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Balkanalysis.com Briefing with the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life, July, 2012

Yogyakarta and Bali, Indonesia– From July 2-15, 2012, Balkanalysis.com contributor Maja Šoštarić participated in the tenth edition of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) in Yogyakarta and Bali, Indonesia, where she was briefed by Adam B. Seligman, the ISSRPL Director and a Boston University professor, in addition to the different participants on religious identity and trends in their own countries, including some Balkan ones.

The ISSRPL is an annual international, interreligious summer school that meets in a different country every year for approximately two weeks. Over the previous ten years, the ISSRPL has taken place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the United States, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, the United Kingdom and Bulgaria. The varied topics at these seminars have included: religion and conflict; religion, nationalism and fundamentalism; living together, but differently; religion and civil society; divided cities; or exploring the link between religion, ethnicity and belonging.

Generally, the summer school involves approximately 25-30 fellows coming from about 20 different countries. The first school was held in 2003 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, following other Balkan-located schools in 2004 (Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 2006 (Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Boston, United States) and 2011 (Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria). The logo of the school is also closely related to the Balkans: it represents a design of the Čaršijska Mosque in Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina which was destroyed in 1992-93 and reconstructed in 2003.

The school provides a framework where students, civic leaders and prominent academics from different countries can explore the issues of religion and the public sphere with an aim of developing new strategies of tolerance and pluralism while maintaining a commitment to tradition and religious identity.

In practice, these principles work in the following way. The tenth school, entitled “Negotiating Space in Diversity: Religions and Authorities” was held in July 2012 on two Indonesian islands: Java and Bali- Java being the majority Muslim area, and Bali being populated mainly by Hindus. By bringing together an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group of participants (28 fellows from 18 countries) in a country that is equally ethnically and religiously mixed, the school organizers aim to create small “communities of trust”, as the school director, Boston University Professor Adam Seligman puts it.

The school does not plan to stop with its tenth session having been completed. On the contrary, the idea is that fellows organize similar undertakings in their own communities, following the basic postulates of the school. In this vein, similar schools are currently being planned to take place in Uganda and Rwanda (December 2012), as well as Bulgaria and Central Asia (summer 2013). The African school should bring some novelty, by expanding the academic core from religious issues to those of transitional justice and memory as well. Depending on the financial resources, many more schools should see the light of day in the coming years.

Through an intense degree of interaction, and combining cognitive (academic) and emotional aspects, the fellows learn about the country they find themselves in, but also about the people with whom they spend the bulk of their time: other participants of the school. Building on the premises that knowledge is collective (social) and that people build real, active communities (something that is deeply anchored in the human nature), unlike almost all similar programs in inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue, the summer school does not stress what we have in common with the other, but accepts and attempts to build precisely on our differences.

A real example of the School’s working model might include a Ugandan Catholic, an Indonesian Pentecostal, a Zimbabwean Anglican, a Bosnian Muslim, a Macedonian Orthodox Christian, an Afghani Muslim, an Indonesian Hindu, an American Jew and a Croatian Catholic. These people all carry along certain views of those who are “other” to them. Perhaps they think of these others as dangerous; perhaps they are skeptical about them; perhaps they see them with a nuance of neutrality, even indifference, when not in direct contact with them. In any case, there is always a certain level of mistrust in interacting with the “other.“ Learning about the “other“ in an academic way is useful, but it is only the part of the process (Professor Seligman calls this “knowledge of“).

The most distinctive premise of the school, however, is to link this “knowledge of“ with an even more precious form of knowledge – the “knowledge for.” Imagine a long day of lectures on the Indonesian constitution or the Balinese identity; visiting the Merapi volcano by motorcycle; visiting the breathtaking Prambanan, a collection of 240 Hindu temples; or attending the Jewish Shabbat prayer, the Muslim Juma’t Prayer, the mass in the Javanese Catholic church, or the Shiwa Buddha tooth-filing ceremony in the midst of the rice fields of Bali.

After such a long day, when the abovementioned group of people, heterogeneous in age, gender, race, religion, language, and built-in conceptions of what is acceptable and normal, has dinner together, dances together, sings on a bus, goes to swim, or cooks together – they necessarily build a closer community. They have shared experiences (for they have just returned from a long day and there is a lot to talk about), and they become more open to talk about some more personal issues, such as conflict, belonging and identity. That is, then, the “knowledge for“. The conclusion that imposes itself is: you don’t merely study the “other” like you study country flags, Amazonian vegetation or architectural styles. Much more is at stake. You live with the “other”, acknowledge the differences between that “other” and yourself, and learn to accept them.

The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) is an annual international, interreligious summer school that meets in a different country every year for approximately two weeks. It provides a framework where students, civic leaders and prominent academics from different countries can explore the issues of religion and the public sphere with an aim of developing new strategies of tolerance and pluralism while maintaining a commitment to tradition and religious identity.

The program is centered around three academic courses together with the processes of group building and the construction of working relationships across religious and ethnic identities. The didactic goals of the school are thus cognitive as well as social. It thus provides a laboratory for the practical pedagogy of tolerance and living with difference in a global society. Its goals are to produce new practices and understandings for living together in a world populated by people with very different political ideas, moral beliefs and communal loyalties.

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