Fri, 11 Jun 2004

This will change how we report on Islam

Lisa Clausen of Time hesitated briefly before taking off her shoes and entered a modest mosque at the center of Taruna Al Quran, an Islamic boarding school in the heart of a village in Bantul outside of Yogyakarta.

"Is this some sort of meeting hall?" she whispered, still wary of the rejection that she and the other non-Muslims in the group experienced when custodians of the mosques in East Java barred them from setting foot inside.

"No, this is the pesantren's mosque," an Indonesian participant said, gesturing toward the mats spread on the floor for the guests to sit on. Lisa's face lit up, "Oh, I've never been to one." "Welcome to the house of Allah, then," the Indonesian said.

The exchange proved to be one of the many highlights of the Journey Into Islam in Indonesia study tour. "Our understanding of Islam is less than nothing," said Diana Bagnall of the Bulletin, who, in her youth, was active in the Evangelical Christian Church. "We came here to understand."

"What I can't understand," said Trudy Harris of the Australian, "is why is it so difficult for you, for Indonesian Muslims, to accept that Muslims are capable of committing violence. Such as what happened in Bali and in Jakarta. Why the denial?"

"Why did the ustadz (teacher) refuse to answer my questions about military training in the pesantren?" said another Australian participant. "Why was the kyai so defensive when we asked him about fundamentalism?" asked yet another participant.

Led by Asia Pacific Journalism Center (APJC) Program Director John Wallace, the Australian participants found their Indonesian participants (from Femina, Suara Pembaruan, Gatra, Radio 68H and Suara Hidayatullah) to be good sparring partners and sources of information.

The Australians, for instance, wanted to know what was the singsong voice they heard at dawn their first morning in Surabaya. It was adzan, the call to prayer, and Lisa found it to have a "calming" effect on her.

Islam is one, but its practices in Indonesia and elsewhere are many. The social, political, cultural and economic manifestations of the religion are countless.

The APJC program was meant to present to the Australian journalists a picture of Islam that is as faithful as possible to the many-faceted Muslim communities here.

They got to learn that Islam is not a mere political force keen on taking part in international power wrestling, but it is also about honoring one's parents, having good manners -- including when visiting a sick person -- offering prayers as an expression of submission toward God, loving your children, being gentle toward one's spouse during lovemaking, being charitable and generous, keeping one's promises, and defending one's rights and honor with death if necessary.

It is also about mukenah, the white cloth covering that Indonesian-Muslim women wear when they say their prayers, and about jilbab or Muslim women's head scarves, and many other questions about women and gender.

"One thing for sure, this program will change our way of reporting Islam," said Marcus Cheek of ABC Asia Pacific TV, to which Michael Kenny of SBS Radio agreed. Philippa McDonald, ABC Radio, said, "This has been a life-changing experience..." -- Santi W.E. Soekanto