Indonesia should stop pushing its academics to chase empty indicators

Predatory journals that print articles for a fee undermine scientific research

An assessment system that predominantly evaluates research performance based on journal output and citations is steering academics from developing countries like mine to chasing quantity over quality. And being exploited while doing so.

Researchers in Indonesia are the second most likely in the world to publish in dubious journals that print articles for a fee without proper scientific peer review, a process where several experts in the field review the merit of the research, according to a new study by economists Vit Machacek and Martin Srholec.

These predatory journals prey on academics whose career progressions, and therefore salary increase, are determined by credit points. They exploit the processing fees that authors pay to make articles open to the public. They pocket the payment, an average of $178, an amount close to the basic salary of an entry-level lecturer in a state university in Indonesia, without facilitating proper peer review. The papers published by predatory journals are often low-quality, with typographical and grammatical errors.

I run a nonprofit online media that works with scholars to produce evidence-based analyses that laypeople can easily digest. This work that helps spread knowledge and builds an informed public earns academics very little credit points in Indonesia. But publishing in journals indexed by international academic databases gives them plenty.

Unfortunately, hundreds of potentially predatory journals have infiltrated academic databases, such as Scopus. Machacek and Srholec found that potentially predatory journals that appeared in the database had published more than 160,000 articles between 2015 and 2017. Their analysis shows that around 17% of articles, or every sixth article, produced by researchers in Indonesia and Kazakhstan are published in predatory journals.

Sociologists Anna Severin and Nicola Low have warned that having these low-quality studies in academic databases may spread untrustworthy research into the scientific literature. Although, an analysis by researchers in Finland says that articles in predatory journals are rarely cited by other academics, meaning they do not matter much.

What is clear is that it is a waste of resources. The predatory journal market was estimated to be around $74 million in 2014. And academics could have diverted the time they took to do substandard work for the real hard work of quality research. For many scholars, this would include improving their research and communication skills. And this is important, especially for developing countries that need well-trained researchers to build and strengthen their research sector.

Academics in advanced economies, such as in the U.S. and some European countries, also fall prey to predatory journals. But, Machacek and Srholec’s analysis found academics in medium-level economies with large emerging research sectors are the most susceptible. In addition to Indonesia and Kazakhstan, India, Nigeria, the Philippines and Egypt are in the top twenty.

In Indonesia’s case, government policies in recent years that geared the assessment for promotion to push academics to publish has succeeded in increasing the number of papers published by Indonesian scholars. Data from Scimago Country & Journal Rank shows that within five years between 2015 and 2019, Indonesia increased its output by more than 400%, from around 8,000 to 44,000.

There is a way to stop this. In the past decade, there has been a movement to change the way research is being evaluated. Around the world, governments, science managers, research funders and universities base decisions to hire and promote, grant funds to rank universities using scientometry, a method that ranks journals and measures academics’ productivity and impact based on the number of publications and citations.

Scholars argue this journal-based metrics is not an accurate measure of scientific quality. In addition to the predatory journal problem, the metric also discourages science collaboration. As the metric values article count, academics who want to turn out several journal articles from a data set has an incentive to hold on to them rather than sharing them for other scientists to analyze.

In 2012, a group of editors and publishers met during the annual meeting of The American Society for Cell Biology and released a declaration on research assessment (DORA). Their general recommendation is to stop using journal-based metrics as a surrogate measure to evaluate the quality of research and individual scientists’ contribution.

They also recommend recognizing the value to all scholarly output, from journal articles, preprints which means articles uploaded in an open-access platform that have yet been peer reviewed, data sets, software, protocols, research materials, well-trained researches to societal outcomes and policy changes.

COVID-19 pandemic shows that speed and collaboration are essential in finding solutions. Reputable journals such as Science and Nature sped up their peer-review process. And many researchers shared their data sets and are uploading their findings in open science preprint platforms before submitting them to peer-reviewed journals. The spirit here is not about scoring points but working together to solve a global problem.

The Indonesian government should study and follow the DORA recommendation. By moving away from pushing academics to chase journal-based scores and creating a meaningful way to evaluate research, Indonesia will have a better chance of genuinely building and strengthening its research sector and take an active part in advancing science and providing solutions.


Prodita Sabarini is executive editor of The Conversation Indonesia, a nonprofit online media that brings together academics and journalists to produce evidence-based journalism. She is a 2019 Asia Pacific Obama Foundation Leader.

Published in Nikkei Asia on March 12, 2021

Women make good leaders. Can more of them rise to the top?

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of female state leaders are managing this historical crisis in their respective countries better than their male counterparts.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clear, direct and empathic communication style got the country to come together to contain the new coronavirus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel based her response on science and has been blunt on how COVID-19 will stay in our lives for a long time. Under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, China’s neighbor Taiwan prioritized public health and managed to keep the number of cases below 500 and the death toll to seven people.

Meanwhile, strongmen such as presidents Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia underestimated the coronavirus in its early stages, dragging their feet in taking action and downplaying the health risk of COVID-19 on the people in their countries.

Many scholars have argued that the world is safer and more humane where women are in charge. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that research shows women score higher than men in most leadership skills.

Women leaders not only show effective leadership capabilities that are IQ-based, such as having technical or professional expertise and the ability to analyze problems and come up with solutions; they also more commonly show behaviors that stem from high emotional intelligence, such as displaying high integrity and honesty, inspiring and motivating others, and collaborating and developing relationships — behaviors that build trust.

Yet despite this, when we look everywhere, few women are in decision-making positions. Nearly half of the world’s population is women. But in 2020, out of 193 states that are members of the United Nations, only 12 are led by women.

Around the world, legal discrimination against women, unfair social norms and attitudes, and the controlling of women’s bodies by patriarchal communities and governments continue to create structural barriers to gender equality.

For example, according to the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, more girls than boys are not getting an education. And according to the World Bank, in 2019 less than half (47.7 percent) of all women participated in the labor force. Of those who have survived these hurdles, completing their education and securing jobs, many don’t rise to leadership positions.

In 2019, the world saw women holding only 29 percent of senior management roles in corporations. In addition to the gender inequalities in education and labor participation, women dropping off from the labor force after marriage and motherhood and low confidence among young women over their leadership capabilities contribute to this gender gap in leadership positions.

So what can those who are already in leadership positions do to make sure more women sit in the top positions? I am among few women who hold a top position in an organization.

I lead The Conversation Indonesia, a nonprofit media startup that shares expert knowledge to help the public make informed decisions.

Learning from my journey as a woman leader as well as from the experience of my female peers who are raising children, I believe leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors can provide at least three things to enable more women to reach senior positions in organizations.

First, create a work culture that promotes work-life balance. Organizations can provide a flexible work arrangement, allowing workers to decide where to work and, if possible, when they start and end their work hours. COVID-19 social restrictions show that many work tasks can be completed anywhere with an internet connection, making office attendance unnecessary.

Flexible work arrangements will not only support more women, who disproportionately take on the bulk of domestic duties in the family, to stay in the workforce; it will also provide opportunities for men to contribute more to domestic chores and parenting.

In urban areas like Jakarta, female labor force participation rates are highest in women between 25 and 29 years — reaching nearly 67 percent. But when women enter their 30s, the rate drops to 53.82 percent.

According to research by economist Diahhadi Setyonaluri 53 percent of women who have been married cite marriage, motherhood and family as reasons for their decisions to quit their jobs. Having to forgo long commutes and long hours at the office will help women avoid having to make the difficult decision of giving up their careers.

Second, sponsor competent women workers to take on projects that can build their leadership skills. A lifetime of being told to be dutiful often makes women reliable workers. But this might also stop them from believing that they deserve to take charge.

Many women often don’t apply for a position unless they convinced that they are 100 percent qualified. Meanwhile, men are more confident in trying out for higher positions even when they are underqualified. Zenger and Folkman’s research also compared how men and women assess their confidence. They found women under 25 have lower confidence than their male peers, and that this gap closes at 40.

Having someone believing in their abilities provides the initial boost for young women to increase their confidence.

Third, after identifying emerging women leaders, provide them with resources, such as mentorship, coaching and training, to improve their leadership skills. Some people show leadership traits from a young age, but for many people, it’s a learned skill acquired through experience.

Mentor them along the way and watch them learn from their mistakes. We have seen enough men without principles running the show.

We need more leaders with humility, self-awareness and empathy, traits commonly found in women. Imagine if more leaders — regardless of gender — exhibited these traits. Society would be better off as a whole.

Executive editor, The Conversation Indonesia and a 2019 Asia-Pacific Obama leader

This article was published in on Saturday, June 13, 2020, with the title “Women make good leaders. Can more of them rise to the top?”. Click to read:

On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth

A week after a groundbreaking national symposium on the 1965 tragedy, I received a message from my friend Febriana Firdaus. A journalist like myself, she lost her grandfather in the anticommunist violence in 1965-1966.

Febri and I are part of a new digital storytelling movement, Ingat65. We provide a medium for Indonesia’s younger generation to collectively remember the communist purges, a dark past that our nation for half a century has been forced to forget through propaganda and deliberate silence in official histories.

That morning, Febri forwarded to Ingat65’s Whatsapp group Goenawan Mohammad’s essay in Tempo magazine, entitled “Maaf” (Forgiveness). In his essay, GM, as the renowned essayist is commonly known, is not convinced President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should apologize for the 1965 violence.

“For what? For a crime that’s not his, on behalf of a state that’s not his to represent?” Febri highlighted that part with a yellow marker. I see her point.

The symposium, the first official dialogue on the issue since the fall of Soeharto, who rose to power on the back of the 1965 violence, has sparked a discussion on truth and reconciliation. GM’s essay adds to this discussion. But his reasoning, I argue, is unsound.

A man of letters, he referred to many thinkers, including Marx, to reinforce his point that the crime of the “state” in 1965-1966 was not of the current “state” that Jokowi now leads.

“For me, Marx is more correct: The “state” can never be a place for anyone, at anytime. The “state” is always “particular”; it’s merely a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space. It is not permanent,” he wrote.

The irony is lost on GM when he quotes Marx, whose methodology of socioeconomic analysis was banned in 1966 as part of the systematic destruction of the left.

The “state” that Jokowi leads, one that GM says is not the same with that of 1966, still maintains that ban.

Marx was right. The state is a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space.

But GM is dreaming to suggest that in 2016 we have broken completely with the New Order.

Even though Jokowi was a mere toddler when the violence happened, he has nonetheless inherited a legacy of impunity that still operates in Indonesia’s politics.

But let’s talk about the subject of GM’s piece: forgiveness. An element for reconciliation, forgiveness is important in post-conflict resolution.

Letting go of resentment is crucial to restoring friendly relations between offenders — perpetrators, accomplices, bystanders — and victims.

GM talks about the kinds of forgiveness that he admires: the martyr-like “pure forgiveness” of Wolter Monginsidi, who forgave his wrongdoers ahead of the offending deed (his own execution), and the unconditional forgiveness of political prisoner Oey Hay Djoen.

According to GM, Hay Djoen, commenting on his peer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s distrust in the apology issued by the former president and leader of Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Abdurrahman Wahid, for NU’s involvement in the violence, wonders what moral right they have to deny forgiveness.

In Hay Djoen’s attitude to forgive unconditionally, GM sees something nobler than Pram’s rejection. Hay Djoen’s forgiveness, GM argues, defies Jacques Derrida’s fear of “conditional forgiveness” that placed “the victim” on a moral high ground.

However, GM failed to note that neither Hay Djoen nor Pram, nor other victims of the 1965 violence, were standing in a position of superiority.

Derrida’s warning that GM quoted on the dangers of “conditional forgiveness” being reduced as a tool for trade for national stability — as in the case of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process — referred more to an amnesty and not necessarily genuine forgiveness.

Neither Hay Djoen nor Pram had such power to pardon. Unlike in South Africa, where the victims of apartheid went on to hold political power and started the process of truth and reconciliation, in Indonesia the offenders are still in power and have yet to cease their wrongful deeds.

Philosopher Charles Griswold, in his book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, notes that to gain true forgiveness from victims, there are several actions that the wrongdoer should do: acknowledge and repudiate the mistake, express regret, promise not to repeat the mistake, express sympathy and understanding for the suffering of the victim, and lastly, present an honest narrative that is not an excuse that can provide context as to why they carried out the offense.

Only then may the victim regain trust, let go of resentment and see the former enemy in a new light. These acts of apology should be made public on a national level to ensure an end to the injustice.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, Griswold notes, should be given on an individual level, lest what Derrida and GM feared might happen — forgiveness that doesn’t serve its genuine goal of renewal of bonds but acts as a form of forced peace-making.

How far are we from seeing these acts of apology in Indonesia? We don’t know yet.

The 1965 tragedy is still a deeply divisive issue. In an explanation about his essay on Wednesday, GM said he would like the state to apologize, if doing so brought about greater national harmony.

The 1965 symposium was an experiment to find out if we can start the process of reaching a national consensus that include all parties — victims and offenders — in the 1965 tragedy, according to one of the initiators, Agus Widjojo, the newly appointed National Resilience Institute chief, whose father was of one of the generals killed in the apparent abortive coup that rose the curtain on the violence.

In a way, in Ingat65, we are conducting an experiment too. We are opening a space for personal reflection to gauge how our generation feels about this issue and how we want our future to look.

Will we be a generation of bystanders (staying silent) or, worse, perpetrators (attacking gatherings of 1965 victims), and continue to perpetuate injustice? Our call now is not to Jokowi (just yet), but to our peers.

The voice of youth is crucial, especially now, when half of the country’s population is under the age of 30. We should find out what happened by talking to our elders.

We should read the many studies by academics and watch documentaries on 1965.

Let’s reflect on our history, decide what we want based on that reflection and together tell our leaders our desires for the future.

For too long, leaders of this country have been servants to themselves. Let’s peacefully bring power back into our hands and make GM’s dream come true.

Let’s make the state represent a new moral identity and really break away from the old guard, whose power came on the backs of extreme violence and the suffering of victims.


The writer, an editor for The Conversation, is the initiator and chief editor of Ingat65. The views expressed are her own.

This article was published in on Friday, April 26, 2016 with the title “On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth”. Click to read:

‘The Act of Killing’ doesn’t end

Safit Pardede (from left), Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and Joshua Oppenheimer behind the scenes in “The Act of Killing.” Drafthouse films
Safit Pardede (from left), Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and Joshua Oppenheimer behind the scenes in “The Act of Killing.” Drafthouse films

THE LIGHTS went off for the “The Act of Killing” when it lost the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to a feel-good tribute to struggling backup singers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with the dimming of publicity surrounding the documentary feature on death-squad leaders re-enacting their crimes in Indonesia’s anti-communist purge of 1965, the memory of victims and survivors would also fade. The murder of nearly a million people with the backing of the CIA had been ignored for 50 years until “The Act of Killing” shocked viewers with the open boastfulness of the killers. To its credit, Hollywood has boosted the profile of the film, and the bloodletting, in a way that no previous reports or studies on the massacre have achieved. But now that the curtains are drawn, will the film share the same fate as its disturbing subject matter?

The families of victims are still around and cry for justice. The Indonesian government justifies the massacre on national security grounds and has refused demands for a criminal inquiry. It sat on its hands last year when a group called Anti-Communist Forum of Indonesia attacked and threatened to kill survivors gathering for a discussion. And just last month its armed forces broke off a discussion on Tan Malaka, Indonesia’s former communist leader.

Anwar Congo, the main character in “The Act of Killing,” grew up selling black-market cinema tickets. Later, he acted out his deeds with the image of John Wayne in mind, playing the good guy fighting the communist villains. One reason that motivated Anwar was that the Indonesian communists hated American movies. By focusing on the killers who identify themselves with the cowboys of the West, Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of “The Act of Killing,” held a mirror to Americans suggesting that they may have more in common with the perpetrators than most like to think. What the film viewers saw was ugly, but it also shows the different paths the killers took to live with their guilt. At the end of the film, we see no redemption for Anwar Congo. As he slowly comes to realize that he’d done something terrible, his retching body does not give him release.

Oppenheimer and his fearless Indonesian crew dream bigger than the Oscar: They aim to bring justice for the survivors. As retaliation for an alleged communist coup, the Indonesian army, operating with the help of civilian death-squads, extinguished nearly the entire Indonesian left in a period of six months. They slaughtered union members, teachers, journalists, leftist artists, ethnic Chinese, and nearly all members of the communist party. The speed and scale of the killings are comparable to the worst recorded cases in modern history — six million Jews killed in eight years in German-occupied Europe and two million Khmers in Cambodia in four. But while the Nazis and Khmer Rouge have been defeated, and their atrocities universally condemned, the perpetrators of the Indonesian massacre have won and the Western world cheered on the bloodshed.

In a number of public screenings I attended — whether at Harvard or Columbia, an independent cinema in Brooklyn or at the Library of Congress — there was a sense of confusion and helplessness among the audience. They would often ask the director “but what can we do?” Oppenheimer would say they needn’t look as far as Indonesia for the answer but at their own neighborhood.

It’s no longer a secret that the West encouraged and supported the actions of the Indonesian army. The United States — at war in nearby Vietnam at that time — provided a list of people to be targeted for the Indonesian army and also equipment for their operations. At the height of the Cold War, America openly celebrated the annihilation of Indonesia’s Communist Party, the third-largest after the Soviet Union and China, over a mountain of corpses.

The word amok has passed into international vocabulary from the Indonesian amuk, describing a state of murderous frenzy. Perhaps Western intelligentsia could learn more about the real-life background behind the grammar. The lasting experience of amok is not over till we break the silence following the horror.

Joshua Oppenheimer has called for the United States to break the silence and admit the role it played in the massacre. At least one senator, Tom Udall of New Mexico, heard his call and raised the possibility of releasing a “Sense of the Senate” resolution on the issue. While this might be a glimmer of hope for survivors to get the recognition they deserve, American citizens could take advantage of this gesture and call on their senators to ensure the United States discloses its involvement and finally comes clean.

“The Act of Killing” is a re-enactment of a nation’s collective memory, a killer slowly comes to grip with the moral wrong of torturing and murdering hundreds of people. Neither Indonesia nor the United States has faced the truth so far. How long can we ignore what we know in our deepest hearts until we damage ourselves to a point of no redemption?

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-14 IWMF/Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.

Published in The Boston Globe  |    MARCH 29, 2014

Take that, stereotypes! The new Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager

REUTERS/MARVEL COMICS In the new Ms. Marvel debut, Kamala Khan is the first Muslim woman character to get a solo title comic series.
In the new Ms. Marvel debut, Kamala Khan is the first Muslim woman character to get a solo title comic series.

MARVEL COMICS is releasing its new Ms. Marvel superhero on Wednesday — a Pakistani-American from Jersey City succeeding the original Ms. Marvel, a blonde, blue-eyed Bostonian introduced four decades ago. The 16-year-old Kamala Khan will be the first Muslim woman to get a solo title in a comic book series, which is a big deal in the superhero universe.

The Ms. Marvel of the new millennium has come a long way from the original Carol Danvers character of the 1970s. Comic superheroes cater to a niche readership, but they also serve as signs of their times. The first Ms. Marvel was penned in the height of the 1970s women’s movement, of which Boston was one of the centers. Today, over a decade after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers and the repercussions for Muslims around the world, a new teenage superhero is born just across the Hudson from New York City. And she faces Mecca as she prays!

The author of the new series, graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson, has disclosed in interviews she wanted to “give” the Pakistani-Americans their own superhero in Jersey City, the city she grew up in. Among groups that need a hero of their own, American Muslims seem most suitable. For a long time they had to deal with being labeled the “enemy” even when they, too, were being targeted as Americans. In Jersey City, where the two towers can no longer be seen on the Manhattan skyline, Muslims are constantly reminded that their religious identity could be seen as a security threat, regardless of how unfounded that perception is.

The new Ms. Marvel tackles both stereotypes of both oppressed Muslim women and terrorists. Many Muslim women chose not to wear a hijab, and Kamala’s character is one of them. She carries her US history book side by side with a book on prophet Mohammed’s sayings and another book on illustration and design. Her creators claim she was born “out of a desire to explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective.” They would know because they, too, have had to navigate their way of being Muslim and American.

The idea of Kamala was inspired by Marvel editor Sana Amanat’s childhood as a Pakistani-American, she told The New York Times. And Wilson is a Muslim convert who once kept her religious identity a secret, a strategy many Muslims young and old employ in order to fit in a society where believing in Allah and the teaching of prophet Mohammed could be a liability. (Remember the uproar when rumors spread that President Obama might be Muslim?) With firsthand experiences of Muslims breathing into Kamala’s life, she might turn out to be more than a politically correct token Muslim in a predominantly Nordic superhero landscape.

Carol Danvers debuted as Ms. Marvel in 1977.


Carol Danvers debuted as Ms. Marvel in 1977.

Kamala can shape-shift, shrink, and grow. She struggles to reconcile her identity as an American teenager and daughter of Muslim immigrants. Her powers then seem to match the ways in which she would have to navigate the cultural terrains of mainstream America and her Pakistani Muslim roots. She is not the first Muslim superhero. In 2002, Marvel Comics introduced Soraaya Qadir, a niqab-wearing former Afghan slave that goes by the moniker Dust. DC Comics also has Simon Baz, the new Green Lantern, who was falsely accused of being a terrorist, and Nightrunner, the French-Algerian Batman of France.

In an interview with the BBC, Wilson said, “Superheroes represent the zeitgeist.” If the births of superheroes are influenced by the historical context in which they are created, then it’s no wonder we are experiencing a wave of Muslim superheroes in the last decade. Just a year after 9/11 we had a Muslim superhero that could turn into dust. Was it the sign of times, or something rooted in the American psyche? More Biblical perhaps, in that we all, victims and suicide bombers alike, turn into dust when we are blown to smithereens.

Kamala arrives just as we have witnessed a real-life hero of Pakistani descent in 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who took a bullet from the Taliban, survived, and wrote a book about her experience. Is this the right time for the birth of a new superhero? Sure, she does not fit the stereotype. She is not a man. She is not sexed up. She is a Muslim. But she is a teenage girl who can throw a punch with a giant fist. Who would dare to mess with her?

It will be cool to see how Kamala morphs into her multiple identities and grows as a superhero. Will she be able to live up to the mantel of the former Ms. Marvel whom she idolizes? Be as strong as her Afghan predecessor? Could she be America’s new superhero and save us all from prejudice? Time will tell. Let us watch her ride the zeitgeist and may she travel on the palm of Allah.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-1014 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.

Published in the Boston Globe’s Opinion section February 3, 2014

Rights should be part of US ‘pivot’ to Asia

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2010 Papuan activist Filep Karma.


A MILITARY helicopter flew overhead, firing rounds, as a young protester named Tineke Rumakabu ran from soldiers. She was bringing food for her fellow citizens of the former Dutch colony of West Papua as they demanded independence from Indonesia on July 6, 1998. Captured by troops, she was blindfolded, handcuffed, and tossed onto a pile of moaning people in a truck that took her to a military compound. There, she was tortured, raped, and watched as her friend was beheaded with a bayonet.

Rumakabu told her story this year before a Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal organized by the University of Sydney. The tribunal cast fresh light on one of Asia’s worst — and least recognized — atrocities of recent decades. The United States had backed Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua in the 1960s, after which an American company helped start the world’s biggest gold mine and third-largest copper mine there. Many West Papuans have joined the struggle for independence since. Now, more than 15 years since the massacre in the city of Biak, the United States is turning a blind eye toward human rights abuses in West Papua as it strengthens ties to Indonesia’s military.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in August that he welcomed “the progress Indonesia has made in improving transparency and the protection of human rights” as he signed a $500 million deal selling eight Apache attack helicopters. The sale, which is part of the US foreign policy “pivot” to Asia, went ahead despite the objections of some 90 human rights groups who argued that the aircraft could be used to further suppress the people of West Papua. US-supplied arms to Indonesia have been used in cracking down on resistance movements in West Papua and East Timor. The United States restored ties with Indonesian military in 2010 after cutting them in 1999 for Indonesian abuses in East Timor.

It was strange to hear Hagel’s claim that human rights protection in Indonesia has improved, when those responsible for massacres in West Papua and East Timor enjoy impunity while members of unarmed resistance groups face arbitrary detention and killings. Armed rebels in West Papua do exist in the form of the Free Papua Movement army. However, Indonesia has been indiscriminate in suppressing any kind of resistance movements. A month before the sale of the Apaches, United Nations high commissioner Navi Pillay expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Indonesia after police reportedly shot and killed two protestors preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of the annexation of West Papua.

By strengthening military ties, the United States is furthering a culture of impunity that fuels continuous human rights violations. Officers involved in abuses continue to rise in the ranks. Generals who were in command during alleged massacres are free to test their political ambitions. Former military chief Wiranto and former special forces unit chief Prabowo Subianto, both allegedly involved in abuses in East Timor and Papua, are running for Indonesia’s president in next year’s elections.

The grievances of West Papuans are longstanding. They rightly regard the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” as a sham, when the Suharto regime selected around 1,000 Papuan representatives to unanimously vote to join Indonesia. Soon after, Arizona-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan started its operations there. Through a subsidiary, the company pays Indonesian security forces, ostensibly to guard its mines, but in what amounts to protection money. Some academic researchers argue a “slow-motion genocide” is underway, with more than 100,000 West Papuans having been killed in armed clashes during the half-century of Indonesian rule.

After the brutal 32-year reign of Suharto ended in May 1998, a wave of protests demanding a new referendum in West Papua followed. In Biak, Filep Karma, now a political prisoner and one of the nominees for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, rallied people to gather under the city’s water tower. The protesters occupied the water tower for several days before soldiers and police launched a joint attack. Karma was shot with rubber bullets in both his legs.

The Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal recently released its findings that the massacre was planned and executed by Indonesian security forces. Large numbers of people were tortured, raped, or killed, including a child in a school uniform. Bodies that were dumped into the sea kept getting caught in fishermen’s nets for days. The Indonesian government continues to deny any wrongdoing.

The tribunal was an effort not only to document the atrocities, but to stop the cycle of impunity. It has collected enough evidence to prosecute those responsible. At the very least, the United States should call on Indonesia to properly investigate the case. The Obama administration should also reevaluate its military cooperation with Indonesia, making sure that arms and training for Indonesian troops are not used to harm civilians. A “pivot’ to Asia should not mean complicity in Indonesia’s human rights abuses.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-2014 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at MIT.

Published in Opinion section of The Boston Globe on January 6, 2014

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.

Mixing prayer and Maroon 5: Students dare to face the odds

“God Forbid, Toli-Toli high school students make fun of Islamic prayer!” shouts the title of a YouTube video. I clicked the link and was amazed.

I saw five teenage girls, bangs, long hair and all, one of them in a headscarf. They wore track suits and were in a classroom, lined up like a group of dancers.

Their arms, folded in front of their solar plexus’ were in poses just like salat (daily Islamic prayers). A girl chants Arabic at a beautiful pitch until American band Maroon 5’s poppy tune “One More Night” begins. Then the group breaks into a dance.

I find the video amazing and with 500,000 clicks and counting, it seems like many others do too. But the reasons for this interest differ. While Islamic vigilantes say: “How dare they?!”, pressuring the school principal to expel them and call for them to be jailed for blasphemy, I say: “How daring!”

Challenging authority, especially when that said authority rules heaven and earth, is not for the faint hearted.

The girls’ dance, switching turns between mimicking Islamic prayer and dancing to a song about “making love for one more night”, has a mischievous quality in it and they would be lying to themselves if they say it did not.

Juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is sacrilegious. However, they most probably did not intend to provoke.

Perhaps it was just for the laughs and the thrill, like when the class clown mimics the most feared teacher. They are testing the boundaries, knocking down the door that is the exit of innocence. What is it like on the other side?

They have shown incredible guts, unknowingly practicing a Nietzschean rejection of religious authority. Some, if not most of us have done it before: playing tag between girls and boys in the mosque before prayer, slipping in funny words in our Koran recitation, stealing sleep during the priest’s sermon or secretly bringing an iPod to mass. We know it is wrong, but we cannot help it. We are only human after all.

The difference between the girls’ mischief and the mischief of others lies in a smartphone, Internet connection and a lack of sensible judgment about posting it online.

The dance we see on YouTube shows two things. First, it shows a performance that reflects the lives of Indonesian Muslim teenage girls in a globalized world.

The girls took two things that are close to the lives: their daily religious rituals and pop music, and created their own version of art. Media studies majors might say they are practicing bricolage, creating something from various elements of their lives.

Second, it shows a lack of understanding of Indonesia’s youth about the power of the Internet. In Indonesia, with conservative, moralistic laws in place such as the Anti-Pornography Law, Internet Transaction Law and the Blasphemy Law, uploading information to the Internet can change someone’s life.

It is unwise to store incriminating materials on your hardrive. Unless one plans on making a political statement like Pussy Riot, then it is best to keep it to yourself.

The uproar from Islamic hard-liners as the video went viral did not come as a surprise.

This is Indonesia after all, a country where cops are on friendly terms with Islamic vigilantes, where Sunni mobs can chase away Shia minorities by burning their houses and get away with it, and where people have to hold their mass on the street because the majority does not allow the minority a place for worship.

But should the girls be sacrificed because their dance offends some people? Should these individuals, who are supposed to be preparing for their national exams, pay with their futures for the silly mistake of putting their mischievous dance on YouTube? Do the pious seriously consider dancing girls so dangerous to have them imprisoned?

The Blasphemy Law, once unsuccessfully challenged by activists at the Constitutional Court, has notoriously impinged on the rights of our religious minorities.

Now, it is going to be used to crush the futures of these young girls. The Central Sulawesi office of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) wisely said that the girls should not be expelled and sent to prison, but the girls’ school principal said he felt forced to expel them because the Muslim community was angry.

We cannot dismiss the role of parents and teachers in this conundrum. The reason why the students got into this mess in the first place is due to poor education.

Whether you view that teachers have not taught the students proper religious morals or whether they failed to teach the girls the consequences of posting stuff on the Internet, adults have a part in the mishap.

Instead of taking responsibility for his students’ future, the principal has stepped aside and allowed these girls to swim into a predatory ocean. It seems the principal lost his guts amid the uproar, but he could learn something about courage from the young girls he was supposed to educate and mentor.

Prodita Sabarini, Jakarta | Opinion | Mon, April 29 2013

Govt calls HRW ‘naive’ for report on growing intolerance

Presidential spokesperson Julian Adrian Pasha is calling Human Rights Watch (HRW) “naive” for its report released on Thursday highlighting abuses against religious minorities in Indonesia.

“They should see Indonesia in its entirety, with its diversity and pluralism,” Julian said. “Even in a homogenous country there is friction between groups,” he said.

The 107-page report released by the New York-based group, titled In Religion’s Name: Abuses Against Religious Minorities in Indonesia, said that President Susilo Yudhoyono’s has been inconsistent in defending religious freedom.

The report also said that the government had been complicit in the persecution of religious minorities by failing to enforce laws and issuing regulations that breached minority rights.

Phelim Kine, the deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday that Yudhoyono was “failing to sanction those members of his government, his government’s officials and members of the police and security forces who have been passively or actively complicit in acts of religious intolerance and violence”.

Religious hard-liners have carried out hundreds of attacks local religious minorities such as the Ahmadis, Shia, Christians and Bahai.

The intimidation and attacks have been part of a growing trend of religious intolerance in Indonesia, according to HRW. Setara, a local organization monitoring religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 264 cases of violent attacks against religious minorities in 2012, up from 244 cases in 2011 and 216 cases in 2010.

In August, for example, one man was killed as a mob of 1,000 Sunni Muslims razed 37 homes belonging to Shia Muslims in Madura, East Java, while in February 2011, three Ahmadis were killed as 1,500 Islamist militants attacked an Ahmadi community in Cikeusik, Banten.

The report said that the perpetrators have mostly come from militant Sunni groups that were “at times acting with the tacit, or occasionally open, support of government officials and police”.

The central government has also not prioritized the investigation of incidents of religious intolerance and violence for police and security forces, the report said.

The HRW also reported the so-called Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakorpakem) for inhibiting religious freedom, saying that Bakorpakem, which is under the Attorney’s General’s Office, had been influential in pressing the decision to ban religious communities.

The report said that under Yudhoyono, Bakorpakem has had an active role in prosecuting people espousing views it deemed blasphemous to Islam, such as imprisoned Shia leader Tajul Muluk and the Alexander Aan in West Sumatra, who was imprisoned for posting pro-athiest statements on Facebook.

While Human Rights Watch also said that a 2008 joint ministerial decree that banned Ahmadis from propagating their beliefs was a license to violate the rights of religious minorities, Julian said that the extra-judicial attacks against Ahmadis in 2011 resulted from their non-compliance with the decree.

Julian also denied that the police did not have a clear direction under Yudhoyono.

“When they [police] are faced with a clash that involves a violation of the law, it’s very difficult for the police to protect others — that doesn’t mean that they do not protect the right to live and human rights.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | National | Fri, March 01 2013

Report with 107 pages:
In Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia

Slide Show with 18 photos: Rising Violence against Religious Minorities