JORDAN NEWTON: VOLUNTEERING TO BRIDGE AUSTRALIA-RI GAP
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.