, the 14 participants from across Indonesia, including Central and East Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sulawesi, had the opportunity to learn more about Islamic culture in a secular environment.
Due to the global rise of populism, nationalism and conservative movements, cross-cultural projects and interfaith dialogues can play a crucial role in fostering mutual understanding and tolerance.
"The participants get an insight into the religious practice and everyday life of Muslims through various encounters and discussions with Muslim organizations, as well as the role that Islam plays in German cultural and educational institutions, such as museums or universities," said Heinrich Bloemeke, director of the Indonesian Goethe-Institut.
"They also became acquainted with the sensitive 'questions of faith' in secular societies by meeting representatives of Muslim associations as well as politicians," he added, referring mainly to areas of friction between believers of different religions and faiths as well as a potential conflict between them and public institutions.
Both Indonesia and Germany have experienced an intensification of the discussion on the role of religion in public and political life. Germany may be dominated by Christian communities, but understands itself as a secular country. However, due to immigration, especially by Muslims, it has developed into a multi-religious and multicultural society.
Today, between 5 to 6 percent of the people living in Germany are Muslims.
"The questions and areas of friction associated with this religious and cultural change in Germany provide material for a dialogue between Germans and Indonesians," Bloemeke explained.
"For young Muslim intellectuals from Indonesia, the lives of Muslims in a secular and multi-religious environment are interesting in several ways: how are religious beliefs lived in a secular society, how does the Muslim minority relate to other religious communities and how do the different Muslim groups – the Sunni, Alevis, Shiites, Alawites, Ahmadiyya, etc – deal with one another?"
The diverse program included seminars, visits to mosques, churches and universities as well as governmental, social and cultural institutions; a well-balanced mixture of theory – such as the seminars with Susanne Kaiser, a journalist and expert on Islam in Germany – and hands-on activities that often resulted in lively discussions and exchanges, like their visit to German parliament and the Foreign Ministry, and "JIK – Junge Islam Konferenz" ("Young Islam Conference"), a platform for young people with and without Muslim background, analyzing perceptions of Muslims in Germany, aiming to reduce prejudice and create dialogue.
Tarek Muendelein of JIK said the platform was founded in 2011 as an answer to the wave of right-wing populist movements in Germany and to participate actively in public discourse on multiculturalism.
"Muslims are often considered a homogenous group but in reality, the Muslim community is very diverse," he said. "Some people consider Islam as a threat, as hostile to women, anti-democratic, intolerant and culturally incompatible with the West. The image of Muslims often conveyed in the media is that they are unwilling to integrate and have become a permanent security risk in light of global terrorism.”
According to Tarek, social degradation leads to practical repercussions, including barriers to educational resources, housing or labor markets. At the same time, he added, there are also positive developments.
"Young people in Germany are more open and tolerant," he said. "They are more accepting of cultural diversity."
For many participants, it was a journey of first-time experiences: the first time to travel to Europe, the first time to leave the country, the first time to set foot in a church – and the first time to find themselves in a reversed situation: in Indonesia, they are the majority as Muslims, whereas in Germany, the Muslim community is a minority.
The study tour became an informative and insightful way to get a better insight into a complex issue.
"I wanted to join this program to learn more about Muslim integration in Germany and how Muslims, German society and the state interact in the process of integration," said Rangga Eka Saputra, a researcher at the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University (UIN) Jakarta and one of the participants.
"During the two weeks in Germany, I realized that the concept of secularism in Germany called 'positive neutrality' is very accommodative of religion. It treats all religions equally and not only helps to facilitate the integration process but also encourages religious believers to be moderate or not radical. This often works because they have channels for religious expression," Rangga said.
At the same time, Rangga is skeptical if such an approach would also work in his home country.
"In Indonesia, the people are very religious," he continued. "The different history of nation-state building in the two countries also makes it difficult to apply the German secularist model in Indonesia. But Indonesia must learn that we have to treat all religions equally, and also the non-believers," he said.
Rangga was particularly impressed by the interfaith programs in Germany that directly target the grassroots level – unlike in Indonesia, he said, where they remain in elite circles.
"This was especially evident when we visited House of One, where different religious communities build a house of worship together," he said.
House of One is a globally unprecedented project where Jews, Christians and Muslims are working together to build a structure that will house a synagogue, a church and a mosque under the same roof – a house of prayer and interdisciplinary meeting, and a place of encounter for people of different faith and is also open to people who don’t belong to any religious community.
"I think this model of an interfaith project could be very important in Indonesia too because of our plural society," Rangga said.