Faith, Tolerance, Peace: Muslim Students Become Filmmakers

Published as a blog post for Search For Common Ground. The original post can be accessed here.

Youth are one of the most influential leaders in conflict mitigation. Not just for the distant future, but for today. Our team in Indonesia figured out how to tap into the creative genius of young generations by equipping them with a powerful device—a camera. With a camera in tow, a young school girl named Cahyati learned to see others through a new lens, becoming an advocate for tolerance in the process.

Like other areas of the world, Indonesia has been exposed to the detrimental consequences of violent extremism. We started working in Indonesia in 2002; since then, and as of June 2013, approximately 500 young people have been involved in acts of terrorism.

In September 2011 our Indonesia office started a project in partnership with The Wahid Institute and Perhimpunan Pengembangan Pesantren dan Masyarakat (P3M). Pesantren schools are the oldest basis of Islamic education in Indonesia and like other secondary education institutions in the country, can often reinforce religious differences rather than unity. We recognized the potential in collaborating with pesantren schools to reach a wide and prominent audience of students and teachers, involving them in establishing a more tolerant and peaceful environment in their communities.

Armed with video cameras and microphones, students from ten pesantrens around the country participated in our multimedia training program. They produced radio shows, short films and documentaries celebrating diversity, acceptance and their faith.

Cahyati thought it was important to address some of the misconceptions behind Islam.
“I thought that we should explain Islam first. Pesantrens can show that Islam is peaceful and non-discriminative,” she said. “We have to help others in times of need, even if they are not Muslim. We have to be friendly to everyone. That is the true spirit of Islam.”

Students like Cahyati and her filming partner Nining incorporated these principles into their films. Instead of avoiding the natural conflicts that occur within pesantrens, they chose to expose them.
“Conflicts happen between junior and senior students, between board and members. They are petty things, but I believe conflict enables us to be more mature, as it challenges our patience.”

Ashfia, a student from a different pesantren, ventured into a Christian church to ask permission to film a scene. She was greeted by a priest who offered her support with the project. “We would like to help with the filming process and we also have people interested in making movies. We can help with another camera,” the priest said, to her amazement. Past conflicts between Christians and Muslims often create a fictitious curtain of tension in many areas of the country. The support Ashfia received from a Christian helped relieve her worries as being seen as an outsider within the community.

Oxy, Ashfia’s filming partner, also had a unique experience while filming their project. It was her first time entering a church when she started filming. After a few minutes, she noticed someone brought her a chair to sit on and when she offered to put it away they told her it was no problem, that she could leave it there. She previously thought that Christians were intolerant and would not socialize with people of other religions but her encounter with a Christian congregation showed her their kindness and friendliness.
“If it had not been for filming, I would have never entered a church. I am thankful for the new experience,” Oxy said.

Faiz Tamamy grew up in Bekasi, West Java, but has spent three years in a pesantren away from his hometown. “Bekasi is home to Islam fanatics, where people of other religions find it difficult to build their place of worship. Many choose to have their church in shophouses to avoid fanatics coming to destroy it,” Faiz said.

His time at the pesantren has made Faiz more aware of the diversity that exists even within Islam. After participating in our program Faiz was also forced to venture outside of his comfort zone and slowly saw his perceptions of religious conflict adapt.
“I have totally changed my point of view after going to school at the pesantren. When I was home I believed that Islam and Christianity were totally different and unrelated. I first learnt tolerance among friends and then among different cultures. Now that we are introduced to Search for Common Ground my level of understanding of different religions has improved.”

Our commitment to interfaith cooperation in Indonesia continues. In early 2014 we initiated a project among young leaders in 14 schools and 17 universities in nine cities vulnerable to youth recruitment into violent extremism groups. Participants developed ongoing projects to support religious tolerance and coexistence. Our five-day workshops raised students’ awareness of the danger of violent extremism and developed their leadership capacity to prepare them as peace leaders in their respective areas.

We recently held the first multimedia production training for high school & university students, where they learned about blog writing & design, visual design and documentary film. Following the training, held from January to March, we hope to organize a media for peace festival later this year displaying these young people’s creative works.

Interfaith cooperation seems like an impossible goal—an impracticable solution—especially when years of tension and mistrust blanket a society. Our courageous, young filmmakers demonstrate that it’s not just possible, but that the desire to learn and coexist are present throughout Indonesia.