Consortium of:

Learning to Navigate the Ethics of Boundaries: School, Youth, and Inter-Religious Relationships in North Sulawesi


  April 26th 2021

Dr. Erica M. Larson

In North Sulawesi, interreligious marriages are often cited as providing a framework of tolerance that sustains harmonious interreligious relations in the region. On the other hand, discourses about the threat of interreligious marriage and their association with proselytization also inform fears of religious conversion and a de-stabilization of identities. This issue becomes more interesting when joined with the complex conjunction of ethical frames that youth in majority-Protestant North Sulawesi are exposed to from national and local political debates, religious teaching, and their social experiences at school that shape their understanding of and approaches toward inter-religious boundaries. Related with this issue, Erica M. Larson shared her research entitled “Learning to Navigate the Ethics of Boundaries: School, Youth, and Inter-Religious Relationships in North Sulawesi” in the Wednesday Forum organized by ICRS and CRCS on March 31, 2021. Larson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Religion and Globalization Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. She obtained her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Boston University (USA). Her research interests include education, religion, ethics, and politics in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.  

In the beginning of her presentation, Larson explained that this research was conducted mostly in and around the provincial capital of Manado, North Sulawesi. Manado is known for being both religiously and ethnically diverse. According to the data from Badan Pusat Statistik, 2019, in the city of Manado itself, the population was 433,635, 56% Protestant, 38% Muslim, 5% Catholic, while Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucians together made up less than one percent of the city's population. In Manado and North Sulawesi, there is some intersection of religious and ethnic identity. The majority of inhabitants of Manado and the surrounding regencies and cities are ethnically Minahasan, and they are primarily Protestant which results in this overlap of ethnic and religious belonging. Muslims make up nearly one-third of the provincial population and are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds some of which are indigenous to the broader region such as in Bolaang, Mongondow, and Gorontalo. Others are present from historical and more recent migrations. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Indonesia transitioned to democracy and underwent this massive decentralization, there were outbreaks of ethno-religious violence in Central Sulawesi, Maluku, and North Maluku, regions which are mostly surrounding North Sulawesi, but violence ultimately did not spread to North Sulawesi. This is very much central to its current identity as a self-proclaimed exemplar of coexistence for the rest of Indonesia. And this is one of the main reasons why Larson selected Manado as a research site to investigate the discourses and practices related to coexistence. 

Moreover, in terms of research logistics and methodology, in this research, Larson conducted 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork (2015-2016) in North Sulawesi and also one month of follow-up research in 2018. This research is based mostly on participant observation and interviews, such as interviewing Protestant pastors about interreligious initiatives in the region and also speaking with Muslim high school students from the public school. Larson decided to use schools as focal points in her research, going upstream and downstream from these schools to understand the channeling of ethical currents that take place through them. Schools channel ideas and practices about belonging and religious coexistence. Schools themselves are perceived as sites of "deliberation" (Varenne: 2007) regarding the place of religion in the nation and the resulting politics of religious difference that entails. Three schools were selected as the core of this research:  a public high school (SMA Negeri), a public madrasa (Madrasah Aliyah Negeri), and a private, Catholic high school (SMA Katolik Swasta). The public high school was a religiously mixed, approximating the general religious landscape of Manado. The madrasa had all Muslim students, and the private Catholic school, drawing from the surrounding population, was majority Protestant with a large minority of Catholic students and also some Muslim, Confucian ,and Buddhist students. Larson conducted observations at these schools, starting with civic education and religious education courses but also spending time in the cafeteria, in the teacher's lounge, joining the after-school club, and going on field trips with the students. Larson also interviewed students, teachers, and administrators as well as local political and religious leaders in Manado and North Sulawesi. 

Larson recognizes that many other relevant institutions also have socializing functions. However, through the research, participant observation, and interviews, she found that school or education providers are a major arena of debate regarding state policies on religion and resulting politics of difference. Schools transform "experiences of ‘the everyday’ into categories of social differentiation and identification" (Stambach 2006:10). Schools engage in a project of "normative work" that orients toward a possible framework of coexistence in a plural society (Hefner, 2014).

Larson had two research questions. First, how are frameworks for religious coexistence channeled through schools? And, secondly, what models of subjectivity are at work?

Interestingly, before exploring more to the issue of interreligious relationships within the school, Larson determined to use interreligious marriage as a lens for understanding perceptions of religious boundaries and ideas for tolerance and when and how religious boundaries become salient. Here, Larson shows the paradox that she encountered in the field regarding the intermarriage between Christian and Muslims. On one hand Christian-Muslim intermarriage can be a foundation for religious coexistence. Larson explained that when she talked to the people about why North Sulawesi is known for religious harmony, or why they think Manado is a tolerant place, most of the answers related to the history of Christian-Muslim intermarriage in the region as the literal dimension of the popular motto "Torang Samua Basudara" or we are all brothers. However, on the other hand, Christian-Muslim intermarriage also becomes a primary threat to religious coexistence, because religious intermarriage on a national level is highly contentious because of its potential for religious conversion, and while there is no specific legal proscription, bureaucratic procedures make registering interreligious marriages nearly impossible with the consequence that the bride and groom are effectively required to profess the same religion. In majority Muslim areas in Indonesia, interreligious marriage is often discussed as a plot of Christianization and among Christians in Manado interreligious marriage is often discussed as a plot of Islamization to dampen the Christian majority and to change the religious makeup of the city and of the province. Therefore, it is clear that the practice of inclusion/exclusion as they relate to policies about marriage and sexual relations are intimately intertwined with the political order (Stoler, 1989). Furthermore, family life and sexuality are not exclusively in the private sphere but often manifest as "intimate geopolitics" (Smith, 2021).

In this vein, Larson uses discourse about interreligious socializing, dating, and marriage and an ethnographic investigation of shifting conceptions of religious boundaries to cut across and to conceptually link together these various scales in question from political-institutional and interpersonal level down to the body itself and to understand how difference becomes inscribed therein. The angles of interreligious marriage are important to show how Manadonese youth face a complex conjunction of ethical norms with ambiguities on many levels as they think about possibilities of interreligious friendship, dating, and marriage and show how schools become one arena where youth encounter mixed messages about the need to accept differences in a framework that remains premised on the maintenance and the recognition of religious boundaries. The first framework of coexistence projects Christian-Muslim intermarriage as the foundation of peaceful coexistence in the region. Many students at these three schools do come from religiously mixed nuclear or extended families and they often discussed this as giving them practical experience with tolerance and religious coexistence. They then find that religious difference is not an obstacle to brotherhood because the difference is not always bad. The difference often becomes a reason to fight but can also become a reason for peace. 

Moreover, Larson also explains that, at all three schools, teachers often repeated their assumption that students should demonstrate tolerance by being friends with someone of a different religion. This mindset about interreligious friendship as a manifestation of tolerance links up to a broader effort in the recent curriculum overhaul particularly geared toward character education to curb rising intolerance in Indonesia. One of the core competencies in terms of civic education required that students value the equality of citizens without differentiating based on race, religion, belief, gender, class, culture, and ethnicity in the life of society nation, and state. Some schools have brought this more centrally in their educational project. In the private Catholic school that becomes a subject of this research, they have a religiously mixed student body and claim a specifically multicultural approach and the teachers spend a significant amount of time in Catholic religious education class discussing the importance of respecting difference. Even the student catchphrase had taken hold to say do not be racist which often came up as an injunction to not pay attention to any form of difference when choosing friends. Larson argues that this kind of framework depends on an individualized or individual-oriented subjectivity where tolerance is seen as an individual disposition that can be evaluated in schools on an individual level with the act of crossing religious boundaries through friendship viewed as a manifestation of this behavior. In this framework, religious boundaries are only salient insofar as they need to be overcome and ultimately sort of ignored. It is also the model of subjectivity that underlies the assumptions behind interreligious marriage as the very foundation for coexistence representing a kind of ultimate commitment to crossing boundaries. Unfortunately, while this idea about interreligious marriage is present in the broader society, it’s not a main narrative promoted in religious education in schools. 

Regarding the second framework or understanding of coexistence in Manado which sees Christian Muslim intermarriage as the primary threat to coexistence in the region and how this channeled with schools and going upstream and downstream to capture connections to broader public debates as well as individual ethical position making, Larson found that in the Catholic private school all students are required to take Catholic religious education for two hours a week in which there is a section on family life and marriage touching specifically on interreligious marriage. However, their textbook seems to be readily packaged as clearly right or wrong because there is a case of a Catholic woman that already married to a Muslim and has three children but is forced by her husband to convert to Islam, and this woman asks for advice to the Catholic priest. This example in contrast was a dilemma that lacked clues as to the best course of morally upright action but the intended message was still clear. Surprisingly, most of the students advising her to get a divorce, therefore the teachers argue that interreligious marriages are more problematic than mixed ethnic marriages, especially for Catholics because their children should be raised in the Catholic faith. 

In Protestant religious studies, there are no restrictions on making friends with people of any religion but they are reminded not to let friendship diminish their Christian faith. Interestingly, in both Protestant and Muslim religious education courses, there is no acknowledgment of interreligious marriage as a possibility. There is an assumption that students should and will marry someone of the same religion. This links to broader public debates because North Sulawesi is a majority Protestant province in majority Muslim Indonesia, so there is often a concern that Islam is infiltrating the region, and intermarriage is assumed to be part of an expansionist agenda. Many Christians do have a strong conviction that the region must maintain a strong Christian presence and identity, so there is a common discourse about the dangers of interreligious socializing, dating, and marriage. 

Finally, Larson found that there is a model of subjectivity or community-oriented subjectivity. In this model, tolerance is enacted by recognizing and not crossing religious boundaries in which interreligious relationships are seen as a threat of conversion. This model assumes that tolerance can only happen when individuals have strong religious convictions and are fully aware and respect the boundaries of religious communities which would be fundamentally threatened by interreligious marriage. Thus it can be concluded that both frameworks of coexistence are invoked by individuals as they navigate the realities of living in a plural society, balancing modes of subjectivity.