Tuesday, November 28, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 29, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Cirebon, West Java

Mariam Alimi was only a two-year-old toddler when she and all members of her family secretly tried to escape from war-torn Afghanistan.

However, stories passed down by her parents and siblings told of many tragic events in a country torn by continuous foreign occupations and civil wars.

The occupation by the Soviet Union was met with strong resistance from many Muslim Afghans. Mujahideen, financed by the U.S. in a bitter Cold War constellation, fought against what they considered the atheist forces.

"But both forces brought nothing but desperation to many Afghans," Alimi told The Jakarta Post during a recent study tour organized by the International Center of Islam and Pluralism in Cirebon, West Java.

She added that one of her uncles was forced to become a child soldier to fight against the Soviet forces with the Mujahideen.

"Many youngsters were recruited, often against their will, for the war effort," said Alimi, who was born on Jan. 15, 1982, in Kabul. She has two other siblings.

Her father, a sound engineer whose career and dreams in the film industry were shattered by the war, decided that he and all members of his family had to escape their beloved country if they really wished their children to grow up free from fear.

As war ravaged the country, she said education was simply not available at the time.

They escaped, therefore, to Pakistan en route to the U.S.

Paying a large amount of money to some people who helped them escape, the family was hidden among a pile of goods for trade in a truck.

"We would have been killed or raped if Soviet soldiers had found us," said Alimi, recalling what her mother told her about the painful and scary journey to freedom.

Approximately three million Afghan refugees settled in Pakistan. The Soviet occupation resulted in a mass exodus of over five million Afghans who moved into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

After a year in Pakistan, the family was granted asylum and was sent to the U.S. to lead a new life.

Following years of struggle, her family managed to buy a pizza restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, and has been running it ever since.

But Alimi cries at what has taken place in her home country.

Afghanistan was plunged into civil war and warlordism after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the loss of approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers.

"The Taliban, who came to power in 1996, was initially welcomed by many Afghans as they promised stability," she said, "but they eventually applied strict sharia law and as a result many people, including my cousins, were barred from going to school or getting jobs."

The Taliban imposed the law ruthlessly, including the stoning to death and severing of hands for what they considered religious violations.

"Soccer stadiums became a venue for executions, usually watched by cheering spectators," she said of a harrowing experience her cousins shared with her.

Besides being barred from school and work, women were obliged to wear the burka, which covers them fully from head to foot.

Radio and television were considered haram (prohibited) and the equipment was destroyed, she added.

By the fall of 1998 the Taliban had taken over about 90 percent of the country and, with its human rights violations and scorched-earth policies, had transformed itself into an international pariah.

What has occurred in her country has bolstered Alimi's sense of humanity. "I thought that I had to do something so what has happened in my homeland would not be repeated elsewhere," she said.

"I was a school teacher in biology, but after further thought I made a switch to international relations."

She took a Masters degree in that subject at Syracuse University, New York, and completed it in 2005 with a thesis titled Al-Qaeda, from bin Laden to Zarqawi: A Study of a Terror Network.

It was written against the backdrop of the war on terror led by the U.S. After the Sept. 11 terror attack, the Taliban, which allegedly had strong relations with al-Qaeda, fell under military attack by the U.S. and its Northern Alliance over its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden.

Her thesis also reveals how women suffered greatly from what she perceived as narrow-minded Taliban policies and the terror network it established.

During her period of study, Alimi worked as an intern with the United Nations in Austria, Vienna. The job became an eye-opener for Alimi on human catastrophes in many parts of the world, particularly the suffering of women.

She has also traveled extensively to many countries, both developed and developing, to carry out comparative studies.

Determined that her sense of humanity needs to be translated into concrete work, Alimi joined the Academy for Educational Development (AED), a 45-year-old, Washington-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that has served in more than 150 countries around the world.

She is now with the Center for Civil Society and Governance of the AED, which focuses on three areas: human rights advocacy, peace-building programs and NGO capacity-building.

Alimi has been involved in a number of projects. Under the umbrella of human rights advocacy, she became involved in the India-based Sari Equity Project; it focused on women's empowerment in South Asia and ended last October.

Also, the Bangladesh Human Rights Advocacy Program, which aimed to strengthen human rights and the improvement of women's living conditions through the involvement of thousands of imams (Islamic religious leaders) in Bangladesh.

Under the peace-building program, Alimi got involved in conflict resolution in African countries, which was aimed at bringing peace to tribes in conflict, empowering religious leaders and fighting against human trafficking.

She said that Indonesia could become a model of a moderate Muslim country with constructive gender development.

"The Bangladesh imams are here to learn more about Indonesia's moderate Islam, particularly about how religious leaders and NGOs collaborate to improve the cause of women and the fight against the trafficking of women and children," she said.

She was referring to the seven imams from Bangladesh whom she accompanied during a study tour to Indonesia, also in collaboration with Dhaka-based NGO Uddipan.

Asked about what she thinks about the democratic atmosphere that she experienced during her stay in the U.S., Alimi said she was thankful that she had the opportunity to further her studies, regardless of her origin and religion.

Asked what she thinks about the current situation in her home country and what she would do to contribute to helping improve conditions there, she said: "I'm relieved that the situation is getting better after the Northern Alliance finally toppled the radical and conservative Taliban in 2001.

"I look forward to working on a humanitarian program there to empower fellow Afghan women who have suffered from Taliban bigotry; to help them escape from poverty and backwardness, give them access to education and let them stand on their own feet," Alimi said.

She also added that many from the Afghan diaspora have gone back to Afghanistan as stability gradually returned.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 24, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Talk with Azerbaijan linguist Habib Zarbaliyev, and you will be astonished at his fluent Bahasa Indonesia.

This is despite the fact that he has visited Indonesia only twice, and never stayed in the country for long.

The first visit was in February 2002 for seven days, the second in July 2006 for a month.
So how does he practice his Indonesian?

"Using a mirror. I practice it in front of my mirror," he told The Jakarta Post during a conference titled Teaching Bahasa Indonesia to Speakers of Other Languages organized by Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University in Anyer, Banten, in July.

Many of the current generation in Azerbaijan may not know Indonesia well; because of this Zarbaliyev has been working industriously via radio and TV programs to promote the archipelagic nation in his country, he said in a further recent interview via e-mail.

He said that people in his generation would associate Indonesia with Sukarno and still remember when the flamboyant president visited Muslim-populated Azerbaijan, which was still part of the former giant communist Soviet Union at the time.

Historically, Indonesia and the Soviet Union cemented strong relations, particularly at the peak of Sukarno's maneuver to flirt with the former communist superpower to counterbalance that of the West.

In the Soviet Union, Bahasa Indonesia was taught at Moscow University and St. Petersburg University. In 1965 after the alleged Communist coup, relations between the Soviet Union and Indonesia were scrapped, but Bahasa Indonesia was still taught at universities, Zarbaliyev said.

"There was even a course on Sukarno at the Indonesian history and philology programs of St. Petersburg University, which studied the speech and rhetoric of the first Indonesian president.

The lecturer was the late Prof. Pawel Movcanyuk. Sukarno generated a lot of respect from people here," he said.

"Sukarno's books Sarinah and Indonesia Menggugat (Indonesia Accuses) were also well known."

Zarbaliyev has been promoting Indonesia since 1976 through seminars, radio and TV programs. And when Azerbaijan, with its 8.5 million population, reestablished its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he promoted Indonesia more extensively.

As the only expert in Indonesian language and culture in the country, he took part in regular TV programs, held traditional Indonesian music and dance events, featured Indonesia's day-to-day lifestyle and culture and disseminated the works of Indonesian artists and cultural figures.

In 1994, he opened Indonesian program at Baku University, where he is currently a professor in Bahasa Indonesia.

The students learn not only Bahasa Indonesia and all its grammatical and semantic aspects, but also the country's literature, geography, history, ethnography, politics and state administration.

Zarbaliyev translated the work of many contemporary Indonesian writers into the Azerbaijan language "in order to sow the seeds of love for Indonesian culture."

"Even Indonesian pantun has a similarity to that of Azerbaijan's in terms of their structure and genre," he said.

"Just like Indonesia's pantun, (traditional poetry) bayati (Azerbaijan's version of pantun) also contains philosophical thoughts, ethics and morality. Both bayati and pantun consist of four lines; the first two provide the reasoning for the last two," Zarbaliyev explained.

And since Azerebaijan is 93.4 percent Muslim, many Arabic expressions were absorbed into its language, he said.

Consequently, many similarities can be found in both Bahasa Indonesia and Azerbaijan language. They include legal terms, Islamic discourse, indications of time and many other matters.

"Students are therefore familiar with many of the terms," he said. In Azerbaijan language Arabic terms are somehow changed, phonetically, grammatically and semantically."

Full of admiration for Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whom he praised as the greatest literary icon Indonesia has ever had, Zarbaliyev said even Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirayudi was astonished at the fact there is an expert in Bahasa Indonesia in a country as far away as Azerbaijan.

Zarbaliyev met the minister during the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Azerbaijan last year.

Born September 1954 in Azerbaijan, after graduating from Azerbaijan State University, Zarbaliyev received a scholarship to study at the school of oriental studies at St Petersburg University in what was then the Soviet Union.

"Initially I studied Arabic, but I switched to Indonesian language and literature after reading many short stories. I imagined a beautiful and exotic tropical country with a lot of islands," he recalled.

In 1985 he defended his PhD at the university with its thesis that compared Bahasa Indonesia with other languages. In 1994 he defended his second PhD in linguistics at the Institute of Language and Knowledge of Azerbaijan Academy and in 1998 was awarded a full professorship in the same subject area from the Institute of Social and Political Administration.

Zarbaliyev has written numerous scholarly works. These include Bahasa Mingkabau (monograph, 1987), Typology of the Construction of Word-Numbers (monograph, 1997), Anthology of Modern Indonesian Literature (book, 1997), and hundreds of scholarly and popular articles and reviews of Indonesian literature, culture, arts and tradition.

He has also translated a number of Indonesian short stories into Azerbaijan.

From 1982 to 2006 he participated in a number of international conferences in Bahasa Indonesia and other Austronesia languages, including research in Malaysia.

Since 2004 he has been working as a translator for international library Aliyev Heritage (http://www.aliyevheritage.com/).

Currently, his largest project is to write a 500-page book on Indonesia, which contains comprehensive information on Indonesian history, geography, literature, language, ethnography, culture, arts, economy and politics, he said.

Zarbaliyev, whose favorite Indonesian food is nasi goreng (fried rice), is married to Esmira Zarbaliyeva, an expert in Russian language. They have four children: Laura Zarbaliyeva, Rimal Zarbaliyev, Nihal Zarbaliyev and Nabiyee Zarbaliyeva.

Zarbaliyev said he started to introduce the beauty of the Indonesian language to his eldest daughter Laura while still young, so at the age of 13 she already aspired to become an expert in it.

Laura is currently in her last semester at Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta, taking a Masters in Indonesian.

"I am thankful that my daughter received a scholarship from the Indonesian government," he said, adding that there are around 30 international students benefiting from scholarships, including his daughter in Yogyakarta.

Laura is the only student from Azerbaijan who has received a scholarship.

This means Indonesia still needs to work harder to promote Bahasa Indonesia, he said. He added that given its current strategic position, Indonesia has the potential to promote Bahasa Indonesia to become a prominent language in the region.

He said he and his daughter planned to establish a Bahasa Indonesia program at Azerbajian Language University as soon as she completes her studies.

"Padang State University has already declared its willingness to help us with books and the curriculum," said Zarbaliyev, who already has 400 books written in Bahasa Indonesia and 500 other books on Indonesia written in Russian, English, Dutch and German in his private library. The oldest was published in 1882.

Azerbaijan Central University has 500 books on Indonesia, all written in Russian.

Asked what he does when he has a longing for Indonesia, Zarbaliyev replied, "I listen to the songs of Broery Marantika and Hetty Koes Endang, or read the work of Pramoedya."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 8, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman,
Contributor, Jakarta

Two days after Pangandaran beach in West Java was hit by an earthquake, marine geologist Yusuf Surachman Djajadihardja was interviewed by a reporter from a national TV station.

"Pak Yusuf, can you predict where the next earthquake will strike?" asked the reporter.

"Probably in the waters off south Sumatra, the Sunda Strait, or in southern Java waters."

"Can you be more specific?"

"I think the Sunda Strait."

Within minutes the TV studio was being shaken. Later it was discovered that Sunda Strait was hit by an earthquake, sending tremors to Jakarta and surrounding areas.

That was a true story, and although it may have been a coincidence that the prediction was so accurate, Indonesia is undoubtedly going through a number of years of living dangerously, said Yusuf who is the Director of the Center of Technology for Natural Resource Inventory (P3TISDA) at the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT).

In 1797, a massive 8.5 magnitude earthquake hit the Mentawai islands off Sumatra. Then, in 1815,Tambora volcano erupted in West Nusa Tenggara. In 1833, another earthquake struck Mentawai at a magnitude of between 8.7 and 9.0.

In 1861, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake occurred in Nias. And in 1883, the Krakatau volcano famously erupted.

In general, Yusuf said, Indonesia was rocked by massive earthquakes in 1350, 1600, 1797 and 1883, pointing to a certain cycle.

"So Indonesia is again undergoing a period of natural disasters in the 2000s," said Yusuf bluntly, during an interview with The Jakarta Post at his office on the 19th floor of the BBPT skyscraper.

He added that the Lapindo-mud disaster might also be an indication of the increased tectonic activity.

Earthquakes in this country are caused by a collision between the oceanic and continental crusts in the deep ocean, he said.

"But the tectonic zones in the eastern part of Indonesia and in the western part have different characteristics. In the western part, the Indo-Australia crust regularly collides with the Sumatra and Java plates, causing an oblique-subduction and creating what geologists call the Sumatra fault zone.

"And in the eastern part, the Australian plate is moving to the north, while simultaneously the Pacific plate is moving westward, squeezing the eastern part of Indonesia. These movements have resulted in a unique tectonic product," Yusuf depicted while gesturing and showing a simulation on his laptop.

So, will Australia and Indonesia eventually merge?

"Yes, but it's not as simple as that because there would be formation and deformation," said Yusuf.

Yusuf has been aware of the tsunami-prone areas since he joined an expedition conducted by the BPPT and the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center in 2002.

There were 15 researchers participating in the expedition including those from Trisakti University, the University of Indonesia, the Bandung Institute of Technology, Pertamina and the Institute for Marine and Fisheries Research (BRKP).

"I was praying, please God -- show me the richness of nature that You have created, anything that has not been discovered," Yusuf recalled.

Using a Japanese submersible Shinkai 6500, piloted by two Japanese team members, Yusuf and select members of the team successfully discovered the Sumatra fault at a depth of about 2,000 meters.

"I was amazed, we were all speechless. And we have since found five similar areas where we can draw a line for geological mapping," said Yusuf.

It was revealed that the Sumatra fault doesn't stop at Sunda Strait, but continues to the southern part of Sukabumi, West Java, a further 300 kilometers.

"This means the fault's total length is approximately 2000 kilometers from Sabang to the southern part of the waters off West Java encompassing Banten province," said Yusuf.

Based on findings announced during a press conference, Dec. 27, 2004 at the office of the State Ministry of Research and Technology, one day after Aceh was entirely devastated by a powerful earthquake-triggered tsunami, Yusuf predicted that there was a possibility that a similar tsunami would also hit the waters south of West Java.

His statement drew anger from those in the tourism industry who feared a loss of tourist revenue. Some scientists also disagreed with his statement.

Nevertheless, three months later, Nias was rocked by an 8.7 magnitude earthquake. And one and a half years later, Pangandaran beach was swamped by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, followed by another earthquake in Sunda Strait two days later.

Born Nov. 24, 1958 in Bandung, West Java, Yusuf first developed an interest in nature when he was still a young boy, skimming stones along the surface of a river in Bandung.

He received his undergraduate degree in geophysics and meteorology from the Bandung Institute of Technology in 1985. After completing his study, he was presented with the choices of joining Elnusa (then a sub-company of Pertamina) or the BPPT.

But he joined the latter in 1986 because "the building looked prestigious, it is located in the heart of Jakarta and I realized I would have good opportunities for further study."

After starting work, Yusuf shifted his specialization to marine geology. He was sent to Japan to continue his studies and completed both his masters and PhD in marine geology from Tokyo University in 1992 and 2003 respectively.

He said that two-thirds of Indonesia's sea is deep sea which has not been fully explored, adding that the deep sea has a lot of natural resource potential that can be used for the benefit of the nation, such as various minerals, oil, gas, and energy from methane hydrate.

Unfortunately, Indonesia has only six research ships; four owned by the BPPT and two by the Indonesian Research Institute (LIPI), "which are inadequate for a country as large as Indonesia."

Nevertheless, interest in research grew significantly after the catastrophe in Aceh, making many aware of the importance of marine geology and the vast potential and richness that the country's marine life offers.

Yusuf has been involved in various important research trips with international and national research institutes.

"And I would like to welcome more international researchers to collaborate with us, Indonesia's deep sea is a vast laboratory for curious researchers to discover," said Yusuf.

For example, the Java Trench is particularly intriguing because this is the deepest sea in Indonesia with a depth of 7,725 meters.

Some scientists predict that the area has 17.7 billion cubic meters of methane gas (CH4) which can be utilized as an alternative energy.

Yusuf, who is married to Rosita Gemala Hanum and has three children, has received awards from both the Marine and Fisheries Minister and the State Apparatus Minister for his devotion as a civil servant and achievements as a researcher respectively. And, he has had a fast rise through the civil servant ranks.

He was also awarded the Satyalancana Wira Karya Award from President Megawati Soekarnoputri for his dedication and a certificate from Jaya Suprana's Indonesia Record Museum (MURI) as the first Indonesian geologist to dive into the deep sea, both in 2003.

So, if Sumatra and Java are prone to earthquakes and the much-feared tsunami, where is the safest place in the country?

"Kalimantan island," quipped Yusuf, quickly adding that more research needs to be done to have more accurate geological mapping.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 4, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Syafiq Hasyim studied Philosophy and Theology at the Faculty of Ushuluddin of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta in the 1990s.

During that time, he observed that many women's organizations had difficulty in advocating women's rights and in effectively transferring their ideas to the grass roots.

They were often accused of imposing Western values that were not always perceived to be in line with religious and local perceptions.

"In a country where religion, particularly Islam, plays a prominent role, we should speak in the language of Islam," Syafiq told The Jakarta Post.

As a person born to a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) family 35 years ago and educated at the Matholi'ul Huda pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Jepara, Central Java, for seven years, Syafiq is undoubtedly familiar with Islamic tradition and kitab kuning (classical texts).

NU is the largest Muslim organization in the country, and claims to have 40 million members.

However, his activism with the women's movement during his student days in Jakarta opened his eyes to the ugly reality of the position occupied by women in a country that often suffers from narrowmindedness.

Determined to devote his career to deconstructing the patriarchal mind-set of society, Syafiq joined the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development (P3M) in 1997 and became a researcher in the division of fiqh al-nisa', whose task is to research women's issues and advocate women's rights.

With his colleagues, Syafiq helped introduce a program of reproductive rights for Islamic women, taught at NU pesantren, supported by The Ford Foundation. It was the first time the country included such an enlightening program in its curriculum.

He recalled that they initially received strong resistance from kyai (religious figures), but they convinced them by arguing that the Islamic principle of regarding women highly should be translated into action.

However, P3M was still loosely affiliated with NU -- some of whom still strictly hold fast to literal interpretations of Islam -- and so Syafiq was plunged into a bitter debate on the issue of polygamy.

The issue reached a point that forced Syafiq to leave the organization in 2000.

He and his colleagues that shared the same aspirations established the Rahima Foundation in the same year, a more independent organization that focuses on the empowerment of women with an Islamic perspective.

It emphasizes the dissemination of information concerning women's rights within Islam to local community Muslim groups and pesantren.

After completing his Masters in Islamic Studies in the Netherlands, Syafiq became involved in a program with Rahima in building awareness of women's rights.

The program, which was supported by The Asia Foundation, was run in Tasikmalaya and Garut in West Java -- places where local governments were enthusiastically introducing sharia-inspired laws amid the euphoria of regional autonomy.

Nevertheless, after preliminary research, it was found that people were not keen on such regulations, and the infamous Darul Islam movement, that had aspired to establish an Islamic state, is now considered mere history.

"There could also have been political and economic motives behind the initiatives," said Syafiq. "Allegedly, among them were the legitimization of polygamy and benefitting politically connected businesses by forcing women to wear Muslim attire."

Rahima collaborated with local community groups such as Nahdina, ASPER and LK-HAM in Tasikmalaya. In Garut, it cooperated with pesantren such as al Musadadiyah and those of NU, Persis and Muhammadiyah. The Women's Crisis Center was also established in Garut.

About 400 women and men together participated in the programs. Rahima introduced them to research carried out in many countries such as in Pakistan where the Hoodod Ordinances brought misery to women.

Also, through radio talk shows, the program reached a wider audience in an effort to discuss freely a wide range of issues from economic rights of women and domestic violence to leadership.

Now, many of the graduates of the two-year program have become prominent local activists whose critical voice cannot be ignored by local governments.

Syafiq also took the initiative to broaden networks at the regional and international level. Later, Rahima became involved in a project known as Rights at Home, which involved several non-government organizations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Africa.

The project tried to explore women's issues from each region.

"The findings were diverse and resourceful," Syafiq said. "For example, domestic violence in the Middle East was largely motivated by religious stands, while in Indonesia it is more complex, with economic and social issues entangled."

Capacity-building for women activists from each region was also achieved through training and workshops in Lebanon and South Africa.

The significance of the role of women during the era of Prophet Muhammad can be seen through their involvement in re-telling the hadits (Prophet's sayings) and in the establishment of early Islamic discourse, said Syafiq, adding that "some of them were also voluntarily involved in a war."

Several women's rights are protected by Islam; among these are the right to choose their marriage partner, to divorce, to inherit and possess property, to raise their children, to spend their own money, and the right to a decent life.

Unfortunately, after the death of the Prophet, the role of women in the public sphere declined and appreciation of women also plummeted, said Syafiq, who has been working for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as one of its gender advisers for the Agency of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh-Nias from 2005.

Against the backdrop of the implementation of sharia in Aceh, Syafiq was involved in the program of strengthening the role of women ulama, who are underrepresented at almost every layer of society.

He said that he would write a book on his current involvement in Aceh.

As a young and progressive Islamic scholar, Syafiq is indeed a prolific writer.

His books include Menakar Harga Perempuan: Eksplorasi Lanjut atas Islam dan Hak-hak Reproduksi Perempuan (Weighing Women's `Price': Further Exploration of Islam and Women's Reproductive Rights) published by Mizan and The Asia Foundation (1998) and Kekerasan dalam Rumah Tangga (Domestic Violence) published by the Fatayat NU (1999).

Women's Leadership in Islam (editedrby him) was published by The Asia Foundation (1999) and Dari Aqidah ke Revolusi (From Aqidah to Revolution) by Paramadina (2003).

His recent book written in English has been collaboratively published by Solstice, The Asia Foundation and the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, and is titled Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective.

Syafiq said his biggest dream is to spread an Indonesian interpretation of Islam which is moderate, humanistic and progressive throughout the world.

He vows to write more -- not only in Bahasa Indonesia, but also in English.

"Some Islamic scholars from the Middle East might dismiss our version of Islam as they always regard themselves as more authoritative," said Syafiq.

"But we also have the right to interpret Islam in our way, to ensure that Islam brings peace and justice upon us and the universe, and takes a decisive side with marginalized sections of society -- particularly women."


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 30, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Talk with 70-year old Utomo Dananjaya, and you will feel his warm and witty candor.

However, despite his lively mind, the man who has organized Majelis Reboan (Wednesday Discussion Forum) for more than 20 years seemed to realize that his age is running fast and that it is timely for him to step down and let a younger generation take over the forum.

Perhaps he is aware that at the end of the day his physical condition may not be reconciled with his often burning enthusiasm.

During a recent Mejelis Reboan, Utomo grabbed the microphone and talked briefly before the audience. The man whose smart jokes often cracked the atmosphere when a debate was getting tense, now spoke solemnly about his plan.

In a society where patronage is difficult to unlock, younger members often still push senior figures to maintain the leadership.

However, he assured The Jakarta Post during an interview at his office in Wisma Kodel here that some activists whom he has been nurturing and who always help him run the forum have declared their readiness.

"Since its inception in 1983 as a loose, non-structural and informal forum, the forum was intended to enlighten people and to strengthen harmony by adhering to the spirit of diversity and pluralism," he said, adding that the forum should maintain this spirit.

The speakers and audience include intellectuals, student activists, bureaucrats, politicians, and professionals who also come from diverse religious backgrounds.

For example, one of the speakers that evening was a young Catholic priest. Some from the audience were Ahmadiyah members, who have been accused of spreading false Islamic teaching and have been recently subject to humiliation from the Muslim majority.

Several influential figures who had actively participated in the forum include Muslim intellectual and activist Masdar F. Mas'udi, Djohan Effendi, the late Ekky Sjahruddin, Abdurrahman Wahid and Moeslim Abdurrahman.

Non-Muslim intellectuals include Franz Magnis Suseno, Harry Tjan Silalahi, Ignas Kleden, Mudji Sutrisno, Jakob Oetama, the late Victor Tanja and many others.

Now, a new generation of intellectual figures have lightened up the forum, including Lutfi Assyaukani, Ioanes Rahmat, Yudi Latif, Andang Binawang, Hamid Basyaib and others.

Majelis Reboan is the embryo of the renowned Paramadina Foundation, which was co-founded by the late noted Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid and Utomo himself.

"It was very personal initially," recalled Utomo. "When Nurcholish completed his doctorate from Chicago University, activist Ekky Sjahruddin came up with an idea of forming a group of discussion to welcome him."

"And it was Masdar. F. Mas'udi of the Nahdlatul Ulama who named this group Majelis Reboan, as it should meet every Wednesday," said Utomo, who is also known for his superb organizational skills.

"Abdurrahman Wahid would talk about politics, and after Maghrib (dusk prayer) Nurcholish would talk about religion and spirituality," said Utomo, adding that the two were the "fuel" of the forum.

The forum roared to prominence after the election of Abdurrahman Wahid, (who later became the country's fourth President) as a chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama in the Situbondo congress.

The Kompas daily described the forum in its editorial as a group of young intellectuals and activists who were still pure and modest but were concerned with the development of the nation, said Utomo.

Didn't the authoritarian Soeharto's regime suspect this forum of having the potential to shake the establishment?

"I don't think so, probably because this forum also promoted diversity and pluralism, so it was somehow in line with the New Order's stand," said Utomo.

"We always maintained our position, that the azas tunggal (referring to Pancasila as the state's sole principle/ideology), is for the state, but a nation could have more than one ideology. So we always say Pancasila was an open ideology, and Soeharto didn't seem disturbed."

Concept of sole ideology received strong opposition from some other sections of Muslim communities in the 1980s, many of whom were jailed by the New Order. And Soeharto perhaps never realized that the forum helped strengthen civil society, which 20 years later helped his downfall.

"You may say it is an elitist group; but its members were all people who were strongly rooted in societies such as Abdurrahman Wahid, Ekky and Masdar. So they passed the ideas and messages they got from the forum into their respective communities."

Some members of the forum suggested that a foundation be established to help build an inclusive Islamic civilization. With Utomo's support, Nurcholish helped draft the constitution of the Paramadina Foundation, which later became a core engine for the reformation of Islamic thoughts in Indonesia.

It was also Utomo, then Public Relations Manager of the national arts center Ismail Marzuki Garden (TIM), who gave a recommendation to a commission of the Jakarta Arts Council to give Nurcholish a chance to speak at the influential TIM speech forum.

History tells of how Nurcholish's speech on secularization provoked intense polemic and rocked the intellectual and religious circles at that time.

Born Feb. 6, 1936 in Kuningan, West Java, Utomo completed Elementary School in 1951, high school in 1957, and IKIP (Institute of Pedagogy and Teacher Training) Bandung in 1965.

He became a public junior high school teacher in Garut (1957-1964) and Bandung (1964-1966). But he left his teaching when he became Chairman of the Muslim Indonesian Students (PII) organization from 1967 to 1969.

"Being a Chairman of PII was a turning point in my life," said Utomo. "I was transformed from an extremist to a moderate Muslim."

PII also collaborated with the American Field Service (AFS), sending it best cadres to the U.S. to stay with American host families for a year in the country. Poet Taufiq Ismail, educationalist Arief Rahman, former minister Tanri Abeng and businessman Soegeng Sarjadi were among them.

In addition, Utomo was known as a "master of training" at the Institute for Research, Education, and Information of Social Study and Economics (LP3ES). He trained groups of activists from various non-government organizations.

Utomo is not only an aspirant that helped breed prominent figures; he is also an outspoken educationalist whose critical thoughts are influenced by those of Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire.

He described that education in this country has been severely reduced by a corrupt mentality, as it has been managed by people who are obsessed with nothing but power; not by those with proper knowledge, experience and commitment in education, he said.

But his idealism of education faced unprecedented challenges from some sections at the very university he helped establish: Paramadina University.

Utomo was forced to swallow a bitter pill when what he perceived to be a conventional lower level education was to be used in the graduate program at the university.

He retreated and decided to establish the Institute for Education Reform (IER), which is still under the university. One of its missions is to advocate for teacher professional development and autonomy by providing alternative educational policy.

Associations such as the Independent Teacher Forum of Indonesia (FGII) and Education Forum are among those receiving support from the IER.

Utomo -- now a man with nine grandchildren -- never lost his high spirit. Nonetheless, he eventually realized that everything has its limits.

After all, many of his able cadres that have spread in various sections of society are assured of the continuation of his idealism of a diverse nation whose members equally contribute to the development of the country.


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 26, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

In 1999, Yanti Sriyulianti she was accepted as a volunteer as a staff in the learning resource division at a private elementary school where her daughter also studied.

“Relations between teachers and parents were conducive, with parents enthusiastically involved in providing alternative solutions to almost every school problem.

“Problems of lack of books, class facilities, laboratorium and parking lot were resolved amicably and effectively,” she told The Jakarta Post recently.

However, that did not last long. The new management of the school foundation seemed to begin to see the parents as interfering in school affairs.

No reasonable reasons were actually provided, but “it was enough to make me feel disillusioned of what I had expected to be the nurturing democracy of school,” she said.

In fact, many school committees have become a rubber stamp of the school management, both in private and public schools.

Yanti later gathered several concerned families of the school to have regular meetings at the home of one of the school founders, who threw his support behind their efforts.

They discussed a wide range of issues from experience in educating their children to government education policy. As the gathering grew larger with more families from different schools joining, they named their forum KerLIP (Family Forum Concerned with Education) on Dec. 25, 1999, with Yanti becoming its General Secretary.

KerLIP soon became a critical parent forum that is concerned with the democratization of education. It developed a wide range of activities such as providing financial aid to schools, developing student creativity by holding drawing competition, conducting story-telling training, opening weekend classes for students with disabilities, setting up libraries for low-income families, conducting research of the development of “liberating education”—an education concept that liberates students from rigid and bureaucratic learning atmosphere.

KerLIP implemented the concept in 2001 at Hikmah Pelajar elementary school in Cimahi, West Java.

“Children have special characteristics of being sensitive, curious, creative and imaginative. We should be able to nurture these positive characteristics and making use of them during their learning process,” said Yanti, who has now been KerLIP’s chairwoman since 2004.

However, present education system prevents students from being creative and imaginative, she said.

“For example, the infamous Natonal Exams (UN) which are the only consideration of whether students pass is unfair, because it overlooks students’ learning process during years of learning,” she said.

There are only three core subjects being tested. And if a student fails just one of the three subjetcs, he or she will fail the entire exam and will have to repeat the whole year.

“Do you think that is fair?” she challenged. “How can you force someone who is a genius in Math to be also a genius in English?”

It is because of this that Yanti and his colleagues began helping students who have failed the national exams. In cooperation with LBH Jakarta and other concerned parties, KerLIP conducted various demonstrations and began advocating for the students.

But the challenges are huge and the government refused to bow to the pressure.

Yanti is still optimistic, “We’ll continue the fight,” she vowed, confident that the public is behind the efforts.

Born on July 10, 1969 in Bandung, Yanti was a pharmacy student at the Faculty of Math and Science at Bandung Institute of Technology. Her own experiences made her determined to make sure that every child’s right to decent education is ensured, as guaranteed in the Child Protection Law: ”Every child is entitled to earning education and teaching to develop her/his personality as in line with the level of her/his intellectuality and interests.”

Yanti has held various positions. She has participated in Education Network for Justice in association with the Asia Pacific Bureau Adult Education (ASPBAE). She has been involved in activities to ensure that particularly marginalized women can enjoy cheap and quality education.

This includes research on privatization on education; analysis on educational budget at national, provincial and local levels, national workshop and a study in West Nusa Tenggara; development of benchmarks of quality education at local levels with a pilot study conducted in Sumatera; and strengthening the national network between working groups that advocate for alternative education.

She was a program manager for the Action and Advocation Program for internally displaced women, especially women in illiteracy, and internally displaced children, disabilities and marginalized children in Aceh Province.

She also designed and developed programs of budgeting of school-based management in a number of schools, such as Darul Hikmah di Cimahi, SD Hikmah Teladan, and three schools in Garut, Tasikmalaya and Ciamis.

KerLIP has also initiated a home-schooling program, which has gradually mushroomed in Jakarta, Bandung, Medan, Surabaya and Sukabumi.

“Some doubt about the effectiveness of home-schooling, but success stories in many countries such as in the U.S. are evident,” Yanti said.

She added that the daughters of Indonesia’s high-flying educationalist Kak Seto pursued home-schooling and one of them has already been accepted in a foreign university.

She said that home-schooling is a legal practice as families pursuing home-schooling would just need to report to local Education Office if they would like to receive equalization recognition through special exams.

“One research shows that home-schooling would develop a pattern of family communication that is dynamic and full of love, warmth and liberty for a life-long learning,” said Yanti, whose one of her three children is also now pursuing home-schooling.

Asked about the challenges, she said, “Many are still only familiar with conventional education with a class, a blackboard, a teacher, and an often uncompromising curriculum. However, when we feel that our children are trapped in an education bureaucracy that prevents their creativity and liberty, family-based education could serve as an alternative.”