Sunday, December 11, 2011

Collective Moderation and Online Discussions

When I was an undergrad student, I dabbled in debating. Having little passion in competition (pardon me), I didn't really embrace the art. But I've always enjoyed following the structure of logical arguments that each debater performed. Although I personally think that it is more relevant to build a mentality of discussing and opening minds rather than the concept of winning and losing that is central in debating; I understood how important it is to have interest in global, national and local social issues and to have the ability to build arguments. One interesting thing about debating is how a debater would have to be able to switch from pro to contra as assigned by the panel. Their own ideological bias moderated by attempting to understand the argument behind an opposing view. It is a tolerance shaped by logical thinking.

I have been quietly observing online debates for the past year, both public and communal. And I realise that some of the most heated discussions are shaped around the logics of debating. Public discourses are reduced and polarised to winning and losing, pros and cons. And what is even more amusing, often not following the most basic rationales.

First, discussions sway from one topic to the other. If the original topic was, for instance, sexual harassment against females in the workplace, it shifts into a battle of the sexes. That women also objectify men and that the displaying of six packs on the cover of magazines is an example. But weren't we talking about sexual harassment in the first place?

Secondly, instead of focusing on the topic at hand, there are many comments on who the person speaking is. Whether or not they have credibility in what they say. Perhaps it is relevant to emphasise on that if it were a television talk show - because the person was presumably invited for their expert opinion. But online discussions are virtually anonymous. Users can have multiple accounts, pseudonyms or simply display a persona. It becomes irrelevant to pinpoint on whether or not someone has the 'right to say so'. For a discussion to remain focused, it needs to be centred on the substance of the arguments and disregard the background of the speaker.

Thirdly, there are a lot of anger displayed through USING CAPSLOCK and name-calling; which could easily turn into a fight. I have read emails sent by a 50 year old religious public figure calling their 'debating sparing partner' anjing (dog, which is perhaps as malicious as bastard in English). And of course, the discussion soon turned pointless.

Online interactions shape the characteristics of the public sphere and different online spaces, with its own features, contribute to this dynamic. In mailing lists, for instance, the moderator has authority to, well, actually moderate and keep the discussion healthy. In Facebook statuses, the owner of the wall has that authority. In Twitter, it's more libertarian than egalitarian. Users determine collectively how the discussion is carried out and no authoritative figure would step in if it stirred out of focus.

It needs to be a group effort, to maintain a discussion to be as healthy and interactive as possible. It's more beautiful if successful, as it was based on an authoritative-free, 'natural' interaction, and uglier if unsuccessful. I realise in several occurences that the discussion eventually enforced the ideological bias of a person once they're validated by someone like-minded. The initial assumption that online spaces could provide a space for different, even opposing, views to interact and shape a miniature civil society (I am rolling my eyes as I write this, you're not the only one) becomes obsolete. In reality, what's shaped are sub ingroups within the information elites (a penetration level of 22.4% of internet users in Indonesia that are centred on large, predominantely Java and Sumatra cities (MarkPlus 2011)), that, unfortunately, often become the source of news topics in the country's institutional media (e.g. television).

I'd vouch for more responsibility in respect to internet users, but I feel it's both senseless and useless. But here it goes: Indonesian internet users, please realise that what we have to say and the manner in which we collectively moderate online discussions do have offline implications. And as conscious citizens, it's our duty to practice tolerance in all spaces. Since it's very easy for us to exercise freedom of expression, it is only responsible to do it to open our minds and, if respecting is too ideal, to tolerate different views. When an idea is negated, it's because it's not rational - not because it's 'wrong'. Most of the time it's not the polarisations - conservative vs. liberal, patriarchy vs. feminism, religion vs. atheism, the list goes on - it's the grey space in between where we try to find out, for our own individual reflection, a subjective version of truth.

And it can only be done with a clear, unassuming mind.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On Why There Are Few Indonesians in Indonesian Studies

"Sekarang ini 90 persen publikasi dalam jurnal akademis tentang Indonesia ditulis bukan oleh orang yang tinggal di Indonesia. Hal ini, menurut Indonesianis Anthony Reid, menjadikan Indonesia negara yang paling tidak efektif menceritakan dirinya sendiri kepada dunia. Satu ironi yang perlu diubah." (Tempo, 14-20 November 2011)

This week's Tempo was exceptional for me. The magazine mapped out foreign scholars studying Indonesia - from Kahin, Anderson, Crouch, Hill and monumental works in Indonesian studies. I share the position Tempo's taken in elaborating the phenomenon that has been going on for decades (which, unfortunately, will not change in the near future). Ariel Heryanto's article in the same magazine elaborates very articulately, as he always does, the main problems in why there is a void of Indonesians in Indonesian studies. It has been his concern for a while.

I started off as an academic with naive optimism that agency could work. That if I strategise smart enough and be persistent enough, it could work. I am beginning to realise that this is not the case. It is practically structurally impossible for Indonesian scholars based in Indonesia to be academically productive. The rule in UI, for instance, is for teaching lecturers to be in charge of 2 to 6 classes per semester. Because of a lack of competent lecturers (why would an international graduate become a state official if they could get a job at a Multinational Corporation? That was sarcasm, in case it wasn't clear enough), some of the same lecturers who teach 6 classes also hold a structural position in which they would have to manage a programme with hundreds of students.

How on earth could someone, with a 9 to 5 managerial job, prepare materials for class - let alone read and write for a national and international journal? Let alone travel to other parts of Indonesia and/or the world to present papers? To even conduct proper research.

These seemingly casuistic events are systemic. All over the country, state academics face these problems. Syllabuses don't change from year to year, the same materials are used to teach students who are better off reading Wikipedia.

It's also ideologically impossible. Some of the most intelligent Indonesian social scientists I know have openly claimed that being solely an academic, writing and researching for a living, is not enough. "You need to be part of the struggle," one said, "There are too many issues to fight for, I don't want to spend my time writing and leaving no real impact." So some of the best thinkers join activism.

Again, I do share the sentiment of being part of grassroot changes - but when it comes to 'menceritakan dirinya kepada dunia', it is clearly ineffective. Ideas are not recorded into writing and are thus untraceable historically. There are lots of scattered media articles written by Indonesian intellectuals but very few are compiled into a book that can be cited as the basis of national policy making - let alone as part of an international narrative. I'm not being a local orientalist when I say this, because I'd also like to emphasise on a lack of an Indonesian perspective in international policy making. Bilateral and multilateral agreements as well as global non-profit strategies related to Indonesia are based on US, Western European and Australian researches.

I admire foreign scholars and Indonesianists, heck my supervisor is David Hill. I also find people from other nationalities very genuine in their writing and consistent when choosing anthropological approaches. But emerging Indonesians are not Indonesian (and I mean that in the least xenophobic way possible). There needs to be a degree of subjectivity in story telling to deliver authenticity. The experiencing of everyday Indonesian and local (ethnic) culture to acknowledge real problems worth writing about.

It is not about where we were born, but where we are predominantly based - and it influences the way we write and the topics we choose.

If the state and those in positions to determine changes on a macro and meso level do not support scholars based in Indonesia - either we will eventually move to a place where we can afford to write or people who come from other nationalities will write for us. Local and national researches will continue to be scarce and our theories and frameworks will continue to be Western. Sadly, I think Reid's and Heryanto's concerns are true and seemingly unchangeable for a while.

But I cannot (yet) let go of that naive optimism that somehow, with persistent agency, something's bound to work.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

That of Jayapura

Once again, as part of my PhD thesis, I travel to another part of Indonesia: Jayapura, Papua. After completing data collection at SMAN 4 Jayapura, the vice principal asked me to fill in one of the ‘affirmative classes’ (i.e. classes designed for indigenous Papuans, funded by the local government under the special autonomy law). I had expected them to be particularly intelligent, being students of a prominent school. But I was still flabbergasted by how critical and brazen they are with the questions they addressed me with.

They asked me why I decided to go to Papua as part of my research. Usually any kind of development and/or research stops as Sulawesi.

They asked me what I expected of them before I arrived. Did I expect them to wear Kotekas like most Javanese do.

They asked of my thoughts on the Free Papua Movement. I answered as honestly that I could. That although I have an Indonesian bias, I was not born and raised in a land that is abused by foreign companies. The best I can do is support the right for Papuans to choose.

They asked me how old I was and why I decided to continue my education. They asked me how they can do the same and whether or not their being poor would hinder their efforts.

They asked me what my religion and ethnicity was. And with the chance to state my views prior to their questions, I understood from their gestures that having heard my answers – it did not matter to them.

I explained that it is very easy for people from Jakarta in particular and Java in general to compete. With sound infrastructure, the starting line of this sprint race is not the same. I also explained that there is increasing attention from international aid, in the form of scholarships, for East Indonesia. Do not stop.

If any of my students are reading this now, please realise that the competition is not fair. And it will remain unfair for quite a while. This sounds like a cliché, but while we fuss about not being able to watch Hollywood films during the weekends, some walk down mountains without shoes to receive basic education. It is the responsibility of the priviledged, because we were born in a social setting that makes it easier for us to be economically and socially mobile, to make sure we do what we can to make sure that nobody gets left behind.

Travel. Expose ourselves to less developed areas of the country (or the world). Choose a career line that is of benefit to other people. Living solely for our own happiness will sooner or later feel hollow and purposeless. At least for me.

It is not thoughtful, it is not even kind. It is being responsible; a lame attempt to avoid being ignorant. The cycle of inequality may only stop when we realise that it’s there.

And not keep quiet.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Questioning Religious Divides

Note: Article published at Inside Indonesia. Unfortunately it doesn't include the recent FPI-SCTV debacle. More reading here.

A recent film supporting religious pluralism stirs public debate

Inaya Rakhmani

In April 2011, thousands of Indonesian film-goers flocked to director Hanung Bramantyo’s latest film with the intriguing title of ‘?’ (Question Mark – in Indonesian, Tanda Tanya). Hanung has had a string of successful Islam-themed films starting with Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, a film addressing the personal aspects of polygamy. That was followed in 2009 by Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman with a Scarf around Her Neck) which dealt with Islamic feminism, still a highly controversial topic. In 2010, he directed Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener) which portrays the life of Muhammadiyah founder KH Ahmad Dahlan (1869-1923) as a progressive leader – one who was modern, open-minded and rational and dared to challenge the authority of the more dominant, traditional religious teachers of his time. Audiences now expect that Hanung’s films will deal with contemporary issues confronting Indonesian Muslims.

They were not disappointed with this year’s film. In ‘?’ Hanung once again deals with a sensitive issue, religious pluralism. The date of the film’s release, as well as its content, underlines its theme. Fresh in viewers’ memories were the September 2010 attack on Christian pastors in Bekasi, the devastating violent acts against Ahmadis in Cikeusik in February 2011 and the ongoing revoking of church permits, the latest that of Yasmin Church in Bogor in March 2011.

In contrast to the violence of the anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadi acts, which threaten peaceful co-existence between religious groups, the film ‘?’ centres on the intersection between people’s daily lives and their (chosen) religion. One of the film’s main characters, Rika, converts from Islam to Catholicism. Rika’s conversion is explained in a scene where her husband speaks about loving another woman, as if he is considering polygamy, while Rika cries in bed, hugging their son. Although Rika’s inner spiritual journey from Islam to her new faith is not revealed, the film touches on socio-cultural practices in Indonesia, particularly in multi-faith Semarang. The film highlights how these practices affect converts and community members of different convictions.

An illustration of such practices is provided by restaurant owner Tan Kat Sun, who shows sensitivity to the beliefs of his Muslim customers by using separate cooking utensils when preparing pork and non-pork dishes. He also allows his Muslim employee, the veil-wearing Menuk, to take prayer breaks during work hours. In these and other ways the film depicts the lived realities of religious practice, and shows the compassion and tolerance which can exist between community members.

With violent acts motivated by religious extremism on the increase in Indonesia, the film’s message is a significant one. The country’s commercial media in general and television stations in particular favour sensational news over quality journalism because the former attracts ratings. Hanung’s film offers an alternative and more nuanced view to the sensationalism and extremist positions that currently dominate Indonesia’s information and entertainment industry.

Conservative reactions

Hanung Bramantyo and his film ‘?’ have been heavily criticised by conservative Muslim groups. One example is the organisation Voice of Al Islam. In an online article entitled Hanung’s Film “?” Should be Entitled “The Apostate”, Voice of Al Islam claims that Hanung’s definition of tolerance erodes the faith of believers and is the gateway to hell. Desastian, author of the article, asserts that the film presents Islam negatively, as being ‘exaggerative, tendentious, and fatalistic’. In the same article, KH Cholil Ridwan, the Head of the Indonesian Ulama Council’s (MUI) Centre for Culture, stated that ‘The film clearly propagates religious pluralism, which has been declared haram (forbidden) for Muslims.’ He refers to the film’s opening statement: ‘Every path is different, but heads to the same destination: seeking the same entity with the same objective, God.’ He suggests that Hanung should learn how to recite and understand the Qur’an rather than speak about issues he does not fully comprehend.

Cholil seems to believe Hanung’s inadequate knowledge of Islam has led him to treat all religions as having the same goal. Yet, somewhat ironically, through his film Hanung argues that religious violence stems from ignorance. In an interview with the Jakarta Globe soon after the film’s release, he said ‘to wage a proper battle against the stupidity and ignorance that causes so many problems in our lives we should strive for a well-rounded and informed viewpoint’. In the same interview, he argues that ‘Islam today is readily associated with intolerance toward people of opposing faiths, acts of terrorism and even violent theology.’ It is clear that he is using the film to communicate his own views of religious tolerance.

Support for the film

The message on pluralism delivered by ‘?’ is apparently in line with the government’s current projection of religion as part of national identity. The Minister of Culture and Tourism, Jero Wacik, told journalists that the film should be entitled Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity, Indonesia’s national motto) for its depiction of ethnic and religious tolerance, particularly its depiction of Indonesia’s multiple ethnicities and religious groups. The minister says the film, particularly because it is made by an Indonesian, represents the nation’s character.

The online magazine, Majalah Madina Online, has also praised Hanung’s efforts to present a positive image of Islam in Indonesia. A supporter of religious pluralism, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Ade Armando, reminded readers that despite incidents of violence in the name of religion, Indonesia is a country that can nurture a peaceful Islam – one that respects diversity. Armando also praised the film’s main investor, Mahaka Pictures and its Chief Executive Officer, Eric Thohir, for supporting pluralist ideas. As Armando notes, ‘This is very important considering the fact that Mahaka is the company that also publishes Republika newspaper, known for its conservative position in on pluralism.’

A public ‘space’

The public debate surrounding the film is an interesting one. It is a general trend that institutional media, namely televised news programs, have mainly focused on Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. For instance, the strident demonstrations of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are often featured in the TV news. The FPI demonstrators with their loud chants, threatening gestures, and ritual burning of objects provide sensational footage and dramatic scenes which have become the staples of commercial television.

By contrast, Hanung’s ‘?’ provided the trigger to initiate an internet-mediated debate that questions the role of Muslims in a plural nation. Being a medium that does not rely on sensationalism to attract an audience, the internet provided a space for different and even opposing ideas to interact. While religious issues reported by television news often feature violence or provocative behaviour, the debate between Desastian and Hanung about ‘?’, was conducted in a low-key and even balanced way on Voice Al Islam’s website. Although Desastian and Hanung disagreed and sometimes used aggressive language, their arguments were rational and each respected the other’s right to speak their mind.

Readers of Armando’s article in Madina Online also praised Hanung for his depiction of religious tolerance although some condemned him for over-simplifying Islamic teachings. This was also the atmosphere when I saw the film in the theatre. A man in the audience audibly exclaimed ‘Astaghfirullah’ (God forgive me) in a scene where one of the film’s characters, Surya, a down and out Muslim actor, played Jesus in an Easter play. But when the film ended, I heard several members of the audience applauding and no one left the theatre in anger.

By its fifth day, ‘?’ had reached almost 100,000 viewers, a number predicted to grow to over one million by the end of 2011. The number of viewers indicates that Indonesians are interested in films which deal with sensitive topics in a realistic contemporary context. The relatively civil debate that ensued about the film’s subject matter indicates that that Indonesian citizens, be they film makers, audiences, or religious authorities are not always passive bystanders. When the state fails to protect vulnerable groups, some choose to use the internet to argue for the rights of those groups and peaceful co-existence. And, in contrast to the flowering of action at the end of the New Order, it is not happening simply because of the emergence of a more liberal political and economic climate – it is happening because Indonesians are actively seizing these new opportunities for debate.

Inaya Rakhmani ( is a Media Studies lecturer at the Department of Communication Science, University of Indonesia. She is currently completing her PhD thesis at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. She wishes to thank Dapur Film Productions and Voice of Al Islam for permission to publish images from the film.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Kompas TV, the TV Industry and the Issue of Local Identity

After built up curiousity, I spent the morning watching the newly launched Kompas TV. Although the station's broadcasting permit is still in question, it has begun airing since Friday, 9 September 2011. The argument stated by the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) was that, "They don’t have a broadcasting license and there is a possibility that they could override the identities of local television stations that will carry their programs in the regions." Kompas TV's own argument is that it is not a broadcasting institution. Kompas Gramedia CEO claims that it is a content provider produced by KG Production, aired through a cooperation with local TV stations. The basis of the KPI's warning is the 2002 Broadcasting Law that mandates for all television stations to seize airing nationally; in the attempt to empower local economy, manpower, and the autonomy for each area to determine the cultural content of their television landscape.

I set aside the debate on the legality of Kompas TV's broadcasting permit and observed its content. The 'content provider' claims to steer clear from the general trend of soap operas, reality shows and infotainments in the attempt to provide 'quality TV programmes'. While the main validation behind the proliferation of these 'tabloid-type' shows are 'market demand', ideological TV producers claim that the popularity of such programmes are because the TV industry does not provide any alternative. Being a virtually free entertainment option in a country where the majority falls in the middle-lower class category of AGB Nielsen's audience classification (approximately 60%), any form of television content is consumed. It is less market demand, more 'because we had no other choice'.

My own early observation of Kompas TV's content is that it attempts to reconstruct a television space that includes local ethnic identity that has been marginalised by the TV industry's mode of producing 'least objectionable programmes'. Under the heading of their entertainment programmes are travel documentaries such as Tarung (which is hosted by young blogger turned celebrity comedian Raditya Dika who is also often involved in various social movements), talkshow 180 derajat (hosted by TV personality, music artist, writer, and nationalist Pandji Pragiwaksono) and edutainment programme Science is Fun (aiming to teach young audience physics through experiments)*.

Through the variation of alternative television programmes that is almost absent in other national television stations, I question the feasibility and purpose behind challenging whether or not Kompas TV undermines local identity. The current television landscape is already undermining local identity and to counter the dominance of Jakarta-centric programmes, one needs to employ market logic that is still virtually impossible to be done by local television stations. Having talked to young audiences in Denpasar and Banda Aceh, I realise that although they desire local content, their own taste is shaped by decades of consuming nationally-aired commercial television programmes. "I don't watch local TV because its quality is so poor. If local TV is presented as attractive as the content of national TV, I'd definitely choose local TV," said a Banda Aceh respondent.

In order to rearrange the television industry's competition scheme, there should ideally be an effective regulation. Eight years have passed since the 2002 Broadcasting Law on Network Television is issued and commercial television stations still air nationally. Discreet political economy is at work, and unless a strong player with strategic programming emerges, the competition will mainly remain the same - continually undermining local economy and cultural content. Kompas TV's programming demonstrates that it has plans to rearrange this competition by providing a variation of quality television shows that includes local identity. And if the notion that the popularity of soap operas, reality shows and infotainment is because there is no alternative programmes - free market will work and and the audience will choose programmes that are of their interest, not (only) the industry's.

However, even if this happens, several issues still remain. Firstly, shifting power from one holder to another, regardless of whether or not the ideology is in line with the public's needs and wants, remains undermining towards the autonomy of local actors. The television infrastructure remains centred in Jakarta. Secondly, Kompas Gramedia Group has become one of the, if not the, largest media conglomerate in Indonesia. In the spirit of diversity of content and diversity of ownership, an idea that tries to ensure democracy is upheld through maintaining the plurality of media content and ownership, the Commission for the Supervision of Business Competition (KPPU) is obliged to monitor that the group is not violating any regulation that is set to ensure healthy competition between media corporations. Thirdly, Kompas TV's own attempt to rearrange the content of Indonesia's television landscape questions the role of the state in listening to the public's demands and reconstruct Indonesia's Post Authoritarian collective identity. With various movements that undermine the authority of the nation-state, from violence in the name of religion to the virtual absence of East Indonesia in the country's dominant culture, national identity becomes a crucial issue to moderate potential conflicts and clashing views. Because if the state, whose officials are elected 'democratically' by the public, does not strategise - the industry will.

*I can't help but note that there is a void of religious programmes, which perhaps is Kompas TV's attempt of deradicalisation - also demonstrated by its newspaper.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stand Up Comedy Indonesia

Yesterday evening, I finally had the chance to see Stand Up Comedy Indonesia. Like other 'anything new' in Jakarta, it is quickly becoming a burgeoning scene where those in their twenties and thirties flock to be part of the trend. Or so I had thought.

A few years back while I was writing a paper, I came across journal articles on humour studies. Before you throw an encyclopedia at my head for even over-analysing laughing, bear with me. Firstly, a joke can only be funny if it's socially and culturally acceptable as 'the norm'. Laughing needs to be politically correct. It is the reason why different communities, societies, countries, region, etc, have 'localised jokes'.

Secondly, we have a tendency to laugh, nervously, when we are in uncomfortable situations. When we forget someone's name, arrive late, or other trivial mistakes. Laughing is a 'normaliser of discomfort'. Bring that on a societal level, anything we laugh about signifies what collectively makes us uncomfortable. Last night's topics: gender stereotypes (Miund), being an Indonesian-Chinese (Ernest Prakasa), and being overweight (Mo Sidik).

The articles I read came into mind as I was seeing everyone perform. Out of the performers that night, Ernest left the deepest impression on me. Aside from the fact that I laughed my ass off during the whole 20 minutes he performed, he opened up cultural taboos that the pluralist in me thoroughly enjoyed. Being mugged (palak) as a Chinese boy and that the difference between an NU and Muhammadiyah Chinese is that a Muhammadiyah Chinese celebrates Imlek a day before.

Pandji Pragiwaksono's performance in Comedy Cafe.

And, the nerd that I am, I spent the night Googling and reading about the performers. Some of them had their own political mission. Mo Sidik is fighting against discrimination towards overweight people (i.e. how his nephews and nieces asked him to be an Angry Bird) and Pandji Pragiwaksono is a cancer activist who advocates for the use of marijuana in cancer-related medical treatments (i.e. the weed jokes).

Although the cynic in me could not help but realise that many of the people who came that evening, after hearing a joke, looked at the friends they came with to know whether the joke was funny or not (i.e. social approval); listening to the performers I have great respect in the movement and the interest behind it. I look forward to seeing more to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That of Banda Aceh

For the last phase of my PhD data collection, I travel around the country (Denpasar, Banda Aceh, Jayapura, Makassar, Jayapura, Banjarmasin, and, err, Jakarta) to explore the dynamics between Islam, national identity, and television culture among young Indonesians. I have completed my Denpasar and Banda Aceh visits and, as usual, what I've learned so far - although far from finished - has made me felt just about the size of a pebble.

I met with a former student of mine, a local Acehnese, and one of the most intelligent human beings I've had in my class. Overlooking Lampuuk beach, she told me about her childhood, the long history of violence in Aceh, and how, during dinner with family, they overhear gunshots and continue eating. "When a relative has gone missing, it means they're not coming back," she told me.

Lampuuk Beach, Aceh.

Exploring the thoughts of my Acehnese respondents, the local customs, the food, the panoramic view, and reading about its political history - it is difficult not to realise the uniqueness of this region. I believe if it were not for the acculturation between traditional Acehnese culture and Islam, the socio-cultural practices would not be as peaceful, particularly after three decades of military occupation.* I found instances that prove the implementation of Islamic law in Banda Aceh a result of consensus, far more consciously formed than most of Javanese Muslims I have come to know all my life.

I cannot help but fall in love a bit with Serambi Mekkah, where the women I meet veil their heads and not their minds.

* For those interested to read more about the history and culture of Aceh, I recommend Aceh: History, Politics and Culture by Arndt Graf, Susanne Schroter, Edwin Wieringa (Eds).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Islam is Losing the European War on Multiculturalism

By Pankaj Mishra

A few summers ago, I traveled to the central Swedish uplands for a conference. On the face of it, the subject “What Is the West?” seemed promising. What, indeed, was the West in the age of intensified globalization and mass immigration?

“Multiculturalism,” variously defined, had been under attack by centrist politicians trying to outflank extreme-right-wing parties across Western Europe. But was complete assimilation to European ways feasible, or even desirable, for immigrants of various ethnic and religious backgrounds?

Certainly, assimilation had made little difference to the fate of many in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Theodore Herzl wasn’t the only one to feel that “the Jew who tries to adapt himself to his environment, to speak its languages, to think its thoughts” was still identified as a potentially treacherous “alien” by fellow Europeans.

For me the question was not so much what “is” the West, but what could it be — whether, for instance, the increasingly multiethnic nation-states of Europe could create a dynamic and pluralistic identity for themselves, learning from the experience of the United States as well as multinational empires in the past.

Yet when I arrived at the conference, which included a number of prominent English and American academics and journalists, I was startled as one speaker after another stood up to angrily denounce Islam and Muslims as a serious menace to Western civilization.

Puzzlingly, few of these close readers of the Hadith and new experts on jihad seemed to know any European Muslims, or know that most of the targets of their anti-immigrant fury were nonobservant Muslims, grateful to be in Europe, indifferent to Shariah law and mostly concerned, like everyone else, with making better lives for themselves and their children.

Although supported by arcane scholarship, these denunciations were not much more sophisticated than those I grew up listening to in my upper-caste Hindu circles in India. In this self-flattering vision, Muslims were everything the rest of us were not: socially backward, economically parasitic, politically retrograde, prone to group-think and violence, in addition to being canny breeders and demographic terrorists.

The lone representative of the Muslim world among us, a Turkish scholar, protested that he couldn’t recognize this portrait of Muslims. He was ignored. In any case, the West’s real enemy for some speakers wasn’t Muslims but the feckless Western liberal believers in coexistence, who dangerously underestimated the threat to European values from Islam.

For these speakers, multiculturalists “might have been invented by Osama bin Laden himself,” as the writer Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, put it in his 2009 book, “Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom.”

The Western economies were then booming. The setting of the conference itself — a grand mansion with extensive grounds — spoke of a long and serene possession of power and wealth. And yet here were some extremely privileged men working themselves up into high degrees of rage and self-pity.

Trying to explain this bizarre spectacle, a well-known Swedish journalist told me that terrorist attacks and Muslim immigration in Europe had provoked great anxiety in Sweden and that the organizers of the conference — a Swedish business family with strong political connections — were trying to “come to grips with Islam.”

I now find that two of the most stridently anti-Muslim “thinkers” at the conference were major influences on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian accused of killing more than 70 people in Oslo last week. In his capacious manifesto, Breivik also exulted at the possibility of Hindu nationalists in India opening up another front against Muslims and “cultural Marxists.”

It is unreasonable to pin guilt by intellectual association on the authors of Breivik’s selective quotations. After all, this dedicated foe of weak-kneed liberals also drew upon John Stuart Mill. Yet the mass murder by an apparently lone and crazed man in Norway should also not deflect attention from the insidiousness with which crude prejudices about Islam and Muslims have become respectable in Europe in recent years.

Early this year, Sayeeda Warsi, a co-chairman of the British Conservative Party and a Muslim, was roundly attacked for claiming that prejudice toward Muslims had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable. But this simple truth is verified not only by Rupert Murdoch’s traditionally xenophobic tabloids but also by glancing at the so-called quality broadsheets and books produced by prominent trade publishers.

For example, Christopher Caldwell, a weekly columnist for the Financial Times, claimed in his 2009 book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” that Muslims were already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street.” It didn’t matter that Muslims constitute about 4 percent of the EU’s total population. According to Caldwell, “Muslim culture is unusually full of messages laying out the practical advantages of procreation.”

More such screeds have shaped European establishment and popular opinion since I wondered “What Is the West?” in Sweden. Let there be no doubt: All this helped bring us to the strange place where, when a madman kills more than 70 people because he thinks the West is being too soft on Muslims, the first impulse of many is to blame the horrific violence on — Muslims.

And, as once-strong economies weaken, more people go out of work, and fear and insecurity haunt ordinary lives, the influence of such propagandists rises. “Minorities,” the Indian-American social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has rightly warned, “are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality [real or imagined] in a world of a few mega-states, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties.”

At the best of times, there were no easy answers to the question of how the ethnically homogenous nation-states of Europe should accommodate Muslim populations. Now the “minority problem” lies hostage to the deteriorating health of European societies.

Europe has been here before. And we should hope that the murderous spree in Norway last week was the work of a certifiably mad loner. But, as extreme-right-wing parties flourish across Western Europe and bigotry goes mainstream, we would also do well to remember the novelist Joseph Roth’s words at a dark time — 1937 — in Europe: “Centuries of civilization are no guarantee that a European people, by some ghastly curse of fate, will not revert to barbarism.”


Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist based in India.

Reposted from

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Delusion of Being Free of Labels

"Before we can study the central issues of life today, we must destroy the prejudices and fallacies born of previous centuries."

Leo Tolstoy

And here is my effort.

Staying at a resort budding with tourists on their holidays, my son Malik and I were waiting in a crowded lobby for the elevator to reach our floor. To kill boredom, we counted the floor numbers appearing above its doors. I guess it was a pretty endearing sight seeing a 3 year old, in a shrill and over-excited voice, count, incorrectly, in English. So endearing that it caught the attention of a bearded Middle Eastern man and a woman wearing a black burqa.

In other social settings, I would have politely avoided contact, in respect to our different life choices. I assume that my wearing shorts and, compared to the burqa, revealing clothing, I would somehow offend them.

But perhaps I was a bit curious or wanted to raise my son free of labels. Or perhaps I wanted to teach myself a lesson. Usually it's all of the above.

So I asked Malik to say hi to them and anticipated him to gawk. I prepared myself to give him a simple explanation so that he could learn, because I expected him to be nervous or uncomfortable to see an otherwise unusual sight.

He wasn't.

He waved at them and smiled. To which both responded with extended hands and huge toothy grins. "Salaam," the man kindly said, a genuine smile on his face.

Throughout the interaction, I didn't even make eye contact for fear that I might offend. Psychology and sociology theories state that human beings have a tendency to fear what they don't understand, and to cure the fear, one needs to understand.

But my son doesn't yet understand and he had no fears.

Children don't (yet) see the world in black-and-white. I remember sitting next to a middle-aged British businessman on a flight a few years back. An expat in Indonesia, he put his son in a local school to learn the Indonesian language. When his son left the country, a classmate gave him a drawing of several children. All of them had brown skin; most of them had black eyes, and one had blue.

"The blue eyed one was my son," the man kindly said, a genuine smile on his face, "Painted in the same skin colour, the drawer saw my son as one of them who simply had different coloured eyes."

Too much do I read about prejudice and bigotry and stereotyping. Too much is our society driven by hate rooted in misunderstanding. We proudly think that we should 'educate' our children to tolerate, respect and understand the concept of a plural society.

At that resort, I planned to teach my son how to be free of labels. Turned out I was the one needing to free myself of them.

As I suppose most adults do.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

An End to This

"If I said in November last year that in seven months all Arab dictators will be overthrown or in the process to be, you would think I'm out of my mind. If I said in 1989 that communism will crumble in Moscow, you would think I'm crazy."

George Galloway on advocating for an Israeli-Palestinian nation state;
where both could coexist peacefully and be equal in the eyes of the law

Tempo July 2011 (translated from Bahasa Indonesia)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Religion, Sports and a Mediatised Public Space

Note: The post was rewritten into an article (in Bahasa Indonesia) and published at Madina Online, entitled 'Ekspresi Keberagamaan, Olahraga, dan Ruang Publik'.

'Does a space need to be devoid of all religious expression in order to be 'public'?'

Paraphrased from Bryson and Ouachtouki

This morning, I read a feature article in the newest Tempo Magazine on how sports regulation has made it difficult for female muslim athletes to participate. US weight lifter regional champion Kulsoom Abdullah (who is also Pakistani-descended and has a PhD in electronic engineering) was banned from the national championship for wearing a hijab. After protests lodged by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR, who is alleged by the US 'liberal' media as Hamas aligned), the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) is to hold a meeting by the end of this month to decide whether or not the rules should change.

FIFA also prohibited (although sources vary on the degree of the prohibition) the Iranian female football team to participate in the 2012 Olympics, in reference to Law 4 Decision 1 which states that the equipment used by the players should not contain any political, religious or personal statements. Through discussion I had with several football observers, the law was established in the context of sustaining FIFA's political independence. And, as anticipated, Ahmadinejad called FIFA a colonialiser who imposes its lifestyle on its members.

To call sports organisations imperialists is perhaps far-fetched. Having observed several (media) institutions and organisations in my own line of work, I cannot not realise that these laws and prohibition stem from an interaction of its members (along with their ideology and background), their funding sources, and the sociocultural context of the period within which it occured. FIFA has had a long history of quite rigid political independence, with a unique current leader, Blatter, who once suggested female athletes to wear tight clothing to attract audience and advertisers.

A similar debate was stirred surrounding the Badminton World Federation (BWF)'s new rule for female badminton players to wear skirts. The rule was 'misinterpreted' by the global media as a means to make the game more attractive for advertisers and audience, which invited protests from moderate muslim countries such as Malaysia who insisted that their athletes should wear tights underneath. The rule was quickly clarified by the BWF that it was never intended to position their female athletes as sexual objects (and is this not another form of politics, not to mention the consideration of advertisers and audience).

Mentioning a sports arena as 'politically independent' is a myth. Where is the line drawn between fair sportsmanship and the politics of appearance? Was Zidane's being an immigrant not used politically by Chirac to shape a pluralist France? Is that not relatable to Abdullah's hijab? Limiting someone's religious identity to the equipment they use during a play is an oversimplification. You could still identify, by his or her physical appearance, their racial identity - which is also intertwined with someone's religious identity. Perhaps they should change their faces as well then.

If this is the issue, prohibiting the use of the hijab, which, as argued by this article, is more a transcendental communication than it is a social statement such as a Christian wearing a cross (which I would also defend by the way), becomes a moot point. The issue is more appropriately aligned with safety, as it is easier for the player to be harmed during a game; which could easily be answered with innovating a high impact sports-safe hijab.

It's really overoptimistic to think that there could be a politically free public space. I think every member of society comes with their own ideological position - whether a muslim, an atheist, a feminist, a patriarch, an ultra-nationalist or a nomad. Our social position is an extension of our personal identity, and to become neutral is a myth. A public space is only as peaceful and civil (for lack of a better term) as our ability between members to respect and tolerate other, even disconfirming, forms of expression. One of the most important spaces is through sports (and its mediatisation). Its central notion that a game is 'fair' and its players equals (including in their right to look different) can provide a space where winning and losing is regardless of our ideology and how we express it.

Because in truth, the world does not.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Who is the 'East' in 'East and West'?

I found the article on the (In)compatibility of Human Rights and the Islamic Doctrine by Matthew Machowski conscientiously written and enlightening. My criticism towards the article is that, like the contemporary discourse on Islam, it is Middle Eastern centric. To be fair, the writer's research focus is on the Middle East, North Africa and Europe (like most scholars, journalists and commentators post 9/11 and/or the Clash of Civilisations).

I understand that the focus on Middle East is a result of a long history between the 'East and the West', international politics and power play, and, of course, oil. What I criticise is the denomination of the 'Islamic world' - as if muslims form a homogenous, unified and collective identity synonymous to Middle Eastern culture. All the more important for Asian thinkers (South, Southeast, East, Central, Asia Pacific) to write about socio-cultural practices of Islam, the implication of international politics and transnational movements in the region.

62% of the world's muslims live in Asia; Indonesia being the country with the most muslim population in the world (195.272.000) with Pakistan (160.829.450), India (154.500.000) and Bangladesh (129.681.509) coming in second, third and fourth respectively.

So why then, when one mentions Islam, the image that comes to mind is a mullah with a beard and a turban?

In spite of being home to the world's largest muslim population, Indonesia is not an Islamic state. The violent acts conducted by extremists are so far proven to be transnational movements aligned with Al Qaeda. There is a current trend of moderation done by mainstream muslim civil societies in Indonesia, relatively supported by the media and even more so with social media, to counter radicalisation. Democracy, with all its weaknesses in theory and practice, is continually being shaped by pragmatic, secular politics, a critical press, a commercial media system, idealist educational elites and a silent majority.

Yesterday, while interviewing a script writer of Islamic programmes for my thesis, he asked me why I chose this topic (Islam, national identity and the television industry). I have always been reserved towards revealing my own ideological position - perhaps for a lack of having one.

But I suppose I have revealed it pretty clearly here.

Oh, and here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Moderating Media

News on the Indonesian Islamic State (NII) has received much media attention in the past few months. My general observation on the Indonesian (liberal, commercial) press in particular have shown an effort of moderating such a threat to the nation state. I've read various headlines on how Indonesia's largest and moderate muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, reinforce that they acknowledge the country's constitution and fundamental views (the Pancasila ideology).

This morning, I've read five news articles and three journalistic photography on the Vesak. The country's largest newspaper, Kompas, included a quarter-of-a-page advertorial portraying a temple with a backdrop of a sunset, with an excerpt on finding peace within (which is one of the dominant teachings in Buddhism and perhaps to contrast against radicalism and violence).

What is currently happening starkly differs from the strategised domestification of religious diversity during Authoritarian Indonesia. The effort to moderate, coming from a liberal, commercial media as well as large muslim bodies, is perhaps motivated by the consciousness of a diverse society in theory and a commercial need to maintain universal values in order to speak to the larger market in practice. I find this very fascinating because it occurs in company of the virtual absence of a government that protects the right of marginalised minorities. And I cannot help but feel hopeful that perhaps something could work under the current system.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grey Matters: Between Puritanism and Pluralism

"The word 'to tolerate' is about power. By saying 'I tolerate you', you show of having a higher position than others."*

Philip Kitley, via Endah Triastuti

An article on Hanung Bramantyo's newest film ?, which portrays religious tolerance and conflict in Indonesia, provides an interesting insight on the debate that surrounds the issue. I followed several conflicting views expressed on social and institutional media and, more as an observer and less as an activist, I realised that in this public debate views have polarised into two.

The first view, voiced by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) advocated for the director to apologise for propagating an 'impure' means to practice Islam. Representatives of the clerical body, which comprises of the largest and most vocal muslim organisations in the country, advised Bramantyo to practice Quranic recitation (mengaji) instead of speaking of an issue he had no competence in.

The second view, voiced by Bramantyo himself, condemned violence in the name of religion. His expectation is that the film may send the message that Islam is a religion of tolerance. The film is a humanist one, attempting to establish the idea that every human being, despite the religion they have chosen to practice (correct me if I'm wrong, no atheists and/or agnostics were present in the film), are all trying to find God.

The first view is a theological one (puritanism), the second view more on the socio-cultural practices of religion (pluralism). Both views, although part of the same discourse, are arguing on different levels. That is why, I think, the debates between individuals and/or groups in social and conventional media becomes too heated to reach a civil (dis)agreement, let alone a consensus. In order for the ideas to converse, both would have to focus more on the socio-cultural practices of religion - not on theology.

I had a discussion yesterday with several very intelligent (young!) people and one argument caught my attention. He said, 'The debate has been over-simplified (mengerucut) to a contestation between 'radicals' and 'liberals'. It's difficult not to think whose interest and funding is behind such black-and-white views and whether or not they are trying to sway us from the actual grey area within which we can converse.'

My argument would be for the importance of focusing our energy not debating about how other people should practice 'religion' (how can you logically argue about something that cannot be rationalised, like 'faith'?), but more on how to respect that the process is a relative one. Liberals would say 'do not let our discourse be hijacked by radicals' and radicals would say the exact opposite thing. But as long as different ideas interact, and that 'the public' (whoever the hell that is) is willingly and consciously part of the 'grey area' - it becomes a tougher job for anyone, whatever interest they have, to hijack the discourse. And the moderators here, ideally, is the state - who should only intervene when the debate has turned violent.

I am fully aware that the issue is much more complex than what I've argued here. That (global and national) political economy works on such advanced levels I may never have the capacity to fully understand. That religious conflicts are commodities for the media industry. That the public is absent because we are scrambling to survive, let alone think. That religious problems have such a long history that it has become rooted in our collective subconscious.

But I cannot help but hope, that the ball is in 'our' court. That as long as disagreements are 'media'-ted, it can be civilised. That if we ask hard enough, the state will protect those who are vulnerable and not 'tolerate' violence.

That it is the responsibility of everyone who can afford to think, to say something.

Albeit in menial ways, like writing this post.

* I was curious because Kitley continued the quote with "And there is an interesting philosophical question about the word 'to tolerate'", so naturally I googled the etymology of the term 'tolerate'. Turns out in the 16th century, it means 'to endure' or 'to put up with'. So in line with this idea, 'to tolerate' does mean that we are above others because we are putting up with the presence of others. As if it is annoying to do so. In ideas of pluralism, I suggest instead to use the term 'respect' which means 'to look' or 'regard'.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Revolution and Social Media (Lim)

Here is a presentation on the revolution in Egypt and the role of social media by Merlyna Lim. I highly recommend anyone who is interested and/or professionally involved in the discourse of (Middle-Eastern) revolution and social media to read in thoroughly.

And below are my thoughts on her ideas:

Dear Teh Mer,

I’m inclined to agree with your assertion (Network, Narratives, Claim-Making). I’ve been reading your writing for years now and I both enjoy and agree with how you always attempt to draw a comprehensive historical view in approaching a phenomenon that is fueled (dilumaskan) by social media. I just had a long discussion with several of my students on this and my own temporary conclusion is the same. Social media provides a tool for human agency that is triggered by a socio-political and economic context that is framed by a larger global flow. I emphasise on global flow in relation to the idea of a ‘clash of civilisation’.

I’m really concerned about the aftermath of the current uprising in the Middle East. At the moment, the people have a common ‘imagined’ enemy. And the collective movement is a false one, as they’re motivated by fragmented social identities and ideologies. I fear that what will happen in Egypt and Libya is what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Maafkan, I’m rambling a lot (kalo kata mahasiswa ‘nyampah’). I really look forward to working with you one day.


Thursday, March 24, 2011


I did an amateur survey on Twitter.

In terms of friendship, if you had to choose, would you seek for kindred spirits or those who are able to give different perspectives?

Replies varied. Some argued that friendships need common ground and mutual field of experiences. Other argued that in seeking for solutions, you would need rational arguments - preferably ones you haven't thought of so that you make an informed decision.

Both stances made sense to me. The soft-in-the-head side of me thought of the possibility that both stances are valid and highly dependent on context. Maybe in certain conditions you would need friendships who confirm and in others you would need friendships that challenge.

After thinking, I decided we choose the people around us based on whether or not we want to be accepted for who we are, or if we want to be reminded of who we want to become.

Some of us are content with settling, that life is about being grateful, being secure and comfortable.

Some of us want to grow and be continually challenged to reach our utmost potential.

At the end of the day, we do what we have to to keep sane. The most important thing, then, is knowing what we want in life and how to get there.

And I guess that shouldn't just apply in our choice of friendships.

Oh, and thank you so much for those who spent time to reply such a trivial question. Cheers.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Hapless Groupie

The nerd herd, to which I am a permanent member, see intellectuals as rock stars (we are indeed a very sad bunch). Some are in awe of their brilliant arguments and avant garde philosophical thoughts. I, on the other hand, have a soft spot on how some of my favourite academics have the mentality of a 'life-long learner'. Their diction, stance, and remarkable consideration of various oppositional ideas project the image (for want of a better word) that they realise they can never know for sure. That their task is to try and understand, then explain.

And, oh, how some of them go beyond the discourse and are active in civil society movements (one of these rare breeds I have met with is Cees Hamelink, who is also a talented pianist).

And today, on this sunny Saturday, this particular self-proclaimed nerd visited Stewart Hoover's blog. Then she couldn't stop reading. And reading.

I have read his books and journal articles but there is just something about blogging that reveals the personal thoughts of a writer. I found him extremely humble with not an ounce of arrogance (or perhaps I have grown heavily biased).

One of the posts I enjoyed the most was on the depiction of the Muhammad cartoons.

And I'll just go to read some more.

PS: My favourite Indonesian academic's (Merlyna Lim) blog is here.

Friday, March 18, 2011


How much does your life weigh?

Imagine for a second that you're carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things: the shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV.

The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack.

Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office. And then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend.

You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag.

Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises.

The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living.

Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans.

We are not swans. We are sharks.

Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air
(Jason Reitman, 2009)

One of my favourite film quotes of the decade (2000-2010)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Pushover

I have a dear friend who openly uses derogatory terms to refer to people and/or social groups who violate human rights and/or disturb public order. He said these people deserve it and that no other term could suit them better. Although I do agree that some people are menace to society, I still disagreed with the means. My argument was that it induces more hatred and the domino effect continues. We finally agreed that it takes various types of people to make the world go round.

Then last night, I talked to another dear friend about how, although we see eye to eye on almost every other thing in life, we respond in such different ways to the same 'stimulant' when it comes to offense. When being treated unfair verbally, she fights back. Not necessarily to inflict pain, more to defend herself from further harm. When someone does the same thing to me, I would perhaps apologise for causing pain.

Whenever I face an emotional conflict, I cannot help but think about how everyone, in-exclusively, are products of how they were raised. How we respond emotionally to certain things (as emotions are raw reactions to social stimulation - different from premeditated logical thinking), are inextricably linked with how our identities were (are) constructed. That some of us respond a certain way because it's the only way we know how.

Maybe they were denied education (or received too much of it to avoid becoming cynical), maybe they were never hugged by their parents, maybe they have seen too much suffering to believe in humanity. Or maybe, like my friend, they were just trying to protect themselves.

Considering all these possibilities, I cannot muster the will to harbour any resentment. I figure that like me, they're only trying to do their best in life with the tools they have and the perspective they've adopted.

And so I continue to apologise, sometimes rightly so, sometimes only to make things worse.

Because, perhaps, it's also the only way I know how.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rite of Passage

This was such a good read I felt the unbearable need to write. And this particular paragraph made me both laugh and think at the same time (in that particular order):

Our supposed great heroes in movies always seem to walk off into the sunset at the end. In a discussion on men, Richard Rohr humorously asks, "Where the hell are these guys going?". Somehow it looks cool as they do their thing in the story line, and walk off into the sunset, but seriously where are they going?

Media scholars, anthropologists, psychologists, what-have-yous have argued that entertainment is the space within which our collective subconscious, as we practice (or deny) them socially, emerge. It is mundane and it is leisurely nature but at the same time it is difficult to explain why we voluntarily 'consume' them.

I am inclined to believe that this argument is valid. That whatever is repressed by structure, our responsibilities and conformation, will emerge in what we do in our free time. Because it's our means to regulate stress.

Assuming so, then these heroes that walk into the sunset is a result of how men are repressed structurally. The writer continues:

Rohr goes on to say that the fruit of any retreat, or travel, or whatever else you want to call it, is the return. It is when the person goes out, acquires something new, and brings it back to others. This is something that most people have no concept of these days, because we've abandoned meaningful initiation rites.

You can argue that this is a (post)structuralist view and that our (global) society is slowly leaving behind such rigidity. But, although I am not a man, my personal response towards traveling (I travel around 1 to 5 times a year for work) is similar. My leave is only as meaningful as the home that I return to.

I refer to my last post where I argue that I use my head most of the time. But when it comes to 'regulating stress', I think it's a universal virtue that all human beings seek for comfort. In the peak of depression, most of us go in a fetal position in reference to our pose in the womb. That after all of the adjustment, challenge, adventure, our 'rite of passage' so to speak, we have a need to feel secure.

But for some, although not myself, it may be for the sole reason of recharging for the next adventure.

[Insert shot of man walking into sunset here. To which I would ask, 'Dude, where the hell are you going?']

Thursday, March 10, 2011

That Sandstorm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn.

Haruki Murakami

Part of life is not knowing. That endless doubt that follows us around like a stray cat, no matter how sure we are of our choices - there is always the 'what if'. That suppressed thought in the back of our heads.

I've grown into depending on my head most of the time. Instead of dwelling in the doubt, I simply do a cost and benefit analysis (eye-roll permitted, it actually works). I refuse to dwell if it is not worth my while. I figure life is hard enough as it is, why wallow. If I've made a choice consciously, what I can do is deal with the consequences. I am not in control of anything aside from my own thoughts and actions.

But once in a blue moon, I listen to my heart. I stand still in the sandstorm and accept that sometimes I cannot even control myself.

And in not knowing, there is a sense of surrender that I know my head can never fully grasp for the sole reason that logic is limited - but my heart is not.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Global Islam: Between Images and Reality

By Dr. Muhamad Ali

Globalization has made the world of Islam more heterogeneous than homogeneous. It continues to shape Islam identities and moralities, imagined or real, at both global and local levels. What is conceptually homogenous is Islam itself, but what it means differs.

Globalization in its broadest sense is not new, and early Islam normatively preached trans-racial, trans-ethnic solidarity of the community of the believers, although information technology today has made them even more aware of the world.

Islam emerged as a local path of Prophet Muhammad and his followers, but with the power of the Koran and Arabic, Islam has ever since become increasingly global, crossing non-Arabic Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. From early times, Muslims have been politically divided into the Shiite and the Sunni, the Khawarij, the Murji’a, the Mu’tazila, and so forth, although the efforts to unify them have never ceased.

Of course, Muslims read the Koran, commanding them to be united in the rope of God, not to be divided into sects, but there is neither linear nor teleological history of Islam, as if all Muslims are progressing from the chaos to the orderly.

Elements of the old and the new, the normative and the practical, the just and the unjust, have interacted in ways that vary from people to people and from time to time. There is no one direction of Islam today, as was the case in the past.

The lack of one global leadership of Islam has been felt as a challenge to the unity by some of the believers reviving the caliphate when this same deficiency is cherished by most other Muslims scattered in and working through their nation-states, ethnicities, social or political organizations.

The phrase “the Muslim world” itself is problematic if it means there is real, effective, face-to-face unity among most Muslims in the world today.

Of course, in Islamic sermons and publications, prayers are recited for Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other conflict areas where Muslims suffer from war.

But when people talk about global or transnational Islam, or Islamic revivalism, they refer to the fundamentalist, “Islamist”, “jihadist”, very little to the progressive, sometimes liberal orientations and expressions that exist.

Being socially and modernly constructed, the labels are felt necessary in people’s attempt at simplifying complex realities, but the perception of Islamic fundamentalism as the main player in global discourse and politics has not become weaker.

Thus, people today are not used to pointing to the Turkish Fethullah Gulan Movement, the Indonesian Muhammadiyah or the Nahdlatul Ulama, progressive Muslim networks, which have become increasingly no less global than hard-liners such as al-Qaeda, Jamaah Islamiyah, or the more diverse Muslim Brotherhood.

At the same time, much ignorance and instant information about Islam and Muslim societies: with so much information and variables available in TV programs, films, novels and the Internet, Muslims and non-Muslims alike do not necessarily have the knowledge to comprehend the complexity. Thus it may be easier to find a claim that Islam is an intolerant religion among the Islamophobic societies or to read another that claims it is a tolerant, peaceful religion among the devout preachers and committed leaders.

With other religious and secular leaders, Muslim leaders from Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and other countries have been promoting global tolerance, balance of power and peace, searching for a common ground, although still limited to the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, albeit still exclusive of other faiths.

Within the global religious markets, Muslim leaders and scholars, often along with non-Muslim counterparts, have thus been more preoccupied with correcting the images or what they call misperceptions about Islam and Muslims, but they generally are not interested in acknowledging the degree of diversity and complexity of Islam and Muslims. There is an obsession with image-correction.

The conspiracy or global makar theory, neo-imperialism, clash of civilizations and cosmic war have remained crucial parts of global public discourse.

But it is more difficult to find individuals and people who seek to understand both the complexity of Islam and the complexity of other religions and faiths, including secularism and liberalism.

Global Islam is the world of diversification, democratization and polarization of religious information and authority; no group represents or has the authority to orient all the Muslims across the globe, toward a real, unified community of believers.

The homogenization of the world of Islam has always been prayed for and preferred by many leaders, driven by both scriptures and real disunity, but problems and issues have endlessly polarized Muslims everywhere, not always as Muslims but as members of particular ethnic, national or political groups. Their immediate concerns are far more urgent for them to be addressed in their localities.

As minorities, some Muslims have just started to debate how to be French Muslims, American Muslims, Australian Muslims and so forth, and as majorities, many Muslims continue to negotiate their place in an increasingly pluralistic society. Even within the nation-states and provinces, Muslims are divided into various factions, political or non-political.

At the national and local levels, it is not so obvious for global citizens to recognize that many Muslim networks and organizations locally have contributed to addressing not so much Islamic problems but shared problems, such as governmental corruption, poverty, illiteracy, injustice, health, environment and violence.

Such local efforts in dealing with immediate problems with or without collaboration among Muslims, or between Muslims and non-Muslims, strengthen the diversification of Islam, rather than unifying it into a single global management.

There is no global or local, social or political engineering that would be effective enough to homogenize the world of local Muslim societies everywhere. Muslims have long been active participants in localizing their “universal” worldview, thereby pluralizing the world. Perhaps it is God alone who knows best the mystery of human unity and diversity.
The writer, author of Bridging Islam and the West: An Indonesian View (2009), is an assistant professor in religious studies, University of California, Riverside.

Retrieved from one of my favourite blogs:

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pekom 2011

I have always known that I loved teaching.

I love seeing the spark in the students' eyes when they've figured out something new. I love not being able to answer tough questions, which makes me read more. I love the interaction, the generation of ideas, the challenge.

I don't even care how cheeky I sound.

Today was just one of those days where I was reminded of that passion. Seeing them openly disagree and argue touched me in ways I can't describe. I look forward to the day when they will outgrow me. And I know when that happens that I didn't do such a crappy job in transferring knowledge.

After all:

One repays a teacher badly if one only remains a pupil.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Running in Circles

I was reading a book on Ancient Egypt to my son (I swear he chose the book) when a friendly sentence caught my attention. Paraphrasing:

We call the Egyptians ancient because they lived as a society since 8000 years ago. They were good farmers, established complex court systems and was led by Pharaohs. Can you imagine what people 5000 years from now would say about the way we live today?

Last night I did some obsessive-compulsive Googling about South Asia and I couldn't help but wonder. That all of us, in-exclusively, are part of a great power play. Our belief system, our religion, the language we speak, are shaped by those who are in power. It has happened for thousands of years and it will not stop unless the world does.

I remember reading somewhere (at some point I lose track) that if we were born in pre-Islamic Middle East we would worship the sun, if we were born in 10th century Rome we would believe in Catholicism, and if we were born a 'mere' 500 years ago in the same exact place I am in now we would believe in either Kejawen, Hinduism, Buddhism or Animism.

I have in fact been aware of this reality since I lecture about it as well. And this is just one of the moments where I realise the more I find out, the more I realise it's true. The more I realise it's true, the more I feel the need to establish my own belief system - one that is apart from who has power over my mind on a socio-economic and political level.

And I end this inner dialogue with a recycled quote from Kierkegaard (which just goes to show that I'm just running in circles most of the time).

Our life always expresses the result of dominant thoughts. That's why people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Have a good Sunday.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Learning to Be

This semester I'm teaching one of my favourite classes: Critical Analysis on Indonesian Mass Media. We were talking about Frankfurt School's Erich Fromm and his idea on 'to have or to be'. We talked about how in a capitalistic society, we have a tendency, that we are built, to possess. That in purchasing things, consuming things, we have no other notion than to possess everything else in life.

It extends into how we treat our loved ones. That they, too, are our possession. That if they are not within our reach, they are not there.

I see my son and how he's growing into his own person. I imagine the day when he decides to experience his own journey and make decisions I might not have expected him to. And I refer to Fromm's idea that he is not mine.

Nothing is essentially ours.

What we have is the experience. The journey, so to speak. It's a depressing thought, to think that everything is temporary - but it inevitably is.

And I think only by letting go can we truly be.