Mitigating the Risks of Polarization through Collaborative Works

26 June 2023

Written by  Maurisa Zinira

Various organizations are concerned about the impact of polarization. Even though differences in opinion and attitude are normal and polarization is necessary, even at a certain level, it aids in fostering the development of democracy, polarization can escalate and become corrosive, threatening democracy and access to justice.

Numerous evidence indicate that societal polarization has impeded access to justice. In so doing, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) in collaboration with the Ford Foundation consider the importance of mitigating polarization through depolarization programs involving community group actors. This collaboration program focuses on "The Impacts of Interfaith Tolerance and Faith-Based Polarization on the Promotion of Social and Environmental Justice in Indonesia" and is scheduled to run for three years. As a first measure, on 15 June 2023, the ICRS hosted a forum of experts at Hotel Santika Premiere Yogyakarta. Approximately 18 experts were enlisted to provide advice and input regarding opportunities, challenges, and potential collaborative work for the ongoing depolarization agenda.

On Polarization

Polarization is inevitable in a democracy. Afifurrahman, a lecturer at UIN and one of the researchers in this collaboration program, revealed that polarization is unavoidable. His analysis of around 80 articles on the subject revealed that polarization occurs when society is divided into two opposing poles. According to Esteban and Ray (1994, p. 819) polarization is a condition in which a population is concentrated into considerable-size groupings. This concept states that at least two polarized population groupings have extremely different characteristics, and both have the same group size. According to Edelman, it can be recognized by measuring numerous indicators such as [1] economic concerns, [2] institutional imbalance, [3] class split, and [4] battle for truth.

Afif identified at least two major causes of polarization: [1] structural variables and [2] agent or actor factors. According to McCoy and Somer (2019), the structural factor that induces polarization includes formative rifts or socio-political cleavages that underpin polarization (underlying traditional social-political cleavages). While the discursive feature of polarization, known as the agency factor, is the activity of political actors and their divided narrative building that supports polarization in society.

Polarization is distinguished by the severity of its pattern. It can promote the process of political democratization in situations where it does not lead to toxic or destructive patterns. However, when it becomes "severe polarization" or "pernicious polarization" that destroys social cohesion, however, its presence must be mitigated. According to Carothers & O'Donohue in the introduction to Democracies Divided (2019, p. 12), the concept of "severe polarization" is characterized by three characteristics: first, polarization creates large blocks of elites and non-elites who are in opposition to one another. Second, polarization divides the nation into two large factions that dominate political life along two binary poles because it is embedded in conflicting social identities. Third, polarization is durable in the sense that it persists beyond a particular polarization event. In the context of "severe polarization," the diversity of differences that ought to be normal becomes one dimension of "us" versus "them" (McCoy et al., 2018, p. 18).

Polarization must be addressed when it progresses from mild to severe. This type of polarization not only endangers democracy, but also social cohesion and impedes social and environmental justice. To lessen the harmful impact of polarization, mitigation or depolarization actions must be undertaken.

Potential Actions for Depolarization

The positive news is that Indonesia is included in the category of "less polarized" nations, unlike Colombia, the United States, South Africa, etc. Nevertheless, the meeting of experts convened by the ICRS agreed that the risk of polarization must be minimized, particularly if it already leads to clashes, as Ihsan Ali Fauzi emphasized, or to a cosmic war (war between good and evil), as Iqbal Ahnaf mentioned. Typically, this type of polarization intensifies in the run-up to election years. If not anticipated early on, it can disrupt access to social and ecological justice.

Roy Murtadlo confirmed that polarization affects social and ecological justice. His experience advocating for various ecological issues demonstrates the effectiveness of social and environmental movements in reducing polarization. According to him, interfaith dialogue must go beyond discussion, specifically through material encounters on the ground as he said, "religion is really the second moment. The initial encounter is a physical one."

Likewise, the Vice Chancellor IV of Indonesian Cristian University, Maluku, Steve Gaspers, expressed the same sentiment. In Maluku, priests require themselves to take a course at UGM to learn about AMDAL (analysis of environmental impact) in order to understand the situation to deal with corporations that are destroying their community's environment.

When discussing women and gender issues, Wiwin Siti Aminah (Srili—a women interfaith movement), Masruchah (Indonesian congress of women ulema), and Lydia K Tandirerung (Makassar Theological College) emphasized the significance of involving women in the depolarization agenda. Women are a group that is frequently impacted by polarization. Therefore, the participation of women in this agenda will present a narrative that transforms the polarized situation on the ground.

The importance of transformative narratives also came to the attention of others. Jonathan Smith (visiting researcher at CRCS UGM), Mardiyah Chamim (Dialogue Development Asia), Hening Parlan (Aisyiah, Muhammadiyah) and Samsul Ma'arif (CRCS) emphasized the need for canalization of issues through frame bridging and creative messaging. Bridging frames can be raised from issues outside the polarization that connect actors through a shared agenda. They propose that the selection of the right frame must begin with a localization analysis of the polarization situation, including analyzing the audience receiving the message. As Suhadi (UIN Sunan Kalijaga) said, mapping at the situation at local level help identify the gradation of issues in each layer of problems.

Sandra Hamid (former country representative of Asia Foundation) agrees that creative messaging and frame bridging will help a depolarization program. One of the examples could be using Indonesians’ nationalistic character to promote ecological protection.

“Indonesian people are nationalists and proud when Indonesia ranks first in a field. They are angry when that achievement changes. They are very proud that our forest cover is the third largest in the world, even though our awareness about forests is extremely low. Therefore, instead of being weary about teaching them that forest cover is important, let’s just say “if you are careless, we are not number three!” Because it is more important for Indonesians. Though (for the long run) it is also important to pay attention to civic education.”

In terms of spreading such a positive message, Ninik Wafiroh, the vice chairman of Commission XI of the Indonesian People’s Representative Council (DPR RI), emphasizes the significance of harmonizing negative and positive news through media. However, this concept appears challenging to implement. As the Jakarta Post’s Endy Bayuni said, the media are now a factor in polarization and social media exacerbates it on a broader scale. The media as a public space for the exchange of ideas is becoming increasingly constrained, and the risk of polarization remains quite high. Therefore, for Bayuni, cooperation between media and platforms is required for the dissemination of positive messages. In addition, Septiaji Eko Nugroho of MAFINDO (Indonesian Anti-Defamation Society) said that young people should also be involved in the depolarization program.  Today's youth are weary of the existing polarization, so it is necessary to identify the most pertinent issues to maximize their participation.

The expert recommendations align with what the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT) proposed in their initiative entitled "Global Initiatives on Polarization" According to their findings, depolarization should pay attention to three primary factors: 1] the role of narrative construction as a driver of peacebuilding, 2] the role of influential actors in mitigating polarization, and 3] the significance of media reform in reducing polarization.

Those three factors as also recommended by the experts should be addressed in depolarization program. The experiences in the field explained that interfaith dialogue should go beyond discussion. Formal discourse at the negotiation table is regarded as insufficient for resolving polarization. Therefore, dialogue of life that facilitates actors’ direct engagement should be prioritized through collaborative works for the agenda of depolarization.



Carothers, T., & O’Donohue, A. (Eds.). (2019). Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Brookings Institution Press.

Esteban, J. & Ray, D. (1994). On The Measurement of Polarization. Econometrica, 64 (2), 819-851.

Somer, M., & McCoy, J. (2019). Transformations through Polarizations and Global Threats to Democracy. The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science. 681 (1), 8-22  

McCoy, et. All. (2018). Polarization and Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities. American Behavioral Scientist, 62 (1), 16-42.