Tuesday, November 07, 2006


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.

No comments: