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Thoughts on the run in Indonesia

by Irfan Yusuf

I am sitting here in an internet cafe near the Hotel Ibis in Yogyakarta, Indonesia's major university town. Our delegation of five Aussie Muslims has just had a meeting with students and staff at the Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at the Gadjah Mada University.

We are now entering the second week of our Indonesian escapade, a tour of young Muslims organised by the Australia Indonesia Institute. We are discovering how much awesome variety exists in this extraordinary country. I am writing these lines in a hurry, and apologise to readers in case this seems like a disorganised jumble of thoughts.

If Australians think they are an open, multicultural and pluralistic society, they should understand that our multiculturalism is child's play compared to the multiculturalism we witness in this, the world's largest Muslim country.

And Aussie Muslims in particular have plenty to learn. In this awesome and hauntingly beautiful land, Islam has adapted itself to a wide variety of cultural and linguistic settings.

In Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia you will find women sitting side by side with men in the largest mosque in South East Asia. The Masjid Istiqlal (Independence Mosque) has no separate entrance for men and women. Everyone worships in the same hall. There are no curtains. Women enter the mosque, regardless of how they are dressed.

Across the road from the mosque is the Catholic Cathedral of Jakarta. When parking in the Cathedral overflows for services, worshippers use the mosque carpark.

Today I met a Muslim Balinese student studying in “Jogja” (as Yogyakarta is often referred to by locals). He told us that in Bali, it is almost impossible to tell if a person is Muslim or Christian or Hindu from their name. He also spoke of how Balinese people of all faiths are suffering because of the drop in tourism since the Bali bombings. Many talented Balinese students are finding it impossible to study in universities as their families cannot afford the tertiary fees. Such students are forced to terminate their studies in Year 12.

I also met a Muslim girl from Java. She wears a “jilbab”, the word Indonesians use to describe a headscarf. I asked her name, and she told me she was called “Sita”. I was surprised because Sita is a name typically associated with Hinduism.

In India, one would rarely find a Muslim girl named Sita. But in Indonesia, people are proud of their Hindu heritage. Hindu names are still used even by the most observant Muslims. Tonight we will be seeing a traditional play using shadow puppets. The play tells the story of the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic.

Many people think Indonesian women are covered from head to toe. But anyone who sets foot on a Jakarta footpath will see young girls wearing hipster jeans and tank tops. The young guys are all dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Just like at the mosque, segregation is hardly anywhere to be seen.

We leave Jakarta on 29 November. Sadly, we will miss seeing Chinese New Year, now a public holiday in Indonesia. Things have changed since the Suharto era when Chinese culture was relatively suppressed and Chinese had to adopt Indonesian names to move up the social ladder. Today, Mandarin programs are show on free-to-air TV, and Chinese New Year is even celebrated in many mosques.

In my next installment, I will tell readers about the work of a heroic group of Muslim women trying to help women suffering from domestic violence. Like in most countries, the scourge of violence against women exists in Indonesia.

I'll write more soon. I have to go to the bathroom to attend to the results of eating too much chillied and spicy food!


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Travelling Indonesis

Irfan sounds like a great time. My mistake was the lettuce. Beware the lettuce. I loved my time in Indonesia too where I travelled by myself.

It was in Jokjakarta that I met Honey who introduced me to two Indonesians of significant military rank and very charming and polite. Being incredibly naive at the time, it took a while before I realised that Honey was a high class prostitute and all were finding it very amusing. They were very keen about Australia, having had training liason experiences with our military and good memories.

Another week , when sick and alone and of course shopping, a shop keeper took me home to his mum who gave me some medicine and wouldn't accept any present or money for it. That was the lettuce problem by the way.

When I lost my motorbike key in the middle of nowhere jungle, it was the local colonel in charge who happily organised his juniors to get the locksmith out to my bike, make a new key and then bring in to us. In the mean time we again chatted about Australia. It turns out that his German Shepherds were trained there, and he went too for some reason, a while ago, and he was the perfect gentleman and I was very grateful and he asked me to pay for the junior soldier's gadogado meal for all his trouble that day, as a tip.

 It is the usual story, the people of a country are generally kind and generous, helping strangers and making friends. What a shame a small group's power and money pit us against each other.


PS Amanda Vanstone has shown great courage to grant the visas, and the Indonesian government has been most definite in it's outrage. I wonder if Ruddock would have had the moral fortitude to adhere to the law in such a situation. And consider the renewing of licences and mining protests.

multicultural feast

My comment comes a bit late (I haven't been able to look at this diary for quite a while) but the topic is as relevant now as it was two months ago.

Perhaps it is appropriate, now we found Irfan depicting Indonesian society as a multicultural feast, to remind people that large minorities, such as notably the Papuans, are excluded from this banquet. 'Remind' is perhaps the appropriate word because information about this seems to have reached large numbers of Australians (though it apparently hasn't reached characters like Andrew Bolt, who declared last Sunday in a television program that he didn't know of any evidence regarding the Indonesian persecution of Papuans).


Arguments about the Papuans' right to self-determination often tend to take a legalistic form (with as centerpiece pro the fraudulent 1969 'act of no choice' and contra the fact that it was once part of the Netherlands East Indies). I am quite willing to join this debate but would be inclined to make a shortcut here and say that if Papuans didn't have the right to self-determination then they certainly do have it now, because of Indonesia's total inability to provide them with halfway decent government. The word 'pembebasan' (liberation) that is widely used in Indonesia to refer to the take over of this region is in this context not more than a mockery - as is that conspicuous monument in Jakarta depicting a  Papuan couple breaking its chains.


Those who, like me, feel strongly about this, can join the demonstration in Hyde Park this coming Sunday (2nd April) at 12 noon.

Hamish: thanks Arie. To you and anyone else, I am VERY keen to have more material on West Papua here. If anyone can come up with an article, then yes please.

Knocked me for a loop

"We leave Jakarta on 29 November. Sadly, we will miss seeing Chinese New Year, now a public holiday in Indonesia. Things have changed since the Suharto era when Chinese culture was relatively suppressed and Chinese had to adopt Indonesian names to move up the social ladder. Today, Mandarin programs are show on free-to-air TV, and Chinese New Year is even celebrated in many mosques."

Irfan, that particular passage knocked me for a loop. I've been indoctrinated by my parents to believe that Indonesia was a xenophobic country that hated and despised its Chinese citizens even more than they fear Australians. I was led to believe that there were no Chinese in Indonesia because they had either been driven out or brutally killed. So I'm honestly not sure whether I can believe you - thirty years of racial indoctrination are hard to shake off.

I'm definitely going have to think about this...

Thanks Irfan

It's good to hear any tales about Indonesia. For our closest and most important neighbour, we seem to really know so little about the country apart from the dramas of the past few years. More please.

Terima kasi, Irfan.

Some reasonable comments on our largest and nearest neighbour never go astray. And anyone who has doubts about our friend should do as I did, homestay an Indonesian high school student for a year, or spend two years living in East Timor post 2000 when there was nothing on TV to watch but the Indonesian news or their version of MTV. Any country where the vast majority of the 20 somethings are addicted to 'MTV' and 'Sex and the City' will do me as an example of a progressive Muslim country. And anyone who thinks the country is in danger of being subjugated by Sharia fanatics is letting their prejudices come to the fore.

Nice Postcard

Thanks for the update Irfan. It sounds like you'll come back with a head full of articles and a heart full of stories. Can't wait.

Geoff, out of curiosity, do you know if there is a Jewish community in Indonesia? If so, that would be a history worth chronicling.

Java's Remaining Jews

Mark, in fact there is and you are right it has a venerable history that to my knowledge has never been properly documented. It will soon be too late. Perhaps it is already too late.

The community is in Surabaja in Java. It is tiny consisting of just a few families (perhaps about twenty people). It has a synagogue but no longer any teachers, schools or religious leaders. The kids go to Christian schools.

These people are the descendents mainly of Iraqi traders who settled in Java in the mid-nineteenth century and also of earlier communities of Dutch and German origin. There has been much intermarriage with the Moslem and Christian communities and naturally that continues. The people have that same rich Indonesian skin colour as their neighbours.

At one time the community numbered in the thousands. The remaining few live in peace and harmony with their mainly Moslem neighbours (as the community always has) but are keen to keep a very low profile. They do not get involved in politics and as I understand it would not welcome too much attention.

Mustn't be too late.

Geoff. This is amazing stuff. Surely there must be a way to sponsor a Javanese student of anthropology to collect the relevant data before we lose this story.

Even a short doco, Foreign Correspondent style, would be a way of preserving some of this history.

I'm very intrigued.

the culture is fairly homogenous, actually

I'm yet to see any convincing evidence that Australia is a multicultural society.

Ethnically diverse to a certain degree, yes. But the culture is fairly homogenous, actually.

The main cultural variation is between the non-Aboriginal and the Aboriginal populations.

We're no more multicultural than, say, the USA, Argentina or Canada.

Perhaps less, actually.

Like, look at the scale of America's Hispanic culture?

And Canada's French population?

We have nothing like that.

Cabramatta is the closet thing we have to it.

Multiculturalism in Australia is rhetoric. A trope. An alibi. A shibboleth. A feel-good aphorism. A badge.

It's something to enthuse about  when you are interviewing Stepan Kerkyasharian on ABC702.

Or when reviewing a French movie on SBS Television with a script that "flows like a foyne woyne", as that bloke on the Movie Show says.

Or gesture toward in an Australia Day speech at the local scout hall.

It's not a practical programme which is significantly evident in the community by any means.

We have to go out of our way to find it.

And when we do, we're surprised.

"Oh, my. How multicultural," we exclaim, with an ironic chuckle as we enter a Macedonian restaurant in Rockdale for the first time.

Or encounter a friend's faux-Tuscan makeover to their Paddington terrace.

Selamat siang Irfan. Apa kabor?

Sounds like a great time, Irfan. However perhaps there is a little more information than we needed in the last paragraph I will suggest. All the best for a speedy recovery. 

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