Indonesia Teaching Tolerance With Comics

A new series of comic books is being introduced in Indonesia to promote diversity and tolerance. The group behind the creation of the comic book series says they are an innovative and effective way to combat the messages of intolerance from Muslim extremist groups.

Based on a true story

A newly-released comic book in Indonesia profiles the true story of how Malaysian-born Nasir Abas became disenchanted with the Islamic radical movement.  The colorful panels tell how Abas fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, and went on to become a leader of the Southeast Asia terror network Jemaah Islamiyah. 

Abas says the group’s decision to target innocent civilians, starting with the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people, led to his change of heart. “So it makes me feel bad. I disagree with that kind of operation in the civilian area because it’s against my knowledge. It’s against the words of Jihad,” he said.

Abas now is an advocate for religious tolerance and works with authorities to rehabilitate Islamic radicals. “I am a Muslim. I have my own obligations and one of my obligations is to tell the good deeds and to prohibit the bad deeds,” he said. “So I have a responsibility to stop my friends not to do the bad deeds.”

Abas says he likes how the comic book illustrates his life and his message in a way that appeals to young people.

Promoting tolerance

His is one of many comics promoting tolerance that are being released in Indonesia. At the Ash-Shidiqiyah Islamic boarding school outside of Jakarta, teenage students are being introduced to another comic series that focuses on the adventures of students and how they deal with stereotypes and misinformation.

Initial feedback from students has been positive. Mohammad Fauzi says he likes the moral message at the heart of the story.

He says the lesson is to appreciate the differences and know you cannot fight each other just because you are different.

Sixteen-year-old Sheila says she likes how the comic books focus on young Muslims like herself, who face ethical dilemmas.

She say comics usually only tell love stories or are about action heroes, mostly from Japan. This comic, she says, has an element of knowledge and the essence of morality inside it.

There has been a rise in violence against religious minorities in Indonesia.  While a small vocal minority of Islamic extremists are often blamed for inciting acts of intolerance, there has been concern that the moderate Muslim majority is not doing enough to win the hearts and minds of young people.

Series, tolerance comics

The international conflict resolution organization Search For Common Ground developed the series of tolerance comics. Agus Nahrowi, a teacher/trainer with the group, says comic books are a creative way for moderate Islamic voices to be heard.

“It is fair to say it is difficult to change the behavior, to change the mind.  But for a starting point to change their awareness, to boost awareness [the] campaign is very important,” Nahrowi said.

The Search for Common Ground project is supported, in part, by the U.S. State Department. The group is planning to distribute 60,000 comic books to Islamic boarding schools throughout Indonesia.