Friday, February 15, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 14, 2008


Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

It was during his university days at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, that young Muslim intellectual Zuhari Misrawi learned both the practical and philosophical essence of religious tolerance.

When he and his colleagues visited Egypt's Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Qaltah to interview him for the students' journal, Qaltah immediately halted the conversation when the azan (call to prayer) was heard.

"If you want to perform your wudhu (ablution before prayers), the place is located on the right side of the church. Please feel free to say your prayers ... this is the praying map with the kiblah direction," said Qaltah, gently indicating the map to his guests.

Zuhairi cannot hide his admiration.

"His understanding and respect are an acknowledgement of Muslims' very existence," Zuhari told The Jakarta Post during a recent interview on the sidelines of a discussion of his new book Al Qur'an Kitab Toleransi: Inklusivisme, Pluralisme dan Multikukturalisme (Koran, the Tolerant Holy Book: Inclusivism, Pluralism and Multiculturalism).

"This is in contrast to what I have always been taught that non-Muslims are unappreciative towards Muslims and are even willing to destroy Islam," he added.

Born Feb. 5, 1977, in Sumenep, Madura, Zuhairi studied at the Islamic boarding schools al-Amien and Jami'iyyah Tahfidzil Qur'an.

He was raised in the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) tradition; the country's biggest Muslim organization that claims to have 35 million members.

After studying at Islamic boarding schools for almost six years, Zuhairi continued his education at the Ushuluddin Faculty of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt (1995-2000).

He became an editor for Terobosan bulletin and Oase journal at the university, allowing him to interview several foremost intellectuals, including Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, Sayyed Yasin, Halah Musthafa, Youhanna Qaltah, 'Athif 'Iraqi, Muhammad 'Abdul Mu'thi Bayoumi, Adonis and Nawal Saadawi.

After completing his studies in 2000, he returned home to Indonesia and immediately joined the Department of Research and Human Resource Development of NU as coordinator for the study and research division from 2000-2002.

He delved further in activism with NU.

Zuhairi helped publish Tashwirul Afkar journal as its editor and was also active with the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development as a coordinator for the Islamic Emancipation Program.

Despite of his tight schedule as an activist, Zuhairi still manages to write prolifically. His writing mainly covers contemporary Islam, politics, religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

Aside from writing for the national media, Zuhairi has also produced books, including Dari Syariat menuju Maqashid Syariat (From Sharia to Maqashid Sharia, 2003); Doktrin Islam Progresif (Doctrine of Islamic Progressive, 2004); Islam Melawan Terorisme (Islam against Terrorism, 2004); and Menggugat Tradisi: Pergulatan Pemikiran Anak Muda NU (Challenging Tradition: Struggle of Thoughts among NU Youth Members, 2004).

He also contributed chapters to several books, including Syariat Yes, Syariat No (Sharia Yes, Sharia No, 2003); Menjadi Indonesia; 13 Abad Eksistensi Islam di Bumi Nusantara (Becoming Indonesia; Thirteen Centuries of the Existence of Islam in the Archipelago, 2006); and Islam Mazhab Tengah: Persembahan 70 Tahun Tarmizi Taher (The Middle Mazhab of Islam: Dedicated for Tarmizi Taher on his 70th Birthday, (2007).

An adherent supporter of moderate-progressive Islam, Zuhairi showed his anxiety when asked about the increased Islamic radicalism in the country.

Zuhairi said many seemed unaware the power of love in Islam derives from bi-sm 'allaah ar-rah maan ar-rah em, which means "in the name of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful".

He further cited his experience when he visited a mosque in Boston, U.S., where the Koranic verse al-Anbiya:107 is vividly displayed on its front wall: "And (thus, O Prophet,) We have sent thee as (an evidence of Our) grace towards all the worlds".

"This means God sent Prophet Muhammad as a blessing for all the worlds," said Zuhairi, who recently returned from a conference on democracy and pluralism in Brussels where he was a speaker.

He criticized the religious violence that has marked the country, which he said was an obvious diversion of the Prophet's teachings.

"Fortunately, what has saved our country from plunging into a situation like conflict-torn Pakistan is the role of NU and Muhammadiyah," Zuhairi said.

Muhammadiyah is the second biggest Muslim organization in the country, which claims to have 25 million members.

The two prominent Islam-oriented organizations are considered societal pillars in the country. They are not politically oriented; nonetheless, their leverage in Indonesia's political scene is undisputable, Zuhairi said.

The leaders of the two organizations have called on the government to take strong measures against Islamic hard-liners that campaign for the "elimination" of minority groups.

Young Islamic activists from the two organizations, including Zuhairi, unremittingly collaborate to promote a new Indonesia, which respects pluralism and democracy. He said pluralism, or al-ta'addudiyyah, is an inevitable fact due Indonesia's vast diversity.

He added sharia was a cultural product because it had been historically constructed.

"Sharia is attached to a specific territorial, geographical and socio-political culture. Hence, an idea has emerged to deconstruct the historicity of sharia to search for an inclusive dimension of Islam," said Zuhairi, who is married to Nurul Jazimah and has one daughter.

Zuhairi and his fellow activists from the two organizations work hand in hand to fight against corruption, which many say was further decentralized after the country embraced the era of regional autonomy.

When asked about the demand of some sections to establish an Islamic caliphate system of government, Zuhairi answered: "Historical evidence shows that the caliphate system was bankrupt since it was unable to overcome the problems of power sharing and distribution. They (the political elites) proved unable to detach themselves from authoritarianism.

"There is no obligation to implement a caliphate system, because all Muslims are automatically created by God to become caliphs. It means that every human being has to be responsible for all his deeds to God in the hereafter ... in the Koran, caliph is more a personal than collective calling," he said.

Zuhairi has participated in the activities of several other organizations, including Lingkar Muda Indonesia (Youth Indonesia Circle), Moderate Muslim Society and Lembaga Studi Islam Progresif (Islamic Progressive Study Institute).

And he shows no signs of slowing down.

In an apparent move to prepare himself to enter the world of politics, he became head of the Inter-Religious Division of the Executive Board of Baitul Muslimin of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle at the end of 2007. Last month he was officially inaugurated as a member of the political party.

Yet his activism goes beyond his country by showing his apprehension of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

"A holistic, not partial approach needs to be pursued," he said, adding the conflict could not be regarded as simply Israel versus Palestine or Israel versus Lebanon.

He added internal problems needed to be tackled first and that all Arab countries in the Middle East should put aside their respective interests and unite to boost their bargaining power with the U.S. and Israel in resolving the ongoing conflict.

In 2006, Zuhairi visited Israel on the invitation of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to provide a second opinion on Israel's policy towards Palestine.

"I said (to the Israeli government) that Israel should use 'soft' politics, not 'hard' politics with Palestinians because they (the latter) are already weak," he recalled his meeting with the Israeli officials.

He said he supported the establishment of relations between Indonesia and Israel.

He hinted that since Israel is the only superpower in the Middle East, establishing relations with the country could pave the way for Indonesia as the biggest Muslim country to capitalize on its leverage over the ongoing conflict, which has cost millions of innocent lives.

Monday, February 11, 2008


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 11, 2008


Organized by the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesia Studies (ACICIS), in partnership with Atma Jaya University, a group of Australian university students are on a six-week Journalism Professional Practicum in Jakarta. The program is designed to provide them with a greater insight into the realities of contemporary Indonesia. ACICIS deputy director David Reeve, a long-time Indonesian observer from the University of New South Wales, outlined the program for Alpha Amirrachman, who recently interviewed Reeve by email for The Jakarta Post.

Question: What aspects are the young Australian journalists learning in this program and how will it help them enhance their understanding of Indonesia?

Answer: Australian students will get a high-profile internship at a placement rarely offered to Australian journalism students. They will learn about Indonesian language, culture and society, and the life of a journalism professional in an overseas setting. We are very keen to encourage Australian journalism students to see Indonesia in a more positive way.

We are doing this program for the benefit of the students. But of course we hope that in the future it will be of benefit to both countries to have maybe hundreds of Australians in the media who have had a strong and positive experience in Indonesia.

How do you see the role of media in shaping relations between Indonesia and Australia?

I think that for people who have personal knowledge and experiences of Indonesia, the press does not have much role in shaping their beliefs. For those people, the press provides information but not attitude. That's why we are working through our programs to expose more and more students to Indonesia.

For the general public, the media can shape attitudes, and these have the potential to sway governments, particularly in difficult times. I'm thinking of the emotions in Australia around the Schappelle Corby case, when some Australian media played a shameful role. But then, other media reported well. It's a mix. Overall, I think that good relations are stronger than bad press.

What do you think Australian journalists are lacking when reporting on Indonesia?

I think both governments were dishonest in making the press a scapegoat for other things that were wrong. Australia has a great tradition of sending good correspondents to Indonesia. Several of them have written excellent books on Indonesia, helping Australians to understand Indonesia. That foreign correspondent tradition has been going on for some 50 years. They have been a high quality lot overall. But some reporters and editors back in Australia have been much less good.

You are right to see a "politics of fear" at work here; irresponsible stereotyping -- which is itself a tradition in Australian media for at least 150 years. What worries me now is the decreasing role for foreign correspondents in the Australian media. If that continues it will be a serious loss.

What do you think Indonesian journalists are lacking when reporting on Australia?

I enjoy reading all Indonesian reporting on Australia. I find it fascinating, and I don't mind whether it is positive or negative, well-sourced or badly informed. I find it all very interesting for what it tells me about Indonesian attitude. But as a scholar, I must say that some Indonesian reporting seems much better then others. The weaker journalists lack good contacts, lack personal experience and interpret events through prejudice and malice. That can actually make it more interesting to read, though less informative to the public. But that's the same all over the world. The good Indonesian journalism on Australia is of a high standard.

What are the various constraints Australian correspondents have come across in the process of foreign news reporting in Indonesia?

During the Soeharto era, Australian journalists had to be careful about reporting on Indonesia because there was always the threat that their visas would be canceled if they concentrated on "negative" news like human rights abuses, anti-government protests and independence movements in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. In 1986 all Australian journalists were banned from Indonesia, and it took some time for all media organizations to be readmitted. Nowadays, Indonesia's free press means foreign journalists are not restricted, except in access to Papua and, perhaps, Aceh. However, there are still some underlying tensions because of perceived negative reporting in Australia on separatist issues, as well as the high profile given by the Australian media to terrorism in Indonesia and drug cases.

Both countries appear to enjoy a certain degree of press freedom. Does this freedom necessarily foster close neighborly ties?

Press freedoms are not meant to foster neighborly ties. That is not what they are for. They are for the health of the societies in which they operate. Neighborly ties are built in other ways. If they are good and strong ties, they have nothing to fear from press freedom. I think that all of us have experienced press freedoms and press restrictions. Even at its worst (rumors, defamation), a free press is better.

Do you think the killing of five Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975 still haunts Australian journalists and still has the potential to disturb Indonesia-Australia relations?

Yes, this issue still haunts some Australian journalists and also particularly the families of the journalists killed. Not surprisingly. Both governments would like to believe that the problem is behind them. I think that is true. The issue has remained alive for 32 years, and still has potential to disturb in the future. Both governments will try to play it down. But this is an issue with complex legal and moral aspects. It is hard to see what the best option would be. I also think of the large number of journalists killed around the world in 2007. It is always a bad idea to attack journalists.