Close this search box.


The Resistance: Indonesian Women Moving Against Religious Intolerance

Professor Siti Musdah Mulia. From Alchetron
Professor Siti Musdah Mulia. From Alchetron

In recent years, we have heard a lot about the importance of mutual understanding among religious believers and communities. Sadly, there continue to be reports about physical attacks on innocent people or the destruction of cultural heritage in South and Southeast Asian nations. Today, intolerance among different religious adherents is a special concern in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Hosting more interfaith gatherings aimed at dialogue and not conversion is essential for fostering positive communication and cooperation among different religions and cultures. Not to be deterred by the dominance of male political and religious leaders in the country, female activists and authorities from different faith traditions in Indonesia are now working together to stop religious discrimination and debunk fanaticism.

On 6 March, two days before International Women’s Day on 8 March, women from diverse spiritual communities gathered in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. The represented religious traditions included Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Islam, Ahamadiyya, and Baha’i.

In contemporary Indonesia, social divisions and inequality remain high, not helped by the statements and actions of some religious and political leaders. Many people who are in poverty and lack education take their leaders’ instructions literally and for granted, and these leaders know it. Since the presidential election is approaching in 2019, hate speech and fake news have become widespread. On 4 March, police arrested a man on the island of Sumatra over the online activities of a group called the Family Muslim Cyber Army. This group has posted news and photos alleging that Muslims are facing persecution and that Islamic places of worship have been destroyed.

Speaking at the gathering, Reverend Natalia Sumarni, a Roman Catholic nun, urged Catholic women not to be easily angered by the spreading of falsehoods. She emphasized unity to promote tolerance nationwide. Venerable Thitacarini, a Buddhist nun and PhD candidate in Buddhist Studies at the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka, said that Indonesia is a multiethnic and multicultural nation, and that all faith believers should live together side by side in harmony like the colors of a rainbow.

Ketut Oka Harmini, from the Parisada Hindu Dharma administrative council in Indonesia, proposed that the government to re-introduce religious diversity studies in schools. This would be a non-denominational look at the different religions of the world, rather than religious studies in a specific tradition. As Harmini said, “in the past we had moral education which, I think, had a good impact on our society.” (Ucanews)

Professor Siti Musdah Mulia, an Islamic intellectual and chairperson of the Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace (ICRP), mentioned that she and her organization worry about the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia. At the gathering on 6 March, she criticized the political exploitation of ethnic, religious, and cultural sentiments. She also cited social divisions as well as a reluctance to face modern issues among some Islamic teachers and institutions. Widely known as a women’s rights activist in Indonesia, she was the first woman to earn a PhD in Islamic Studies at the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University (SHISU) in 1997.

She is a controversial figure among traditionalists for adhering to moderate religious teachings and promoting pluralism and gender equality. Yet she remains one of the most inspiring and influential female reformers in the country. She exudes a powerful presence and could be said to truly embody the principles of Islam, which she uses to promote social and religious collaboration in order to foster interfaith and interethnic harmony.  

“For me, theologically, Islam is a blessing. Islam does not differentiate between a male and a female. Its teachings contain universal values that cover all aspects of human life,” Professor Mulia said in an interview with Freakmagz.  “The endeavor to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence against human being is still a struggle, this is why I feel the concern, need and urgency to get in to human rights activism,” said Siti Musdah Mulia . Religion is commonly understood as a strict text to be interpreted and obeyed, according to Professor Mulia, but it should not work that way. “I believe that every core aim of all religion and faith is for the betterment of all human beings, both women and men, to be pious and useful, for themselves, the family, and the community in general,” Professor Mulia said her view. (Freakmagz)

Siti Musdah Mulia’s understanding of religion has a profound appeal for people from all walks of life and every religious community. She currently teaches Islamic political thought at the School of Graduate Studies at SHISU. Since 2007, she has also been serving as the chairperson of the ICRP. She has written a number of books on contemporary Islam, public policy, gender equality, and polygamy.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, with 200 million people out of 224 million professing Islam as their faith. Despite the predominance of Islam, the country is a multicultural society comprising Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and various local indigenous religions. Since the 13th century, Islam has spread throughout Indonesia and adopted many existing cultures and beliefs that were once dominated by Buddhism and Hinduism prior to the arrival of Islam. Though Indonesia is well known for its religious tolerance, in recent years the media has reported on several high profile cases of religious discrimination, interreligious violence, and mob destruction of religious structures.


Mulia, Siti Musdah. “Promoting Interfaith Dialouge through Promoting a Culture of Peace.” In We Have Justice in Common, edited by Christian W. Troll SJ., 136-50. Berlin: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2010.

See more

Indonesian women fight religious intolerance (Ucanews)
The Challenger: An Interview with Prof. Dr. Musdah Mulia (Freakmagz)

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Related news from Buddhistdoor Global

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments