Professor John Raines, Temple University
This is an e-mail to a rather large and diverse group of people. It includes department colleagues, friends overseas, some jounralists, and also family. I will send these occasionally. I call this "News From Jakarta."
I am here in Jakarta on a Fulbright Senior Scholar award, and will be in this city and country for the next four months. You can reach me by e-mail at the address on this letter.
What an extraordianry bit of good luck in timing. More than a year ago I applied for this Fulbright. At that time Habibie was Acting President, and it was expected that either he or Megawati would be elected President. At that time, part of my proposal was to work with one of our graduates, Dr. Alwi Shihab, to start the first Master's Degree in Comparative Religious Studies in the country at the University of Indonesia. Well, history stepped in. Neither Habibie nor Megawati got elected but instead a Muslim cleric by the name of Abdurrahman Wahid (nicknamed "Gus Dur"). It just so happened that Alwi has for years been a close confident of Wahid and was chosen as Minister of Foreign Affairs in this new government. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I have friends in very high places over here.
And it is an interesting government. I think folks in the embassy and also in Washington sense that we have in Gus Dur a very important opportunity. I don't need to tell you how biased and generally negative the media reporting on Islam has been in the USA. Most folks back home (from here) think of Muslims as narrow minded, conservative on women's issues, awash in oil money and at the same moment in poverty, and sometimes dangerous and violent.
Well, here is a Muslim cleric whose instincts are progressive and democratic. Here is Alwi Shihab whom we know for his intelligence, his positive enjoyment of difference, his sense of humor and good sense--here is this friend of ours who is the President's righthand man. And all of this in a country that is the fourth largest in the world, and the world's most populace Islamic society (more Muslims here than in the entire Middle East put together). What an opportunity, it is sensed by a lot of us, to let the North American audience get a very different picture of the realities of Islamic culture and civilization.
You put Christianity and
Islam together and you have over half of the world's population.
As we know, the past relationship of these two religious trajectories through
time has, for the most part, been filled with
You have probably been reading about recent violence (as distinguished from East Timor) in some of the outlying islands. The reasons behind that are complex. Part of it is historical. The divisions between ethnic groups has from the past taken on a religious coloring. And there are inherited legacies of past violence, mayhem and destruction--still remember, still ready to fire up once again. Then there is the Asian meltdown of 1998, which persists here in Indonesia. The unemployment rate is set at about 50%. When Bonnie and I were here in 1994, the streets of Jakarta had no beggars. Today, everytime there is a stop light the young boys and girls come up to the closed windows and hold out their hands. I haven't seen this kind of poverty since Manila in 1987. Well, the shattered dreams of perpetual upward mobility (and most folks in this country start out that dream at below poverty level)--this mixes into the brew of hot tempers and short fuses. But probably key in all of this is the role of the army. The army has in this country since independence in 1945 played a politically active role, and taken advantage of that role to acrue to well placed generals millions of dollars in personal wealth. The man they wanted was not Gus Dur. In fact, none of the leading candidates fed their hopes for continued unchallenged power and fortune. But Gus Dur replaced key generals from the army in sensitive posts with admirals from the navy or generals from the airforce. The implications were not lost upon the generals, who in the outlying islands are often the real rulers (not the political figures). They took these moves to be, what in fact they were, the attempt of Gus Dur to bring the armed forces under civilian control, or at least a semblance of that. And they had run and mostly owned all the action under Suharto, especially in the islands beyond Java. By encouraging ethnic violence these generals accomplish two things. They warn Gus Dur to go slow by showing him the limits of his power and their own continuing power. They also create an atmosphere of crisis and fear, which in the past has led the majority of folks in this country to see as the first order of national business the matter of security. And by definition, this puts the army in the strong public position of being the only ones who can deliver on what the public wants. Yes, what you read about in the papers as ethnic and religious violence is mostly the politics of violence as orchestrated by a group of disgruntled and unscrupulous generals!
Here in Jakarta the drama
works itself out. The city is presently without violence, has only
occasional demonstrations, and feels perfectly "safe" for this obvious
stranger. I have chosen to live in a mostly Indonesian area. I don't
want to spend my time around those whose ways and purposes I already know.
Living on the ground and day to day amongst these mostly Malay Muslims
I continue to be stunned and delighted by the sense of welcome and cordiality
with which I am greeted. Day or night, I wander around my neighborhood
on foot. It is teeming with people! The population of this
city has been put at 12 million. As in other huge Asian cities the
rich and the poor here do not, or at least often do not live in separate,
distinct and distant neighborhoods. Take my situation. I have
a very comfortable apartment in a skyscraper apartment complex of some
12 34-storey towers. It is thoroughly middle and upper middle class.
But right outside is a squatters village--small shacks densely packed in
a thick Palm grove, where there is no electricity or public plumbing.
These folks have set up small shops that line the street that stretches
two blocks from the apartment complex to the main street where the shopping
mall and supermarket are. So
I have no prediction about how things will work out for this new government. It is a struggle in full force. I certainly know who I want to win that struggle and why. And there is a reasonable chance they will. Our friend, Alwi, is turning out to be just as accomplished, intelligent, restrained, open, dedicated and modest as we remember him. I hope he and Gus Dur get a sustained chance to show the rest of the world what a tolerant, democratic and progressive Islam looks like.
More another time.
Information: Professor Leonard Swidler, Religion Dept., Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122; Tel: 215-477-1089; Fax: 215-204-4569; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: http://blue.temple.edu/~dialogue