The Many Faces of Nonviolence - Asna Husin

The Many Faces of Nonviolence - Asna Husin

by Emily Mattioli

Before leaving Indonesia to attend college in the United States, Dr. Asna Husin was guided by one simple thought: “peace is a part of your life from the beginning until now.” Growing up in the predominately Muslim Indonesian province of Aceh, she learned about other religions through her education, but never met people of a different faith from her own. In her early years, the only non-Acehnese she met were the few Chinese who resided in the local market, Kembang Tanjung in Sigli. Until one Ramadan, her grandfather took her to Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia, and Husin found herself playing with Christian children.

In Medan, it wasn’t only the children who got along. Community members of many different faiths and ethnicities coexisted. They attended each other’s weddings and supported one another when they were suffering from grief and loss. On religious holidays, no matter which religion tradition they belonged to, people baked each other cakes and celebrated in each other’s homes. During her stay at her aunt’s house in Medan, Husin witnessed Christians deliver a cake to her house and partake in traditions customary for the end of Ramadan. Later, her aunt did the same for the Christian family during the Christmas season. This experience, along with the Islamic education that instilled in her a desire for mutual understanding and interfaith dialogue, left a positive mark on Husin’s life. She leaned into this desire upon coming to the United States in 1990 to pursue her graduate education. 

Husin received a Fulbright Scholarship for her master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, then earned a PhD in Religious Studies at Columbia University. She went on to serve as a fellow at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, while simultaneously teaching Islamic Civilization at the State University of New York. Upon completing her fellowship at Columbia, Husin worked as the Director of Women’s Programs for the World Conference on Religion and Peace, where she helped organize the World Women Assembly in  Jordan. In 2000, Husin returned to Banda Aceh, Indonesia to resume her teaching position at the Ar-Raniry State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN; now known as Ar-Raniry State Islamic University), while establishing the ‘Peace Education Program’ (PPD) as an independent affiliate of Nonviolence International.

When Husin moved back to Indonesia, the country was in the midst of a civil war. In their efforts to fight the indigenous Aceh Freedom Fighters (GAM), the military put the province under martial law. Husin risked being caught in the middle of the conflict as she advocated for peace education and nonviolent conflict resolution. It was difficult, even dangerous, but “with the help of God and the commitment of many good people,” she recalls, “we were able to fulfill our tasks and excel in our peace work.” A large part of this work was creating educational materials for the peace education courses.

Husin gathered people for support and built a team to work on educational manuals for use in public high schools and private Islamic academies (dayah or pesantren) throughout Aceh. She and her team pushed textbooks that guided the courses and trainings taught on peace. The first edition was a peace education manual intended for high schools. While brief compared to later versions, it did a wonderful job of “combining Islamic universal values and international principles, Acehnese peace mechanisms and recognized global norms.” This initial success led to a request for a more detailed peace education manual for the private Islamic boarding schools (dayah). The first two books compliment each other and later inspired a third, more comprehensive manual on Islamic Ethics (Akhlaq) designed for use in the Acehnese government and private high schools. 

The later editions of the Ulama peace book and the Akhlaq manual focus on active and joyful learning, concentrating on peace, and “learning by doing” and “playing for learning” techniques. The student-trainees learn and experience conflict while trying to find a peaceful solution applicable to real life. They also study basic theory about conflict, its root causes and ways to manage it. The two major manuals cover subjects ranging from issues of structural and institutional violence, to active and passive peace; managing anger to elevating poverty; human rights and communal responsibilities; and good leadership to communal civility. More than vague concepts, the books and courses offered conceptual knowledge and taught practical skills on how to live harmoniously.

In order to “revive the age-old Islmanic peace tradition for the benefit of our modern era,” Husin and her team injected traditional Islamic learning into the manuals. This undoubtedly helped to win the support of the many Islamic schools that still use these manuals in their curriculum today. Over the eleven years of implementing the project, Husin and her team trained over one thousand teachers from across Aceh, who in turn taught over 70,000 public high school students and the young Ulama in Islamic boarding schools about nonviolent methods for resolving conflict. Furthermore, Husin succeeded in securing uninterrupted international funding to support the program’s activities from a wide range of respected agencies and organizations.

Husin’s determination prevailed despite the many barriers she had to overcome operating a peace program amidst the dangers that engulfed Aceh at the time. Murders, robberies and extortions, abductions, and arsons were common. An inspiration for Husin in these times was her faith. In her own words, “the core of Islam is peace.” She reflected on one of the names for God, ‘Provider of Peace’ (al-Salam), emphasizing that “Muslims seek peace because they want to become closer to God as the source and provider of true peace and human security.”

Interfaith dialogue continued to be a driving force in her work as she persisted in teaching about peace in Indonesia. While she had originally appealed to Muslim educators to accept the program she was establishing, it wasn’t long before Christians in the community began taking an interest in her work. Christians joined in peace education classes at one school in Southeast Aceh, even though the materials reflect the conception of peace from an Islamic perspective. When Husin went to visit this school she asked the young Christians about their experience, they responded, “We love this class. We have a lot of fun. The materials and teachers discuss our religion in a very respectful manner.” The class succeeded in promoting peace not just because of its teachings, but in how it brought different people together.

Dr. Asna Husin currently serves as a senior researcher at Nonviolence International in Washington, D.C., working on cultural resources for Islamic peace building. There are still ways that Husin would like to see her society grow, but she is grateful for how far the community that she calls home has come. Nonviolence International is proud to continue supporting Husin as she completes research on Cultural Resources for Islamic Peace Building, and the History of Indonesian Muslim Communities in America.

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