Nathan Spiro: Hundred days of religious diversity in Indonesia

During the end of my bachelor I became interested in my current master program; Management of Cultural Diversity. I decided to visit an open day where information about the master program was presented. During this very first encounter with my master program I heard about the possibility to conduct a research in Indonesia with the support of the Frans Seda Foundation Twin Scholarship program. I do not want to say that this was the reason why I decided to commit to my master program, but it certainly was a perk of the program. Soon I found out that the supervising professor for this project would be Prof. Dr. Herman Beck, who specializes in Islam (including Islam in Indonesia). Fortunately for me this is also my area of interest. From that moment on I realized that this opportunity fitted me like a glove.

Trip to Dieng Plateau after 2nd round of interviews in Yogyakarta
Trip to Dieng Plateau after 2nd round of interviews in Yogyakarta

I made up my mind and decided to go for it and enrolled, wrote my motivation and was fortunate enough to get the scholarship. It was settled, I was going to Indonesia to conduct a research. This would not be my first time living far from home, I did an internship in Johannesburg, South-Africa for half a year and studied half a year at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. My past experiences taught me how difficult it can be to get the most out of your time abroad. Not only from an academic/professional perspective but also from a personal/fun perspective. A good balance between these two was what I wanted to achieve from this experience. A productive yet also amazingly fun experience. I decided to take a bit more time and go for an exact amount of a hundred days.

When the time was finally there I flew to Bali together with my girlfriend. From there we took a plane to a less visited island called Sumbawa where we climbed a volcano called Gunung Tambora.  we continued by a local ferry to the island Flores. For two weeks, we toured this Island using public transport. After our journey was over my girlfriend flew back to the Netherlands and I continued to Jakarta. When I was sitting in the plane to Jakarta I remember having a moment where I was contemplating what I was about to do. I had very few contacts and about to dive into a research on a sensitive topic; Management of Religious Diversity in Indonesia through the issuance of Fatwas (religious opinions). I remember very well sitting in the plane all excited and nervous, thinking by myself: “I wonder how this will work out!”.

The next day, first thing in the morning there was a meeting scheduled with all the Frans Seda Twin Nominees, Frans Seda Coordinator Rennie Roos and dr. Mikhael Dua. It was great to meet each other, know what the others were going to do and try to help each other out. Right away I started to become more confident in the research I was about to commence. Another confidence boost was given thanks to the International Office of Universitas Katolik Indonesia Atma Jaya. They were of great help with all the tedious visa processes but also provided a warm place to come over and have lunch and meet other international students. I never experienced such personal yet professional help from a similar institution.

Climbing Gunung Tambora
Climbing Gunung Tambora

I realized I had the help I needed, now it was up to me. How was I going to get enough relevant interviewees on this sensitive subject? Religious diversity was (and is) a hot topic in Indonesia. This was intensified due to the events around the Jakarta Governor: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok. I was in Jakarta during a large part of the buildup of the blasphemy case against him, during the gubernatorial elections and during the time he was sentenced to jail. The election process was widely seen as a test of the strength of Indonesia’s religious pluralism. Which was, luckily for me, the topic I focusing on.

The societal relevance of my topic ensured that people really wanted to speak up about how they felt on these developments. I ended up attending several public discussions, and conducted a total of 17 interviews in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Solo and Malang. At the end of interviews, I would often end up chatting with the interviewee and would be referred to other highly relevant contacts. This enabled a snowball effect in which I was able to establish contacts. I ended up interviewing well-respected academics, politicians and activists. My interviewees were not solely based in Jakarta. This ensured that the “fun” part of my trip was also accounted for. Usually when visiting a different place for an interview I would book my return flight a couple of days later. I filled in these extra days by renting a nice motorbike to explore the surroundings, hike and do a bit of scuba diving.

An anecdote that perfectly illustrates this balance between having fun and being productive at the same time is my visit to Dr. Pradana Boy Zulian. Like with all my interviewees I got his phone number from another contact. I send him a message via WhatsApp and was invited to his house in Malang to interview him. A few days later I flew to Malang and after a bit of searching found his establishment in the outskirts of the city. The interview was in the late afternoon during Ramadan, Dr. Pradana Boy was fasting. After a very elaborate interview of almost two hours we heard the call for the evening prayer from the nearby mosque. This indicated it was time to break the fasting. Dr. Pradana Boy invited me to break the fasting with him by having a traditional local Iftar and dine with his family. Dr. Pradana Boy runs an informal school at his house where he teaches his perspectives on Islam. Later that evening eight of his students joined us for a discussion about religion and how differently religion is perceived in Indonesia vis-a-vis the Netherlands (see top picture). When late in the evening it was finally time to go to my hotel, Dr. Pradana Boy offered me one of his motorbikes so I could visit Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National park. The next day, I drove through one of the most astonishing national parks I have ever seen on a borrowed motorbike. This anecdote for me is an illustration on how easy Indonesian people make it to enjoy their country to the fullest.

As you probably will have noticed throughout reading this article, I am enthusiastic about Indonesia. But besides this enthusiasm for the country and its people I have also become passionate for doing qualitative research on Islamic diversity issues. This experience made me decide to try to carry on doing research in Indonesia on this topic. I am writing a PhD proposal to see if I can obtain a PhD position and write my dissertation on a similar topic in the Indonesian context. I want to thank everybody from the Frans Seda Foundation, Universitas Katolik Indonesia Atma Jaya and Prof. Dr. Herman Beck for enabling this new chapter in my life.

Nathan Spiro, 2017 Frans Seda Foundation Twin Scholarship Student