Friday, November 27, 2009

Jakarta Diary

Guest Post by Athar Javaid

Concluding a fairly involved and busy schedule at a trade conference and Green Technology show in Seoul South Korea, Jakarta some 3,200 miles south west of Seoul hardly seemed like a detour of choice on my way back home. But my fascination with this huge archipelago of 17508 islands that has long been simmering took over. Besides its fascinating geography and world’s second largest collection of plant species, Indonesia is world’s largest Muslim country (230m) sharing land borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Malaysia. More importantly Indonesia is a republic with an elected legislature and president – A democratic society that has a history of having successfully integrated a host of human races with diverse ethnicity, cultures and religious beliefs.

Given the three and a half centuries of Dutch colonial rule followed by Independence after World War II and three decades of authoritarian rule by Suharto ending in 1998, Indonesians have come a long way in attaining a careful political balance between sociopolitical norms and emerging forces in Indonesian society. Balancing is some what iconic to Indonesian way of life. Balancing Culture and Religion, Islamism and Secularism, Regional autonomy and Centralized rule, Capitalism and Welfare state, all seem second nature to the Indonesians.

Despite its distinct ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, Indonesia has developed a shared identity defined by its national motto,” Bhenneka Tunggal Ika” meaning “Many Yet One” or Unity in Diversity.

The Arabs notably Arabs of Yemeni origin played a dominant role in South East Asian trade and Islamization since the fifteenth century. As I sat in a Jakarta city tour bus listening to the guide and wondering about this monumental accomplishment of early Yemeni settlers in Indonesia and slow peaceful penetration of Islam over centuries that ultimately resulted in World’s largest Muslim state and pondering over the fact that from the 14th century to the end of the 19th century the region saw almost no organized Muslim missionary activity, it was easy to see that the key element of this grandeur accomplishment was the posture of the settler’s accommodating to and integrating with local beliefs and customs. This combined with the less rigid structure of Indonesian traditional society, including the active role of women in public life made it even more conducive. The resulting Indonesian Islam is tolerant, inclusive and inherently compatible with democratic ideals.

Despite their traditional role of the Yemenis as money sharks, these early settlers while earning money and economic clout in an alien society and culture nevertheless stimulated wide spread acceptance for Islam. Yemeni settlers whole heatedly respected and embraced the culture of the locale they lived in and adapted many cultural practices while subtly propagating the richness of thought and ideology fostered by Islam. This was further evidenced by several museum artifacts dating back to 17th century that represented their holistic approach to life striking a well carved balance within the boundaries of culture and religion.

The early Yemeni settlers in Indonesia have been an oasis of soft change without use of force or their economic clout. Yemeni hospitality, an icon of Yemeni culture must have been a definite plus in shaping their behavior in an alien society. However, at home, this hospitality is often “amiably armed” as evident by its deep expression in the 16th century in rescuing, feeding, housing and forcibly circumcising British soldiers when their naval ship wrecked off the Yemeni coast of Red Sea.

Today Indonesia continues to soft paddle the cultural differences sustaining and reinforcing the social fabric with an all inclusive approach to its diverse ethnicity. A recent example is the expression of inclusively towards Indonesians of Chinese descent. Since 1960 the Indonesians have removed a ban on Chinese characters in publications, and advertisements, a ban on celebrating the Chinese New Year, Chinese Cultural events and even declared Chinese New Year a public holiday. Mohamed Cheng Hoo Mosque – first mosque in Indonesia with Chinese architecture is indeed a clear statement of Islam’s compatibility with cultural diversity and a display of its dynamism – Dynamic enough to appeal to 17,508 islands – each one with its own character, culture and artistic ancestry.

Though grappling with day to day mundane issues ranging from land slides to typhoons, earthquakes, traffic jams and capsized ferries to political rivalries, Indonesia is finally on the right track. On the economic and social front Indonesia continues its path to emancipation combined with spiritual flamboyancy. Indonesia is world’s largest producer of palm oil, manufacturer of cars including automotive parts and one hundred percent use of bio fuel while exporting diesel fuel. A recent move to scrap duties on imports of machinery and raw material for seven vital industries is a welcome boost for business and commerce.

On the political front Indonesia appears to have mustered the capacity to deal with issues as diverse as corruption to ethnic discrimination and violence. Barely one month into his second term, President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono appeared to meet the test of his credibility facing a serious challenge created by a conflict between National Police and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

That said, even a country like Indonesia with such a strong track record of social, cultural and religious harmony and stable political system of governance is not immune to the wrath of radical Islam. July 09 bombing of the Ritz Carleton Hotels in Jakarta, the 2003 Marriott hotel bombing and 2002 Bali night club bombings are all perhaps indicative of more terror attacks waiting in the wings to unfold on the slightest trigger of religious or sectarian conflicts. It remains to be seen whether Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country is likely to experience its own process of religious extremism and radicalization.

Some uprising of armed paramilitaries after Suharto’s overthrow and with recent bombings seemed to suggest that Muslim politics even in this tolerant society is being radicalized. However Giora Eliraz, Robert, W. Hefner and many western scholars have provided a more thoughtful and ultimately hopeful prognosis showing the main stream of the Muslim community remains unswervingly moderate. The elections of June 1999 showed that most voters favored secular or moderate Islamist political parties, in fact by a larger majority than in the only other free and open general elections, held in 1955, when about 16 percent of the vote went to parties advocating conservative Islamic programs as opposed to more than 40 percent in 1955. Be that as it may! These self proclaimed soldiers of God and Mujahideens, hell bent on enforcing their brand of Islam through terror tactics could perhaps just look back and be thankful to those responsible for wide spread acceptance of Islam over 17,508 islands following the basic tenets of Islam and cultivating a good will culminating in integration of diverse cultures and communities that will remain exemplary for many centuries to come.

Indonesia with its solid balancing approach to resolve conflicting and debilitating issues is likely to lead the way for the rest of the Muslim world in combating and abating Islamic radicalism and ultimately upholding the basic Islamic values of “ Moderation” and Huqooq Al Ibad” denouncing radicalism and terror tactics in forcing piety.

“Bhenneka Tunggal Ika” “Many Yet One” or Unity in Diversity.

Athar Javaid is an NEDian currently serving as a Vice President of an IT Consulting Firm in Washington DC area.

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1 comment:

Riaz Haq said...

Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), intellectual and former president of Indonesia, died on December 30th, aged 69. Here are some excerpts from his obituary carried by the Economist:

WHATEVER the time or place, Abdurrahman Wahid—Gus Dur, as everyone fondly called him—had a joke to tell. About his predecessors as Indonesia’s president: “Sukarno was mad about sex, Suharto was mad about money, Habibie was mad about technology, but me? I’m just mad!” About his removal from the presidency in 2001, when he was almost blind: “I need help to step up, let alone step down.” About losing power: “It’s nothing. I regret more that I lost 27 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Visiting Tokyo, he was delighted when the prime minister congratulated him on his “erection”. For a Muslim ulama, or priest-scholar, his appetite for smut was remarkable. He had naughty jokes on his website, and was once reported to the police by conservative clerics for emphasising the raunchier bits of the Koran.

Joking was essential, he said, for a healthy mind. Villagers in Jombang in East Java remembered him, as a boy, tied to the flagpole in the front yard for some jest that had gone too far. Visitors to the house would find their shoelaces surreptitiously knotted together. Later on, it was sometimes hard to tell whether he was larking round or serious: as a narcoleptic, he would often lull journalists into a snooze and then snap to, razor-sharp, with the answer to their questions. Joking got him through the rigours of pesantren, rural Muslim boarding school, and certainly through the turmoil of his 21 months as president from 1999 to 2001. At the end, when his aides tried to restrain him, “It has affected me,” he complained. “Starting tomorrow, I will start telling jokes again.”
The drunken master

His eccentricity could be infuriating. But it usually hid a serious purpose. In sprawling Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, cramped under authoritarian rule for most of its existence, Mr Wahid was committed to pluralism, liberalism, democracy and tolerance. He promoted these principles in his columns in Prisma, Tempo and Kompas. More remarkably, he believed that they were also fundamental to his religion. “All too many Muslims”, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2005, “fail to grasp Islam.” “Right Islam” was not fanatical. It was tolerant, open and fair.

To some of his co-religionists, he went too far. But Mr Wahid had imbibed the gentle, Hindu-flavoured Islam of Java and the cafĂ©-table cut-and-thrust of Baghdad’s student circles, as well as the doctrinaire rote-learning of al-Azhar University in Cairo, and had plumped for free expression every time. He had also been brought up in a house that was both devout and cosmopolitan: encouraged to read European magazines, to devour Dickens and Dostoyevsky, to listen to Mozart and Janis Joplin, as well as to get involved in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organisation, heavily rural and steeped in animist Javanese tradition, which his grandfather had founded and his father had run.

In time the NU, with its 40m members, became his own power base. He reformed it, as well as removing it, in 1984, from party politics, in order to focus its energies on raising the pesantren to the level of secular schools. Though a deep believer in mysticism and the spirit world, secularism never offended him. Selamat pagi, “Good morning”, did as well for him as the believer’s assalamu alaykum; both, as he pointed out, meant “Peace be to you”. He accepted the constitution’s doctrine of pancasila—national unity and social justice with freedom of religion—as a useful creed for fissiparous Indonesia. More surprisingly, he kept on cordial terms with Suharto, despite pushing against the strongman both as the hugely popular head of the NU and, from 1998, as leader of his own non-sectarian National Awakening party.