Engaging Extremists Key to Peace
Sumanto Al Qurtuby
For many people, the Rev. Paulus Hartono, a Mennonite church minister in Solo, Central Java, might be seen as a “deranged Christian.” While most people in this country, especially Christians and other religious minorities, tend to avoid hard-line Muslims, this pastor approached — and then befriended — members of Hizbullah (“Party of God,” a Solo-based Islamist paramilitary group not related to Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah).
The basis of what is now a solid friendship, it should be noted, is not to foster violence but rather to transform destructive conflict into productive peace. For years, the pastor and Mennonite communities in Central Java have worked together with this group, members of Nahdlatul Ulama, non-Mennonite Christians and other elements of local society for humanitarian services, post-disaster relief, interreligious dialogue and peacemaking activities.
Mennonites are Christians in the Anabaptist peace church tradition, which has membership of more than 1.3 million worldwide. Based on the 2006 census of the Mennonite World Conference, there are 72,624 Mennonites in Indonesia, making it the world’s sixth-largest Mennonite concentration.
Compared with other militia groups such as Laskar Jihad, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and Laskar Mujahidin, Hizbullah is less-known by scholars and the Indonesian public in general. Notwithstanding the lack of academic and media coverage, however, Hizbullah had indeed contributed to numerous intolerant actions and anti-Christian campaigns in Solo and neighboring areas. During the Christian-Muslim upheavals in Poso and Ambon, this group also deployed hundreds of its members to these conflict zones to assist their Muslim brethren, joining forces with other Muslim hardliners to battle against Christian fighters.
Paulus Hartono, a director of Mennonite Diaconial Services, which is an agency of Muria Christian Church, first approached Hizbullah about a decade ago to offer a hand in mediating disputes over the group’s radio station (known Hiz FM). When the pastor first came to Hizbullah’s headquarters, the commander refused to speak with him, telling him only: “You are a Christian and infidel, and therefore it is halal [legitimate] for us [Muslims] to murder you.”
Despite the rude response, the pastor did not give up. He returned again and again to Hizbullah’s office to drink tea, chat and offer help. Paulus, who co-founded the Forum for Peace Across Religions and Groups (FPLAG), believes that at the most basic level militia members are no different from anyone else; they are, above all, human beings who share the same brains and hearts, minds and feelings, hates and loves. After frequent meetings and talks, the commander finally agreed with Hartono’s bid to make a new radio station, knowing that the pastor had both skills and resources. Now, the commanding officer is happy because Hizbullah has its own radio station to spread Islamic dakwah (propagation).
“Before building peace,” the pastor told me, “one needs to build trust first, and establishing trust among ‘enemies’ is unlike flipping our hand palms.” The pastor may be right: the failure of the completion of peace accords in some societies across the globe is probably rooted in deep distrust among the conflicting parties.
Unlike most other areas in Indonesia, Solo is quite unique. Up to now, Solo has preserved courtly traditions inherited from the Islamic Mataram kingdom, which was established in the 17th century. As the home of the Islamic Mataram Empire and later the Surakarta Court (Keraton Surakarta Hadiningrat), Solo has rich Javanese cultural and mystical traditions. Since the founding of this kingdom, Solo has served as a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, social groupings, cultures and religions, which drive the region to both intercommunity pacification and infrequent clashes between ethno-religious groups.
Besides serving as a rich cultural center, Solo, unfortunately, is also notorious as a “home ground” of Islamist and terrorist groups. In this area, Abu Bakar Bashir, a conservative-militant Muslim leader of Hadhrami-Arab descent and the “Supreme Leader” of Jemaah Islamiyah, which the US government has dubbed as Southeast Asia’s axis of global terrorism, built a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) as a center for seeding Wahhabi-Salafi-linked puritanical forms of Islamic teachings. Most if not all members of Hizbullah are affiliated with this pesantren. It is thus not startling why religious views of this group are bigoted and anti-Christian.
After establishing trust — and acquaintance — with Hizbullah leaders, there came the big moment that transformed the relationship between the pastor and the commander: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In response to this tragedy, as Mennonite scholar David Shenk wrote, the pastor invited the commander and members of this group to come to Aceh, the area hardest hit, aiming at working with a Christian team in the post-tsunami reconstruction. The project was supported by the Mennonite Central Committee, a North American relief and development agency. Remarkably, the Hizbullah leaders accepted the call, and then joined the team. For months this unique group of volunteers worked together to rebuild broken houses and public facilities. They also ate together and slept together in tents.
Aceh didn’t mark the end of this interfaith relief effort. When huge earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which claimed thousands of lives and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, hit Yogyakarta and parts of Central Java, they worked together again, assisting thousands of people and preparing sites to rebuild 100 Christian and Muslim homes. Not only that, they also collaborated to rebuild damaged mosques and churches.
After years of collaboration and friendship, one day the commander suddenly sobbed. His tears dropped down moistening his cheeks. In front of Rev. Paulus Hartono, he said, or, perhaps more precisely, confessed: “When I reflect on what we have talked and done to you and Christians, and then I see and witness what you and Christians have reciprocated [with love and compassion], my heart has melted within me. Now, I have realized and discovered that you Christians are good infidels.”
Their work for peace and humanity continues to this day.
This short story is a reminder that engaging extremists can be a fruitful way to boost interethnic or religious peace and integration. The peace-building pioneer John Paul Lederach reminds us: “One cannot build a bridge starting from the middle.” This statement is a strong critique to those working for peace and dialogue who focus on strengthening moderates while neglecting extremists.
It is time to change our lens.
Sumanto Al Qurtuby, a deputy chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama’s North American branch and a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.