Yogyakarta. From Sabang to Merauke, Indonesia's heterogeneous population has been considered one of the country's many treasures since its early days of independence, showing that in spite of many differences, we are able to thrive as one.
Sumanto Al Qurtuby, an Indonesian professor of cultural anthropology who teaches at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, believes Indonesia's national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity, is an achievable endeavor and that the archipelago could serve as an example to the rest of the world.
"Indonesia is an extremely diverse country, in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and language … If we can be united amid such complexity, surely Arab countries with less diverse populations can find a way to unite," Sumanto told the Jakarta Globe in an exclusive interview in Yogyakarta early this month.
Sumanto, who has taught in Saudi Arabia since 2014, said he has always shared the state ideology of Pancasila and the values of pluralism upheld by the Indonesian Constitution in his career and travels abroad.
Indonesian Muslims often look at countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, as primary examples of how to live an Islamic way of life, assuming that these countries have homogeneous populations.
Sumanto said he held similar views before moving to Saudi Arabia but that he soon discovered that it was not so.
"I used to think Arabia is this one, very uniform community, but after I began teaching there, I realized that wasn't the case at all. It's very plural and complex," he said.
The people may share an Arab ethnicity, but they can also belong to different tribes and maddhab, or Islamic schools of thoughts.
He also pointed to the millions of Christians living in the region, including in Egypt and Syria, with around 8.9 million and 1.25 million, respectively, according to the 2011 World Christian Database.
"We have this perception of the Arab world that Muslims in the region are very closed off, close-minded and unwilling to have dialogue with non-Muslims. But what I experienced and felt was nothing like that," Sumanto said.
The professor said the biggest problem in Indonesia is that there are lecturers with limited knowledge of the geocultural or geopolitical underpinnings of the Middle East, who express their opinions in public or academic settings and end up sharing an inadequate view of what is happening in the region.
For example, here in Indonesia the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as a clash between Muslims and Jews, which is an oversimplification of a complex situation.
"It's not Muslim versus Jew at all, because there are a lot of people in the Jewish community that are anti-Zionist; who are not supporters of Israel's policy," Sumanto explained, referring to Zionism, a movement that supports the re-establishment of the Jewish homeland in the now-disputed territory.
Born in Batang, Central Java, Sumanto is a popular figure among Indonesian Facebook users for his commentaries on Indonesian politics and society. Through his Facebook account, this prominent academic often provides a humorous and assertive criticism to the contemporary discourse, which very often leans towards conservatism.
Sumanto, who acquired a doctorate from Boston University in Massachusetts, also established the United States-Canada and Saudi Arabia chapters of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), to popularize moderate Islamic values abroad.
Along with dozens of other NU chapters overseas, he hopes to provide a better understanding of Indonesian Muslims in the rest of the world.
"So that the world out there doesn't merely assume Indonesia is dominated by intolerant groups who are against pluralism, but that there are other Islamic groups in society who are working to keep a balance amid rising extremism in our society," he said.
Whenever he visits Indonesia, Sumanto also presents public lecturers and attends discussions on various topics, such as Islam and nationhood.
Sumanto emphasized that conservatism is never an issue, but rather an essential part of the right to express. He said conservatism, as a matter of fact, is an ordinary part of religious life.
"You can very well wear robes or veils, if it is a reflection of your conservative values. However, we must be firm with those who are forcing that conservatism onto others, forcing others to do what they believe to be right," Sumanto said.
Evidently, the world we live in today poses series of new challenges, many of which are threatening the aforementioned values of diversity.
While divisions have always existed throughout human history, social media has greatly enhanced the speed at which hatred and disinformation is propagated, therefore creating even wider divisions.
According to the professor, Indonesia's diversity would only survive through a cultural and structural approach, as well as an active undertaking to preserve this value in society.
"If we're only assuming a cultural approach without a more formal or legal policy, without reproaching those who are against diversity and pluralism, it simply won't do. There must be a dedicated approach; if we simply let things run their course, Indonesia won't progress," Sumanto said.
A cultural approach is essential, and community-based efforts are required to raise continued awareness of the importance of preserving Indonesia's diversity. Furthermore, these are critical to instill the knowledge that diversity is the foundation of our nationhood, he said.
Sumanto added that these efforts must be paired with appropriate regulations to serve as legal protection against those opposing pluralism.
"Social and cultural movements will not develop into a national culture without the support of adequate legal principles," Sumanto stressed.
Tackling rising intolerance and sectarianism in the world's fourth-most populous country would require everyone, from law enforcers to academicians and peace advocates, to participate and act.
"Everything must be centered on preserving diversity [and] Indonesia's unity, so that it prevails. We can't afford to see it collapse, just because we are clumsy and unwilling to prevent intolerance," he said.