Monday, October 06, 2008

OPINION: What do Aussies really know about Indonesia?


Indonesia is our closest neighbour. It also happens to be the largest Muslim-majority state in the world. Yet just how much do Australians know about Indonesia? At one time Indonesian was almost as commonly taught in high schools as French and German. My Grade 5 Social Studies exam in 1980 included a question on Pancasila, the 5 principles of Indonesian civic life. But today, for many Australians, Indonesia is represented not by its shadow puppetry or its batik artistry. Instead, we view Indonesians as smiling replicas of Amrozi, the convicted Bali bomber facing execution.

But what do ordinary Indonesians think of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah? Estimates of JI’s membership vary from just under 100 to several thousand. Compare this to Nahdhatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim religious organisation, whose youth wing alone has over 10 million members.

I personally never realised just how much ordinary Indonesians hated the Bali bombers until I actually went there in January 2006. I was part of a delegation on an exchange program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute (AII) and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.

Before leaving for Indonesia, our delegation was given a briefing by AII experts about Indonesia, its history, politics and its unique approach to religiosity. Once we reached Jakarta, we visited the Australian Embassy where we were advised by embassy staff to tome down our Aussie-style brashness when meeting with ordinary Indonesians, who rarely engage in blunt or deliberately controversial discourse even when the strongly disagree with each other.

Our AII tour was no sheltered workshop with visits limited to groups on friendly terms with the Australian embassy. We were politely grilled by Indonesian journalists, many of whom saw Australia as being defined by Pauline Hanson and the Cronulla riots. We were also exposed to every kind of Indonesian Islam you could imagine – from firebrand charismatic Salafis to ecumenical interfaith activists of Interfidei to youth reps of Muhammadiyah and Nahdhatul Ulama (Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisations) to students at a traditional pesantren or religious boarding school.

At a university in Jogjakarta, I met a Balinese student researching the impact of the Bali bombings on the economy of not just Bali but also nearby islands and even eastern and central Java, Indonesia’s economic and cultural heartland. A year later in Sydney, I met another Balinese chap in Australia visiting on an AII exchange program. This fellow requested me to take him to Cronulla Beach. I assumed it was to see the scene of the 2005 race riots. It was only when I saw him reciting traditional Muslim prayers reserved for one’s deceased relatives at the memorial for Bali victims that I realised why he really wanted to be there.

Many Australians died in the Bali bombings, but so did many Indonesians. Thousands of Indonesian families and communities had suffered loss of livelihood and severe poverty thanks to the terrorist attacks in Bali. Mentioning Amrozi and other Bali bombers exhibits the kind of uncharacteristically brutal response we was told Indonesians only rarely exhibit. If more Australians understood just how unpopular the Bali bombers are in their own country and just how many ordinary Indonesians’ livelihoods have been destroyed, we would understand exactly why Amrozi smiles so much.

When Indonesians smile or chuckle, it’s often out of embarrassment or shame. It’s possible Amrozi’s smile is of this kind. His words may be defiant but Amrozi knows millions of Indonesians are looking forward to his execution.

Most Indonesians are Muslim, but their Islam doesn’t fit popular stereotypes. My AII delegation stayed in the hostel of a popular Muslim televangelist known to his followers as Aa Gym and who once had millions of young urban Indonesian followers. His message of Manajemen Qulbu (literally "heart management") has proven far more popular than the rants of Abu Bakar Bashir.
Aa Gym’s sex scandal spoiled his popularity. Admittedly, this was no ordinary televangelist sex scandal. With the permission of his existing wife, Aa Gym took on a second wife. Almost overnight, he went from being religious rockstar to social outcast. His followers were seen tearing up his posters on national TV.

Indonesians may have little tolerance for polygamy, but they have even less tolerance for extremist violence. The bombs of Amrozi and Imam Samudra don’t discriminate on the basis of religion, even if their sick demented political theology does.
Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and research associate at the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre. An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun on Monday 6 October 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf


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4 comments:

Anonymous said...
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basha said...

Irf, why do you allow human scum to leave nasty comments on your blogs?

Anonymous said...
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john said...

Thanks, Irf, for a sensible analysis on Indonesia. I always suspected Indonesians were as unfond of terrorism as we are.