Tuesday, February 27, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 28, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Prior to the victory of the Islamic revolution in February 1979, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, like many other women in Iran at that time, had been a supporter of the movement that culminated in the dramatic collapse of U.S.-backed dictator Reza Pahlavi.

However, when Hosseini returned to Iran after completing her PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge University in 1980, she realized that things had not developed according to her expectations.

In March 1979, the new leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, announced that women were prohibited from being judges and were obliged to wear thehijab or head scarf in public. Thousands of Iranian women protested but were attacked by Islamic forces referring to themselves as Hezbollah (Party of God).

Clashes between students on how post-revolution reform should take course also flared up and universities were closed down. When the universities finally reopened in 1984, a committee was set up to screen both students and lecturers.

"I failed my interview because of two things: first the bad score I received from my neighborhood surveillance people who kept an eye on issues of `morality' such as whether I properly wore a hijab, and second because of my Western education. They intended to Islamize universities and they were worried that I might not be able to fulfill this," Hosseini recalled.

"So I could not get a job and my marriage failed as my husband, who was previously very modern and secular, gradually became so traditional," said Hosseini during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post and Kompas in Jakarta.

After undergoing a tough and long battle for a divorce, Hosseini decided to return to Cambridge to pursue a career there, but she often returned to Iran to conduct research.

Driven by her experiences, Hosseini wrote a book titled Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Law. In 1998 she collaborated with acclaimed film director Kim Longinotto to produce an 80-minute movie called Divorce Iranian Style.

The movie is a unique look at the private lives of Iranian women, following Jamileh, whose husband frequently beats her, Ziba, a 16-year old trying to divorce her 38-year old husband and Maryam, who is fighting for the custody of her daughters. The film depicts the strength, drive and ingenuity with which they tackle the biased laws of the Kafkaesque administration and handle the hostility of their husbands and families.

"The movie shows that Iranian women can have the courage to fight for their rights," said Hosseini, adding that under Iranian laws, if it is the wife who requests a divorce, custody of children and financial support are out of the question.

In 2001, Hosseini and Longinotto produced their second movie, Runaway. It is a heart-breaking and critical documentary about a group of young girls who run away from home to escape their tyrannical families and are taken to a women's shelter in Tehran.

Born on April 3, 1952 in Sanandaz, Kurdistan, Iran, Hosseini was exposed to Caspian culture early as her parents were from Kaswin in northern Iran. Hosseini grew up in Tehran after moving there at the age of ten.

She graduated in sociology from Tehran University in 1974, but said she found sociology to be so abstract that she decided to switch to anthropology, achieving her PhD in this discipline from Cambridge University in 1980.

"Anthropology takes an in-depth look into societies though participant observation. Somehow through anthropology you come to understand your own culture and you realize the extent to which you are the product of your own culture. And things that are culturally assumed to be correct, may be viewed differently by others for various reasons," said Hosseini, who specialized in legal anthropology.

Hosseini is now a senior research associate at the London Middle Eastern Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London.

"Women have become the symbol of both modernism and traditionalism. Women's bodies have become a battleground between modernism and traditionalism. For example, in a country like Turkey in the name of modernity women cannot wear scarves but in other countries in the name of traditional Islam, it is imposed," said Hosseini, whose husband Richard Tapper is also a prominent anthropologist.

When asked about the women's movement in Iran, she answered: "Women's and gender issues were somehow silent in the 1980s, particularly during the war with Iraq. But by the early 1990s, these issues came to the surface and at that time many Muslim women lobbied the ayatollah, or judiciary and seminary for progressive reforms, and they successfully managed to achieve legal reform."

"During the Ramsanjani and Khatami era, in both the parliament and government there were women who were very broad-minded who were all for the equality of women. They were part of a power structure, nonetheless. When Ahmadinejad came to power, all of them were gone. So we don't have broad minded people in the government; many are now against women's issues. In the parliament we have two candidates who are reformists, but they are in the minority."

She said that Iranians are often too idealistic, wanting to have perfect political leaders. She regretted that a sizable portion of students and activists had boycotted the election because of the frustratingly slow pace of reform, and as a result Iran is now led by the hard-line leader Ahmadinejad.

When asked about the current situation for women in her country, Hosseini said that there are positives such as the requirement that 50 percent of medical students be women, but "Ahmadinejad's government has introduced a bill that might annul that, arguing that female doctors are unable to go to remote areas."

When asked about her future projects, Hosseini said she is planning to make a new movie on men's sexuality on the grounds that "one of the major problems for Muslim women is the insecurity of men about their identity and sexuality."

When asked why men usually view themselves as being more confident and powerful than women, she replied: "That is what you see at the surface; people who need to be authoritarian... but it comes from a deep sense of inferiority. If you don't have control inside, you want to control outside."

"Pre-modern theories of sexuality says that women's sexuality is active, and that is why they have to be kept away from the public. But the modern theory of sexuality among Islamists views women as being sexually passive. The argument on hijab is that if women do not cover themselves, men will get too excited, causing social order to collapse."

"This means men's sexuality is active; whereas women have control over their sexuality. This issue has not been addressed."

Saturday, February 17, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 13, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Ambon, Maluku

Five years after the signing of the Malino II agreement, peace seems to have prevailed in Ambon and its surrounds. But for Muslim scholar Hasbollah Toisuta, the seeds of conflict remain intact.

"We still use terminology like senior high school SMU I for Muslims and SMUK for Christians, depending on the location of the school. Thus, instead of helping produce a blue print for peace, our education further segregates students," Hasbollah said.

"From a cultural perspective, we should be able to take off our `jackets', and think together within the frame of Maluku," he said.

Hasbollah, a lecturer at the State Islamic University (STAIN) Ambon, was one of the signatories to the 2002 Malino II Agreement that put an end to the bloody religious conflicts that killed over 2,000 people since 1999

"Maluku doesn't belong to any particular group, it belongs to all of us," he stressed..

At the peak of the conflicts in 1999 and 2000, when the word 'peace' was often taboo in the province, Hasbollah stood up against his own people and protected many who his fellow Muslims saw as enemies.

Hasbollah regularly preached messages of peace at Friday prayers at Ambon's grand mosque al-Fatah, particularly on the importance of Ambon maintaining its pluralistic society and the need to forge reconciliation between Muslims and Christians.

Predictably, members of the notorious ultra-radical Laskar Jihad were not happy. His peace messages were immediately countered by Laskar's preachers, who also used the mosque's stage to call for an all-out war against their perceived enemies.

Laskar Jihad members at one point barred Hasbollah from coming up to the stage, replacing him with their own preacher, to the dismay of mosque authorities. Laskar's members also pressed the mosque's imam, KH Ahmad Bantam, to take Hasbollah off the preacher's list.

"Later, they came to my house to intimidate me, but with the support of the imam I vehemently said 'no' to them," Hasbollah told The Jakarta Post at his house in Kebon Cengkeh, Ambon.

Born on Jan . 29, 1966 in Siri-Sori, Saparua, Hasbollah graduated from the Syari'ah Faculty at the State Islamic Institute IAIN Alaudin Ambon in 1991. He received his masters' degree from the IAIN Alaudin Makassar, South Sulawesi in 2000.

Hasbollah said the spirit of brotherhood amongst Maluku people is traditionally very strong, but "incompatible policies from Jakarta and provocation from outside such as from radical groups and members of the security forces fueled the 1999 conflict."

He cited as an example the New Order regimes's land-oriented development policy, which was not suitable for Maluku's maritime economy.

"As a result, Maluku's fishermen remain in a backwater, with no appropriate skills to enhance the quality of their lives," Hasbollah said.

Hasbollah believes Maluku is rich with local wisdom that can be utilized to help nurture peace, such as the pela and gandong traditions. Pela is based on friendship between two villages, while gandong indicates brotherhood between two or more villages based on genealogical links.

"For example, the pela of my village, Siri-Sori, is Haria, which is a Christian village. When one of the villages conducted a social event, people from the other village were obliged to come and help," Hasbollah recalled.

"So when our brothers and sisters from Haria came, they were allowed to take any fruit from our yard. We shared joy together."

Asked if such local wisdom is still relevant today, after changes in the composition of Maluku society, Hasbollah said that concept of pela can also be applied to forge relations with migrants, such as Buton people.

"In the past, it (pela) was for Maluku people, however, now we can rejuvenate the concept to be applied to people who have migrated from outside Maluku," he explained.

Active in several students' and social organizations, broad-minded and tolerant Hasbollah is not alien to the idea of pluralism as he maintains fine relations with many of Christian figures in the province such as Protestant minister Jacky Manuputty, Catholic nun Sister Brigita and many others.

Refusing to join the fighting, Hasbollah and his colleagues actively promoted peace in the battered province. They established the LKSP (Institute for Strategic Study and Empowerment) in 2002. Its mission has been to study the economy, politics, and education and to conduct reconciliation between Maluku's segregated societies.

"It was an unpopular move, but we didn't want people to be dragged further into the conflict," said Hasbollah, adding that the LKSP has also worked to help internally displaced people.

Hasbollah also played a role in peace-building prior to the Malino II peace agreement, which was initiated by then Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla and the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The agreement followed Malino I, a peace agreement for Poso.

Hasbollah later joined the delegation to Malino, and signing the agreement on Feb. 12, 2002. The fifth anniversary of the signing passed on Monday.

"We departed and boarded two different airplanes," recalled Hasbollah of the still heightened hatred between the two religious communities.

After signing the peace agreement, which didn't contain the word "peace" due to the sensitivities over the word, but contained "ending the conflict" instead, Hasbollah and the team had to disseminate the content of the peace agreement to the people of Maluku.

And that was still a very risky job.

During a dissemination meeting at one school in the Christian village of Passo, a bomb exploded in front of Amboina Hotel, lighting a fire that burned down the Maluku governor's office.

Hasbollah and others were trapped at the school.

At the school, one member of the dissemination team already appeared to be dead.

"The school's teachers vowed to help us," Hasbollah said.

The group eventually managed to escape the village, as the provoked residents began slaying perceived enemies.

"When we passed a Muslim village, Muslim figure Mahmud Rengifurwarin sat at the front seat with the window rolled down, but when we passed a Christian village, Suster Brigita took her turn sitting in the front seat," recalled Hasbollah.

He said now is high time for the people of Maluku to unite so that they can have bargaining power with Jakarta.

"Otherwise, Maluku will remain a battleground for people from outside the province," he said.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 6, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Terengganu, Malaysia

Former Thai foreign minister and prominent Muslim intellectual Surin Pistuwan was raised in a family with strong Islamic values. So when he was awarded an American Field Service Program scholarship to the United States, members of his Islamic community had to debate whether or not to let him go.

Some elders on the pondok (Islamic boarding school) council run by his family immediately called for a meeting. Since Pitsuwan was the first son of the pondok's guru (teacher), and hence destined to inherit the pondok, some elders feared he would lose his Islamic values, while other, more moderate elders lent him their support.

Pitsuwan said, in an interview with The Jakarta Post, that his departure was a lonely and dramatic one, but he felt he had to go "in order to make a difference".

These days, no one in Pitsuwan's community should regret his decision. Pitsuwan has become a rare and respectable leader groomed from within Buddhist-majority Thailand's Muslim minority.

An eloquent speaker, Pitsuwan said absolute truth belongs only to God, and no human being has the right to claim it.

"During my time studying at the pondok, my teacher always ended class by saying Waullahu alam (Only God knows), as he solemnly closed the Koran under the lantern," recalled Pitsuwan, who was a prolific columnist for the National Review and the Bangkok Post throughout the 1980s.

Born in 1949, Pitsuwan studied at Thammasart University, Thailand, and graduated in 1972 in political science from Claremont Men's College, California. He later worked as a researcher between 1977 and 1980 at the Thai Studies Institute and the Ford Foundation.

He received his Ph.D from Harvard University in 1982, before working at the office of U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine A. Ferraro.

Pitsuwan was elected to the Thai parliament for the first time in 1986. He served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1992 and 1995, and as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1997 and 2001.

Still charming and energetic at 58, Pitsuwan is not only a top intellectual and longtime politician; he is also a man who is aware of how to pose for the cameras.

"No, don't take a picture against the sun, our faces will darken," he warned during a recent photo session with enthusiastic participants at a workshop organized by the Institute of Policy Research and the Saskawa Peace Foundation in Terengganu, Malaysia, on the sidelines of which he gave this interview to the Post.

Pitsuwan shared his views on Thailand's unexpected military coup and the prospect of restoring democracy in its aftermath. He also discussed the project of building peace in Thailand's Muslim-majority south, and how to enhance relations between Thailand and Indonesia.

Do you see the coup as a setback to democracy in Thailand?

The coup was necessary when it took place. It was supported by the people on the condition that it move the country forward and that it only be for one year. Based on that condition, the country is hoping that we will return to the path of democracy as soon as possible. Our role is to make sure that this is short and painless. We are working on to encourage the new leaders to move forward, and to get out of the way soon. Was (the coup) a step forward? No it was not. But it was a corrective measure, and unfortunately it was unconstitutional. Nobody is trying to defend this, but only asking observers to understand the reasons why it had to come to that, because all avenues to a resolution of political conflict had been closed.

How are people going to push for a return to democracy, given that fact that Thailand no longer enjoys press freedom?

It is not going to be easy to take away press freedom. It would cost the new leadership support. And they are beginning to realize that... there is a sense of insecurity, but they are learning the lesson that they should not interfere quite fast. It is very risky when you close the (democratic) process... (if you) limit the process, then you are bound to agitate people and make mistakes. I think Thai society has gone too far for that kind of imposition of control.

Do you think that peace agreement in Aceh will have an impact on peace building measures in Muslim-populated Southern Thailand, since there was an alleged link between the Pattani insurgency and former separatists in Aceh?

It was not very well established that there was any connection between those two, but I think it depends on the government in Bangkok. Certainly... after a long time in Aceh you were able to come to a peace agreement. I think it was achieved because of the give-and-take and flexibility of both sides, which would have to be the ingredients of peace process in Thailand too... acceptable conditions that lead to real justice and space for everyone culturally and economically. I think that is the guiding principle.

Do you think that the present government is more eager than the previous one to deal appropriately with the insurgency in southern Thailand?

I think the present government has the right attitude, the right direction and is more willing to engage in more dialog, use more peaceful means and open for more interaction than just the brute force (which) under (former Thai Prime Minister) Thaksin had been the wrong approach from the beginning, creating more problems and alienation... Nonetheless, it will take some time to make real contributions. The problem has gone too far... it requires a lot of effort on the part of so many people and institutions to bring back confidence.

What do you think the people in the south should do to benefit from the present government's attitude?

Well, I think the truth needs to be established. The present government has now admitted that the real issues are the injustices of the past, and who should be held responsible. Also we have to concentrate on the benefits of development rather than exploiting natural resources. So people (in the south) need to be part and parcel of the development process... and have access to political decision making. Thereby their traditions and culture will have to be a part of policy formulation in the future.

What areas of cooperation need to be enhanced between Indonesia and Thailand?

Economic investment is important. (Indonesia's) natural resources are extremely rich and Thailand is industrializing more and more and needs some of these resources. For example, fishery is one area we are looking into. Energy is forever a necessary item, tourism between us is also central. I think the basis of all this will be cultural exchanges to enhance the cultural commonalities between our two countries.


Friday, February 02, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 31, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Terengganu, Malaysia

The world must still remember the black eye Anwar Ibrahim received from a policeman, which was caught on camera and beamed around the world. The scene unfolded when the then deposed Malaysian deputy prime minister was walking into court on Sept. 29, 1998 for the alleged crime of sodomy and corruption.

But the event and his subsequent imprisonment at Sungai Buloh Penitentiary went beyond a mere black eye: "The incident was also an eye-opener for my country, for all Malaysians, that injustice was an acute problem in this country," Ibrahim, who describes himself as a liberal and democrat, recently told The Jakarta Post.

In the midst of the 1997 economic crisis, Ibrahim -- who supported free market principles -- campaigned for greater accountability and rejected handing government bail-outs to politically connected companies. He also severely cut government expenditure in mega projects and introduced the controversial Anti-Corruption Legislation as acting prime minister.

All these moves are believed to have displeased then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Ibrahim was sacked and was imprisoned under what many believed to be a fabricated conviction.

Ibrahim was finally released in 2004, but is still barred from running for office until 2008. He is presently advisor to the People's Justice Party, of which his wife Dr. Wan Azizah is president.

Born on Aug. 10, 1947 in Cherok Tok Kun, Penang, Ibrahim is known for his student activism. Today, he is seen as a prominent advocate of the "Asian Renaissance" and a leading proponent of greater cooperation among nations. He is also passionate about Shakespeare, and his favorite singers are Asha Bhosle and Latta Manggeskar.

During a recent interview with the Post at Kenyir Lakeview Resort in Terengganu, Malaysia, Ibrahim shared his views on freedom of expression, justice, democracy, multiculturalism, interfaith dialog, economy and problems faced by Muslims around the world and in Malaysia.

Question: If you became prime minister, would you relax restrictions on the Malaysian press?

Answer: The issue of prime minister has to be decided by Malaysians and also be dealt within the party. However, the position of the opposition is very clear that the media must be free from government's control. In Mahathir's era, the media freedom index was 150; now we are a few points worse.

Would you also abrogate the repressive Internal Security Act?

We (The People's Justice Party) oppose not only the ISA, but also all draconian laws, all restriction on the media, students and unions. The present government (under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi) might be a bit more relaxed than that of Mahathir, but all repressive laws are still in place.

How do you assess multiculturalism in your country, and what is the progress of the interfaith dialog that you initiated?

We have initiated a number of interfaith discussions at the civil society level, and I am encouraged that all the meetings and forums that we conducted were well attended. The deliberation was frank and there was a willingness and readiness to support a reform agenda for freedom, for respect of religion, for tolerance and against any form of extremism.

We are not for challenging other faiths, but for understanding and having the humility to learn and accept others. The politics of engagement would moderate even the fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, the government refuses to engage in a public discourse on these issues, and our national media is in a total blackout on this kind of news.

Actually, the issue is not merely extremists as alleged, but also the incompetence of the government to grasp the issue. Like the government apparatus arresting a couple on the street. This has nothing to do with fundamentalism and extremism; this is a total hypocrisy because the government allows all of the excesses of corrupt practices among the rich or the ruling clique, but harass young couples on the street.

You have mentioned that you are a consensus builder and you allow open debate within the members of the People's Justice Party. Do you give your personal stand on strategic issues?

I actually listen a lot, and indeed I would give my personal views on important issues.

So what is your personal view on Muslims converting to different religions?

This is not really a big issue. It affects only a very few individuals, and not only among practicing Muslims in the first place. I think we have to be a bit farfetched to use this as criteria for general Muslims converting to Christianity or Hinduism or others. We have to mold the discussion with better understanding of some specific issues.

Under Malaysian rules, if you want to convert to Islam, you have to go to a (specific) religious court.

So this is not a public decision, not a governmental decision, it is an individual decision that needs to be discussed with religious authority that he or she endorsed at the first place.

How would you lure non-Muslims to become members of the People's Justice Party?

There are quite a substantial number of non-Muslim party leaders and followers; you know there are Chinese and Indians ... many of them are Christians. And one of the vice presidents of the party is Lee Boon Chye, a famous Chinese surgeon.

If you become prime minister and you replace the New Economic Policy with Malaysian New Economic Agenda, wouldn't you fear being left behind by Malay Muslim constituents?

Well, this issue is being debated by Muslims as well -- or the Malays. The policy has benefited certain parts of the Malays -- it has been abused.

We have UMNO (United Malays National Organization) leaders using this (policy) to enrich themselves, while a vast majority of the Malays themselves are being marginalized.

So we ask the Malays, why do you need this agenda? The new agenda, of course, would not marginalize the poor, of which the majority are Malay, but we would encourage all Malaysians -- Chinese, Indians -- to fully participate in the economic process.

We have made it clear that dismantling this New Economic Policy and replacing it with the Malaysian New Economic Agenda -- which is more competitive, more vibrant -- will attract more foreign investment, is able to rid the country of corruption which is endemic, is able to rid the country of cronyism... we have evidence that government contracts are benefiting ministers and their family members and cronies directly.

What do you think of problems faced by Muslims around the world, particularly in Malaysia?

Of course, many of them are enraged by the policy of the West, particularly the United States under this administration of Bush. It is very difficult for them to see a just resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; we see this unending battle in Afghanistan and continuing occupation of Iraq. This has caused a lot of anxiety among Muslims.

But we have to deal with this and that, notwithstanding our disagreements with some of the foreign policy prescribed by the U.S. We must remain in a moderate voice and promote understanding.

The restrictions on you will be officially lifted in 2008; are you optimistic?

I will always be an optimist. Otherwise, I would not have survived in jail.