Good news from home

A lot of authority figures in Madura, Indonesia painted a picture of an angry intolerant populace of the people. When I asked then Sampang regent Noer Tjahja last year whether he would guarantee the Shiites families, displaced after a mob attack of their homes in Karang Gayam and Blu’uran villages, to be able to return to their land. He said that it was not an option. Noel was adamant that there was strong rejection from the community and that unless the Shiites ‘repent’ and convert to Sunni, “lives are at stake”.

For a year, the Shiites lived in a tennis indoor court turned refugee camp, until just before the Eid celebrations, a mob again harassed the Shiites, and the authorities trucked the refugees into a low-cost apartment complex in Sidoarjo, a city in East Java, outside of the island of Madura. Some 200 people who live from the field as tobacco farmers are forced to move to small flats far from their home town.

But the people proved those who campaign for relocation and segregation wrong, shattering the perception of ingrained intolerance between groups. Even though I am far away from home, I’m so happy to read reports in The Jakarta Post and The Jakarta Globe of reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shiites. The Jakarta Post reported that 50 Sunnis people, including those who participated in the attack, visited their Shiite neighbors and reconciled by signing a peace agreement.

The Jakarta Globe gave a thorough report of the peace process, showing the picture of the peace accord, which states “we have been tired with the animosity and we’re ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad.”

The Globe quoted Hertasning Ichlas, lawyer of the Shia community that the Sunni people ” admitted that they had been tired of being provoked every week”.“They finally came to realize that this is only a political game, not a religious issue. They realize that reconciliation is the right Islamic way to solve it.” It seems now the authorities should not have any excuse for letting the Shiites to return to their homes, not when those they claim to speak on behalf of have embraced their neighbors back.

Admittedly, Shia leader Tajuk Muluk is still imprisoned for blasphemy and not one person has been held accountable for last years attack that killed two people. The one person who was arrested, Roisul Hukamah, Tajul’s brother who has personal vendetta against the former was set free of all charges. But just the fact that the two groups are willing to live side by side in peace is a cause for celebrations. Congratulations Sampang!

First Impressions

It’s been three weeks since I left the smog filled Jakarta. I am staying in the quaint New England city of Cambridge, but I first landed in Washington, D.C.

As I step into America’s capital, at once felt a sense of gravity in the city. As a journalist, I try to not be easily swayed by prominence. Famous people are nothing more than human beings; famous things are nothing more than objects, I often say to myself. I take pictures of people I interview, but very rarely — I think I can count only two or three occasions — where I take pictures with them, however famous they are. But, as I walked past the White House, with the American flag flapping on a pole on the roof, a sign that Barack Obama is in the house, I have to admit, I felt excited to be in the same city as he was. I couldn’t resist; I took a picture of myself in front of the White House.

It must be the foreign factor. The White House and the American president are more exotic for me than the Presidential Palace in Indonesia and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Indonesians love to believe that Obama is one of us (he likes sate and bakso) given his three-years of living in a Jakarta neighborhood in the late 60s and his mother’s Stanley Ann Dunham’s work there, in the end he is still the president of a superpower that often believes that international law need not apply. The sheer amount of power the U.S. President holds in the international arena is beyond any other head of States in the world. I would be dead-inside if I was not a bit affected by the fact I am in the capital city of United States of America.

Now I am in Cambridge, just next door to Boston, the old historical city where the American Revolution started. I sit in classes in MIT and Harvard, trying to get my head around politics of religion and finding the best method for my research. A writing class with star writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has felt like an indulgence. Reading and analyzing essays in class is like being in one of my favorite podcast, The New Yorker fiction podcast. Although the subject matter is non-fiction rather than fiction, the way Ta-Nehisi helps the class dissect the essays feel similar to what Deborah Treisman and whoever writer is on the show that month.

But the most eye-opening is walking down the streets, exploring the neighborhood and seeing the difference of one street to another. There is a change in style and color of people walking down Main Street that leads to MIT and Windsor Street that leads to the housing projects. Massachusetts Avenue is more “cosmopolitan” with people dressing nicely to go to the pub called Middle East walking side by side with people asking for small change.

Once in a Saturday mid September, a Caribbean Carnival was in full force. The thumping of percussion, accompanies girls dancing in skimpy glittery costumes. The smell of barbecue in the air enticed those who are not even hungry. I hear a foreign language here and there, and an accent, probably Caribbean, among the crowd. Far in the corner are heavy set police officers who seem oblivious to the joy of the carnival. Arms folded, legs spread. The disconnect between people of one city can be seen on the long faces on the pale white cops watching over the joy and laughter of black Americans.

Here and there

I am in The United States of America. I’ve never been here before, but things are familiar. The way people talk. I’ve heard of those sounds before. The way the trees line up in front of the houses. I’ve seen this before. America’s reach in their cultural products is so deep. I felt like I’ve known America before I even set foot on it.

But being here still surprises me. It was not the extreme difference from Indonesia that amazed me. The wide pedestrian paths and the comfort of walking in the comfort of a city in a developed world are pleasant, but expected. I felt a bit giddy walking past the White House and saw the flag which means Obama was in the house. And sitting in an office in MIT, home of the world’s superb minds I never imagined I ever would have a chance to be part of is quite a lot to take in. But, there is something else that has blown my mind in my first week in America so far.

It is the diversity of the people in America and that in that wide spectrum I found something similar to home. The first person I met here was a religious fundamentalist.

“Indonesia has a lot of Muslims, don’t they?”

“Yes, we do”

“Are you a Muslim”

“I was born and raised as one”

“Oh, me too!”

As he spoke of the absurdity of the Trinity, how offensive the push for gay-marriage was for religious people here, I started to find the strangeness of my situation. I flew more than 10,000 miles. I sat on a plane for nearly 2 days and something very similar to home greets me. Every argument he proposed to show how great the religion is are very familiar to me. It’s a small world after all.

I came to MIT courtesy of the International Women’s Media Foundation to find out what turns people’s fear into violence. This is in relation to the growing incidents of religious intolerance and violence in Indonesia. Islamic militancy is growing in Indonesia. An interesting research done by an Indonesian Islamic scholar Achmad Munjid notes that a new generation of educated Indonesian are anxious to be better Muslims than their parents, who were nominal Muslims and practice syncretism.

The man, he too, wanted to be a better Muslim than his parents. For that he actively looked for sources, imams and mosques and formed his way of thinking of this world.

I guess, in the end, I really shouldn’t be surprised by it. America has a growing Muslim community and surely some children of Muslim parents search for an identity that defines them.

Everyone is looking for some kind of salvation and it’s the same from Indonesia to America. The problem is some people strongly believe that their values are superior to others and that’s also similar from Indonesia to America.