Buddhist teens attend Islamic high school in North Lombok

Children exemplify lessons of harmony in diversity in remote Indonesian village

Note: In this story, as is common in Indonesia, several people use only one-word names rather than a first and last name. The first and second presidents of Indonesia, Soekarno and Suharto followed this custom. However, several people in this story also have first and last names such as Atina Hasanah, Medi Asmawadi, and Anjelika Dewi.

Although differing religions living cheek-by-jowl spark conflict in many parts of the world, the children in one eastern Indonesian island demonstrate harmony. 

Lombok island, nicknamed the Island of a Thousand Mosques, is predominantly Muslim (96%) but also is home to four other religions embraced in the country: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. 

The Muslim and Hindu populations came into conflict in Indonesia between 1978 and 2003 with great loss of life and property. However, many have learned to coexist peacefully, despite challenges. 

The Islamic high school, Madrasah Tsanawiyah (MT), where most students wear a long uniform with a hijab (for girls) and a cap (for boys), has welcomed seven Buddhist students who are unable to get to the region’s public high school. 

“We’re not forced to wear hijab,” said Atina Hasanah, 15, who with her four peers wears her long hair loose. “We dress as in a public school where we do not need to wear hijab (veils) or peci (caps).” 

The seven youths initially enrolled in an Islamic junior high school, which was the only school within walking distance, and did not encounter any problems.  

“We get along normally, and we are used to it, we are not bothered by this difference,” said Atina. 

The Buddhist students, however, said they have never been bullied or mocked by other Muslim students even though they have different religions.  

The students say they are motivated by a passion for learning, to get a proper education and to avoid early marriages.  

Several schools in the area cater to religious communities – the madrasa for Muslims, Saraswati Foundation for Hindu students, and Santo Antonius for Catholic students – but there is no Buddhist school. 

The Muslim and Buddhist students have a good dynamic, said Putrawadi, the head of MT Al-Mujahidin and the school environment is supportive of the seven students.  

“Alhamdulillah (Thank God), all the students here have a good relationship even (if) they have different religions,” said Putrawadi. “Those seven Buddhist students always help their Muslim friends, and so do the Muslim students.”  

The state junior high school – SMPN 2 of Gangga – is nine kilometers away from the Buddhist students’ village, Rempek Darussalam, a rural forested area.  

“Our house is too far from the school,” Atina said. The two-kilometer walk to the Muslim school, which take them across a river and through a forest, takes about 15 minutes whereas a trip to the public school would take two hours on foot.  

The students, who come from poor families, said they cannot afford a vehicle to transport them such a distance and other options are closed to them.  

“We cannot rent a house or boarding house for our kids,” said Kertisah, the mother of 15-year-old Suriani. She is the sole breadwinner of the family since her husband suffered a stroke in 2018.  

The parents of the Buddhist students are either farmers or work as grass cutters, who collect grass in a field or garden and sell it to cow farms.  

They are only able to cut two sacks of grass in a day, Kertisah says, Each sells for Rp10,000 ($0.6). In a month, she can earn Rp600,000 ($40.8). The farmers’ income is not much higher, averaging Rp 500,000 ($34) to Rp700,000 ($47.6) per month. Poverty level, according to the North Lombok government, is Rp2,187,171 ($148.7).  

“We still lack daily life needs,” said Minarti, the mother of 14-year-old Anjelika Dewi, whose top family’s income isRp700,000 per month.  

The children’s parents say they are comfortable with their children attending a Muslim school.  

“We are not worried about their friendship at school,” Kertisah said, “because their friends at school are just their friends at the house even though they have different religions,”  

Children who do not attend school tend to marry very early,  We don’t want our children to marry early and lose their right to go to school, she said. 

Early marriage or child marriage is not legal in Indonesia.  The state will only register marriages if the spouse is over 18 years of age.  If early marriage occurs, the couple cannot get access to social services from the state such as food assistance, financial assistance, and of course cannot continue their education. 

When someone marries at the age of children, they cannot get their right to continue their education in primary to senior high schools.  Unless they have completed senior high school, they are allowed to continue their education to College.  No primary or secondary school accepts married students, especially in North Lombok. 

That is why, in Indonesia, child marriage is strictly avoided and has even been prohibited in state law. 

Child marriages, or betrothals involving girls aged 18 and below (Law Number 16 of 2019 and the regulation of Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection in Law Number 35 of 2014), are prevalent in North Lombok.  

In both 2020 and 2021 there were 62 child marriages each year, according to the Social Service for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection office. 

A Different problem looms for the students, however, a barrier to their graduating that lies beyond the control of the school or of their fellow students.  

The madrassa curriculum is set by the Ministry of Religion and obligates students to pass all Islamic-specific subjects such as Fiqh, Aqidah Ahlaq, Qur’an Hadist. The Buddhist children do not take these subjects. 

In order to assist the students to graduate, Putrawadi said, the school is in discussion with the Ministry of Religion and the Department of Education and Sports.  

“The important thing in my point of view is they have to go to school first,” the headmaster said. “Whether they will pass or not, we will find the solution later,” said Putrawadi. “For me, their willingness to go to school is the main point.”  

The Buddhist students, who are worried about their ability to graduate, trust that the madrasa will find the best solution for them. 

Suriani and her peers would attend a conventional school if they had an opportunity. But that would require the North Lombok government to foot the bill.  

The head of the North Lombok Regency Education, Culture, Youth and Sports (Dikbudpora) Office, Adenan, said his office was making plans to transfer the seven students to public schools.  

“We will find a source of funding for the Buddhist children,” said Adenan. He hopes that the seven students can be funded by the local government.