Comics Invade Indonesian Religious Schools

By Dewi Wijayanti

Watch out, students! This summer, 60,000 comic books will arrive at various reading clubs and libraries in pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools) and public schools across Indonesia. The dissemination of these comic books, along with the establishment of reading clubs, is part of a new nationwide effort to improve inter- and intra-religious understanding in Indonesia.

Pesantrens have long been considered one of the possible breeding grounds for extremism in Indonesia. Although there is an incredible diversity in the style and methods of teaching in pesantrens, some already have infamous graduates who have become known terrorists.

So why use comic books to improve religious understanding?

Comic books are beloved by students in Indonesia, and therefore can be a compelling medium to encourage youth to reflect on religion in Indonesia without feeling lectured at, preached to or, worse yet, bored.

Already, comic books have been used internationally to introduce Islamic values to youth in the Middle East and North Africa. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, almost all Muslims featured in mainstream – mainly Western – comic books were antagonists. Only recently have Muslims started to qualify as protagonists.

The 99, for example, is a comic book series published by Teshkeel Comics that features a team of superheroes whose backgrounds are varied and whose powers are based on Islamic values. Created and co-written by a Kuwaiti psychologist and entrepreneur, the comic has gained global fame and acceptance since it was first launched in 2006, and is praised as an important effort to counter anti-Islam media bias.

In Indonesia, comic books are hugely popular. Many Indonesian youth read a diverse range of comic books – Japanese comics, European (especially Franco-Belgian and British) comics, American mainstream comics (the DC and Marvel titles) and local Indonesian underground varieties (rip-offs of Western superheroes, Hindu mythology comics and others). Events such as comic conventions are regularly organised across Indonesian cities as platforms for comic lovers to meet with each other.

The popular comic book format allows the presentation of important issues in an informal manner. Bringing these issues closer to readers’ daily lives, they feel that these issues are not foreign, but instead are relevant to them. Both mainstream and underground comic books have explored real life political, socio-cultural and economic issues in their pages, and some of them have received awards recognising their contribution to raising public awareness of important issues.

For these reasons, the international conflict transformation organisation Search for Common Ground, in consultation with pesantren leaders and educators, is using comic books to encourage young Indonesians to consider the role of religion in their daily lives.

There are currently two series, each of which has produced six comic episodes to date.

The first series, The Genjrings, tells a story about a rock ‘n roll band in a pesantren, promoting the theme “different is not bad.” The main plot in each comic revolves around the band members who agree to put aside their differences to face various problems that result from intolerance, including of the religious kind, in Indonesia. These problems exist in daily life because of misunderstandings, existing stereotypes and misinformation between people of different backgrounds.

The other series, Pesantren Terakhir (The Last Pesantren), tells the story of three teenagers on a journey to a pesantren. On this journey, they are faced with challenges relating to issues of religious tolerance. Both comic series use the pesantren as a familiar setting to which students can relate.

To provide a platform to learn and discuss religious tolerance issues, participating pesantrens will establish reading clubs which will discuss episodes of the comic books regularly. Teachers will be equipped with facilitators’ manuals that highlight the key messages of discussion. These reading groups play a similar function as comic conventions, except that the reading groups focus on exploring intolerance in Indonesian society.

The preliminary feedback from students in participating schools was generally positive. Interestingly, these comic books were described as “unique as they specifically introduce daily life in Indonesian pesantrens” and as “present[ing] a different view of pesantrens, for example, that pesantrens students love music as well.”

These young pesantren students have hopes that these comic books will help humanise their institutions in the eyes of the world. The dream of peaceful co-existence based on mutual understanding just became a little less far-fetched.

Dewi Wijayanti is a programme officer with Search for Common Ground’s Indonesia programme.

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