Saturday, October 21, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, Oct. 18, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

When Australian Jordan Newton visited Persatuan Islam (Persis) Islamic school in Bandung last August for a dialog with its students, he was confronted with an inconceivable, yet intriguing question from one of the students: "Is it true that there is a deal between the Vatican, the U.S. and Israel that if Tibo's execution is canceled, Israel will stop attacking Lebanon?"

The question was timely: The execution of the three Catholics accused of murdering Muslims in Poso was delayed allegedly due to international pressure. It was also the peak of Israel's military offensive to wipe out Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Newton was bewildered, trying to answer diplomatically that although the Vatican, the U.S. and Israel are oddly classified as "the West" , they don't always agree on everything, and that such a conspiracy theory was just absurd.

What is clear is that he was presented with a fresh experience of how some sectors in Indonesia still have a very limited understanding of the West. This, he said, also applies to the often love-hate relations between Indonesia and Australia.

"Acute lack of knowledge on both sides," he said, partly blaming the media for inaccurate information. In the Australian media, Indonesia is always portrayed as either politically unstable or a country always racked with natural disasters. While in the Indonesian media, Australia is often perceived as an arrogant country that is always more than willing to interfere in Indonesian domestic affairs."

"Like the East Timor issue, many here don't understand that Australians once felt guilty as they left the East Timorese alone when the island was invaded by the Japanese, so there is an element of a historical background," Newton said during an interview with The Jakarta Post at the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) office in South Jakarta, where he is volunteering as a communications officer under a one-year government sanctioned Australian Volunteers International (AVI) program.

"And when I was in high school, I did not even know where to locate Indonesia on the map!"

Born on Feb. 26, 1983 to a Catholic family in Young, New South Wales, Newton became interested in studying Islam when he was studying at a Catholic high school. He chose to study Islam besides Catholicism as he thought that the religions should share many similarities. He became more curious after learning that Jesus, though portrayed as a prophet and not God, is also mentioned in the Koran and that the Koran acknowledges all prophets in Judaism and Christianity.

After completing high school, he attended an open house by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where he enthusiastically listened to a presentation by Prof. David Reeve, then the director of Chinese and Indonesian studies at the university.

He chose to study Indonesian not only because the language seemed to be less difficult than Chinese, but because it was also in line with his growing interest in political Islam, particularly given the fact that Indonesia has the largest number of Muslims in the world. And, to be sure, the inescapable proximity of the two countries highlights the significance of the subject.

So, as part of a five-year undergraduate course at UNSW, he spent one academic year in Indonesia under the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesia Studies. He spent 11 months at the University of Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, studying the language, exposing himself to the local culture with all its subtleties and observing the dynamics of the country's political Islam.

"It was a rewarding and unforgettable experience - it has deeply enriched my life," Newton recalled, staring at the ceiling for a while.

Well, indeed, that is also where romance began: his first meeting with a Javanese Muslim girl who has now become his girlfriend and who has been teaching him a lot about Islam.

Back in Australia he wrote his thesis on the emergence of the Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) in Indonesia's political landscape. He said that he was fascinated by the fact that in post-Soeharto Indonesia, religious parties wisely opted to channel their aspirations through a democratic process.

"Some Australian Indonesianists say that the PKS is a radical political entity with a dangerous agenda, but I found that they are just conservatives who do not always denote a negative image," he said, adding that he has several good friends who are affiliated with the Islamic political party, which is known for its concerted campaign for good governance.

The rise of the PKS in separable from societies' dissatisfaction with what they perceive as injustice and corruption that are omnipresent, " he observed.

Newton received the UNSW Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Honors Scholarship Award in 2005 for his dedication to the chosen subject.

He also befriended Indonesian Muslims from a wide spectrum of groups, from those regarded as conservative to the more liberal ones. Nevertheless, he said with regret that there seems to be a severe lack of productive dialog between the two competing groups.

"Instead of engaging in a dialog, there seems to be a phobia from each group with both trading barren accusations. The liberal or the progressive accuses the conservatives of being radical and intolerant, while the latter accuses the former of being Western puppets."

"Still, my knowledge of Islam and Indonesia is still limited," he said humbly, in fluent Indonesian. He added that one of his aspirations is to help correct the wrong perception of his fellow Australians over Indonesia as a Muslim country.

"Indonesia is now arguably a democratic country, so there is a golden opportunity for Indonesia and Australia to search for more common ground," Newton said, adding that a lot can be done to enhance relations between the two neighboring countries.

He gave an example of tolerance and harmony that are actually rooted in Indonesian diverse societies. And in Australia they have the concept of giving people a "fair go" and a willingness to accept the plurality of societies.

"More contacts between people of the two countries can help to explore more similarities and understand the differences, and cement stronger relations," said Newton, whose parents are currently in the country to join Idul Fitri celebrations.

Newton, who has been struggling to fast this Ramadhan, seems to be well on the path to becoming a future prominent Indonesianist with an Indonesian heart.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 12, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

When asked about the role of women and their social situation in Indonesia, Eva Kusuma Sundari looked gloomy and disappointed.

However, she immediately bombarded The Jakarta Post with facts and arguments during an interview at her office in the House of Representatives here.

"People are usually unaware of women's contribution to this country's development, which is significant, " said Eva, a legislator from the opposition PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), who is also a member of the House commission that oversees legal matters, regulation, human rights and security.

Eva gave an example: In the small and medium business sector, which accounts for about 40 million businesses here, about 80 percent are operated by women, she said.

"The nation was able to emerge from the 1998 economic crisis thanks to the role of women in the sector, but does the public recognize that?"

With a rising voice she added, "The role of women is invisible! Even public policy does not acknowledge this powerful section of our society."

Low awareness regarding the role of women can be traced to the education sector, which seldom touches on issues of social marginalization.

For example, when she studied development economics at Airlangga University, Surabaya, she did not hear much about urban poverty, mistreatment of workers or other social ills.

Recalling how disempowering our society can be toward women, Eva cited a research finding from Sampang, Madura, in 2002, which showed that reciting the Koran is considered far more important than learning the Roman alphabet.

"What is the result? Many housewives have inadequate understanding about sanitation and nutrition, which is detrimental to their family's well-being."

A Muslim herself, Eva highlighted that there should be a balance in learning religion and simple but important life skills.

Eva recalled another piece of research that indicates a high fatality rate for women and children, forced marriages at a young age and a high dropout rate from elementary school.

"Women are systematically and culturally marginalized, " she said.

Born Oct. 8, 1965, in Nganjuk, Eva continued her studies after graduating from Airlangga. Her first Masters was in the politics of alternative development strategies from the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands in 1996; her thesis was on traditional Javanese markets and their impact on the local economies of related villages.

Her second Masters was in economics and development economics from the University of Nottingham, U.K., in 2000, with a thesis on the role of the local public sector on regional economic growth and the impact of decentralization on poverty alleviation.

Eva became a member of the teaching staff at her alma mater and was extensively involved in research at the Center for Research and Studies for Women (PPSW) at the same university.

The research included Women Politicians and their Articulation of Gender Interests (1997); Impacts of External Debt on Women: An Analysis of Stabilization Policy during the Crisis (2001) and Analysis of the Inter-Sectoral Program for Women's Empowerment (2001).

She also produced Violence towards Street Women Sexual Workers in Joyoboyo (Surabaya) Terminal (2002); and The Implementation of Gender Mainstreaming Strategy by Local Governments in Surabaya, Pasuruan, Madiun and Pamekasan (East Java) (2004).

She became an advisor to the women's advancement program for the East Java provincial government in 2002, program officer for gender and women's participation at The Asia Foundation from 2003 to 2005 and gender consultant at the same institution in 2005.

Asked why she ventured into the world of politics, she frowned, saying, "What do you mean by politics? Fighting for the cause of women is everyday politics for me."

She started while still a student. As a former activist of the Indonesian National Student Movement (GMNI), it was during her student days that she established relations with the nationalists.

She finally quit her teaching career in 2004 and became a member of the House of Representatives in 2005 for PDI-P; she is now one of the 13.8 percent of woman legislators in the national legislature.

She is also a member of the ASEAN Inter-Parliament Myanmar Caucus, which struggled to bring democracy to Myanmar and to free its woman leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest under the orders of the junta.

Asked what should be done to effectively introduce gender equality in Indonesia, she said all responsible citizens are morally obliged to show greater appreciation of women.

However, the state as an agent of transformation should work harder to formulate policies that are antidiscriminatory and support gender equality.

"The Office of the State Minister of Women's Empowerment should take the role of catalyst in this initiative," she said, referring to a task force formed by the office.

It comprises officials from all ministries to ensure that women's issues are substantively incorporated within all government policies.

Nonetheless, the task force is very weak -- even impotent -- because it comprises low-level officials, so nobody in the government feels obliged to heed its recommendations properly.

"Also, the office should do more to influence strategic policy, but instead it acts like a non governmental organization merely running training sessions and workshops," she lamented.

She likewise deplored many regional sharia-inspired regulations that are perceived as disadvantageous to women.

"In Tangerang, the wage of a laborer can only cover minimal physical needs, not minimal living needs. This means a woman laborer needs to work overtime if she wants to cover the latter.

"Yet, how crazy it is that the local government issued a regulation that prohibits women from being outside in the evening," she said.

She added that these regulations are having a negative economic impact. For example, 50 large companies in one region need to close down because they can no longer produce kebaya, traditional blouses that are considered immoral by hard-line conservatives.

Needless to say, there is a growing number of women laborers desperate to work overseas as domestic industry cannot absorb them, she warned.

She said the misconceptions about women that are deeply entrenched in society need to be tackled at the grass roots. She recalled her time as a researcher and the story of a pregnant woman who bled heavily at a critical stage of delivering her baby.

"The family panicked but her husband refused to take her to the hospital straight away; instead, he waited for a kyai (religious figure) to go to their house to advise them. The woman died," she said.

"And this is all reflected in our movies on TV -- religion is reduced to superstition and is conveyed as something frightening, while women are portrayed as stupid, heavily dependent and the root of evil."

Friday, October 06, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 5, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman,
Contributor, Jakarta

Muslim scholar and activist Moeslim Abdurrahman cannot hide his anxiety.

Conservatism is allegedly growing within Muhammadiyah, the country's second-largest Muslim organization, which claims to have 30 million members in Indonesia.

"I'm worried about the future of Muhammadiyah, once dubbed a modernist and reformist organization. Exclusivism and intolerance seem to be growing even stronger now," he told The Jakarta Post at his office in Mampang, South Jakarta.

During Tanwir (a national leadership meeting) in Bali, January 2002, together with other leaders of Muhammadiyah, Moeslim conceptualized a dakwah kultural (cultural preaching approach) that was aimed at deconstructing the monolithic interpretation of Islamic religiosity by accommodating the cultural and local values that are rich in pluralistic Indonesian society.

Nevertheless, there was strong resistance from conservative sections of Muhammadiyah, which suspected dakwah kultural as having the potential to accommodate bid'ah (heresy), regarded as being against the founding ideal of Muhammadiyah, established in 1912 by K. H. Ahmad Dahlan, to purify Islam from such belief.

As the debate continued, many narrowly interpreted dakwah kultural as a mere expression of the spread of Islamic teaching through the arts such as music and songs. During the following Tanwir in Makassar, June 2003, the concept was further distorted to the "Islamization" of the arts.

"Bid'ah should be re-interpreted," he argued, adding that although Islam has a universal principle, in practice it has been translated into ethnolocal Islam such as Nahdlatul Ulama in Java, Nahdlatul Wathan (Nusa Tenggara Barat), Mathlaul Anwar (Banten) and Darul Dakwah wal-Irsyad (Makassar).

"Nevertheless, many young members of Muhammadiyah who promote pluralism seem to do it as a mere defense, while blaming their previous leaders for destroying locality with their reform movement," Moeslim said, pointing that the effort has lost its substance.

Born Aug 8, 1948 to a Muhammadiyah family in Lamongan, East Java, after completing elementary school, he was sent by his parents to Raudlatul Ilmiyah Islamic boarding school in Kertosono. His parents hoped that he would become a young cleric.

But Moeslim insisted on continuing his education. Registering as a student of the Tarbiyah Program at Muhammadiyah Surakarta University and soon becoming active in student organizations, his understanding of Islamic religiosity was gradually transformed from the normative to the empirical domain, from monolithic to pluralistic interpretation.

Moeslim later received his Masters and PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, U.S.

Continuing as a social activist, he became increasingly assured that the level of piety of each individual is different, depending on social and cultural factors that shape their understanding of religious doctrine.

"But they have the right to claim that they are close to God," he said in between puffs of a cigarette during a breaking-of-the-fast gathering at his office.

Moeslim befriended young members of Nahdlatul Ulama such as some of those at the Institute of the Empowerment of Pesantren and Society (P3M), whom he considered more progressive than those at Muhammadiyah.

He became a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), director of the Ma'arif Institute for Culture and Humanity and director of the Institute of Social Science Development (LPIS).

He once worked as a civil servant at the research and development department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for 12 years. In the media sector, he was assistant to the editor-in-chief of Pelita daily and head of research at the Post for two years and one year respectively.

He declined positions as a permanent member of teaching staff, and instead opted to teach part-time in the graduate program of anthropology and political science of the University of Indonesia and the graduate program in anthropology and philosophy at Muhammadiyah Surakarta University.

He was also extensively involved in social activism to promote understanding that plurality is a fact of life in Indonesia, with all its diversity.

In 2000, Muhammadiyah chairman Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif persuaded him to return to Muhammadiyah. Moeslim headed the division for the empowerment of laborers, farmers and fisherman of Muhammadiyah Central Board besides being a director of al-Ma'un Institute, an organization he formed to realize his idealism.

Asked why what he perceived a growing conservatism and intolerance were to be found in Muhammadiyah, Moeslim replied, "Due to feelings of inferiority. Generally, Muslims particularly those in Muhammadiyah, feel they have lost the battle in almost every field," he said.

"For example, many perceive the growing number of non-Muslim schools in big cities as a threat -- as rivals that could disturb the existence and aqidah (religious doctrine) of the Muslim ones," he said.

It is because of this that even the celebration of Christmas was treated as a theological rather than social matter, he said with regret.

He continued that as globalization is irresistible, there are two possible reactions from society: "First is anxiety that everything will be attacked and replaced by new norms and beliefs. Second, total rejection of change -- toward everything coming from outside, followed by an exclusivist attitude."

"The first is a common phenomenon that can be found in any society, any organization, or any organized religion, but the second is dangerous. I'm worried -- I hope I'm mistaken -- that Muhammadiyah is showing signs of the second reaction. If that's the case, Muhammadiyah might end up as a mere community movement," he warned, emphasizing that Muhammadayh was originally conceived as an urban movement.

During the 45th Muktamar (national congress) of Muhammadiyah in Malang in July 2005, which saw an end to Ahmad Syafi'i Maarif's leadership, Moeslim and other progressive leaders such as Amin Abdullah and Abdul Munir Mulkhan were sidelined by the perceived growing number of conservatives in Muhammadiyah.

Muhammadiyah scholar Pradana Boy Zulian Thobibul Fata, who is currently writing a thesis on the conservative and liberal forces within Muhammadiyah at the Australian National University, said many believed that the new leadership had flirted with powerful conservative wings to ensure their election.

But Moeslim is not losing hope. He is surrounded by a number of young and progressive Muhammadiyah members who, with his help, formed a loose organization, Muhammadiyah Youth Intellectual Network (JIMM) in 2003.

It consists of liberal-minded members such as Zuly Qodir, Tuty Alawiah, Piet Khaidir, Ahmad Fuad Fanani, Andar Nubowo and others.

Scholar Pradana Boy said that Moeslim in pinning a lot hope on these young members to provide Muhammadiyah with a new image -- now or in the future -- although he urged JIMM to be more independent and to also reach out to other senior leaders.

"The problem is that JIMM has difficulty in finding other senior intellectual patrons other than Moeslim, as Muhammadiyah lacks leaders like him with a high level of intellectuality but with strong commitment to nurture younger members," he said.

He added that in spite of this, the battle for minds within Muhammadiyah is unstoppable.