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 and emailed at

One Reply to “New Article”

  1. Hi Ted:
    I have been asked by people in the Study Abroad Program to get some publicity since this is Year of Study Abroad. They gave me your web site and your writing is impressive. I am wondering if you can write a piece about the importance of study abroad. Talk about how studying abroad has changed you, what you have learned from it and how it has impacted you. The piece need not be long. 800 words is the max. We plan to send it to editorial page of major newspapers. You are highly recommended by the Study Broard folks and I hope you can find time to do it. Let me know.
    bob san

    I’d like to learn from you how to find jobs or volunteer opportunities with NGOs in Thailand. But I will ask that later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *