Friday, March 23, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 23, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Does wearing a veil reflect the degree of piousness of Muslim women? Muslim scholar and women's activist Siti Musdah Mulia's experience may help answer this question.

During a flight from Medina to Cairo to do research for her doctoral dissertation at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, Musdah and all women on board were fully veiled.

"When the plane made a transit stop in Jedah, some women began to relax their attire. To my surprise some men began to sip wine. And even more surprisingly, when the plane landed in Cairo, all of the women entirely put away their veils and were dressed up in complete Western attire," recalled Musdah during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post.

When Musdah asked some of the women why they changed their clothes, one of them said: "Oh, that's only our traditional dress. Here (in Egypt) wearing a veil is not a tradition."

It was a first-hand experience for Musdah, who had grown up in a religiously strict environment, that the Hanafi mazhab (school of thought) is more relaxed than the Syafi'i.

This means Islam is not a religion which holds a monolithic interpretation, Musdah said.

When asked why she herself wears a Malay-styled veil, Musdah said: "I wear this simply because I feel comfortable, not because I feel I am religiously forced to wear this ... and certainly not because of the sharia-inspired bylaws."

She was refering to several bylaws of the country that oblige women to wear the veil.

"I am worried that even our five-time-a-day prayers will soon be regulated by laws .... As a result our religious ritual will no longer come from our heart, but from fear of being prosecuted," she warned.

Musdah quoted woman Muslim Sufi Rabiatul Adawiyah in saying that "she would prefer to have heaven put away from her if she prays merely for heaven".

Born March 3, 1958, in Bone, South Sulawesi, Musdah moved to Surabaya with her parents and went to elementary school there. But her grandfather asked her parents to take her back to Sulawesi, fearing that further secular education would alienate her from religious knowledge, "which my grandfather believed was important for a young girl like me."

So Musdah studied in a traditional Salafiah As'adiyah Islamic boarding school in Wajo, South Sulawesi, until completing Aliyah (Islamic high school).

Still living with her grandfather, Musdah continued studying Arabic literature at IAIN Alaudin Makassar, completing her degree in 1982.

"My grandfather was even highly distrustful when my male colleagues visited our house to return my textbooks," recalled Musdah.

But Musdah said that it was her marriage to tolerant and broad-minded husband Ahmad Thib Raya that eventually set her free, because "he came from a religious but enlightened family".

She believes that marriage is a serious social contract between men and women, which should adhere to the principles of endless love and being polite or civilized to each other.

"That is why it is beyond my comprehension why many religious leaders commit polygamy and have no respect toward equality between men and women," said Musdah.

She said that she wanted to spread the freedom and respect she enjoys to other women, "so I want to transfer my belief into a system."

As a senior researcher at the Religious Affairs Ministry and an adviser to the minister, she began her "war" against what she perceives as the gender-biased Islamic Law, which was put into effect through presidential instruction in 1991 and has become a "holy" reference for judges in religious courts.

"Women are exploited as mere sexual objects," she said of the law.

So Musdah and her team designed a document called a counter legal draft, meticulously written to challenge and replace the Islamic Law, in 2004.

The draft includes a provision forbidding polygamy, while inter-faith marriage is allowed and children are free to choose their own religion.

It immediately drew a barrage of criticism from conservative segments of Muslim society. The Indonesian Ulema Council condemned the draft as a bid'ah (diversion) and taghyir (change) of original Islamic law and a gross manipulation of Koranic verses.

After massive pressure, then religious affairs minister Said Agiel Al Munawar forbade Musdah and her team to conduct seminars and workshops using the ministry's official name, and instructed them to return all pertinent documents to the ministry.

The next religious affairs minister, Maftuh Basyuni, canceled the draft in 2005.

"But no one can stop the spread of ideas," Musdah said, pointing out that several doctoral dissertations have been written based on the draft she and her team wrote.

Musdah, the first woman to receive a research professorship from Indonesian Institute of Sciences and the first to do her dissertation on Islamic political thought, said the Koran should be critically read and interpreted using a historical perspective.

"For example, the an-Nisa verses of the Koran, which talk about men's leadership, should be read contextually that at that time men were more qualified than women because in the jahiliah period the latter were not exposed to education."

"However, today we find many women who are more educated and qualified than men," said Musdah.

"And we should not condemn Muslims who convert to a different religion. I myself have a positive thought that those who convert from one religion to another are still in the process of searching."

Musdah further said that Koranic verses are classified into two categories: qath'iy al-dalalah and zhanny al-dalalah. The first indicates the absolutism of the verses, and the second shows that the verses can be multi-interpretable.

"I regard the physically written form of all Koranic verses as qath'iy al-dalalah, while the generating meaning all of them is at the same time zhanny al-dalalah," said Musdah, adding that Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to use ijtihad (independent reasoning) in grasping the deeper messages of the Koran.

Musdah has written numerous scholarly works, including Potret Perempuan dalam Lektur Islam (Portrait of Women in Islamic Lectures) (1999), Islam Menggugat Poligami (Islam Challenging Polygamy) (2004) and Muslimah Reformis, Perempuan Pembaharu Keagamaan (Muslimah Reformist, Women as Religious Reformers) (2005).

Musdah received the Kelirumologi Award from the Kelirumologi Study Center Institute in 2005 for her efforts in promoting gender equality.

She said that gender inequality can be found in three aspects of the country's law: content of law, culture of law and structure of law.

"Patriarchal culture is still strong, reinforced by unbending religious interpretation. And at the structural level, insensitivities still can be found among law enforcers and judges," said Musdah.

Very recently she was given an International Women of Courage award from U.S. foreign minister Condoleezza Rice. The award was presented in conjunction with International Women's Day on March 8.

"I was at first reluctant to go to the U.S. to receive the award as this would strengthen the wrong perception among fundamentalists that I am a Zionist agent working to destroy Islam," she said, adding that she was finally assured by her colleagues that this award was constructive to her struggle.

However, praise from the world's super-power has not dampened her critical thinking. When Rice asked Musdah what the U.S. could do to contribute to her work, she responded: "I would like the U.S. to change its violence-based foreign policy."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 14, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Almost a decade after reform began to take place in Indonesia, the country's political leaders still struggle to live out their new-found democratic ideals.

"Political parties are an important element in democracy, but they have failed to conduct a proper recruitment process. Just show me capable people in political parties. Many of them are good in mobilizing masses because they have money. Very few of them have expertise and technocratic capacities," executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) Saiful Mujani told The Jakarta Post recently.

"And you can see that current capable ministers like Sri Mulyani, Boediono and Mar'ie Pangestu are not from political parties, they are intellectuals from universities," he added.

The recent emergence of a television personality as a candidate for the upcoming Jakarta governor's election is another indication of the failure of political parties, Saiful said.

"Even in the U.S., movie stars becoming politicians is very case-based. But in the first direct governor's election in an important capital, Jakarta? Come on... what have they (the political parties) been doing?"

Opposition parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle have also failed to take clear stances on important issues, he said.

"They criticize the President, (saying) that he is merely working to `spread his charm', but what is the point of saying that? `Spreading charm' is part of politics," Saiful said.

"They criticize the government over his rice import policy, but they provide no alternative. I even don't know which political parties support or are against the rice import policy."

According to Saiful, whose organization has successfully predicted past election results in the country, including the 2004 presidential election, intellectuals should join political parties, so that when a new cabinet is formed they are ready to be ministerial candidates.

"Political parties should offer incentives to intellectuals... promise them that they will be designated to become ministers if the party wins the election," said Saiful, who is also an associate professor in political studies at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

Born on Aug. 8, 1962, in Serang, Banten, Saiful grew up in a family with strong Islamic values and with political inclinations toward Masyumi and Persatuan Islam.

His father, KH Syamsudin, was a religion teacher and member in the management of the second-biggest Islamic boarding school in the province, Mathlaul Anwar.

Saiful spent his elementary education in the boarding school. However, he was sent to Jakarta to study at a state senior high school because his parents wanted him to widen his horizons and knowledge.

Saiful said he suffered from culture shock living in Jakarta.

"Growing up in a community with a belief that its religion holds the absolute truth, I failed to tolerate the religious differences that I confronted in Jakarta," recalled Saiful.

"I had strong determination to convince others that my Islamic path was correct and others were wrong," he recalled.

So he read various books on comparative religion by scholars such as Sidi Ghazalba, Hasbullah Bakri, H.M. Rasjidi, and M. Natsir. He even had a Christian girlfriend during high school, whom he tried to convince to convert to Islam, but he failed, "so we broke up." Later he enrolled at IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah because he wanted to learn more from its faculties.

"It was the university that changed me from a fundamentalist to a pluralist, as many scholars there promoted tolerance in religious diversity, including Harun Nasution and my seniors, Nurcholis Madjid, Komarudin Hidayat and Azyumardi Azra," said Saiful, who was also involved in the Indonesian Muslim Association during his student days at the university.

After completing his undergraduate degree in Islamic studies, Saiful worked for scholar Dawam Rahardjo's Institute of Religious and Philosophical Study, where he became interested in political and social philosophy.

At the institution, he was involved in the publication of the then famous journal Ulumul Qur'an.

When his senior Azumardi Azra returned from the U.S. after completing his PhD, Azumardi and others including Saiful established the Center for the Study of Islam and Society in 1994 and started the publication of its internationally acclaimed journal, Studia Islamika.

Saiful received a Fulbright scholarship to earn a master's degree in political science at Ohio State University, after receiving a recommendation from noted Indonesianist William Liddle of the university.

He continued his PhD with the support of the university, and finished in 2003. His dissertation Religious Democrats: Democratic Culture and Muslim Political Participation in Post-Suharto Indonesia, which was based on two national surveys he and PPIM conducted in Indonesia, was regarded as the best dissertation in political science at the university that year.

After returning to Indonesia, Saiful and his colleagues Rizal Mallarangeng, Denny J.A. and others helped establish a research institution, the Indonesian Survey Institute, in August 2003.

Denny J.A. became its executive director and Saiful the academic director. Saiful was responsible for the quality and methodology of the survey.

Saiful said that Indonesian democracy would function more effectively if it was responsive to the perceptions, expectations and evaluations of the public.

Regular public opinion monitoring that serves as an input to political process and policy making is vital in a democratic system, he said.

"And surveys are the most systematic and efficient way of measure public opinion," Saiful said. He said the Gallup, Harris, Roper and Corsley polls were survey institutions that were helpful to the development of democracy in the U.S.

LSI made its debut during the first direct presidential election, with its Election Channel program being aired on television. Its surveys were the main topic of the show for a full year.

Saiful was also involved in the famous Quick Count program, which was conducted in cooperation with LP3ES, the Freedom Institute and Metro TV.

However, due to disagreements over how to implement the principles of LSI's independence and survey methodology, Denny resigned in 2005 and Saiful became LSI's executive director.
Denny established a similar institution called Lingkaran Survei Indonesia.

Saiful believes that the independence of LSI is imperative to upholding and maintaining the institution's credibility.

He added than another aspect that could help strengthen democracy was pluralism. The low acceptance of diversity within society would result in a horizontal conflict, and the energy of the state might be exhaustively absorbed in tackling the problem.

"A test of pluralism is how tolerant we are toward minority groups, particularly in the religious sphere," said Saiful, who is married to Baiquniah, and has three children.

Interfaith dialog has shown an improvement, but not dialog "within communities with the same religion," he said.

He cited as an example of the case of Ahmadiyah, whose members have been condemned by other Muslims.

"But the state was in a dilemma because it could not afford to the lose support of the majority. So we need strong and decisive leadership to tackle this sort of problem, as based on our constitution we have the right to practice what we believe. Otherwise anarchism will triumph," Saiful said.

He said religious and community leaders should educate their followers about the importance of tolerance in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Indonesia.

He also said that civil groups were important to help a maintain healthy democracy. "Strong societal organizations can function to absorb and articulate people's aspirations to be conveyed to the policy makers," he said.

"The more we have society-based organizations, the healthier it will be for our democracy."

Sunday, March 11, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 11, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Terengganu, Malaysia

When I was invited to a retreat by Institut Kajian Dasar (with support from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation) at Kenyir Lake, Terengganu, Malaysia, I swiftly accepted the invitation.

Not only would this be my first visit to our northern neighbor, but also, as some of my colleagues found out, Kenyir Lake is really a beautiful place to relax and meditate.

The flight to Kuala Lumpur took around an hour and 45 minutes, barely less than the time spent to fly to Medan. A two-hour wait in sophisticated Kuala Lumpur International Airport was more than enough for me, as I just couldn't wait for what many argue is incomparable beauty of the largest manmade lake in Southeast Asia. I expected it be a long journey. It was. An additional one-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur landed me in small, somewhat dusty Sultan Mahmud Airport in Terengganu.

This was a simple and modest airport, located in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu, but it was very much part of the government-sponsored Visit Malaysia 2007 program celebrating 50 years of nationhood. Colorful banners were flying from almost every corner of the airport.

During a one-hour bus journey to Kenyir Lake, I managed to keep my eyes open to directly witness the day-to-day life of ordinary Malaysians, some of whom were selling nasi lemak to meet their needs.

I noticed that the state is typified by an obvious Malay culture, rural villages and serene coastal towns.

Stopping at one of the kedai (markets) to do a bit of shopping, I managed to converse with pleasant kampong people.

Terengganu's population is around 927,000. It comprises mostly Malays while the remainder are Indians, Chinese and people of other ethnicities. It is a living celebration of diversity.

With its tropical climate, the state is a perfect place for those who long for a tropical atmosphere. As I was there in January, I experienced sporadic showers, which occur between November and February.

Arriving at Kenyir Lakeview Resort, I could immediately smell the fragrance of clean and clear water. It was great to flee temporarily my chaotic life in Jakarta and Serang, I said to myself.

Terengganu is located on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. It is blessed with the longest shoreline in Malaysia and its pretty islands glisten gorgeously like jewelry in the South China Sea.

Several islands are carefully and professionally conserved as marine gardens, making them an obvious destination for tourists and nature-lovers alike.

It extends over approximate area of 38,000 hectares, including 430 jade-colored islands.

It is a place that offers an assortment of fish, land animals and birds, and innumerable plant types -- the product of perfect cooperation between man and nature.

Kenyir Lake is undoubtedly a delight for nature-lovers, adventurers and voyagers. The area is a perfect spot for those who love boating, forest-trekking, canoeing, and other sporting activities such as squash, tennis and cycling, as a vast tropical forest beautifully surrounds this large lake.

Due to my packed schedule during the retreat, I was unable to try all the activities on offer. However, I did ride not only a boat to nearby islands to see Sack Waterfalls and Herba Garden, but also a raft we assembled ourselves during our outbound activities.

Accommodation was also superb. The resort has around 150 high-quality wooden chalets for guests. With wooden glass doors and soaring ceilings, the chalets allow visitors to feel they are communing with nature.

The food the resort provides was similarly delectable, as the cuisine and seafood here are well-known for being delicious.

Kenyir Lake was a heaven of solitude and tranquility to invigorate not only the rainforest, but also to revive one's own soul and spirit.

How to get there

Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia provide everyday flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Sultan Mahmud Airport in Terengganu. It is approximately a one-hour drive from Sultan Mahmud Airport in Terengganu to Kenyir Lakeview Resort.

Terengganu can likewise be reached via a four-hour drive along the East Cost Expressway. To reach the resort, the shortest way is through Kuantan taking the Jerangau-Jabor Highway to Tasik Kenyir.

If you are approaching from the south, take the Kota Tinggi-Mersing course to Kuantan, then further up the Jerangau-Jabor highway. From Kelantan or Thailand, before reaching Kenyir, you will pass through Kuala Terengganu.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 6, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

The landmark television political satire News Dot Com, also known as Republik Mimpi (Republic of Dreams), is challenging the limit of freedom of expression in Indonesia amid increasing political pressure.

Information and Communications Minister Sofyan Djalil said that the show, aired on television station Metro TV on Sunday nights, presents a negative political education for people.

He admitted that he had no authority to ban the weekly show, which has been given the new name of Kerajaan Mimpi (Kingdom of Dreams). However, he said that he was planning to lodge a complaint with the country's broadcasting commission.

The man behind the show, Effendi Gazali, said that members of Metro TV have thrown their unconditional support behind the show despite the recent pressure. However, last week the show's main sponsor, cigarette company HM Sampoerna, severed its contract, forcing producers to reconsider a planned roadshow to 10 major cities which was to be financed by the cigarette company.

However, Effendi was defiant. "Suryo Paloh said that as long as there is press freedom, the TV program should continue," he said during a recent telephone interview with The Jakarta Post.

Surya Paloh is the founder of Metro TV and is a senior member of the Golkar Party. Golkar is Indonesia's largest political party and is widely regarded as being the most influential party in the country. It is also the political vehicle of Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Effendi said that he was aware of the fact that the Democratic Party, the political party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was planning to file a complaint against the show. A group from the ethnic Chinese community has also complained that the show is a "character assassination" against the national leader.

The program features actors humorously portraying current and former national leaders such as former presidents Soeharto, B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri. Effendi said he believed there had been no complaints about the show from those portrayed.

Another satire co-produced by Effendi, Republik Benar Benar Mabok (Heavily Drunken Republic), was canceled by television station Indosiar due to political pressure. Jusuf Kalla had previously assured the shows producers that he was not offended by the program and that it offered an educational alternative to the public.

However, the management of Indosiar asked that the program be changed into a situational comedy with a pre-planned scenario, a move that Effendi refused. The show was thus discontinued in May, 2006, after 32 episodes and was replaced by Pengadilan BBM (BBM Court), a standard comedy in which Effendi was not involved.

Effendi continued his program "off air", conducting a roadshow to major cities in the country, receiving a warm welcome from the public.

Republik Mimpi, a similar program, went on air in August 2006 on Metro TV.

Effendi believes that political satires provide effective political education for people. He claims that a large cross-section of the public are enthusiastic about such programs, which often humorously challenge government policies.

Born on Dec. 5, 1966, in Padang, West Sumatra, Effendi is also an academic and intellectual, having graduated from the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Indonesia majoring in communications. He also holds master's degrees in communications from the University of Indonesia and Cornell University, U.S. as well as a PhD in political communications from Nijmegan University, the Netherlands.

Aside from his television commitments, he is also a lecturer in communications in the post-graduate program at the University of Indonesia.

His published scholarly works include The Suharto Regime and Its Fall Through The Eyes Of The Local Media in the International Journal For Communications Studies (2002) and Negotiating Public and Community Media In Post-Suharto Indonesia in the Journal of The European Institute For Communication and Culture (2003).

Effendi received an academic award from the University of Indonesia for his research publications in regional and international journals during the university's 54th anniversary in 2004.

During his student days, he formed the comedy group Ikatan Remaja Memble Aje (IRMA) with colleagues. The group made an appearance on television station TVRI in the 1980s.

Effendi also once worked as a journalist for tabloid Mingguan Bola and was assigned to cover the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

He regretted the fact that despite Indonesia embracing reform, press freedom is still constantly under threat.

Effendi said that presidential endorsement for the recruitment of members of the Press Council had taken too long. While he admitted to having no idea what was behind the delay, he said that in the future "the recruitment process should follow that of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission", which was conducted in a more transparent and effective manner.

Effendi quoted Thomas Jefferson in saying that if he was presented with two choices, "government without the press" or "the press without government", he would choose the latter.