Religion and the contributions of youth are two topics that tend to be neglected when we think about peacebuilding. In this post, Erik Meinema reflects on his experiences conducting research on these important issues.
Maluku, a group of Islands in Eastern Indonesia, was originally renowned for its religious harmony. However, this reputation drastically changed when large-scale violence broke out between Muslim and Christian communities on Ambon, the capital island of Central Maluku. In January 1999, conflict started in Ambon City when an incident took place between a Christian bus driver and Muslim passengers. Fueled by rumors about this incident, the fight quickly escalated into riots, which in turn triggered large-scale communal violence that disrupted Maluku for several years. Although the last larger outbreak of violence happened in 2004, there are indications that tensions between Christian and Muslim communities persist to this day. Religious communities still live in separated neighborhoods and villages, and in September 2011, rumors about a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver being murdered by Christians led to a new outbreak of violence.
During earlier fieldwork on youth and sexuality in East-Africa, I experienced that young people often find creative solutions to the problems they are facing. When I found out through Facebook that informal youth groups were organizing peacebuilding activities on Ambon, this made me very curious about the possible solutions they see for the interreligious tensions on their island. As I was also looking for a suitable fieldwork location for my MA-thesis research, I decided to investigate first-hand how Ambonese youth can contribute to reducing tensions and building friendly relations between Muslims and Christians on Ambon.
The main focus of my research was the youth group Badati, which means get-together in Ambonese Malay, that was founded during the September 2011 violence. During and in the weeks after the violence, several villages and neighbourhoods set up posts on places where Muslim and Christian areas border each other, which also happened during earlier conflicts. To ease tensions, falsify rumours and remove suspicion, a group of both Muslim and Christian youth decided to hand out coffee and sweets to these posts. When tensions eased, the same group of youth started to think about what they could do to prevent such outbreaks of violence in the future. They decided to organise activities focused on art, music and theatre where Muslim and Christian youth can meet each other. Some youth also promote an Ambonese identity that overarches religious differences through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and weblogs. Furthermore, Badati organises English classes for children who are still living in refugee camps since the September 2011 violence.
Through these activities, Ambonese youth play a critical role in the peace-process in their community. They create spaces where the youth on Ambon can develop friendships and transcend suspicion and fear through direct personal contact. Youth encourage people not to get provoked by rumours and actively falsify rumours by checking their truth themselves. Youth try to show to their communities that they care for Ambonese society. In this way, they can themselves be a counterexample to existing fears and suspicions. Finally, by using art, sports, music and creativity, youth create a cultural platform that enables youth from different religious communities to build friendships among each other. In this way Muslim and Christian youth no longer focus on the past that divides them and their (religious) differences, but on a common love for Ambon and shared interests they have as youth.
The approaches of Ambon’s young peacebuilders contain two important lessons for scholarly theory on peacebuilding. First, many traditional peacebuilding theories focus on the work of macro-actors such as governments, the UN, NGOs and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and establishing truth-accounts and justice as conditions for peace. In this way they often neglect the religious and cultural dimension of peacebuilding, as well as social relations at the grassroots level of society. The peacebuilding efforts by Ambonese youth can be seen as stepping into this gap as they focus on building friendships between Muslim and Christian youth based on a shared Ambonese identity and youth culture. As young peacebuilders often avoid sensitive questions of truth, justice and culpability, they also offer possibilities to slowly build peace in situations in which truth-accounts and justice cannot (yet) be established. Second, within academic theory youth have often been neglected as actors who can contribute to peacebuilding processes. It can be argued however that Ambonese youth have some unique advantages as peacebuilding actors. Because informal youth organizations do not have any official or authoritative status, they are less restricted by ‘official’ power relations and less easily suspected of having a hidden agenda. Besides, youth have easy access to their communities. Finally, by using a youth culture that is popular among both Muslims and Christians, youth can build friendships among each other instead of focusing on the past or the (religious) differences between them. The case of Ambon suggests that we should pay closer attention to the insights of young people in contexts of violence and peacebuilding, particularly since they are the people with whom the future of a community rests.
Erik Meinema is a recent graduate of the Research Master Religion and Culture in Groningen who did fieldwork on sexuality and youth in Kenya and Uganda and youth peacebuilding initiatives in Ambon, Indonesia.