Educational challenges in religious education:

The context of Indonesia and the Netherlands

Ahmed Deniz

The NICMCR International Conference, titled “Religion and Citizenship – the Educational Challenges,” brought together scholars and experts on education to discuss and share insights on the challenges and opportunities in education, also their knowledge and insights on different aspects of religious education. The speakers at the conference emphasized the importance of considering societal contexts and multiple identities when providing religious education. Recognizing and addressing extremes such as fundamentalism and radical secularism in society and going beyond the traditional narrative of a clash of civilizations were notable mentions from the conference as well as promoting critical dialogue, the importance of individual agency in religious practice, and addressing religious diversity in the context of education.

Starting with the educational challenges in the West, the conference highlighted the need for finding a middle ground and promoting critical dialogue between different cultural perspectives; while clashes may exist in society, it is essential to approach the teaching of religion from a broader perspective. Kamel Essabane noted the importance of individual agency in practicing Islam. He explored biases related to Muslims, such as the assumption that all Muslims practice Ramadan in the same way. In the West, educators can help students recognize their dual identities as Muslims and members of Western societies. Essabane also examined various societal domains, including the political, economic, scientific, and cultural aspects, and identified extremes within these domains considering Islamic and secular extremes. He emphasized the need to address these extremes and find a balance that promotes inclusivity, critical thinking, and understanding.

It is emphasized that addressing religious diversity in education and acknowledging the challenges students may face in society regarding their religious identity is crucial. It is acknowledged that individuals, regardless of their religious affiliation, should be educated about societal structures, prejudices, and perceptions that also surround Islam. By doing so, students can better understand and navigate these issues, promoting tolerance and inclusivity.

In Indonesia, various programs and interventions have been made to prevent violent extremism. One such initiative is the mapping of preventing violence and extremism, which involves interviews and interventions in school and classroom cultures discussed by Atik Tapipin. By identifying and addressing the emergence of radical ideologies and exclusive representations, they aim to counteract the influence of extremist beliefs. Interreligious encounters and dialogues emphasize the significance of fostering understanding and tolerance. The importance of open communication, where individuals can share facts, seek clarification, ask open questions, and engage in reflections, is put forward as a means to develop better domains of communication. These interactions enable participants to appreciate different perspectives and broaden their understanding of religious traditions.

Effective communication strategies play a crucial role in facilitating interreligious dialogue. Participants need to be aware of the different communication styles and dimensions, such as facts, clarifications, open questions, and reflections. This awareness enables individuals to respond on the same level, fostering meaningful and respectful discussions in general but specifically in the educational context.

Understanding cultural and religious backgrounds is essential for educators in facilitating interreligious dialogue. Teachers should be knowledgeable about the students’ backgrounds, recognizing both differences and commonalities. Additionally, they should be sensitive to power dynamics that may influence classroom dynamics. Creating a safe space for students to express their religious beliefs and fostering respectful interactions is paramount for productive interreligious dialogue and religious education.

One of the conference’s main themes is the educational challenges in “pesantren” in Indonesia. The conference provided insights into the santri, which refers to students studying in pesantren, traditional Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia. Nyai Hindun Anisah presented this issue in detail with her practical insights. The pesantren are often affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic organization in the country, known for promoting peace and moderate Islam. With over 30,000 pesantren across Indonesia, they serve as social institutions, initially focusing on religious studies but gradually incorporating secular subjects to adapt to modernity. Pesantren also face challenges, particularly regarding radicalization and violent extremism. While the number of santri exposed to such ideologies is small, the perception that pesantren are associated with extremism poses a significant challenge. Junior and secondary school students in pesantren are vulnerable to radicalization, similar to other schools. To prevent radicalization, the speaker shares strategies based on their experience. Encouraging santri to engage in youth camps and internships alongside students from diverse religious backgrounds fosters dialogue, expands their horizons, and nurtures mutual understanding. The speaker emphasizes the significance of initiatives that involve santri visiting churches, temples, and other places of worship, offering them opportunities to explore various faiths and promote interfaith dialogue.

Another main theme throughout the conference was Contextual Hermeneutics, a method of interpreting texts that consider cultural, social, political, and environmental influences, which is seen as crucial in today’s era. It allows for a more nuanced understanding of religious texts and promotes education that goes beyond religious fanaticism. Amin Abdullah presented his perspective of contextual hermeneutics of Islamic tradition. According to him, the Quran offers scriptural ethics emphasizing respect, tolerance, and understanding other religions. It discourages ridiculing, negative assumptions, fault-finding, and speaking ill of followers of other faiths. It is important to consider the context of the Quran in today’s world rather than relying solely on interpretations from earlier ages. It is crucial to respect the reality of different religious beliefs and engage with tolerance and understanding, avoiding radical and extreme viewpoints. Islamic theology can undergo reforms and contribute positively to multi-faith societies by adopting contextual hermeneutics and promoting a transdisciplinary approach. An analyses of contextual hermeneutics was given by Peter Ben Smit from a more abstract position where he emphasized that the contextuality is a fact bearing a gift and a challenge at the same time. Ideally analyzing a text is not individual but communal. Everyone brings their own perspective into the table. Excluding some interpretations based on the interpreter, like the gender or nationality, is not appropriate and widely utilized by the extreme voices. It is important to acknowledge that one’s perspective is one among the others. Listening to the other voices enriches the interpretations  and also opposes the radical voices who claim sole interpretership over the texts.

In his speech, Erik Renkama also discussed the importance of contextual hermeneutics. The hermeneutical-communicative attention to various secular and religious traditions would make students “source-wise.” This is especially important to educate students about worldview citizenship and prevent worldview illiteracy which creates an intolerant and polarized environment.

Another practical approach was from Mijke Jedden’s research presented by Ina ter Avest. The presentation discussed the daily practices of inter-religious education with the emphasis on the communicative and hermeneutical aspects. Being aware of the different ways of interaction and hermeneutical interpretations is crucial to beneficial religious interactions. For the classroom context, it is important for educators to acknowledge students’ social identity, the way students communicate with each other, the potential students can bring to the classroom from their cultural background and creation of a safe learning environment. This approach promotes open dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation among students from diverse religious backgrounds.

The conference also stressed the significance of inclusivity in education. It is vital to create an inclusive learning environment where students feel valued and respected, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. By incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences into the curriculum, educators can foster an atmosphere of acceptance and appreciation for differences. Related to these issues, Muhammad Adlin Sila made some remarks on the new Indonesian policy called Merdeka Belajar, which focuses on critical and independent learning and teaching processes. The policy encourages students to think and express themselves freely in order to make the most out of the education process. It includes practical changes in the Indonesian education system to make education more student-centered and have a more flexible curriculum. One of the main focuses of the policy is on the role of teachers and the importance of upskilling and rescaling their skills.

Sila also addressed the issue of violence in schools, with a specific focus on intolerance, sexual violence, harassment, and bullying. It was emphasized that protective laws and policies are fundamental for ensuring the safety of children and that work is underway to draft and finalize such legislation. Creating a safe school environment and promoting student responsibility in maintaining safety is important. Students are encouraged to report potential problems to school officials. The aim is to provide a safe place for students, teachers, staff, and parents to study and work in a common effort to provide education.

Another crucial aspect discussed was the need to establish a supportive school climate, including behavioral expectations, caring school programs, and psychological and counseling services. It  highlighted the importance of providing a secure environment for victims and witnesses, as they often face challenges and may fear repercussions if they come forward.

Educational challenges was the conference’s main topic, and naturally, the presentations were around religion and education. However, even though Citizenship constituted a major part of the theme, it can be noted that it was not delved into by the speakers except Erik Renkema. Renkema’s presentation focused on Dutch education. The Dutch law on citizenship education promotes teaching basic values of the democratic constitutional state and inclusive education. This relates to worldview citizenship education. Diversity is a challenge for education but also an opportunity. Promoting worldview literacy makes use of different traditions to be more inclusive.

In conclusion, addressing religious diversity in education requires proactive measures to equip students with knowledge about societal structures and perceptions. The conference emphasized the commitment to prevent violent extremism and promote interreligious understanding in religious education. Educators can facilitate constructive dialogue by fostering effective communication strategies and creating safe spaces, contributing to a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The conference emphasized the significance of equipped teachers, the need for protective laws, promoting student responsibility, creating a safe school climate, the value of worldview citizenship education in fostering inclusive and safe learning environments, inclusivity in education, contextual hermeneutics, interfaith dialogue, and cultural exchange. Also, the benefits of inclusive education, promoting student’s identity development and worldview citizenship education are discussed.