The Seething Daily Planet

I feel torn between making waves wherever I can and hiding in the cool shadows to see what happens. I feel a tension in the air, a fermentation threatening to blow the top off the bottle that is Indonesia, that is the world. It’s an exaggerated feeling, I am sure; it is, after all, what I seem to be looking for, making it much more likely that I will find it.

Another disclaimer should be, of course, that I am a youth in search of romance and adventure. What discourse draws the poets and the stupid like a moth to flame more than that of revolution and dramatic change?

On a more reality based note, Life progresses daily here in Depok. I’ve been making some very good friends, especially the political science students with whom I can bear that nerdy intellectual that loves to have long discussions about society and globalization over coffee.

politics tshirt.jpg

The days are averaging about 93 F the first week of this month long fasting holiday of Ramadhan. This makes it especially easy for all of the observing Muslims to take it pretty easy all afternoon; this is both a relief for me, as the masses with which one must deal with each moment are reduced, but does make life a little less exciting and a little less convenient.

People I Know

An important event blesses Minnesota. September 22, Friday, Katie, the giant of a drummer for the band-that-plays-rock-and-roll Brother and Sister, will, along with her team, perform live on Radio K. That’s 770 on your am dial.

Wait, that already happened… Well, it was awesome, even from the other side of the world.

still further reinforcement of my belief that Indonesia is not a place to be ignored right now.
“march of jihad: washington needs to keep and eye on indonesia”
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/editorials/stories/DN-indonesia_22edi.ART.State.Edition1.3e8baa0.html

this article is a little slanted in my opinion (living here in indonesia and all), but the point made so clearly in the title of the piece is still alarmingly true.

I went to an amazing conference on campus yesterday, organized by some of my new friends; political science students with whom the joy of political banter seems to be universal. They brought together an amazing panel of people to discuss the role of the military in indonesia’s transitioning democracy/ society. during the new order regime, of course, the army was incredibly independent (and still is), has its hands all over the economy, and some say controlled the government and country much more than the government controlled it. a sort of oligarchy. it is most defninitely not a civilian controlled institution. one of the speakers was former general wiranto, who is still accused of human rights violations from the campaign during east timor’s independence war. I’m working on an article about this at the moment, try to finish it as soon as i can (after i get some friends to help translate some of the material- my brain got sore and i zoned out through parts of the talks…) this is such an important debate to be having on the campuses and within this society – if the government, military and economy cannot be reclaimed by the masses, from an elite oligarchy, i and the people that i am meeting and speaking with have real fear that about the possibilities. the most interesting part, to me, was the enthusiasm of many of the students in the packed hall when it came to questioning and criticizing the status quo of the powerful military and government. they cheered when the independent researcher spoke and asked some great questions when the mike was passed. check out the pix.

ramadhan starts tomorrow. bulan puasa. the month of fasting. such an omnipresent part of every day here, religion. interesting poster on campus, from one of the student groups. so many ways to interpret religion, any religion. “jihad” for example. in one context, ‘getting the devil out of your heart and thougts,’ like in the poster (picture). an another context, well… try watching the news.

they had a used book sale on campus the other day. i found a beat up copy of catch 22. Takes me out of reality at those key moments, twists my brain a little bit more.
I need a cup of coffee. mmm, coffee. Indonesia…

A Day of Depok

I am scared. The end of my time here at the University of Indonesia is already visible in the future, and it has hardly begun. Is this what life is all about, running out of time before you ever really feel like you can accomplish everything that you are capable of accomplishing or that is important to do?

Anyway, the Islamic holy month, Ramadan, starts this weekend. It is the month of fasting, both in terms of eating and in terms of your soul (well, depending on who you talk to…). It is definitely felt on campus.

approaching puasa

So many of the organizations and groups on campus are based upon religion; actually, that is the case with many of the organizations and even the political parties of Indonesia.

I went to an awesome lecture today. It was a panel discussion about the role that the militiary, the TNI ought to play in Indonesia. There was a researcher, a student, a government official from high up in Jakarta, and General Wiranto. And plenty of fireworks, including antogonistic questions from isnspired students in the crowd. I felt right at home.

general wiranto

General Wiranto was a general in the army during the war with East Timor, and is still charged with committing human rights violations there. His position was pro-military, to say the least. (not that I really understood everything that was said, of course…)

Common Questions

I often get the question, “so why do you want to study Indonesian/ in Indonesia?” It’s a good question, and one that I have trouble answering sometimes. However, it can be downright intimidating when someone asks and actually pays attention to how I answer. In general, it seems to be one of those questions that somebody (everybody) is required to ask a foreigner, perhaps out of pride for their country, perhaps out of suspicion of an outsider trying to get on the inside, perhaps simply to be nice. Then there are those people like the girl I was talking to during lunch today. When I talk to people, there seems to be a sort of hierarchy or needs; first, one has to make sure that communication is happening at all in the first place, and then one must put all sorts of brainpower into thinking of vocabulary as it is needed. If you have enough trouble fulfilling the basic needs of communication, it’s easy to forget about the whole human part of the interaction, when the other person is not simply a body receiving the words that you are trying to articulate but comprehends them and considers them critically, what they mean, or if they even mean anything and aren’t just bs. One can become accustomed to the absence of verbal challenge when you are conversing in a language that you are learning; either people don’t expect to have any kind of meaningful conversation or they assume it’s not worth the effort of trying to make sure that messages are understood without complication.

My new friend, however, is obviously very smart. A political science student here, she is well versed in global political economy, political theory, blah blah etc etc, and her english is awesome. I started in with my usual jive of an answer, using my limiting vocabulary, when i realized that I had the opportunity to have this conversation on a whole different level, a level that you just don’t expect to achieve in daily conversations starting with “hello mister, where are you from?”

And so I got all philosophical, and idealistic, speaking of how I truly believe in the importance of Indonesia in the world that I want to live in, it’s relation with the the rest of the world, the tensions that it has to face in terms of diversity and economic disparity, among others. And then, I became a little nervous, because not only was she capable of understanding what I was saying, she was very capable of turning it over critically in her head and spitting it back at me, exposing the flaws in my oversimplified version of the world that is expressed in my short mission statement. I fear being seen as a child of priveledge, a rich American coming to Indonesia to observe as people fight for their rights, their democracy, their lives. I fear that I might not have any right to be passionate about the change that is happening in Indonesia and what it means for the world, that I am simply an elite academic that doesn’t really have any idea about what it really means, how it feels on the ground, that as much as I might wax poetically about it I’m really just part of the status quo system that is supporting the inequalities in this world in the first place.

Introspection: Finding god, choosing sides, losing faith

Introspection

We had a little rain last night here in Depok; perhaps the changing barometric pressure elicited some dreams. Apparently, the Black Forest is no longer on the corner of South Nicollet and 26th, but is somewhere down Jalan Margonda Raya, across the street from Ayam Bakar Christina. Anyone who has asked me where I would like to meet for a drink in Minneapolis will know how much of a loss this is for me. (By the way, it really is worth a trip over here, just for the grilled chicken at Ayam Bakar Christina, Christina’s Grilled Chicken, with lalap and sambal…) I don’t remember what language the group was speaking, some of whom I recognized, some I didn’t, and I think there was someone playing badminton somewhere…

I seem to exist recently with a certain degree of paranoia. It’s based on an exaggerated perception of reality, of course; but it is still based on reality. Like the fear that I will offend someone (or everyone) with these letters of unconsidered streams of conscious… Also, for example, I sometimes feel that everyone I meet is on a mission to convert me to their persuasion, be it a political or a religious one. Which is great, I am always wanting to know about such things. However, the implications of such encounters seem to have more gravity in my present situation, and they reach beyond the realm of intellectual stimulation and perhaps into one of survival. Religion is such a divisive issue, lines are constantly being drawn, and one gets the impression that you have to be on one side or the other. Most of the white/ Western people that I encounter at University (in my limited experience) are from missionary organizations, or from NGO’s that have a degree of missionary work built into their development activities. Many of the South Koreans, too. I am constantly getting invitations to come to church on Sunday. Also, it is not uncommon for a Muslim to perceive that I am curious to learn about their religion or how it affects their life or society and take the opportunity to do a little proselytizing.

What is it that attracts such polarization here? What is different about my environment back in Minnesota that people are not compelled to act out their religious rituals in such a publicly visible and uncompromising way?

To tell the truth, if it came down to it, I don’t know which side I would join up with. It is sad, I think, that I even consider the possibility that one might have to choose sides in a battle. Famous for its support of the Non-Aligned Movement, I’d like to think that Indonesians would appreciate the fact that I prefer to be, for the moment, “Non-Aligned.”

However, just as children are destined to cry for the lost illusion of Santa Clause (OK, I’m not “global” enough yet to drop my ‘Western’ cultural vantage point), I fear that idealists such as myself – people who want to believe that a global humanity can transcend the divisive traits recognized in the present – are destined to cry for the loss of their illusion.

In fear is no way to live, however. I will maintain my belief in that “illusion,” even when it is betrayed by news headlines and experience.

Live Long and Prosper.

“…a week earlier I’d been locked into the idea that the Redskins would win easily- but when Nixon came out for them and George Allen began televising his prayer meetings I decided that any team with both God and Nixon on their side was fucked from the start.”

— “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” Hunter S. Thompson

New Article

This is an article I just submitted to a student magazine, for their special edition on American students studying in Muslim cultures. It was put together quite quickly, but i hope it holds together… Ted

===============================================================

My home, at the moment, is Kukusan, near the city of Depok, next to the campus of Universitas Indonesia. Lots of student housing in here, even though it’s got a real kampung, or village feel to it. “Selamat malam, Tedy!” Good evening! Everyone recognizes the lone white boy as I make my way through the grove of mango trees, past the internet café to buy a bag of kacang ribus tanah segara, fresh steamed peanuts, from a passing cart. My language class started about a month ago; the normal semester, however, only recently started, and last week ended with the first Friday night of Depok’s college life in full swing. And I feel right at home, even as the previously foreign sound of the evening call to prayer echoes through the streets from the nearby mosques. It’s amazing how university students are so much the same, even on the other side of the world. Perhaps this institutional form, the liberal arts education, has been so globalized that the structure holds up wherever it goes.

The student senate put on a concert last Friday, on the Social Sciences campus. The first band played a blend of Rancid and Operation Ivy covers, the second band was crankin’ out Weezer. Good stuff. I heard these songs that I could sing along to, screaming out the final, sustained words with the rest of the crowd. I could have been watching a show at the First Avenue Main Room back in Minneapolis. There was an extra bizarre dimension to the experience though, as the last cymbal crash ended the song, and the lead-man broke into fast and yelling Indonesian, the occasional key English word thrown in, bahasa campur, revving up the crowd. Mohawks with red stripes offered an interesting balance to the many Jilbab’s (Muslim head scarf worn by women). They bounced up and down together in the mosh pit, becoming a sweaty collage of denim jackets, colorful head scarves, torn jeans and traditional batik robes. Kids wearing t-shirts of American cultural icons squatted on the curb eating soto soup from a candle lit push cart vender who had stopped to take advantage of the lively and hungry crowd.

Despite the Weezer and the spiky hair-do’s that might emerge at rock shows, however, the fact that I am most definitely not in Minnesota is unavoidable. The email I just received from my friend, Agung, is completely outside of my American experience, for example. He is starting a new job in the province of Aceh, the Westernmost point in Indonesia on the Island of Sumatra. He is Indonesian, and he is a Muslim. But his anxiety is still obvious when he speaks of moving from Purowkerto, Central Java, to the only region in Indonesia where the religious police enforcing Islamic Sharia law are more powerful than the state police enforcing domestic law. A result of the province’s long and bloody independence movement, the central government in Jakarta finally granted Aceh special autonomy in an attempt to compromise and keep Aceh from separating from the country. The form of Islam practiced in Aceh is much different from that of Java; the Acehnese are known as having the strictest interpretation of Islam in the country. The government and the courts of Aceh now have the authority to punish those that are guilty of violating Islamic law.

Well educated and worldly, Agung makes the convincing argument that Sharia should not become part of the law in Indonesia for the same reason that the Ten Commandments should not be displayed in public places in the USA. While the values of the people should no doubt manifest themselves in legislation and the judiciary, these institutions should not infringe on the individual’s right to choose, interpret and practice religion however they see fit. The rector of the National Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia, Professor Azyumardi Azra, said recently that “people are tired of seeing the spread of prostitution and drug use and so, in a way, they lend their support to those politicians who legislate against them. That does not mean that they want Sharia law.” In a country as diverse as Indonesia, Agung fears that forcing one interpretation of Islam on everyone could tear the nation apart.

The strife between those promoting state enforced Islamic law and those who don’t is but a single manifestation of the extremely heterogeneous nature of Indonesia’s 88% Muslim majority. Even here, on the campus of Universitas Indonesia, tensions between religion, politics and the country’s pluralistic society are omnipresent. Walking back to campus from lunch yesterday with a group of local Muslim friends, we paused to look at the giant banner hanging near the University’s main entrance. Posted by one of the Islamic student groups on campus, its clear letters spelled “Welcome to Islamic Kampus.” The banner next to it read “Dunia Indah Tanpa Israel.” A beautiful world without Israel. The group advocates a strictly Islamic university; they are also promoting a foreign policy agenda, one that ought to be obvious.

My friends shook their heads, lamenting the uncompromising stance of what they called a “radical” minority. They are the ones that have lunch with orang bule, with foreigners, though.

This “radical” group is certainly not the only youth organization that takes both a political and religious stance. After being suppressed by the authoritarian oligarchy of the New Order for so many years, a greater degree of political freedom came about rapidly and at a great cost; many, including student activists, suffered imprisonment and torture, many lost their lives. After being suppressed for so long, activism exploded with a built-up force, hoping to retake the institutions that are supposed to guarantee the people’s freedom. However, with the sudden loss of the “father” figure of President Suharto, who controlled the country for so long, democracy is out of practice in Indonesia, and people are willing to give their support to anyone that can guarantee their security. Many of my generation realize that Indonesia cannot afford to allow decisions to be made based on fear. They are approaching political involvement with a degree of urgency, with recognition that if they do not work for democracy their country could get torn apart from the inside. There are Gerakan Mahasiswa, or student movements, that organize around Christianity, nationalism, and others, but the greatest numbers belong to Islamic organizations.

Several of my friends belong to these types of groups; it is an outlet for their desire to be politically active and to shape their country. These organizations may be religiously Islamic, but they are politically “moderate.” They agree that Islam is an inseparable part of Indonesian culture, but they also recognize that their government must be democratic, that social justice must be guaranteed for all in their incredibly pluralistic society.

The success of Indonesia’s democracy also, I truly believe, has great implications for the entire world. The tensions between religion and ideology in Indonesia are part of the same conflict that we are seeing the world over, between “Islam” and “the West.” In Indonesia, there is the opportunity to find resolution within democracy. Indonesia can show the world that a pluralistic society can live together and that everyone’s values can be upheld and protected by promoting social justice and democracy.

I sat down with that same group of friends for a long lunch again today. They were all Indonesians – some Jakarta locals, some of them from faraway Sumatra island – and all of them were Muslim. Some of the girls wore the Jilbab, some of them did not. Someone was brave enough to bring up the issues of 9/11, which recently came and went, and of religion and global politics; I say brave because there is no shortage of tense issues here, especially for the lone orang putih, the white person. We all agreed that the attacks in New York five years ago were awful and wrong. They are furious with the people that acted in such a way in the name of religion. They are just as furious, however, with the reaction of the United States and other countries. The religion practiced by the 88% Islamic majority of Indonesia is very different from the Islam practiced in other countries around the world, and even varies widely within the country itself.

One thing that I have realized during my short time here in Indonesia is that the horrible prophecy of a “clash of civilizations” is, unfortunately, a frightening possibility. I have also been convinced that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Letting 9/11 define the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world is a mistake, as long as that relationship is one where we fear everyone and everyone is a possible enemy.

Sitting around the table with our gado-gado, picking out the chili peppers and wiping the sweat off our brows, my friends assured me that they understood the difference between a government’s policy and the citizens of a country. Their irrepressible good nature does not cover up their fear however, and it is the same fear that I have. There are what they see as extremists on one side, those who mistakenly interpret their religion to justify killing; and on the other side, there is what they see as a “war on Islam” masked as a “war on terror.” And we are caught in the middle, with our gado-gado.

Ted Meinhover is a Global Studies and Journalism student at the University of MN. He is currently spending a year abroad, first studying language in Indonesia and then studying language in Yunnan, China. He can be found at www.tedmeinhover.com and emailed at tedericco@gmail.com.

Changing the World

9/11 came and went yesterday, here in Indonesia. Even on this side of the world, it is impossible to ignore the impact that this date has had on the world. It has been so important, in fact, that I think it is one of the forces that is shaping my generation. This scares me, because this event has not made the world a better place; both the trend that produced it and the reaction to it have caused a dramatic backslide in the achievement of the kind of world that I would like to live in.

I had a long lunch with a group of friends today, some of the girls wearing the jilbab, the Islamic head cover, all of them Muslims. Someone was brave enough to bring up the issue of 9/11, of religion and global politics; there is no shortage of tense issues here, especially for the lone orang putih, the American (there are a few other Americans studying at Universitas Indonesia, but they are for the most part Christian missionaries, learning the local language to better carry out their prescribed tasks, and as far as I can tell they avoid interaction whenever possible, retreating to their air conditioned apartments after class). We all agreed that the attacks in New York five years ago were awful and wrong. They are furious with the people that acted in such a way in the name of religion. They are just as furious, however, with the reaction of the United States and other countries.

One thing that I have realized during my short time here in Indonesia is that the horrible and fear mongering prophecy of a clash of civilizations is indeed a frightening possibility. I have also learned that it is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Letting 9/11 define the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world is a mistake, as long as that relationship is one where everyone is a possible enemy.

Sitting around the table with our gado-gado, picking out the chili peppers and wiping the sweat off our brows, my friends assured me that they understood the difference between a government’s policy and the citizens of a country. Their irrepressible good nature does not cover up their fear however, and it is the same fear that I have. There are what they see as extremists on one side, those who mistakenly interpret their religion to justify killing; and on the other side, there is what they see as a “war on Islam” masked as a “war on terror.” And we are caught in the middle, with our gado-gado.

Give Ted a Hand

This is a letter that I would like to send to a few of my professors and contacts at the University of Minnesota. I thought I would put it out there before I sent it off, perhaps get a little feedback. Do you think this is an appropriate thing to send, from a mere undergraduate to a professor? Please send me some feedback at tedericco@gmail.com.

 

Greetings!

 

This is Ted Meinhover, undergraduate in the Global Studies department. I was hoping that you could help me with a question. I do not know if there are any conventions for this sort of thing, so please do excuse me (and let me know!) if I am at all acting inappropriately or violating any codes of conduct.

 

I am currently in Indonesia, studying at Universitas Indonesia through the Sullivan Scholarship (from the University of Minnesota). I have been here since the beginning of August and it has been an absolutely amazing experience. I have learned so much – about language, politics, people – and there is so much left to learn.

 

I would like to ask your advice about searching for opportunities for a new friend of mine, Imam Cahyono, to continue his studies in the USA. He graduated with Sociology from Sudierman University in the city of Purwokerto, Java, and is now working in Jakarta. He is writing columns for two newspapers (Kompas and The Jakarta Post) and several magazines (on social justice and globalization issues); he is also part of a research team with the Indonesian Human Rights commission, a domestic, government funded entity. Their project now is researching human rights impacts in large factories. As prestigious as this may sound, he, his wife and two children live in a single room concrete house in South Jakarta, and he dreams of the day when journalism is recognized as a profession worth paying a living wage for in Indonesia. I have found him to be incredibly intelligent and progressive, and he has spent his adult life working for social justice in his country.

He would very much like to continue his education, preferably in the United States, which he of course does not have the resources for. His main focus is political economy. I thought he could be a very valuable recruit for the University of Minnesota, and also a worthwhile investment, in terms of scholarships or fellowships, etc.

Do you have any advice where he could possibly look for help financing his education? People like Imam are so important, I believe; he is working to make change in places that truly need it. It is most definitely in the interest of the United States and the world to empower people like him to help Indonesia become the democracy that they want it to be.

 

Thank you so much for your time and any advice. I hope that all is well at the beginning of another semester.

 

Ted Meinhover

Religion and Modernity

Like I have been saying all along, I am fascinated and constantly perplexed by the multitude of issues and forces that make up the Indonesian experience. I have the benefit of having a local friend in law school, married to a researcher and professional in the social sciences, and in possession of bookshelves full of books on Indonesian politics, history, economics, culture. Marsen is currently working with an international NGO concerned with development and Labor Rights, so his and Rini’s library is by no means a collection of government sponsored books endorsing the majesty of the national government.

An article that I read recently gives an interesting perspective on religion and the role it has and is playing in conflict in Indonesia and around the world. The article is about religious and ethnic violence that has broken out since Indonesian independence and talks about the causes of these conflicts and their implications for the transitioning democratic government and the challenge of building a single nation from a very pluralistic society.

One of the factors cited in the rise of religious violence is the emergence of more fundamentalist manifestations for both the Muslims and the Christians.

who needs a car? This is a family and their houseplant on a motorcycle in Yogjakarta. It has nothing to do with what I am writing about here.

He asserts, no doubt a bit controversially, that the rise of fundamental religions is in part due to the built-in inability of monotheistic religions to cope with modern pluralistic societies. He says they cannot reconcile the fact that they are living with others who do not share their beliefs and therefore become more agressive, prosthelityzing. This activity by churches in Indonesia has been cited as a threat by some, and it has been used as justification for attacks and church burnings. Can one draw parrallels to the USA?

Interesting.