Behind ‘enlightenment’: Arrogant bigotry

The good news came a few months ago when villagers in Sampang, Madura, who were caught in a deadly faith feud last year reconciled with their Shiite neighbors and invited them to return to their village.

On Sept. 12, dozens of villagers from Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, Sampang, signed a peace pact stating they were “ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad”.

The peace pact flies against the claims of political elites who refuse to let the Shiites return to their land under the pretext that the local community will not accept them and that their return would create new violent conflicts. They were driven from their homes in Sampang after a Sunni mob attacked them and burned down their houses in August 2012. From the local regent to the religious affairs minister, all claim that unless the Shiites share the same beliefs as the rest of the community, deadly violence will occur.

Despite the peace pact, many remain wary. That the people of the villages are fed up with the animosity, want to end the conflict and want to live in peace is heartwarming, but is it enough to solve displacement and discrimination against the Shia community?

The answer is no. Even when people of Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, including those who participated in the attack, extended an unconditional invitation to the Shiites to return to their homes, the Religious Affairs Ministry continued to place prerequisites on the Shiites to be able to return home.

Recently, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who views the solution as conversion — though
his choice of wording is “enlightenment” — reportedly requested the Shiites to agree to stay in the haj dormitory for “reeducation” (pembinaan) before returning to their homes. Why the Shiites, who are only practicing their right to their beliefs, should be reeducated instead of those who set houses on fire, explains the nature of those flames.

There is something more to this Shia persecution than a group of villagers being intolerant toward their neighbors with different beliefs. The dubious reasoning of political elites to sacrifice victims of violence to prevent violence tells of something menacing within the system.

The portrayal of local animosity toward Shiites is merely an excuse for an abuse of power by certain political elites who are part of mainstream Sunni Islam to impose their beliefs.

Consider the events leading up to the attack on Aug. 26. Starting from 2004, religious cleric Ali Kharar started to give sermons with warnings against the “defiant” Shia teachings being spread by Tajul Muluk. Following Ali’s request, Sampang administrative leaders along with local clerics pressured Tajul to “repent” and embrace Sunni teachings.

In 2006, hundreds of people intimidated Tajul and his followers into returning to Sunni teachings. In 2011, the leaders ordered Tajul to move from Sampang to Malang.

After his house was attacked in 2011 by a mob, he was taken to court for blasphemy and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Even before the Aug. 26 attack against the Shiites, the local religious and political establishments in Sampang were systematically pressuring the Shiites to renounce their faith for Sunni teachings.

After the attack, which is plausibly the result of the demagoguery of hard-line clerics, the state ignored the Shiites’ wish to return home and instead has taken their land in exchange for allegiance to Sunni teachings. The only members of the Shiite community that have returned to their villages are those who have signed a pledge in front of the local authorities to condemn Tajul’s teachings and to return to “the true teaching of Islam”.

The peace pact between the Sunni representatives and Shiites should signal that the people can and are willing to live among neighbors with different beliefs. But in a regime that promotes bigotry, this gesture toward tolerance and peace could almost mean nothing.

A peace pact signed by the very people the political elites say are hostile toward the Shiites would not suffice to end the persecution, precisely because the state, with its deep entanglement with the Sunni religious establishment, is the intolerance force. And this condition extends to not only the persecution of Shiites, but also the Ahmadis, the Christians and non-believers.

There is a paradox of arrogance and insecurity in religious intolerance. Those who practice intolerance claim to hold the monopoly on truth and believe they have the authority to pass judgments on who are “defiant” or “misguided”. On the other hand, they feel threatened by these “lesser” beliefs so much so that they feel the need to silence, contain and even eliminate them.

The minister’s “enlightenment” project is an insult to the Shiites. It is disrespectful and is a violation of their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedoms clearly guaranteed by our Constitution. The idea that the Shiites (or followers of Tajul Muluk, the misguided, the deviants) need to be “reeducated” is uncomfortably and dangerously similar to justifications of many history’s violent conquests to “civilize” the savages.

The damage done by intolerant religious elements hijacking the state apparatus is clearly felt by those being persecuted. But it does not stop there. In every persecution of religious minorities in this
country, those actively impinging other’s rights to religious freedom are creating an arrogant and insecure image of Sunni Islam. Bullying people into submitting to “the true teaching of Islam” is not in line with the image of a peaceful and loving religion they champion.

Hopefully, the next time they open the Koran they will come across the verse that came when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were the ones being persecuted in Mecca: For you is your faith, and for me, my faith.

Prodita Sabarini, Cambridge | Opinion | Tue, November 19 2013

Published in The Jakarta Post

Driving a clever move against larger injustices

Associated Press/Saudi Women for Driving via Al-Nafjan The passenger of a passing vehicle looks across as a woman drives her car in defiance of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2011, in this video frame grab from the Saudi Women for Driving coalition.

Women behind the wheel have the potential to change Saudi society


What hope is left for the Arab Spring? Egypt is returning to military dictatorship. Syria is a bloodbath, spiraling into a deeper and more violent civil war. Yet some remnant of idealism remains — on the roads and highways of Saudia Arabia.

In 2011, inspired by the revolutions in neighboring Gulf States, Saudi women started their own movement. Silenced and hidden in a virtual gender apartheid, they revolted by cunningly tackling a seemingly mundane issue — the right to drive a car.

While some protests in the region faltered as they descended into factionalism and civil war, the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia continues to throttle ahead. Like similar protests in 2011 and 2012, this Saturday is being promoted as a day of defiance behind the wheel.

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition demanding the government provide means for women to obtain driver’s licenses. There is no official law that prohibits women from driving, but women cannot obtain driving licenses from local authorities. In some ways, this paradox reflects the depth of the women’s challenge, the deep roots of the cultural norms they are challenging. But in doing so, they may liberate some men, as well.

In Saudi Arabia, neither men nor women have political rights. Learning from the 1979 Iranian revolution, in which the religious establishment managed to mobilize a people’s revolt against the shah, the Saudi royal family has made sure to appease the country’s clerics by implementing strict Islamic codes. Unfortunately, in the patriarchal society, stricter religious codes have been interpreted as justification to undermine women’s rights.

Under a system of male guardianship, women are forced to be dependent on men. To travel, study, marry, or even receive medical treatment, they must obtain permission from their fathers, husbands, or sons. Women received the right to work without a guardian’s permission only as recently as 2011.

It was once enough to tell women that to be virtuous is to be obedient. But in recent years, as women’s level of education has risen, it has become harder for the religious establishment to keep women down. There are more women with higher-education degrees than men, according to 2011 data from Saudi Ministry of Higher Education ministry, but the women make up less than 15 percent of the workforce. Lacking the right to drive, those women who do have jobs must rely on male relatives to take them to work or spend between 30 to 60 percent of their salaries to hire drivers.

Manal al-Sharif, who became the face of the women’s movement after being jailed for driving in 2011, said that Saudi women’s awakening, signaled by their determination to gain access to the driver’s seat, has the potential to change the whole Saudi society. Saudi men have posted supportive messages on social media. On YouTube, one can see men giving the thumbs up when seeing women driving. A Saudi man said to Sharif: “In Saudi, to get your rights you need to be a woman, because women know how to fight for their rights.”

Focusing on driving as a symbol for a fight against larger injustices has been a smart move by the activists. First, they have the advantage that no explicit law bans women from driving, thereby giving them more space to make their protest. They aim to hit the male guardianship system, but to choose their battles strategically. (Had they protested against the guardianship directly they would have faced a steep wall of resistance.) Second, the issue strikes an immediate chord with American women, giving them an instant source of sisterhood and support.

The movement has seen other signs of progress. No longer do clerics cite religious law to justify the driving ban, Sharif has observed. Instead, they rely on much-ridiculed scientific claims that driving can be damaging to a woman’s reproductive organs. Meanwhile, women are now allowed to ride bicycles, albeit for recreational purposes only. Two female athletes competed in the 2012 London Olympics. King Abdullah has appointed 30 women to the Majlis al-Shura, a council whose 150 members advise him on matters of public policy. Some women councilors have since supported activists’ demand to lift the ban on driving. And in 2015, women will be able to vote and run in municipal elections.

There has been no revolution in Saudi Arabia. But the persistence and cunning of the Saudi women’s movement has breathed life into the concept of the “Arab Spring” as a source of peaceful awakening. And the key to its success has been behind the wheel.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-14 International Women’s Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.

Honoring women reporters who get the story, despite odds

War photographer: Syrian Nour Kelze knows that she can die anytime. (Courtesy IWMF/Matthew VanDyke)

Photojournalist Nour Kelze knows that she can die anytime. The 25-year-old says that she accepts that risk to show the world the horrors that have been happening in her home country of Syria.

“This is something I have to do, Kelze said in a video message shown in New York recently. “I mean so many people, so many girls, died in the kitchen. Like doing a dishwash or something and they have like a morsel or a shrapnel coming through the window and drop dead. So what’s the point? Why should I die cheap?”

On Oct. 23, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), a Washington-based organization that aims to strengthen women’s role in journalism, honored Kelze, Afghanistani media director Najiba Ayubi and Cambodian editor Bopha Phorn at the 2013 Courage in Journalism Awards for their bravery and determination in reporting.

The IWMF also presented a lifetime achievement award to Edna Machirori, Zimbabwe’s first black woman editor.

While Machirori, Ayubi, and Phorn all flew to New York to accept the awards, Kelze was unable to join. The ceremony and luncheon, attended by nearly 500 prominent US news personalities, also aimed to raise US$100,000 for an emergency fund for women journalists reporting in dangerous areas.

The risks that women such as Kelze face are formidable: The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has ranked Syria as the most dangerous place for journalists in the world.

Despite the risks, Kelze made the transition from elementary school teacher to photojournalist last year as her country continued to spiral into conflict.

At first, Kelze worked independently, taking pictures of rebel fighters using her cell phone. A veteran war photographer for Reuters, Goran Tomasevic, noticed her talent and gut, giving her his camera equipment and training her.

Before long, Kelze’s pictures bagan to appear on the pages of newspapers around the world.

Kelze has escaped many near death experiences. Soldiers from a small aircraft fired at her when she was taking pictures of the aftermath of a missile attack in a residential area in Aleppo.

In February, she broke her ankle after a wall fell on top of her as snipers shot at rebel fighters.

She went to Turkey for an operation and was back in the field reporting four days later.

In Kelze’s acceptance letter, she acknowledged the courage of the Syrian people.

“I know deep in my heart there are many people who deserve this award more than I do. Syrians showed a lot of endurance and patience and courage through this crisis,” Kelze wrote.

“This award is for Syria — for standing strong still after all the hardships since the past till the present day and even in the future. Syria will survive […] let the whole world know. We will survive.”

While those at the awards ceremony could only glimpse Kelze’s world through a powerful video documentary by Matthew VanDyke; Najiba Ayubi, Phorn and Machirori all took the stage and gave speeches.

Following the ceremony, Ayubi could not hold back tears when remembering 11 of her colleagues who have died, saying that the acknowledgment of her work was bittersweet, considering the memory of the friends who could not be with her.

Ayubi, who is the managing director of the Killid Group, a public media NGO in Afghanistan, had been criticized by state-run media for questioning the lack of independent media in the nation.

Fearless: Bopha Phorn from Cambodia escaped death when gathering information about illegal logging in the jungle. She scribbled the phone number of her editor on her stomach in case people found her body. (Courtesy IWMF/Simon Marks)

Gunmen knocked on her door after she reported on a scandal involving parliament members and the secret police have told her to “be careful” because someone might be after her.

She said that those challenges were “sweet” to her. “Journalism is not my job. It is my life,” Ayubi said in her acceptance speech.

The 28-year-old Phorn has shown a similar passion for journalism, saying that it was like breathing for her. Last year, Phorn escaped death when gathering information about illegal logging in the Cambodian jungle. Environmentalist Chut Wutty was shot and killed by soldiers in uniform, while Phorn and another reporter survived.

Phorn said that she thought she was about to die, and scribbled the telephone number of her editor on her stomach, just in case people found her body.

Despite having nearly being killed while reporting, Phorn said that she became more determined in her work.

For Machirori, who has been a journalist for 50 years, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was “the climax of her life”.

She was the first black female editor in Zimbabwe, considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

She said that it was not easy for a woman to be a journalist in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society. “Women must be seen but not heard.”

“Powerful people in my country dislike being taken to task and be held accountable by male journalists, but they regard this as an attack against their personal honor and a mortal blow to their egos to have a mere woman do the same,” Machirori said in her acceptance speech.

Machirori has mentored young women to become professional reporters able to navigate discrimination and sexual harassment. Her daughter Fungai has followed her footsteps.

IWMF program director Nadine Hoffman said that the awards honored the work of women journalists working in dangerous areas and hoped to increase the international profiles of these women to better protect them.

In the last 25 years, the Courage in Journalism Award has been given to more than 100 women from around the world. Some have been killed or imprisoned, while others have benefitted from the network provided by the IWMF, from medical assistance to pro-bono legal assistance to temporary housing.

Previous recipients of the Courage Awards include Indonesian journalist Bina Bektiati in 1997; Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2002, who was gunned down in her apartment in 2006; and British journalist Marie Colvin in 2000, who died while covering the war in Syria in 2012.

The writer, a former journalist for The Jakarta Post, received IWMF’s Neuffer fellowship.

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, New York | Feature | Thu, October 31 201