Life in Indonesian villages is traditionally peaceful—hospitality, mutual cooperation, and tolerance among residents were historically the norm in the country’s multicultural communities.

But acts of intolerance and violence in the name of Islam—the country’s majority religion and one that teaches peace and tolerance—are on the rise.

In a defiant response, youth from village mosques in Yogyakarta asked their neighbors to join them during Ramadan for an artistic exploration of the gender issues and multiculturalism that are under attack.

Gatherings took place in five villages under the auspices of an AFSC-supported program called “Peaceful Islam: Ramadan and Nationalism,” collaboratively organized by Muslim youth from the villages.

Bumen, one of the participating villages, has been in the news lately because it is the headquarters of an Islamic fundamentalist group, Indonesia Mujahidin Council. The group carries out highly visible and violent attacks on those they feel are not Islamic; recently, the attacks have targeted a local artist and a book-discussion group involving a Muslim feminist.

In Bumen as elsewhere, the Peaceful Islam program explored the role of art and culture in Islam, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and understandings of gender issues. A few hundred men and women came to each, where as the sun set they broke the fast together while discussing and watching the program.

Performances featured Islamic tambourine music, “hadrah,” a Javanese style of theater called “kethoprak,” and children’s theater. A non-Islamic performance of Chinese lion dancing was incorporated in a few villages.

Gus Irwan, head of an Islamic boarding school and author of a book on tolerance, spoke to the gathered crowd in Pandeyan. “Islam allows art,” he said. “In fact, Islamic missionaries spread the teachings of Islam all over Java using art and local tradition.”

He also talked about household division of labor without gender discrimination, using the example of the Prophet Muhammad to emphasize an understanding of the teachings of Islam that upholds the dignity of women.

“There’s no ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work,’” he said. “Between men and women there is no difference in the presence of God. The Prophet was even willing to help his wives to do housework.”

Topo Harjono, village head of Bumen, delivered a message of tolerance to his community: “Villages should reflect the village values—peace, harmony, and discussion, including accepting difference amongst our neighbors, so our village will be a peaceful village.”

The young people who organized the program said they learned not only from the challenge of staging each event, but also from their collaboration with each other.

“Outside of the fasting month, young people rarely participate in activities at the mosque,” said Taufik, a young man from Patangpuluhan. “However, we organized and carried out this event, and even met young Muslims from other villages.

“Hopefully this relationship does not stop here, but is sustainable to build something bigger, for culture or peace.”