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Comic Books for Peace in Palu, Indonesia

2012 January 4
Indonesian girls in pesantren

Students at Al-Khairat pesantren with SFCG comic books

By: Chloe Hall

Palu is located at the heart of Sulawesi, a vast island in Eastern/Central Indonesia that extends into the sea like four slender fingers on an outstretched hand. A combination of mountainous peaks and lushly coastal plains, Palu is home to the Al-Khairat pesantren, one of nine Islamic boarding schools where SFCG is implementing a program on religious tolerance. Walking through the peaceful Al-Khairat campus, whose trees even seem mellow and drowsy in the afternoon heat, it is hard to believe that Central Sulawesi was an epicenter of violence just over a decade ago. Palu is several hours’ drive from the post-conflict city of Poso, which was wracked by clashes between Muslims and Christians from 1999 to 2001, and the region remains volatile, prone to episodes of violence. In late December 2011, a bomb was discovered in a market that sells pork and is located next to a local church.

The bomb was diffused by the police. In September 2011, I traveled to Palu with Yunita Mardiani, Agus Hadi Nahrowi, and Suraji, three of my co-workers who were introducing a series of comic books about difference and tolerance to students and educators at Al-Khairat.

The two-year initiative that brought us to Palu targets pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), and ended as of December 2011. The majority of pesantren are co-educational institutions that serve as the backbone of communities across the Indonesian archipelago, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. The schools provide quality education at an affordable price, and are led by kyai, charismatic figures who are widely respected in their communities. Thousands of pesantren are affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhamaddiyah, Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim civil society organizations.

However, a handful of Indonesian pesantren have also been linked to radical movements. Laskar Jihad, a militant group whose members contributed to fuelling Muslim-Christian violence in the Maluku Islands in 1999-2002, ran a pesantren in Java. Several boarding schools have also been linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the radical group behind the 2002 Bali bombings. In June 2011, the head of a local pesantren was convicted of inciting mob violence that included the burning of churches in Temanggung, Central Java. In July, several weeks after I moved to Indonesia, a pesantren in Eastern Indonesia made headlines when a bomb exploded on the campus, killing a teacher. A source from Densus 88, Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism squad, asserted that the incident occurred because students were “most likely” learning how to make explosives. This suggested that violence has been woven into the curriculum at that particular pesantren.

This troubling link between pesantren and violent extremism makes enforcing moderate, nonviolent values within pesantren crucial for maintaining lasting peace in Indonesian communities. With more than five million students registered at roughly 14,000 pesantren across the archipelago, approximately 5% of which could be considered radical, the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Palu’s Al-Khairat pesantrenis not “radical”; nonetheless, it is part of this larger SFCG initiative to encourage tolerance within pesantren, where even moderate santri (students)may have limited opportunities to engage with individuals of other religious backgrounds. This objective has primarily been achieved through creating innovative debate and comic book curricula that encourage critical thinking and open discussion about issues related to tolerance. I played an observer’s role in Palu, and helped to document some of the work my colleagues were carrying out, which included distributing comic books to students and teachers, facilitating discussions about comics with students, and training teachers on methods for incorporating these unorthodox texts into their curricula.

A student at Al-Khairat discusses SFCG comics with her classmates

The Genjrings and Pesantren Terakhir, the two comic book series we distributed in Palu and eight other pesantren, are steeped in the day-to-day rhythms of these boarding schools. Their characters are primarily pesantren students and kyai (pesantren leaders). A student I spoke to at another pesantren in Tangerang, a suburb of Jakarta, at an event in September told me she liked the comics because they spoke to her own experience as a santri (pesantren student), to the point where she could imagine herself within the frames of the comics.

That conversation stuck with me because it spoke so eloquently to what I, as a writer and reader of fiction, see as the elemental power of stories: They have the power to transport us. The best are akin to immersion; we plunge into them and feel like we are part of them. By encountering stories in this way, we come to know characters who may be very different from us, but whose worlds we can nonetheless share. I can hardly think of a better way to encourage tolerance and empathy for those who are different from us.

Students at Al-Khairat read SFCG comics

Like the girl I spoke to in Tangerang, the students in Palu seemed transported by the comics. On the first day of SFCG’s workshop, they scattered throughout the school to read a few episodes before discussing the comics with their classmates. As I wandered through the hushed campus, I passed clusters of boys and girls in their khaki-colored batik uniforms—draped over motorbikes, hunched outside of the campus canteen, gathered on a sidewalk or in a stairwell, their chins in their hands as they poured over the comics.

Miftanuljanna, an English teacher at Al-Khairat who has worked there for five years, told me that books are extremely expensive in Palu. Al-Khairat has a small library, but it is limited, and Miftanuljanna explained that she can only afford to buy a book a month, if that. As a book lover who has a particular fondness for fiction, this leaves her hungry for reading material. Watching the students devour the comics across the Al-Khairat campus, I realized with a jolt that SFCG’s comics about difference and tolerance are making an impact not only because they are entertaining and extremely relevant to santri’s lives, but also because they are an important and valuable resource in a city that lacks accessible reading material, particularly in the form of fiction.

Although the program that brought comic books to Palu ends this year, SFCG is extending its work in pesantren through a new two-year initiative that will support the creation of community radio stations at pesantren in areas especially vulnerable to extremism. I look forward to continuing to support the SFCG-Indonesia team in using stories—whether contained within the frames of comic books or carried on the airwaves—to build more peaceful and inclusive Indonesian communities.


Chloe Hall is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in religion and creative writing from Princeton University. She is currently a Princeton-in-Asia fellow based in SFCG’s Jakarta offices where she serves as a Program Development Officer.

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