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Communal Strife in Ambon: A Precarious Predicament

Intolerance and primordialism have regrettably become commonplace in the country dubbed as the Emerald Equator. A National Survey conducted by Convey Indonesia underscores the radical (58.5%) and intolerant (51.1% internal intolerance and 34.3% external intolerance) attitudes among Indonesian students (Saputra et al., 2018). Furthermore, Indonesian students were also found to show little internal tolerance underlying their actions, at 33.2%. That is, although Indonesian students often show tolerant behavior towards people of other religions, they often view as heretical those who profess a different sect of the same religion from what they do. This disconcerting fact is particularly alarming, given that the youth and students represent the future leaders of the nation. In light of this, a pertinent question arises: What measures can be taken to safeguard Indonesia from being governed by individuals with intolerant and radical attitudes?

A well-known quote stated by Gordon Allport is highly relevant to this situation: "See that man over there?" "Yes" "Yes, I hate him" "But you don't know him" "That's why I hate him." Interestingly, whether we realize it or not, this kind of ridiculous conversation happens all the time. This kind of event makes the Contact Hypothesis, also propounded by Allport himself, relevant to be used as a solution to the potential swell of this phenomenon. According to the Contact Hypothesis, direct contact between religious communities will reduce prejudice under certain situations.

Decades ago, in 1999 to be precise, there was a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ambon and Halmahera known as the Maluku Sectarian Conflict. Although it was much more complex, the transmigration program initiated by the “Orde Baru” regime was very influential in the escalation of this conflict. Christians, who at the time dominated the population in Ambon at 51.92% (Badan Pusat Statistik Maluku, 2000), felt disturbed by the transmigration program, which they perceived as an effort to Islamize (Duncan, 2005). This belief seemed to be confirmed by the issuance of Ministerial Decree Number 77 of 1978 on Foreign Aid to Religious Institutions in Indonesia, which gave the Ministry of Religious Affairs control over foreign aid to religious institutions in Indonesia. Many Christians in Halmahera (and elsewhere in Indonesia) saw this decree as an attempt by Muslims to wrest financial support from the West. In addition, the appointment of M. Akib Latuconsina, director of the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) in Maluku as governor further infuriated Christians in Maluku. The fact that Mr. Latuconsina was the first Moluccan and the first civilian to hold that position, which is usually occupied by military officials from Java, was considered not representative of the majority religion in Maluku at that time, which was Christian (“Pengelolaan Konflik Di Indonesia – Sebuah Analisis Konflik Di Maluku, Papua, Dan Poso,” 2011). In addition, the fact that all regents in Maluku province are also Muslim further divides Maluku along religious lines.

So, was the Contact Hypothesis proven wrong? No, although transmigration led to intense contact between Christians and Muslims, it’s important to realize that the ideal conditions for successful intergroup contact did not exist in this program. No one has ever said that deeply rooted prejudices can be instantly erased simply by throwing groups together. According to the Contact Hypothesis, four conditions must be met to achieve successful intergroup contact (Kassin et al., 2018). The first is equal status. Contact should occur in a situation that supports both groups to have equal status. The second is personal interaction. Contact can’t be taken in the form of group interaction, it must involve one-on-one interaction between individual members of both groups. Next, in cooperative activities, each member of both groups must join together to achieve a superordinate goal. The last one relates to social norms. The authorities that govern most social norms must support intergroup contact. Therefore, the absence of these four conditions gives enough explanation of why the transmigration program in Ambon has ended in conflict instead of harmony.

What would happen if these four conditions were met? Would the outcome be different? Or would it merely slow down the rate at which conflicts escalate? In a series of meta-analyses involving 500 studies and 250 million participants in 38 countries, Pettigrew and Tropp, (2008; 2006; 2000) found that intergroup contact can reduce prejudice, especially when the four conditions stated earlier are met. They revealed that contact has a role in reducing prejudice because of the increased knowledge about other groups, reduced anxiety about intergroup contact, and increased empathy and perspective-taking. In addition, this research is confirmed by another study conducted by Kanas et al. (2017). This study aims to look at the correlation between interreligious contact and negative attitudes towards the religious out-group in conservative countries, namely Indonesia (Ambon & Yogyakarta) and the Philippines (Mindanao & Metro Manila). By having Muslim and Christian university students as the sample, interreligious friendship is negatively related to perceived group threat which has implications on the reduction of negative attitudes towards the religious out-group and preference for residential segregation. Simultaneously, this correlation was also reflected in decreased negative attitudes towards other religious groups and residential segregation preferences. However, casual interfaith contact increases negative out-group attitudes.

In conclusion, interfaith group contact should involve certain dynamics happening between the different groups as living in the same place alone is insufficient to form a harmonious relationship. Interfaith group relationships are similar to any other relationship, including romantic relationships. As it would be difficult to start a romantic relationship just by living in the same village, so do interfaith group relationships. However, with personal interactions, intentional or unintentional joint activities, and support from people around, falling in love and even getting married may not be just a fantasy. Similarly for interfaith interactions, the Contact Hypothesis suggests that interactions supported by different levels of perspectives make harmony between religious communities in Indonesia possible.


Badan Pusat Statistik Maluku. (2000). Maluku dalam Angka 1999. BPS Propinsi Maluku.


Duncan, C. R. (2005). The Other Maluku : Chronologies of Conflict in North Maluku. Indonesia, 80(October 2005), 53–80.

Kanas, A., Scheepers, P., & Sterkens, C. (2017). Positive and negative contact and attitudes towards the religious out-group: Testing the contact hypothesis in conflict and non-conflict regions of Indonesia and the Philippines. Social Science Research, 63, 95–110.

Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2018). Social Psychology (10th ed.). Cengage Learning. Pengelolaan Konflik di Indonesia – Sebuah Analisis Konflik di Maluku, Papua, dan Poso. (2011). In C. Buchanan & A. Cooper (Eds.), Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia, Current Asia dan the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Indonesia version.pdf

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2000). Does intergroup contact reduce prejudice: Recent meta-analytic findings. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 93–114). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783.

Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? meta‐analytic tests of three mediators. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(6), 922-934.

Saputra, R. E., Nisa, Y. F., Hendarmin, L. A., Narhetali, E., Lubis, D. A., Agung, S., Rohayati, T., Mubarak, M. Z., Utomo, A. P., Saputra, R. E., Ruswandi, B., Putra, M. D. K., & Maulana, D. (2018). API DALAM SEKAM: Keberagaman Generasi Z (Vol. 1, Issue 1).


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