How effective are strategies to counter violent extremism?

Here’s something I wrote for today’s Lowy Interpreter

The Australian Government has just announced that more than $22 million will be spent on battling the radicalisation of young Muslims in Australia. But just how effective are these counter-terrorism programs?

Critics of the Federal Government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy have highlighted problems that have emerged after nine years of CVE community engagement and intervention. One concern is that CVE policies have the potential to divide Muslim communities because they embrace questionable notions of what it means to be ‘moderate’ or a ‘radical’, preferencing and seeking to ‘deputise‘ the former in order to keep the latter in check.


Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney. (Flickr/Asem.)

Community critics of the CVE strategy also emphasise that law enforcement leadership of CVE outreach programs is problematic, firstly because it indicates that the Government has ‘securitised’ the Muslim community, and secondly because such outreach strategies have the tendency to be experienced as an extra layer of unwanted scrutiny on a community of predominantly law-abiding citizens. These issues have the potential to erode trustbetween law enforcement and Muslim communities. Because positive relations between communities and law enforcement are so central public safety, the Government has an interest in carefully measuring the impact of its CVE activities on its target communities.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been at the forefront of proactive community engagement responses to CVE since establishing its Islamic Liaison Team in 2007. The team also assisted in contributing to national policy initiatives as part of the Federal Government’s national CVE strategy. The philosophy behind the AFP’s initiative reflected CVE trends emerging at that time. The terrorist threat, it was argued, could be reduced by building‘positive, trusting and cohesive relationships with the community, (which) over time will help increase (the community’s) resilience to extremist behaviours by creating greater levels of social cohesion.’ Within this strategy, ‘at-risk’ groups could be targeted with engagement programs to ‘promote social inclusion.’

But some members of the community argue that this kind of policy has a tendency to reinforce the notion ‘that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples.’ As a result, the current CVE model of engagement has begun to be viewed with suspicion by the community, with some leaders calling on the community to boycottparticipation in AFP initiatives such as the Iftar dinner and Eid festivals. But, in the words of one AFP officer, the AFP are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’ continue such programs. The AFP executive is convinced that community engagement is central to CVE, and parts of the Muslim community also expect that the Government will help them to provide ‘social support’ to their young people to prevent them from radicalising, despite others in the community criticising such programs.

Beside the potential to alienate the Muslim community, the effectiveness of CVE community engagement measures as a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy has not been properly measured. As Prof Basia Spalek points out, ‘there has been little empirical investigation of community-based approaches within a CT context…As a result, there is little empirical understanding of…whether (these types of policies) may clash and serve to undermine each other.’.

The perception from some in the Muslim community that the Government’s counter-terrorism approach treats Muslim communities not as partners but as ‘suspect’ presents significant challenges, especially because of the potential this uninvited scrutiny has to create another level of alienation in young people. The latest policy announcement, which devotes $22 million to the Muslim community’s presumed social disadvantage by helping new Muslim migrants find education and employment, also ignores the reality that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalisation is tenuous.

There is much international literature detailing the importance of reducing risks of alienation and radicalisation through redressing policies seen as racially or religiously targeting one community. Studies have come from the US,UK as well as Australia. Yet the focus on the Muslim community by CVE strategies helps perpetuate ‘essentialist stereotypes of terrorists as religious Muslims,’ and leave the community feeling over-scrutinised.

The prime directive of CVE policy is ‘first, to do no harm’. To date, there is little evidence that Australian CVE policy has been informed by this directive. Nor is there an indication our policy-makers have assessed the effectiveness of the CVE programs that have been in operation for the past nine years. The Australian Government needs to take onlessons from US and the UK which show that, in order to reduce the terrorist threat, we need counter-terrorism policies that don’t alienate those most vulnerable to radicalisation.

The Interpreter is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney, publishing daily commentary and analysis on international events.

President Jokowi’s Cabinet Line-up

My contribution to last month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine on Jokowi’s Cabinet line-up, focussing on some of the 8 female Minsters in the Cabinet

Pudjiastuti, Indonesia's mew Minister of Marine and Fisheries.
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s mew Minister for Marine and Fisheries has an incredible rags-to-riches story that rivals even Jokowi’s inspiring story

Jokowi Widodo was sworn in as president of the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia, on October 20 amid an atmosphere of high hopes amongst supporters, winning a narrow victory over former Military Prabowo in July. The Jokowi Presidency marks the first time a member outside of the political and military elite has been elected as President and his campaign promised a government who would represent hope and change.

Jokowi announced his Cabinet line-up on Sunday October 26. After delaying the announcement for three days, speculation arose that Jokowi was wrangling with leaders in his coalition who were insisting on nominating problematic candidates.

There has been a level of disappointment expressed by some observers and analysts with what some see as political compromises in the final Cabinet line-up. Aspinal, a Professor of Politics at the Australian National University argued that Jokowi has “failed his first test” at promoting a truly reformist government stating that, while it is “possible that some of the ministers will emerge as strong reformers […] at first glance, this cabinet is far from being the fresh start that Jokowi promised”. Connelly from the Lowy Institute claims there are signs of “both of principle and compromise” in the appointments.

In a move that has drawn wide praise however, Jokowi has appointed eight female ministers to his cabinet, including the first female foreign minister in Indonesia, career diplomat Retno Marsudi.

Professor Yohana S. Yambise who became the first woman from Papua to become a professor, now represents the first Papuan woman to become a minister. She has been appointed to the position of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection.

One of the female appointees to the Cabinet who has been the subject of much discussion in Indonesia is Susi Pudjiastuti‎. With an incredible real rags-to-riches story that rivals even Jokowi’s, Pudjiastuti’s career began in the fish markets of Pangandaran West Java where she began work as a high-school dropout. Opening her business with a start-up capital of only $75 USD, Pudjiastuti’s business continued to grow, and in 1996 she set up a fish processing plant. As the fish processing business expanding into Asia and America, Susi created an air transportation company that quickly became one of the largest export companies in Indonesia. Pudjiastuti is the Minister of Marine and Fisheries.

The appointment of these women, amongst several others, represents a great opportunity for Indonesia to bridge the gender divide in representative politics. Particularly given the non-elite background of the selectees. While these appointments indicate positive change for Indonesia, several studies indicate that there generally needs to be at least 30 per cent women for them to have the confidence to support one another and to support issues important to women [1]. However, this 25 per cent is very pretty close to that 30 per cent and these female representatives have a much better chance of getting things done than most governments in the world. Particularly those represented by Indonesia’s closest Southern neighbour, Australia, who only has one female Minister in parliament.

Despite disappointment expressed by observers and analysts at the purported lack of reform-oriented Ministers in the newly announced Indonesian cabinet, the line-up of women represents a real change for Indonesia. With Indonesia’s thriving civil society, these new ministers however will now not only have to face the challenges of managing their portfolios, but also must face heavy scrutiny from Indonesian society and media. From the fundamentalist religious right, to the progressively democratic wings of civil society, these highly engaged groups will utilize the many channels available to them in post-Suharto Indonesia to voice their opinions and demands of their leaders.

[1] United Nations, Platform for Action and the Beijing Declaration, United Nations Department of Public Information, New York, 1995, clause 190.d.

Indonesia Remembers Human Rights Activist Munir Said Thalib

8 September, 2014 in the September/October issue of The Kashmir Walla Magazine

A portrait of Munir by an Indonesian Street Artist accompanied by the caption 'Menolak Lupa' (Resist Forgetting)
A portrait of Munir by an Indonesian Street Artist accompanied by the caption ‘Menolak Lupa’ (Resist Forgetting)

This week marked the ten year anniversary of the assassination of leading Indonesian human rights defender Munir Said Thalib, and activists as well as ordinary citizens commemorated his death at events across the country, renewing calls for the Indonesian government to hold those responsible for his death to account.

Munir was an outspoken critic of Indonesia’s armed forces during the authoritarian Suharto regime (1965-1998), bringing to light human rights violations committed across the Indonesian archipelago, including Papua, Aceh and East Timor. This was often at risk to his own personal safety.

After the fall of the Suharto government, Munir co-founded the Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS) to assist the families of democracy activists who were kidnapped and murdered during the Suharto regime. He also served as a member of IMPARSIAL, a commission created by the government to investigate the human rights violations in East Timor. It was during this period he was elected Chairperson of AFAD, a Federation of human rights organisations working directly on the issue of enforced disappearances in the Asia region.

Munir was a force to be reckoned with, however his refusal to stay silent on these cases sadly cost him his life. In 2004, whilst travelling to the Netherlands to pursue a masters degree in international law and human rights, Munir was poisoned with arsenic on a Garuda Airlines flight. He was 38 years old.

One Falls, a Thousand Others Grow (Gugur Satu, Tumbuh Seribu)

A “culture of forgetting” surrounds cases evoking past memories of injustice in Indonesia at times, but there has been a rising movement to remind Indonesians of the importance of Munir’s case called “Resist Forgetting” (or Menolak Lupa in Bahasa Indonesia), which has been driven by concerned citizens from across Indonesian society. The haunting image of Munir’s portrait with the words Menolak Lupa can be seen painted on the walls of almost every Indonesian city, either stencilled or on pasted-up posters, in an effort to remind Indonesians not to forget his remarkable legacy and his tragic death.

The slogan ‘one falls, a thousand others grows’ is a line from the mournful song “Fallen Flowers” written by Musician Ismail Marzuki in 1945 about Indonesia’s pro-independence heroes, but the phrase took on fresh significance in 1998 during pro-democracy protests in the capital Jakarta following the death of student protesters after the police opened fire on a crowd of pro democracy activists.

The phrase is as relevant today as it was at these significant junctures in Indonesia’s history in 1945, and 1998, as Munir’s pursuit for justice for the victims of 1998 alongside his tireless work for victims of human rights abuses across Indoensia has indeed inspired activists to continue his pursuit for justice for Indonesia’s “disappeared”.

On the tenth anniversary of Munir’s death on September 7, 2014, I spoke to Indonesian activists and artists involved in events commemorating the anniversary of Munir’s assassination, learning what the his struggle meant for them, and why the credible resolution of the Munir case is important not just for his family and those close to him, but for the Indonesian nation itself.

Novriantoni Kahar, an author and activist in his 30s told me that Indonesians remember “Munir as a symbol of fearlessness in a time of fear. In Arabic, his name means ‘shining’, a name that evokes a light which shone bravely in the years of darkness during the Suharto era. His legacy however, lives on in all of the bravest voices fighting for human rights in this country as his memory continues to inspire a new generation of Indonesian human rights defenders”.

Fahd Djibran, Indonesian author and poet joined others in Australia at a poetry event dedicated to the Munir case, which he described as “a wake up call for all human rights defenders in Indonesia that our country still has serious problem regarding its law systems and human rights protection.”

Ihsan Ali Fauzi, Director of the Centre for Religion and Democracy at the Paramadina Foundation in Jakarta reflected on the efforts of Munir, “it is remarkable how brave he was. But that ten years have passed shows us how difficult this journey is, not just for this case alone, but for Indonesia.

The commemoration activities in honour of his memory shows signalled hope to Fauzi, showing that “the struggle is ongoing, including all the public support. It gives us optimism that we should continue to push further for the public release of those implicated in his assassination at the top levels”.

M. Berkah Gamulya, musician From the Indonesian band Symphony and executive director of the Bung Hatta Anti-Corruption Award found the subject an emotional one as a young human rights activist. His band commemorated the anniversary at an event remembrance of Munir in Jakarta with a song written in honour of his memory which they recorded in the childhood home of Munir in Batu, East Java.

For Gamulya, one of the key messages Munir’s legacy shows young activists today is that one must not “not be afraid, and not remain silent on the issues that matter”.

The demand for justice continues as Indonesia “Refuses to Forget”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) had promised to resolve this case during his first year in office office in 2004, the year of Munir’s assasination. Ten years later, the initial investigation results have not been publicly released. Although two low-level players have been convicted for their involvement in the crime, no high ranking government or state intelligence agency official has been held accountable for planning or ordering Munir’s assassination.  Despite years of stagnancy, the Indonesian government has rejected international involvement in the case, insisting domestic law enforcement agencies were up to the task.

Suciwati, wife of the late Munir recently petitioned president SBY on Change.org, urging action from the current President or the future President, Jokowi: “This [case] is not about opening wounds. This [case] is about healing a wound in our nation’s history. We need … a leader who can resolve [events in] our dark history so that they won’t happen again. History begins with the brave who make changes for the future. Pak Jokowi, Pak SBY, are you brave enough?”

In 2006, Human Rights First posthumously honoured Munir with the organisation’s Human Rights Defender Award. His work lives on through the organisations he helped create in Indonesia and throughout the region, and in a generation of activists, like those I spoke to this week, whom he inspired to fight for justice.

Munir is survived by his wife, Suciwati, and two children, Soultan Alif Allende, now 15 years old and Diva Suukyi Larashati, 12.

Amnesty International is currently running a campaign to call on President elect Jokowi commit to looking further into the Munir case. You can learn more about the campaign here https://campaigns.amnesty.org/actions/resolve-munir-killing-case. To learn more about KONTRAS (the Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence), the organisation co-founded by Munir, you can visit their website here http://www.kontras.org/eng

Empat Lima & the WANITA Project: Promoting engagement between Australia’s & Indonesia’s Female Creatives

Something I wrote for this month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine

The rad ladies of Empat Lima
The rad ladies of Empat Lima from Melbourne, Australia

When Australian musician Rachel Kim travelled to Jogjakarta Indonesia in late 2012 to study at Indonesia’s Institute for the Arts (ISI) she was introduced to the sounds of 1960s Indonesian garage band Dara Puspita. An all-girl rock n roll band, Dara Puspita stood out to Rachel as one of Asia’s original girl power acts, and inspired her to start the band Empat Lima, drawing influence from the garage sounds of the 60’s Asian/Western explosion.

During Rachel’s four months in Jogjakarta she also attended numerous exhibition openings, gigs, parties and art events. But every-time she arrived at these events run by local artists, her thoughts were inevitably the same: where are the Indonesian women? For Rachel, this gender divide in the creative scene initially seemed at odds with her experience of the town’s progressive arts culture, and was something she remained curious about upon her return to Australia.

So, when Rachel began to organise the tour for Empat Lima, she saw that the band had an opportunity to do more than entertain people as an all-female act. It seemed the band had the perfect vehicle to reach out and connect with other female artists in Indonesia.

Women’s Art Network Australia to Indonesia

The WANITA project was conceived during planning for the Empat Lima tour of Indonesia, but its inspiration was seeded during her 2012 stay in Jogja.

WANITA means female in Bahasa Indonesia, but for the WANITA project it also is an acronym for Women’s Art Network Indonesia To Australia.

As Rachel explained, “WANITA was created to complement and extend the purpose and effectiveness of the band’s venture into Indonesia. Our intention was consolidated to have the structure of this Website directory and meeting point, a place where female artists from both our countries could meet each other, be inspired by each others art, and have the chance to build working relationships, and mutual understanding. Its a situation of mutual support and an endeavor to bring our worlds closer together”.

With this idea, Empat Lima held workshops with female Indonesian creatives in four of the cities on their tour itinerary. The scope and context of each workshop was different each time, but the intention was always the same: to meet local women, to share information and time together, and ultimately to build connections.

The Tour

First stop was the bustling megapolis of Jakarta, where Empat Lima ran workshops with the assistance of Ruang Rupa. Kim explained the workshop process to me: “there was a day workshop in which female artists were selected to attend, spanning a range of backgrounds. We shared ideas, works and our visions for the development of networks of collaboration in the future. I was personally very inspired by the freshness of vision and expression of all the artists’ work”.

As part of this collaboration, Empat Lima also created and printed a zine with the artists from the Ruang Rupa project, including the biographies and artworks of each of these artists. She hopes this will work as a starting point for allowing collaboration projects over in Australia.  

Next stop was the village of Jatiwangi where, through the facilitation of the Jatiwangi Arts Factory, Empat Lima invited the women of the village to their cooking workshop.

‘”Cooking without rice’ was the challenge, and as we introduced a variety of dishes some 40 women from the village curiously took notes, and asked many questions”.

With a range of talented musicians also at their disposal, Empat Lima invited the women of the village (the “Ibu-Ibu”) to participate and, “at one very special moment, the Ibu-Ibu all stood up and sang their village song in front of us while we cooked. We had to wipe the tears from our eyes so as not to spoil the cooking”.

After their evening concert at Jatiwangi, the village attendees involved Empat Lima in a group discussion where they responded to the incredibly positive reaction to the music they had played. As Empat Lima answered questions about their feelings towards Indonesia and their village, Kim felt “a very real sense of the friendship and warmth that was being extended” to the group. This generous experience was a highlight of the tour for the band.

As well as the workshops, Empat Lima performed 7 shows in 5 cities, which were very well received.

Lasting Connections

I saw several of the band’s energetic performances on their tour and could see the band had made an impact during their time in Indonesia.

Standing at the back of one of their standing-room-only shows in Jogja I heard some local artists talking about the workshops the band had been running, and of the positive interactions they had had with the band. Their shows also had more female attendees than one would usually see in Indonesia.

Rachel feels very fortunate to have had such a rewarding interactions with many communities of Indonesia during their two week tour and for Empat Lima there was a feeling of rich exchange on many levels. She hopes that the WANITA project can continue to carry these relationships into the future: “meaningful links have been made and we look forward to our next opportunity to connect up with these once more”.

The WANITA Community has established a forum in which to continue to share ongoing projects with immediate access to exposure in both Indonesia and Australia. The link will be ongoing and has the potential to expand in many exciting directions in the future.

For those interested in joining the WANITA community visit www.wanita.net.au or www.facebook/groups/wanitaonline

 

 

 

What a Jokowi Presidency Might Mean for Indonesia’s Future

My contribution to the August edition of The Kashmir Walla Magazine about what the Jokowi victory might mean for Indonesia’s future. You can find the original text here 

Jokowi gestures during a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Image www.themalaysianinsider.com
Jokowi during a rally in Proklamasi Monument Park in Jakarta. Image http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was declared Indonesia’s president elect on July 22, winning almost 71 million votes and 53 per cent of the count. He represents Indonesia’s first President from an ordinary background without elite political lineage and the first genuinely post-Suharo political figure. For many observers, a Jokowi-led government represents an Indonesia whose time has finally come.

Jokowi grew up near a slum area in the central Javanese city of Solo where he would later become mayor at the beginning of his meteoric political career. His rise from humble beginnings has been his greatest political achievement so far, showing that Indonesian democracy is ready to elect a leader “from the people” rather than someone “born to rule”. He is a leader who embodies the hopes of ordinary Indonesians.

While his constituents and many observers hold high hopes for the man, in reality it may be difficult for Jokowi to live up to expectations of him as a reformer able to lead Indonesia beyond the period of democratic stagnation that has marked the end of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reign.

Leading the world’s third largest democracy will also be made particularly difficult owing to the reality that Jokowi only holds only a third of the seats in Indonesian parliament.

In a nation as complex as Indonesia with a political culture reflective of that complexity, steering the country towards greater prosperity is an expectation that successive post-Suharto leaders have failed to live up to.

Following the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia had three successive post-Suharto Presidents: B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahmad Wahid, and Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Throughout this period, Indonesia had been characterised as a nation at a critical turning point, and the world had high hopes that Indonesia would emerge as a dominant regional power. But in the turbulence of the transition to democracy, these presidencies are now characterised more by their failure to steer Indonesia to its’ expected ascendency, rather than their successes.

In the wake of successive leadership failures, rather than rising from the ashes of the Suharto regime Indonesia instead faced a multitude of new problems and had to turn to international donors for economic rescue.

From 2004 under the two-term presidency of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia was on the way to getting back on it’s feet.

The 2004 election gave a popular mandate to SBY and saw the country emerge as politically stable state in a consolidated democracy. At the end of Yudhoyono’s first term, he could claim a degree of economic success.

But Yudhoyono leaves office less popular than he was at the beginning of his second term, with many criticising democratic rollbacks across human rights, corruption, and electoral management. As Marcus Mietzner explains, the end of the SBY era has been marked by “democratic stagnation and, in some areas, partial regress”.

The Economists’ Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index also reflects this bleak picture of the nation, classifying Indonesia as a ‘flawed democracy’ in its 2006 and 2008 surveys, with the country’s score and overall ranking on a downward trend.

Mietzer points to conservative factions within Indonesia’s elite who tried hard to roll back democratic reforms during SBY’s term, “leading to a moderate but noteworthy decline in Indonesia’s democratic quality”.

It is against this backdrop that we have seen the ascendancy of the populist figures of Jokowi and his political opponent Prabowo.

Throughout their campaigns, these politicians have stood for everything Yudhoyono proved not to be: Staunchly nationalistic, decisive, practical, and invoking the hopes of little guy (orang kecil) in creating a brighter future for all Indonesians, rather than the elite few.

When Jokowi won indonesia’s presidential election with a margin of 6.3 percentage points, in his victory speech he again invoked the hopes of ordinary Indonesia, calling on his constituents to look to the future with optimism and enthusiasm:

“This presidential election has provoked fresh optimism in the Indonesian nation. An independent soul and sense of political responsibility blossoms in … It’s now our responsibility to prove to ourselves, to other nations and especially to our children and our grandchildren, that … politics is freedom.”

Jokowi’s party, the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle) and their coalition’s manifesto also evokes a call for optimism and change, a politics based on the principles gotong-royong (an Indonesian expression about working together to solve problems), and a socially and economically progressive platform. But the party’s first challenges will definitely prove unpopular.

Jokowi’s first major reform will be to cutting into the country’s fuel subsidies, which currently distort the economy and consume around a fifth of the annual budget. An important and necessary reform, however when there was a small increase in the cost of fuel last year Jakarta was shut down for a day by the protests that ensued.

The leader is also expected to make further difficult reforms which are needed restore Indonesia’s growth and set the country on the path to greater and more evenly spread prosperity. But as Gareth Leather, Asia economist at research firm Capital Economics pointed out to Time, “it is clearly too early to tell whether Jokowi will be the man to get Indonesia’s economy back on track. There is no magic bullet to reviving growth.”

As there is no magic bullet to reviving growth, there is also no guarantee that Indonesia’s representatives will be inspired to unity and support Jokowi’s progressive mandate, and Jokowi’s coalition of parties presently only holds around a third of the seats in the Indonesian parliament.

His rival Prabowo’s coalition has around two thirds of the seats.

Considering the incumbent Yudhoyono held a 70% majority parliament, he still found it extremely challenging to pass legislation. His inability to enact reform paralysed his last term.

Having seen what factionalism and internal politics can do to leadership groups in the country even when conditions in the DPR (House of Representatives) are in the government’s favour, those hopeful for a “new Indonesia” under a Jokowi presidency must remain mindful that elements within the regime may not necessarily work together cohesively in Jokowi’s favour. Even on a good day, government factions even within parties can and will undermine each other, compete for leadership internally, and engage in plots and counter-plots which disrupt every day decision making.

Jokowi proved his ability to solve major problems presented to his office during his time as mayor of both Solo and Jakarta. From his resoluteness in addressing the cities’ long neglected flood problems, to his firm approach to transforming the region’s massive bureaucratic inefficiencies.

However the idea that he will prove to be a reformer who will ruffle feathers, deal with Indonesia’s massive graft problems, and do on a larger national scale what he did so effectively in Solo and later he starting doing in Jakarta, is likely unrealistic.  After all, back in 2004 SBY was elected in an atmosphere of similar optimism with expectations that he would be the reformist leader the country needed. Within five years Indonesia has instead been left thoroughly disappointed in by his leadership.

There probably won’t be a great deal of meaningful progress under a Jokowi Government in Indonesia. But for now, that doesn’t matter much. There is still an atmosphere of hope in Indonesia, and a feeling that with the election of Jokowi, Indonesia has been accorded an administration more consonant with its present.

 

Uncertainty in Indonesia

“We believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 pro-democracy activist

An article about Indonesia’s Presidential Elections I wrote for this month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine: a magazine of art, politics, and society. The magazine also currently features extensive eye-witness coverage of the conflict in Gaza, as well as on-going coverage and commentary on the situation in Kashmir


Indonesia's Election Commission (KPU). Image sinarharapan.co
Indonesia’s Election Commission (Komisi Pilihan Umum, KPU). Image sinarharapan.co

“We Indonesians believe that no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 Democracy Activist (active in recent campaigning, who decided here to remain unnamed)


Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, voted last Wednesday July 12 for their next President. By the time the exit-polls had been counted, it felt like the nation exhaled momentarily. But that relief has been short-lived.

Although the official results of Indonesia’s presidential election yesterday will not be known until July 22, both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, now have claimed victory based on exit polling and quick counts. As a result, political tensions in Jakarta are rising, and Indonesians are growing increasingly anxious as to what this means for Indonesia’s democracy.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today urged the election chief to ensure a transparent vote count following the disputed presidential poll, after both sides raised fears the other may party may tamper with the ballots. And this is not without reason.

Indonesia is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries, and the country’s political elite is part of a very intertwined network of power and privilidge. Even though Indonesia made the transition from dictatorship to direct presidential elections a decade ago after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia is still ranked 114th among 177 on a 2013 Transparency International Survey, with the nation’s judiciary, police and parliament ranked among the least trustworthy institutions.

Although the election was violence-free, a result perceived as questionable by either side still risks major public protests. Speaking ahead of the election, the army chief of staff General Budiman had already said the potential for conflict between supporters of Prabowo and Jokowi was “high,” as the Jakarta Post reported on its website July 7. This is a particular risk given the very vast differences between the two candidates and their respective supporters: Jokowi is the “man of the people” candidate, from humble beginnings and without ties to the political elite, whilst Prabowo is a former military general and the former son-in-law of Suharto alleged to have ordered the abduction of democracy activists before the Suharto’s downfall. 

At a rally for Gaza yesterday Prabowo told journalists “there are reports that some election boxes have been stolen, our witnesses are being intimidated”. In making statements like these, it appears the former military man will not go quietly.

The quick counts give Jokowi a lead of around 8 million votes, which is a margin of about 4 percentage points. And it is this slim margin that has given rise to growing tension.

Fears of tension and potential violence by analysts are not just about the close margin, but more about what the some candidate’s supporters are capable of, in particular, Prabowo. Some analysts have expressed concern that with his history, his ties to military, citizen militia groups, and extensive and powerful networks across the country that he might try to bully the election commission or engage in violent protest.

But despite all the public discussion and debate about the potential for unrest, many Indonesians I have spoken to over the past week, from street merchants to members of Indonesia’s parliament, are quietly optimistic. This is in contrast to the many foreign observers.

For ordinary Indonesians, perhaps that comes with the experience of watching the country go through so much turmoil and change over the past 16 years. As one Indonesian who was active in student protests during the Suharto era told me, “we Indonesians believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate”.

Whilst alert to the all possibilities of what could happen over the next two weeks, it appears many Indonesians hope that the candidates and their supporters will accept and honour the results of the election, and that when the final results are revealed on July 22, the wheels of Indonesian democracy will keep turning.

The Imagined Romance of Halima

A chat with Indonesian academic, writer & activist Novriantoni Kahar about his book ‘The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle’ – a collection of poetic essays which seeks to highlight the spiritual and emotional effects of discriminatory practices against Muslim Women

Novriantoni Kahar : Cinta Dalam Lima Tangkai Sastra AdvokasiNovri, author of Imaji Cinta Halima – image inspirasi.co 

Within Indonesia there are a number number of people, both male and female, working hard to reform misogynous discourse to make Islamic practices more woman-friendly. With many voices also in contradiction to such trends, never has the issue of women in Islam been so widely debated in Indonesian public life. Contradictions within the movements of contemporary Indonesian Islam indeed reflect the ferment of democratic transformations occurring in Indonesia.  From movements calling for the reinstatement of the Khilifa to genuine progressive reflections on problems within doctrinal approaches to Islam, these movements reflect the diversity that has unfolded since the collapse of since the New Order regime.

Novriantoni Kahar is writer and activist who explores problems of discrimination. In his book “The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle” (Imaji Cinta Halima: Lima Kisah Kasih dalam Pergumulan Agama), he hopes to highlight the spiritual and emotional effect of discriminatory practices against women in the Muslim world.

Novri is a santri Muslim who gained his primary Islamic education at Pondok Modern Gontor Ponorogo (one of the most well-respected Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia). He is also a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt. His’ academic approach to Islam is one of co-mingling Islamic knowledge with social sciences like sociology and political science. In this way, Novri “does not accept Islam as a das solen as such, but tries to study it as as a das sein, as a factual phenomenon”.

Novri was inspired to write The Imagined Romance of Halima by his work in anti-discrimination campaigning in Indonesia as well as by his experiences gained whilst living abroad in the Middle-East and Europe.. The stories are set in Indonesia as well as other Muslim-majority countries. All express different facets of the impact of religion on the major life choices of women.

The book’s title story, “Imaji Cinta Halima” tells of a love affair between an Indonesian driver and a Saudi woman. Their illicit engagement ironically being facilitated by the policy of gender segregation practiced in the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia. Another tale also set outside Indonesia tells of a love story between a Coptic Christian and a Muslim. Set in Egypt, the story comes to a sad end, with traditions and bigotries within the two communities deciding the young couple’s fate.

As a Muslim, Novri wonders how people can be “so incredibly sensitive in protecting ‘Islam’s reputation”, yet so completely desensitised to some of the discriminatory acts committed in the name of religion. In the post September 11 political landscape, we have become accustomed to seeing the image of  a middle-class Muslim woman, dressed in fashionable Islamic attire talking adamantly about how Islam has “liberated” her and how acts of violence and bigotry towards women could never happen in Islam’s true name, putting the causes down to being a product of “culture”. Simultaneously, there are Muslim women who are experiencing acts of abuse at the hands of men acting within their own religious rights through interpretations of particular Islamic discourses. The experience of both women is real.

Islam can indeed  ‘liberate’ a woman if she is empowered to interpret the practice of Islamic teachings through the works of progressive scholars. On the other hand, doctrinal interpretations within Islam can justify acts which destroy, even end, a woman’s life. This is the reason Muslim’s like Novri call for a “genuine recognition of the problems within Islam” when it comes to discrimination against women and other minorities.

As Novri explains, “if we really pay close attention to the issue of discrimination toward women in Islamic or Muslim-dominated countries, the fact is, it is happening. We must not be frightened to hold issues within the Muslim community to the light where they can be examined and aired. Denial only compounds these problems”.

Novri sees some of the reasons for such hypersensitivity at criticism in Muslim communities as being driven by certain political and psychological factors: “Politically, Islamic ideology affects many aspects of Muslim thoughts and practices, in every aspect of life, whilst psychologically, Muslim-majority societies find it difficult to accept the gulf between their imaginary ideal Islam and the actual manifestation of it in their daily life. Perhaps if we began to see the effects of the harsh treatment of women for how they are, we can begin to address some of the problems within our communities”.

Through the stories in Imaji Cinta Halima, Novri hopes to help promote an awareness of the ways in which religion and tradition is used to discriminate against women in both subtle and overt ways, and the ways in which this affects their daily lives. “Denial is a common defence mechanism in Muslim societies everywhere however we Muslims need genuine recognition that many of the problems rampant in our societies are coming from within. There are real problems within Muslim societies and we need to stop attributing our them to some outside force or conspiracy. Islam should not be exempt from being be examined and criticised honestly from within. It is as simple as that”.

‘Imaji Cinta Halima’ is published by Renebook, Novri tweets at @novri75

Indonesia’s Aspirationals

The world seems to be placing it’s hopes for the development and democratisation of Indonesia on the shoulders of the growth of the country’s growing middle class. But within some members of this emerging group there lingers an inegalitarian culture reflective of New Order and late-colonial notions of elitism, a patronising classism antipathetic to democratic values, and a burning desire to own a sedan and a live-in $150 a-month maid. 

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Jakarta’s slums and the place of residence of many of Jakarta’s poor working class. Photo Businessweek.com

Those that live in Jakarta will have noticed the occasional snobbery and anti-egalitarianism of some of the middle class and orang kaya baru crowd (the new rich, who aren’t actually “rich” at all). As Indonesia’s middle class emerged in the 1990s, some hoped that the issues of the redistribution of wealth in society would become a point of interest for the class. It clearly hasn’t. In fact the markers of inequality are ironically more distinct than ever.

I sometimes chat with the pembantu (housemaids) of the apartment complex where I live in Jakarta as I get breakfast on my way out into Jakarta’s mind boggling traffic in the morning (made worse daily by the increasing numbers of sedans on the raod). They gather in the sun to nurse the babies of their middle-class employees downstairs while their boss sits idly nearby playing with their smartphone, probably tweeting about politics, poverty, environmentalism or democracy.

I asked one of the young pembantu what she thought about the upcoming last week, to which she replied “I voted for the party my boss asked me to vote for because I don’t undestand”, at which I choked a little on my gorengan and replied with a polite but loaded “good”. Another said her boss said it wasn’t important for her to vote and that they needed her to stay at home to look after their (overpampered brat of a) child.

People pay their pembantu between $50 and $200 a month here. They are a symbol of status and as having made it as a middle-class Indonesian. They are live in maids, who usually live a converted laundry-like room at the back of the house or on the floor of the ‘loungeroom’ of the box-like apartments Jakarta’s middle class increasingly favour.

The apartment complex where I live is chock full of middle class Indonesians who perceive themselves to have made it, simply because they live in an ‘apartment’ which is actually more like a broom closet. But hey., they can say they live in an apartment with a pembantu to trail behind the while they wander aimlessly around the mall downstairs.

Meet Indonesia’s aspirational middle class. Indonesia is big, but it’s growing economy is bigger. Indonesia is the world’s 16th largest economy (Australia is 12th), and the transition of millions of Indonesians out of poverty into a middle or ‘consuming class’ is a big part of that growth story.

But, the reality is, this emerging middle class is actually still very poor. But this class cherish the class markers that distinguish them from their “lower class” fellow Indonesians.

The so-called consuming class commentators are getting so excited about is comprised of households with earnings of just US$7500 per year at purchasing power parity rates. But that’s still enough to afford a broom closet apartment and a live in maid (God knows where these poor girls sleep. Sometimes they go home to the slum areas of Jakarta each night by the rivers or under the highway toll bridges).

The world is cheering on Indonesia’s emerging middle class as the potential flagbearers of Indonesia’s democracy, but this society still has a long way to go with it’s dated notions of elitism and the illusions of prosperity propped up by an atrocious lack of economic equality and a class of working poor living on less than $2 a day.

This post has also appeared as an article in The Stand

 

We Have Banksy…Now What?

How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.

The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, particularly given the military-style secrecy shrouding the implementation of the policy. But her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.

Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece –  her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an attitude, which I’m finding increasingly uncommon in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that activism and advocacy is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down our ability to effectively orgnaise.

At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the  motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.

Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic  –  and we need to deal with it.

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and  regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.

So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.

This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the  #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.

The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).

Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention –  thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise  – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.

Amid all  the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria –  but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?

I argue, that there needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about our goals, and long hard consideration about the efficacy of our activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.

-Kate Grealy, @kategrealy

*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Australia’s system of exporting all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to a remote detention facility on Manus Island in PNG is largely staffed by contracted workers (and is operated by a private corporation). Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. This process would, if genuinely intended to actually resettle refugees, would in fact result in resettlement. But Australia’s current policy is to deny resettlement here, and it will be effectively denied in PNG, because their cannot resettle them. Thompson was shocked at the directives to be willfully misleading in her work with the asylum seekers, and so decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. She confirmed suspicions held by many, that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.

 Original Article “We Have Banksy, Now What?” on Sassmouth, Monthly Smart Arsed Feminist Reader