Friday, November 02, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, October 31, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

In a country where people are grappling to live up to democratic values, standing firmly with a controversial principle can have dire consequences.

M. Syafi'i Anwar, for example, was branded a "CIA agent" and "Western puppet" by Islamic radicals here when he publicly denounced the fatwa of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which deemed pluralism as "religiously unlawful" and driving the nation toward disintegration.

He received angry responses and threats via email, SMS and over the telephone. One big mosque in Jakarta even forbade him from giving speeches and sermons there, despite the fact Syafi'i is a renowned Muslim intellectual and activist whose contributions to the development of the mosque's youth movement have been well noted.

Nevertheless, Syafi'i believes Indonesia, as a newly democratic country, is still on the right track.

"I believe our government is committed to upholding religious tolerance. The problem is not really with the government but with certain Muslim communities who push their agendas through the use of threats and violence," said Syafi'i, referring to cases of attacks against religious minorities in the country.

"Law enforcers might be ambivalent in tackling this problem, but as long people are still free to express their opinions I am optimistic we are heading toward a genuine democracy where the rights of minorities will eventually be protected.

"We are still at the learning stage," he added.

Born on Sept. 27, 1953, in Kudus, East Java, Syafi'i received a law degree from the University of Indonesia in 1984, a Masters in political science from the same university in 1994 and a PhD in history and political sociology from the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2005.

His doctoral dissertation was titled The State and Political Islam in Indonesia: A Study of State Politics and Modernist Muslim Leaders.

The former journalist and editor of Ummat and Panji Masyarakat magazines, whose hardworking style is still vividly recalled by his former colleagues, recently helped prepare, strengthen and update international standards against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other related intolerance.

After promotion by the Indonesian Permanent Mission to the UN led by Dr. Makarim Wibisono, Syafi'i was appointed by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour as the representative for a group of Asian states in Geneva.

Other experts included Dimitrina Petrova of Bulgaria for the eastern European states, Tiyanjana Maluwa of Malawi for the African states, Jenny Goldschmidt of the Netherlands for Western Europe and other states and Luis Waldo Villapando of Argentina for Latin American and Caribbean regions.

Their task was to follow up the Durban Declaration and Program of Action adopted by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, as requested by the intergovernmental working group, Human Rights Council (HRC), in its resolution adopted on June 30, 2006.

Under the declaration, groups that require special protection include religious groups, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, migrant workers, internally displaced persons, ethnic-based communities, indigenous peoples, minorities and people under foreign occupation.

Syafi'i was specifically tasked with preparing complementary international standards in regard to religious groups and the manifestation of religious intolerance, the defamation of religious symbols, incitement to racial hatred and dissemination of hate speech and xenophobic sentiment.

"There are still certain implementation and substantive gaps with the international instrument on these issues," said Syafi'i, adding this has affected several countries' efforts in living up to democratic principles.

He cited religious and ethnic tensions, such as in Thailand, India and Indonesia.

"A comprehensive international instrument could help strengthen the commitment of member countries," he said, hoping after further debate the results would be raised to the level of a binding resolution.

Experts have recommended that a convention on human rights education be adopted to define the positive obligation of States in regard to the incorporation of human rights education in their educational systems, including in private, religious, and military schools.

"I believe education would have a long-lasting impact on peoples' perceptions and attitudes," Syafi'i said.

This is understandable given Syafi'i's current position as the executive director of the Jakarta-based International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), whose current project "Distance Learning for Islamic Transformation through Pesantren" (Islamic boarding schools), with the support of the Ford Foundation (2007-2010), involves human rights education.

Experts have also recommended that "the treaty bodies consider adopting comments which would clarify the positive obligations of State parties regarding the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and provide relevant guidance for States".

Experts are of the opinion "there is an increase in religious intolerance and incitement to religious hatred. Equally well founded is the observation that religious intolerance and violation of the rights to freedom of religion have increased substantially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001".

"We highlighted that multicultural education could be strategically advantageous in combating religious intolerance," said Syafi'i, who also teaches interdisciplinary Islamic studies in the post-graduate department of the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta.

Syafi'i was a Ford Foundation visiting scholar at the U.S. leading think tank, Brookings Institution, in Washington DC, from July to September 2007, an opportunity he used to express his criticism toward U.S. foreign policy.

Syafi'i said he could not agree more with Newsweek editor Farid Zakaria, that the U.S. "is seen as too arrogant, uncaring, and insensitive ... obsessed with its own notions of terrorism and has stopped listening to the rest of the world."

However, he said the U.S. policy to embrace moderate Muslims supported progressive liberal Islam, which is appropriate and needs to be continued in the future.

"I suggest the U.S. employ a smarter strategy to increase Indonesia's understanding of the U.S., with particular focus on the success stories of Muslims living in the U.S.," said Syafi'i, whose monograph The Interplay between U.S. Foreign Policy and Political Islam in Indonesia will soon be published by Brookings Institution.

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