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Photo by Emily Shahrzad Rahravan, Indonesia Semester.

Teaching Diversity in Times of Intolerance

Times of Intolerance

Last Sunday, suicide bombers blew themselves up in three Christian churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city and the capital of East Java. The bombers killed fourteen people in addition to themselves and injured many more. News of the series of attacks quickly passed between friends and neighbors across the island of Java. Over the course of the day, the nation would learn that a single family—a mother, father, and their four children—carried out the bombing. Two of the children weren’t even teenagers yet.

Then, on Monday, another family in Surabaya carried out a second suicide attack; this time targeting the city’s police headquarters. Four of the five family members died when they detonated their bombs, but an eight-year-old daughter survived.

It goes without saying that Indonesians were shocked by this wave of terrorist attacks, the most deadly the country has seen in over a decade. Government officials quickly began an investigation and President Joko Widodo was in Surabaya by Sunday evening to make a statement to the nation and console the families of the victims. Many people took to social media to express their concern that such violence is symptomatic of growing intolerance across the country and as such not really a surprise. Since 2015, expressions of intolerance towards Indonesia’s religious and ethnic minorities have been on the rise. Christians, ethnically Chinese Indonesians, non-Sunni Muslims, and Papuans have all been targeted by a movement that combines hardliner interpretations of Islam with racist Javanese nativism. Indonesia’s LGBT community has also repeatedly been targeted. What’s more, the attacks come from multiple sides: politicians have successfully brought blasphemy lawsuits against their non-Muslim opponents, legislatures have shut down LGBT support groups and their websites, and religious gangs use the threat of violence (or actual violence) to shut down events and establishments they deem unacceptable according to their interpretation of the Koran.

Many as One

Indonesia and the United States have the same national motto: Many as one (E pluribus unum in Latin and bhinneka tunggal ika in Old Javanese). That motto is a statement of fact about the extremely diverse populations of our respective countries. But it is also an aspiration. We in America continue to struggle for unity in our diversity and have yet to create a society where all citizens are treated as equal. How far we are from realizing our national motto is apparent in just about every measurable way (here’s an example).  And politicians, of course, repeatedly exploit fear of diversity rather than promote unity. The same is true in Indonesia.

During the last three years, I’ve had many conversations with my friends and colleagues in Yogyakarta (Jogja) about the parallels between our countries’ current political and social climates. Jogja has long been known as Kota Toleransi, the City of Tolerance. Many neighborhoods there are religiously mixed and the students of the city’s many universities come from a diverse range of ethnic communities all over the country. Yet in Jojga as in Indonesia across the board, intolerant and hateful acts are on the rise. How do we, as educators, activists, artists, cross-cultural guides, and scholars work to repair our broken local and national discourses on minorities, diversity, and tolerance? What tools do we have to help move our communities along the path towards realizing our shared national mottos?

Teaching Diversity

In this era of rising intolerance, fostering compassion, open mindedness, and critical thinking among young people is one of the best ways I can think of to teach the value of diversity. Throughout our course in Indonesia we will return to this theme as it applies to the communities we visit and our communities back home. We’ll consider how to teach diversity, compassion, and critically engaged citizenship in cross-cultural learning environments. And we’ll do so in dialogue with Indonesian colleagues who work to do the same.

For Your Next Yak

Before our call this Tuesday, the 22nd, please post a yak in which you share your thoughts on teaching diversity in this time of  intolerance. Feel free to discuss any kind of diversity and/or tolerance—whether related to gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, race, religion, tribal affiliation, language, class, etc. or an intersectional combination. What do you hope to learn in Indonesia from the people we meet and the communities we visit?

Jamie and I are looking forward to exploring these vital topics with you!

Talk soon,