Health, Arts, culture & society | Southeast Asia, The World

4 May 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people differently based on their sex, socio-economic status, and location, and in Indonesia, it has had unique effects on people based on their faith, Eva Nisa writes.

Indonesia’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on 2 March 2020, and by 31 March, the Indonesian Government issued a policy on large-scale social restrictions. These restrictions would involve restrictions on religious activities, the closing of schools and offices, and restrictions on activities in public places or involving public facilities.

At the outset of the pandemic, a number of religious events that did go ahead were labelled super-spreaders, and the pandemic began at a time when communities of faiths were preparing for religious events, including Jewish Passover, Christian Easter, and Muslim Ramadan. Naturally, this effect was keenly felt in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim majority country.

Based on surveys, many believers were initially not ready to adjust and adapt to the restrictions, and this was also evident from the rejection of mosque closures in Bandung and Banyumas. This raises a reasonable question: why were these people more willing to accept online school than to worship at home?

The growth of religious conservatism, misinformation, and the failure of policymakers to collaborate with religious authorities whose voices are respected in their communities combined to create this problem.

In line with religious comfort theories and behaviour seen in other countries, many believers also turn to their to religion to find solace during difficult times, and so were unusually heightened in their zeal to protect their faith.

Responding to the social gathering restrictions, Muslim authorities issued fatwas (a non-binding legal or theological opinion) to guide anxious Muslims, and this also occurred for other religious traditions, including letters from bishops that served as guides for Christian believers.

More on this: The alliance between Indonesia’s Islamic conservatives and politicians cannot last

On 16 March 2020, two weeks after the first case was announced, the top Muslim clerical body in the country, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), issued its first fatwa on conducting worship during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The fatwa amounted to allowing prohibition of certain religious practices in public spaces, including supporting the Jakarta Governor’s call on 19 March to replace Friday congregational prayers in the mosque with afternoon prayer at home.

Jakarta’s Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, stopped holding Friday prayer for the public from 20 March.

The rest of the country, however, was very slow to respond to the pandemic. A number of problems, including those contributing to the country’s democratic decline, led to its failure to control the outbreak.

Policymakers have continuously been criticised over a lack of initiative to collaborate more intensively with religious authorities and provide valid information for communities of faith. For instance, some conservative ulama amplified the voices of the anti-vaccine movement, with the Twitter hashtag #TolakDivaksinSinovac (#RefuseToBeVaccinatedWithSinovac) going viral.

Conservative religious leaders, followed by their congregants, have questioned the whether the vaccine is permissible according to Islamic law, and misinformation about the vaccine has been rife.

Further, the government’s efforts to vaccinate religious authorities from varied religious backgrounds as part of a vaccine priority group, due to their critical service to the community, was not received with great enthusiasm initially, especially by conservative ulama.

More on this: Malaysia’s secular versus religious divide

However, there has been significant development in the way these communities of faiths have adapted to the pandemic.

In fact, the pandemic has led believers to find new ways to practice their faith, especially through the Internet and social media.

This trend of digital worship may remain a part of religion’s new normal after the pandemic – not only have many religious practices gone online, but religious authorities have also embraced digital platforms on a more regular basis – preaching to and meeting with their congregants through YouTube, Zoom, and live on Instagram.

Digital religion might continue to remain an important format for expressing religiosity in the long term, at least while communities of faith try and make peace with the new normal.

Despite the trials and changes, there is another glimmer of hope the pandemic has brought to communities of faith: a thriving spirit of religious tolerance and solidarity. This does not mean that zero incidents of intolerance have occurred during the pandemic, but in what has felt like an increasingly polarised Indonesia, a growing culture of ‘gotong royong’, or mutual assistance, has shone brightly in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and religious communities have been no exception.

Clearly, the government knows this, having chosen Istiqlal as a place to vaccinate religious authorities from diverse traditions. This sends an important message of tolerance, assures non-Muslim people of faith that Istiqlal is hospitable to non-Muslims, and also sends a message to anyone assuming that religion has stuttered in facing of COVID-19 of the strength of communities of faith and their importance to Indonesian life.

Still, the government faces many problems – the COVID-19 pandemic has come at the same time that moderasi beragama, or religious moderation, became a hot topic in Indonesian politics, and the government has had to call on religious communities to maintain tolerance, coexist, and respect others.

Through the pandemic’s impacts on people of faith, especially Muslims, Indonesia as a whole is witnessing a process of cultural and religious change. Moderate voices have become more present in Muslim public life, and the growth of digital religion may change approaches to worship for a long time to come.

However, the government must take this opportunity to build tolerance in the community, and cannot neglect that the country still faces grave problems of terrorism and extremism, polarisation, and especially leading to the 2024 presidential election, must do all it can to support communities of faith as they make peace with their new normal.

With The New Normal: In Focus section, Policy Forum is rebooting our coronavirus pandemic coverage to address the changing situation. We hope you find the discussion valuable, and invite you to join in the conversation.

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