Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Religion, a bonding agents?

Santi W.E. Soekanto, Contributor/Jakarta

Place 10 Australian and eight Indonesian journalists on a bus to travel the length of Java Island to visit Islamic sites, such as Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school (pesantren) in Ngruki, Solo, and you are bound to experience tension.

Suspicion, too, reared its ugly head in various directions. Some of the Indonesian participants of the Journey Into Islam in Indonesia study tour suspected the Australians of being "spies", and out to "gauge the Indonesian Muslim's strength."

Some of the Australians, whose reading material included The Trouble with Islam, suspected their Indonesian hosts of "concealing the truth" about alleged terrorism in their midst. Some aired their suspicion openly, others talked behind people's backs.

What also resulted was laughter, and satisfying exchanges of a wealth of insight and information between the two sides, so much so that all participants overcame any discomfort that arose and stayed to the end of the trip.

The program ended with statements of goodwill and a greater understanding of what really mattered -- such as peace and friendship, and a willingness to understand other people's positions, even without compromising one's stance.

Organized by the Melbourne-based Asia Pacific Journalism Center (APJC) in collaboration with various Indonesian partners including the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) and its "foe", the "literal Islamic" Jaringan Jurnalis Profetik (an association of Muslim journalists many of whose members are affiliated with the Prosperous Justice Party), the tension was inevitable, simply because of the involvement of "polarized groups" in the program.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla, the leader of JIL, for instance, was originally reluctant to accept the idea of visiting Al Mukmin because "I don't have contacts there, only enemies aplenty."

Al Mukmin, too, originally rejected the request for a visit because "they have been burned too many times" by journalists from the United States, Singapore and Australia.

However, a special trip by the tour organizers to the Salemba Penitentiary in Central Jakarta to meet Abu Bakar Ba'asyir in person resulted in the permission to visit Al Mukmin, thankfully.

Darussalaam Modern Pesantren in Gontor, Ponorogo, East Java, on the other hand, openly rejected the request for a visit because of the involvement of JIL, "whose preaching against the exclusive claim of truth", they believe, ran counter to the essence of the Islamic faith.

Repeated pleading by the organizers finally yielded the desired permission to visit, but only under the condition that no letters bearing the name of JIL be sent to the school.

Despite the initial glitches, the trip took off nicely on May 21 in Surabaya with a visit to the office of Jawa Pos newspaper and with its CEO Dahlan Iskan, where the Australian journalists expressed amazement at the scale of operation of one of Indonesia's major media corporations.

Next came the visit to Sunan Ampel Mosque, founded in the 15th century by one of the earliest Muslim teachers, Sunan Ampel, where participants witnessed an interesting blend of Islamic worship and Hinduism/mysticism.

The following visit to Hidayatullah Pesantren, an urban boarding school, won the Australian participants' approval, not only because they were greeted by smiling children bearing souvenirs and a table laden with fruits and snacks, but also because the boarding school was run in a professional manner that has elicited support even from among local garbage collectors.

Here, some of the Australian participants began what later proved to be the main line of their interviews: "What do you think of terrorism/extremism/fundamentalism? Do you support pesantren that teach radicalism?"

Here also, the Australians began to receive what later proved to be the standard response to such queries: "Islam teaches tolerance. We teach our students to be tolerant to differences among Muslim groups, and with other groups."

Next came the visit to Tebu Ireng Pesantren, established more than 70 years ago by KH Hasyim Asyhari, the grandfather of former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid and the founder of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The current leader, Jusuf Hasyim, provided hospitality and the opportunity for the participants to experience what it felt like to sleep in a pesantren.

The trip to Gontor proved to be memorable for everybody.

Syukri Zarkasy, the leader of the pesantren, which currently has 12,500 students in its 7 campuses, gave an efficient tour of the compound -- which impressed his guests -- but prevented participants from interviewing students and was curt in his responses to the questions posed to him by the Australian journalists.

"I am not a stupid kyai, interviews with students can be twisted," he said. "Don't they have other questions?" he mused to one of his staff, after repeating to himself over and over that "No, Islam does not teach violence, that Gontor abhors acts of terrorism, and that Amrozi was a recruit of the United States".

On May 25 came the trip which, by their own admission, the participants looked forward to the most: the Al Mukmin Pesantren.

It went down quite well, with the Australian journalists firing questions (many about, well, terrorism) at Wahyuddin for almost two-and-a-half hours. Not once did Wahyuddin stop smiling as he handled the "interrogation," which was followed with lunch at the house of a teacher.

Later, an Australian recounted how during the meal he "texted" his friends back home just to tell them that he was having lunch at the home of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's adopted daughter.

A short tour of the compound was conducted, which participants later said was disappointing because no student was willing to be interviewed, despite the permission given by the school leaders.

"They're simply wary, even traumatized, we used to receive journalists almost every day and then they had their words twisted by the reporters," said one teacher.

As the group returned to the bus, young locals in the areas surrounding the pesantren hailed the Australians with "Hello Mister, don't twist your stories."

"I wonder ... in Australia I read accounts about Gontor, it's a modern pesantren and is quite well-known, but we had such a hard time there, but in the "heart of darkness" that is Ngruki, we received such warmth, such hospitality," one Australian participant mused.

Another expressed suspicion that the group of youths practicing a martial art in a corner of the school was part of the military training allegedly held by the pesantren. This was received with laughter by several Indonesian participants, "That's silat, silly, and millions of people in Indonesia know silat."

That particular day ended with participants in good spirits and a visit to Al Muayyad Pesantren in Solo, where its leader, Muhammad Dian Nafi expressed his belief that conflict can be reduced if groups can reduce their "claim of truth."

Nafi, who was educated in public schools rather than in pesantren, spoke of how his institution is open to non-Muslim groups wishing both to learn and to teach.

The group continued their trip with visits to Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (the Indonesian Council of Mujahiddeen for the Implementation of Sharia) in Yogyakarta.

The Australians asked its leader, Irfan S. Awwas, whether the organization supported the ideals of Osama bin Laden because it sold T-shirts bearing his picture.

Interestingly enough, no question was asked in Daarut Tauhid on whether the pesantren of Muslim preacher Abdullah Gymnastiar in Bandung, West Java, supported communism, despite a young man there who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the famous portrait of Che Guevara.

The program ended on May 29 in Jakarta with both sides exclaiming, not only had it been worthwhile, but that more such programs are needed to overcome what, according to one participant, had initially seemed to be an unbridgeable gulf between Islam and the West.

The writer is a journalist and was the project manager of the Journey Into Islam in Indonesia program. She can be contacted at