Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Coming to terms with disaster through religion produces views that are far from wise and accountable. It is not a satisfactory answer to the question "Why did this have to happen" either.
This dissatisfaction is reflected in the different comments on natural disasters in the country over the past few years, particularly the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, which killed over 100,000 people.
Many religious figures at that time interpreted the deadly wave as a form of "punishment" by God for the conflict in Aceh. But the tsunami later spurred reconciliation between the Indonesian government and the rebel fighters.
The Christian minority in Aceh saw the tsunami as a "punishment" due to the unfair treatment it received from the Muslim majority. But this view was automatically negated as people on the predominantly Christian Nias Island were also hit by the disaster at about the same time.
Those supporting the application of sharia law interpreted the tsunami in a different way: God put the Acehnese to the "test" to measure their consistency in carrying out sharia and safeguarding the status of Aceh as the Entrance to Mecca. However, sharia implementation efforts have caused controversy amid the hardships brought by the tsunami, let alone the rumors of apostasy, Christianization and adoption spread by certain parties trying to benefit from the situation.
Furthermore, claiming the catastrophe was sent by God as a punishment for the people's sins is, in a way, blaming God.
This is not to mention the disasters that followed, such as the floods and landslides caused by illegal logging, as well as the mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Java.
The question is: What role does God play in the natural calamities that claim hundreds of lives in the country? And, how can we reconcile religious faith and natural disasters?
Theological explanations for natural disasters do not often fit the reality, says John Campbell-Nelson, a lecturer at Artha Wacana Christian University (UKAW) in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, in his paper, Religion and Disasters presented at an international conference themed The Problem and Promise of Inter-Religious Studies in Indonesia.
Explanations involving God were also given when an earthquake rocked Yogyakarta on May 27, 2006, and a similar disaster occurred on Alor Island. It is usual for faith to be questioned after a disaster and this can give rise to convoluted explanations. "Some people of faith find it difficult to leave behind the moralistic interpretation of disasters."
"What makes the moralistic position dangerous in the wake of disasters is that it requires someone to blame. If we were content to blame only ourselves, the consequences might be debilitating and too often, moralism leads to scapegoatism," Campbell-Nelson further said in the conference organized by ICRS-Yogya, an interreligious international doctorate program supported by Gadjah Mada University, Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University and Duta Wacana Christian University.
In Sufism, the tsunami is interpreted as a sign of God's existence. This understanding refers to the story of Moses, who sought God on the hill of Thursina. When He appeared, the hill was shattered and Moses passed out.
The theology perspective differs from the scientific perspective, which interprets the tsunami as a natural process generated by a sudden large-scale vertical displacement that caused the ocean to lift up. This theory is generally better understood by those in the secular community.
Then how to enable religion, which is supposed to enlighten believers, to give a constructive response to disaster. The theological perspective tends to blame anyone including oneself, which does not help disaster victims.
"Religious explanations and science are not always contrary to one another. Sometimes they can be used separately or together in accordance with the different conditions faced by the people," explained Prof. M. Machasin, a lecturer at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, at the recent conference.
"There are times when religious explanations can provide a better solution, as in the case of the death of a loved one. But there are also times when a scientific explanation is what's needed, and times when a combination of both gives a more satisfactory answer."
Such a combination has the same advantage as combining the two interpretations of Islam, based on Jabariah (fatalism) and Qadariah (free will), which have long caused rifts between Muslims. This is, in many cases, better understood by secular countries like Japan, which is well-versed in the control of its quake-prone islands.
It is important to reflect on how people view God after a disaster. Does attaching religious meaning to painful experiences bring further despair, or hope that God is calling on the world to learn something from the disaster and to promote solidarity and resilience? This lesson is easy to find in holy scriptures like the Koran.
If we have not yet understood this experience, it is never too late for the government or society to start the process of education through school curricula, non-governmental organizations or social establishments, including religious institutions.
The writer is a staff member of The Jakarta Post.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.