Archive for October, 2007

Of Knives and Ekonomi Indonesia

First to Indonesia, a country, while dear to my heart and home to some of my best friends, continues to see its share of traumas and challenges. While the country has done a lot of things right, such as the popular movement that led to the overthrow of Suharto’s democracy-unfriendly regime that continues to inspire the country’s many politically aware citizens and activists in 1998. But that was almost twenty years ago. While democracy is still strongly engrained in the culture and government of Indonesia, which is of course the home of the world’s largest Muslim population, it remains disorganized and inefficient to the degree that it threatens the very freedoms it strives to protect.

The growing economic disparity is perhaps the greatest obstacle to social justice in Indonesia, and, in this writer’s mind, a successful democracy is not possible without social and economic justice. Indonesia faces any number of sometimes seemingly unsurmountable problems, not the least of which include corruption at the regional and federal levels, massive and disconnected geography, and the fact that Jakarta is trying to hold together and administrate thousands of islands with residents speaking hundreds of different languages. An interesting article in Business Week, “Indonesia: Poised for Rapid Growth?” asks why Indonesia’s economy is not living up to its full potential.


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Being Hip in Minnesota: Location, Location… Location?

After having been “out of town” for the past year and a half or so – ok, on the other side of the world – I honestly couldn’t be happier coming back to the Twin Cities.

Our shining beacon of culture and commerce, striding the great Mississippi river and rising up against the monotony of the plains offers this world traveler both the comforts of home and much of the excitment and contradictions I found in the urban centers of Southeast Asia and China.

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Same Party, Different Days

This is a phenomenon that has confused me ever since I first encountered it in Indonesia. Visiting the family of my friend for Idul Fitri last year in Purwokerto, which happens to be a Muhammadiyah stronghold in Central Java, I followed him to the solat Idul Fitri, the early morning prayers at the end of Rhamadan, to watch the event. The next morning, he again roused me at that very early hour, saying “OK, let’s go to solat Idul Fitri… again!”

As I learned over and over again, the line between politics, religion and culture in Indonesia is by no means a clear one. Read on, from the Jakarta Post:


Idul Fitri in Indonesia: How can it be on different days?

Mahmudi Asyari, Tangerang

A few days into the Ramadhan fasting month, Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization announced that Shawal 1, 1428 Hijriah would fall on Friday, Oct. 12, 2007 on the international calendar.

That means Muhammadiyah will celebrate Idul Fitri this Friday.

The government will only decide the date for Idul Fitri on Thursday evening, having tentatively set the Islamic holiday for Oct. 13. Normally the date would be changed.

Muhammadiyah’s announcement has opened the possibility for Indonesian Muslims to celebrate Idul Fitri on two different days, as has occurred in the past. This goes to show how difficult it can be, to agree unanimously on a date for the holiday.

Muhammadiyah had held a symposium on Sept. 3 on the need for common criteria shared by the Indonesian Muslim community to celebrate Idul Fitri on the same day. Vice President Jusuf Kalla attended the event, and emphasized the importance of avoiding differences among Muslims when it came to Idul Fitri. Such hopes were also expressed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in its recommendation in 2003.

Muslim scholars here attribute the difference to the authority given to the Religious Affairs Ministry, to hold isbat sessions to decide the dates of Islamic holidays. The sessions, they say, are usually dominated by traditional ulema who are not aware of the latest scientific methods.

The scholars insist on using hilal (moon observations) to determine the date of the new moon, even though the conjunction (of the sun and moon as seen from earth) can be accurately calculated scientifically.

They ignore, however, the consensus reached among ulema in the rest of the world (minus Libya) that the presence of the crescent may be predicted, long before it appears at ghurub (between sunset and moonrise). In other words, in Indonesia the conjunction is not confirmed until it is verified by observation of a new moon crescent, in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

By consensus, the conjunction may occur before ghurub but if the sun sets and a crescent cannot be sighted or disappears before the sun, a new month by the Islamic calendar can not begin.

As far as I know, the opinion of the scholars is not new. It was introduced by Rasuna Said during the era of President Sukarno.

The discrepancies occur because ulema are applying several methods to observe calendar dates.

The first method used is when a conjunction occurs before sunset, the following day is declared to be the beginning of a new month. By this method, irrespective whether a new moon crescent is sighted or not, what decides the new month is a conjunction. This method is practiced in Libya and Saudi Arabia in certain cases.

The second method, wujudulhilal (the presence of a new moon crescent), requires two conditions. Using hisab (calculation), a conjunction must occur before ghurub and a new moon crescent must appear after sunset.

Both of these methods do not require observation, but rely on precise computations.

The third method is imkanurrukyah which using astronomical calculation predicts when the new moon is at least two degrees above the horizon. Indonesia has mixed this method with rukya (manual observations). In Indonesia rukya are still used as the main way to determine the beginning of the month, whereas Malaysia interprets imkanurrukyah differently. If a crescent has reached 2 degrees, observation no longer needed because this is considered to represent a rukya based on previous practices. If the crescent is less than 2 degrees, the rukya is used under careful examination. In Indonesia, PERSIS is the only organization that (since 2002) have practiced this method. The government of Indonesia, represented by the Religious Affairs Ministry, interprets imkanurrukyah to mean places where the crescent can be seen, and accepted.

The fourth method is rukya (the sighting of the crescent). Saudi Arabia had practiced this method up until last year. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, practices this method but in many cases, especially after the fall of the New Order government in 1998, it has had a tendency to confuse the administration (in Saudi Arabia also). NU has become embroiled in debates when a crescent cannot be sighted.

The fifth method is called the global concept. This method is practiced by Muslim organizations which uphold the (political) concept of khilafa. This group suggests Muslims throughout the world follow Saudi Arabia in deciding the beginning of the month regardless the differences of local sighting-zones and the position of the crescent, given the fact that Mecca is located in that country. This is, of course, absurd because the sun in Indonesia sets four hours earlier than it does in Saudi Arabia. All Muslims, except in Indonesia, have followed this decision.

Saudi Arabia reached this decision with some degree of difficulty. A Saudi Arabian astronomer once faced punishment for criticizing the rukya-based decision which was not scientifically verified.

The Idul Fitri date decision in Indonesia is quite unique. Two dominant Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and NU, have a tendency to celebrate Idul Fitri on two different days.

To decide whether Idul Fitri falls on Oct. 12 or Oct. 13 this year all parties involved are required to know the position of crescent at sunset on Oct. 11. The almanac mentions that the conjunction occurs at 05:01 GMT, or 12:01 West Indonesia Time. The crescent at the time the sun sets on Oct. 11 is located at 0.9 degrees as observed in Pelabuhan Ratu crescent observatory. In the Central Indonesia Time Zone (except for Kendari and Makassar) and the Eastern Indonesia Time Zone, the crescent falls below the horizon.

If the first method (a conjunction before sunset) or the second method (wujudulhilal) are applied this year, the following day (Oct. 12) should be considered the beginning of the month. Consequently, it is only the area where the crescent is above the horizon which celebrates Idul Fitri.

On the other hand, if the rukya method is used, it will be difficult to decide if Oct. 12 is the beginning of the month because based on previous practices rukya does not apply when the crescent is less than 2 degrees above the horizon.

Most probably, the government and PERSIS organization, which upholds the imkanurrukyah method, will decide that Shawal 1, 1428 (the first day of the new month) will fall on Oct. 13.

There are different ways of deciding the date of Idul Fitri upheld by various Muslim organizations. It is unwise to claim that only one organization is correct. It is better for Muslims in Indonesia to exercise tolerance and to learn to reach an agreement in the best possible way.

The writer is a member of the International Crescent Observation Project (ICOP), and an Islamic teacher living in Tangerang.

Kecintaan Kopi Aku

Amid all this seriousness, it is undeniably necessary to remember those things that truly bring us pleasure, be it intellectual, physical, or even of the kind that cannot be easily explained, that is felt at some deep, soul-intoxicating level.

Did I ever mention that I love coffee?

Yes, many times. Perhaps reduntantly. This I know, yet shamelessly I plunge forth once again.

Let’s see, aside from the coffee that I love here in Minneapolis (though we do pay for our passion, I’m afraid), I’d have to say that the best coffee I have experienced has been in  Aceh, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Aceh, Indonesia. I’ve never been to Europe, of course, so I cannot testify beyond the Asian coffee/kaphe/cafei/kopi experience.

In Indonesia as well as in Vietnam, the act of drinking coffee, which is an almost exclusively social act, is perhaps one of the main reasons why their versions of this drink of the caf’ed out gods is so memorable. In Vietnam, you find yourself in a wide range of coffee shops, from quite fancy to little plastic stools on the sides of busy roads, watching the coffee drip patiently down from the distinctive filter, plucking cubes of ice from a communal bucket. In Aceh, however, the kedai kopi, or coffee shop, is as much the realm of political activism and social organizing as it is of leisure. Today, only a few years after the end of the province’s bloody thirty year war of autonomy from the rest of Indonesia, the battle between independence and allegiance to Jakarta are still fought, only now it is in the kedai kopi, and the weapons are words, instead of in the jungles of sumatra with guns and bombs.

Another notable feature of Indonesian kopi: during the magical process that brings the coffee from the plant to your stomach, it comes into contact with ganja, which grows voraciously in the North Sumatran province. The ingredient’s purpose is ambiguous, especially given that Aceh is probably the home of the strictest Muslim culture in all of SouthEast Asia – though they contend it is for taste. In any case, during my time there, I couldn’t understand why each cup left me loving the brew even more and craving yet another. Then I found out why…

This is a picture of an Indonesian woman cooking pasta, which really has nothing to do with coffee. Well, maybe a little bit. Indonesia has good coffee, and cooking is also a pleasure-inducing act, just like drinking coffee!

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Reinventing Church in Ottertail, the teaser

Driving East through the swamps and past the cornfields that line Minnesota Highway 52, the few signs of modern humanity, a farmhouse or set of train tracks, hardly makes a dent on your concioussness. Entering Ottertail City, population a few hundred, you anticipate nothing more than a half mile of reduced speeds. Suddenly, inconcruent and shining on the edge of a large, neatly plowed field, rises a monument, a metal, stone and wooden edifice that you know does not belong there.

But the building, and the religious movement that gathers within, have become a fixture in the small community – to the pleasure of some and the angst of others.

The Firestarters are a worship group, they are a band, they are a record label. But they are more; when describing the group, leaders say that before anything else, the Firestarters is a community, even a way of life. In a world where life is so often without meaning, they say, the group is seeking to return to a form of religion that is based on relationships, on expression, on the true word of God, and on community.

Each summer, the small city of Ottertail engages in a staple of small town Minnesota – the quirky weekend town celebration. They call theirs Otterfest, complete with a street dance, fireworks, and lots of hotdog grilling. The Firestarters take the opportunity to erect a large tent in front of the impossible to miss building, across the street from the fair grounds. The building, less than a decade old, is the home of the minister and his family, office of the registered not for profit non-denominational church, recording studio, perfomance and banquet hall, and the center of a growing artists’ colony. They open the doors of the tent to the public, inviting anyone and everyone to join them for their annual “summer revival.” One Ottertail resident said she didn’t know much about the Firestarters or their teachings; however, she says that after attending the revival this past summer she was “drunk on the Holy Spirit.” She went on, “I was afraid to drive home – I really felt drunk, but I hadn’t had a drop. They told me ‘God got you here, He’ll get you back.'”

Burmese Diaspora

Especially here in  Minneapolis, where large communities of refugees from Asia and Africa have built new lives, it is obvious how a crisis in one part of the world contributes to the globalization of humanity, movements of families and culture and language and cuisine from one place to another. Certainly not novel in human history, I believe it takes on new meaning in today’s world.

This is an interesting article about the Muslims that have fled persecution in former Burma. The Buddhists in that country are angry at the military regime – and they are a majority. If such a well represented religion is restricted, one can imagine the challenges faced by a minority religion, such as Islam. This article is about the community that has moved North to South Western China. When I was studying in Kunming, I was admittedly surprised to find a strong community of Muslims.
China’s southwest a safe haven for Myanmar’s Muslims