Monday, November 12, 2007

Indonesia is not adequately represented

Opinion and Editorial, The Jakarta Post (November 12, 2007)

Al Makin

What has often concerned me, and perhaps many other Indonesians, is what was portrayed by the International Herald Tribune on October 29. The daily describes Indonesia as "the invisible giant of South East Asia". Whether it is a complement or with contempt, it is up to us interpret it. In either case, it leaves us with so many questions.

Among the questions is how to represent Indonesia better or more properly at the international level. In this regard, one may relate it to the latest visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Jakarta.

Does this indicate that the Muslim world in general has already taken Indonesia into account in the international political arena? The answer could be yes and no.

The first may be true though, as Indonesia is a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. In addition, we can perhaps be proud of our achievement in advancing democracy. It is therefore important -- lets say from the political consideration -- for Mahmoud Abbas to visit Indonesia to win support for Palestine's peaceful struggle for sovereignty.

The second answer, however, may be true, too. This can be seen by when the Palestinian President also visited Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia does not seem to make a difference from neighboring Muslim countries.

Forget about our record of corruption, problems with poverty, and less prioritized education in the state budget -- these have already embarrassed us enough. Let us find our remaining strength, that is our national assets as a plural society in terms of religions, cultures, traditions, and ethnicities. We used to be so proud of it, which might enable us to boast how tolerance we are with regard to our diversity.

Unfortunately, this is also not so well represented and not many nations know our unique character. The following illustration may confirm this.

In the last few months in Germany, the public debate about establishing a big mosque for Muslims in Cologne has been so heated. Pros and cons have colored the media ranging from newspapers, TVs, and even personal blogs. Not to mention that Cardinal Karl Lehmann made comments on the matter a few months ago; this has also invited a long public discussion.

To present his words directly, "...dann mvchte ich in Saudi-Arabien Gottesdienst halten drfen, ohne verhaftet zu werden (...then I can also perform church-service in Saudi Arabia, without being bothered)."

What strikes me is why did he not recall St. Marie Church, known as Gereja Katedral, located just in the opposite of Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta. How proud I am, if any German mentions this symbol of tolerance in which two big houses of God belonging to different religions can stand side by side.

Unfortunately, some comments that I read in the internet rather recall the existence of some churches in Egypt or other Middle Eastern Muslim countries.

The position of Indonesia in the map of studies in Islam in general. That said, in this field many still subscribe to the view that Islam in the country is still peripheral, if not marginal. The center of this religion, according to this perspective, is always in the Middle East.

If somebody wants to know more about Islam, it is therefore advisable to come to the countries in that region to learn their cultures and languages.

Apart from what we have seen, not all are bad stories. It is worth remembering that Bogor last April became the host of the International Ulama Conference.

According to the results from the meeting, a peaceful solution for the crisis of Iraq was endorsed. Regardless of the effect of the meeting, the role of Indonesian Muslim leaders can be said to be central. At least Hasyim Muzadi-a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama-and Din Syamsuddin-a leader of Muhammadiyah-contributed in pioneering this meeting.

Lately, few works of young Indonesian scholars have appeared in the international publication, such as those of Fuad Jabali, Amirul Hadi, Fauzan Saleh, Arskal Salim, Noorhaidi Hasan, Etin Anwar, Nadirsyah Hussein and others. Some have also written in international journals. This, however, is still far from sufficient to represent Islam in Indonesia to the wider international audience.

Compared to the same works written by Middle Eastern or South Asian scholars, the latter is still much more dominant. How can one know the unique character of Indonesia, if Indonesians do not represent themselves sufficiently?

How can one know that secularization and democratization in the Muslim world took place not only in Turkey, but also more uniquely in Indonesia? Shall we wait for other foreign names to represent us? Then the younger generation will quote their works, for the sake of authority?

What we have mentioned slightly deals only with formal topics: political, social, and scholarly aspects of Indonesia. In other sectors, to use a wild guess, we are not in so different a situation.

Taking a train between Heidelberg and Mannheim, for example, my eye catches accidentally an advertisement of Malaysian tourism standing in one of the stations. In the picture, an Asian girl relaxes on the cradle hanged between two coconut-trees in a sunny beach. This leads me to think that we have many types of scenery that are more beautiful in numerous islands of Indonesia. The problem is that when and who will hang their pictures here.

The writer is a lecturer at State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta. He is also a Ph.D candidate at Heidelberg University, Germany and can be reached at