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.

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, 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 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

Malala Yousafzai & Kailash Satyarthi


Malala Yousafzai, what an amazing person. It is seriously tough in Pakistan if you’re a woman, let alone one who stands up against the status quo. I hope that this event brings to light the sad reality that many children in Pakistan still struggle so hard to get an education, particularly girls.

Despite the challenges of patriarchy, there is the simple matter of being able to find a school to go to in the first place, as corruption continues to see education budgets siphoned into the pockets of the country’s elite. And the heartbreaking reality that poor children need to work to support their families (17.6 per cent of Pakistani children are working), despite the fact that they’d really love to go to school.

Even though there is a lack of concern on the part of government to promote education however, some religious groups, political parties and NGOs are working actively to do so despite the immense challenges, like my dear friends at DEWA Development Education Welfare Assistance, and Hope AFAR.

I hope this event continues to inspire others in Pakistan to continue advocating for the basic human right of education

The Appointment of Hendropriyono as an Adviser in Jokowi’s Transition Team

Suciwati Munir, the wife of the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib has criticised Jokowi's appointment of Hendropriyono to his transition team. Image
Suciwati Munir, the wife of the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib has criticised the appointment of Hendropriyono to Jokowi’s transition team and questioned Jokowi’s commitment to human rights issues in Indonesia. Image

It was with such great elation that many journalists and other commentators announced the victory of Jokowi, the first truly post-Suharto figure elected to office in Indonesia. There was a lot at stake in the eyes observers in terms of the tone the next leader would set for the country for the next 5 years.

In the lead up to the election even The Jakarta “there-is-no-such-thing-as-being-neutral-when the stakes are so high” Post, openly declared their endorsement of Jokowi. Whilst other English-speaking media didn’t openly endorse the candidate, they did vigorously express their concerns about Prabowo, and for good reasons considering Prabowo’s alleged involvement in several controversial events in Indonesia.

Others like Tim Hanigan described the situation more sagely, in ways only long-time observers of Indonesia could, stating in an article during the campaign period that perhaps whoever was elected wouldn’t matter in the end, that “neither worst fears nor greatest hopes [would] ever seem really to come to pass”. That instead, varying constellations of the current powerful players would emerge in different alliances in years to come, including Praowo, Rais, Jokowi, Megawati, and Bakrie along with the other usual players in Indonesian politics. Several Indonesian political observers also made similar observations.

Many high profile Indonesian activists and artists stayed decidedly neutral, or even silent, throughout the period, and were questioned for it. But they put their silence down to letting their followers make their own, responsible electoral choices.

Those who spoke out in support of Jokowi were celebrated by expat coverage. It seemed to be a narrative of Jokowi as messiah for foreigners and the foreign press, the goodie versus baddie narrative Western media is such a fan of.

I too am probably guilty of that.

Now, however, there is a confounding silence coming from direction of the English-speaking world’s media commentators as to human rights implications for the appointment of Hendropriyono as an adviser three days ago to the transition team that will prepare Jokowi’s power-transfer from outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (And I say the English speaking press, because in contrast it is a highly discussed matter in Indonesia right now).

Hendropriyono is suspected of being linked to the murder of human rights campaigner Munir Said Thalib in 2004. The former BIN chief, however, has denied the allegations and maintained that he had nothing to do with the case.

Jokowi has continued to play down the issue of appointing former intelligence chief Hendropriyono over the past few days.

“There are no problems. I can’t screen everybody that comes to me. Should I ask him if he was involved in this or in that, or in that abduction? It’s not like that. This is a legal issue and should be made clear. [Hendropriyono] should explain that,” Joko said on Sunday.

“I was appointed as an adviser,” Hendropriyono said of his appointment on Saturday. “I will prepare myself to give advice on intelligence.”

The wife of the late human rights activist (HAM) Munir, Mrs Suciwati, however criticised the appointment of Hendropriyono as an advisor to the Transition Team, claiming this is an indication that Jokowi will not, after all, “keep his promise that he would punish human rights violators”.

Harris Azhar, executive director of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said that the appointment of Hendropriyono has raised concerns that human rights issues could take a backseat on the next government’s agenda.

The transition team was set up last week by Joko and is led by Rini M.S. Soewandi, a former minister of industry and trade, to help the incoming administration on budget matters and provide recommendations on cabinet appointments.

Hendropriyono’s involvement in the team prompted a warning from Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, who pointed to the former intelligence chief’s role in a bloody military crackdown on civilians in Talangsari, Lampung, in 1989, as well as his alleged links to the murder of prominent rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004.

Hendropriyono was never charged over the death of Munir, who was poisoned on board a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, but his deputy at the BIN at the time, Muchdi Purwopranjono, was indicted and later acquitted in the case.

Munir Said Thalib, affectionately known simply as Munir, was a high profile Indonesian human rights and anti-corruption activist. He was the founder of the Kontras human rights organisation and laureate of the 2000 Right Livlihood Award. Munir was assassinated in 2004 while travelling to Utrecht University to pursue a master’s degree in international law and human rights. His last position was executive director of IMPARSIAL, another Indonesian human rights NGO.

Dedication Pays Off: DEWA, AFAR, & The Afghan Refugees of Quetta

Afghan kids in Pakistan, image courtesy Dennis Drenner (c)
Afghan kids playing in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Image (c) Dennis Drenner

Today I received great news from my friend Naeem Khijli, the current Director of DEWA, a refugee rights organisation I was involved in establishing in Quetta, Pakistan in 2008.

Naeem told me that, after several years of trying to gain support from external funders, the team finally received the backing of UNHCR Pakistan and the Balochistan Government.

This is an incredible feat for us because, like any NGO in its’ early stages, we faced several setbacks in our effort to create a functioning school for refugees in a system where the NGO and foreign-aid world is also ridden with corruption and cronyism.

With the assistance of the UNHCR, DEWA will now be able to fund teacher salaries and provide schooling material for the children through the Alternative Learning Pathway Program

The schooling options available in the village (Quran and Hadith studies), notice the lack of girls too.
The schooling options available in the village in 2008. This was actually only actually Quran and Hadith studies, no formal studies were available. Notice also the lack of girls. Image, Kate Grealy 2008

I first became involved in establishing the DEWA refugee education program with members of the Pashtun community through the United Youth of the Khijli Tribe (UYKT) in Quetta, Pakistan when I travelled there in 2008.

Whilst staying in Quetta, I made friends with UYKT members who were passionate about improving the lives of refugees living in poverty in the outskirts of the city, but who didn’t yet have the resources to finalise the project.

We chatted over several days about starting a project together to help improve the lives of a small community of impoverished Afghans, with the combined resources of local businessmen and donations from Australians through fundraising events.

After several days negotiating with tribal elders over too many pots of milk chai tea (I think I had a tannin overdose), we finalised the concept and plan for the program and the school and looked at spaces to rent to begin the project which the Khijli Youth eventually called the Development Education Welfare Assistance Program.

The DEWA school in the early days, 2009
The humble DEWA school in the early days, mid-2009

Returning to Australia I formed the not-for-profit Hope AFAR as a platform to create resources for the project in Pakistan, with the help of family and friends, in particular, Sophia Tipping, Zelda Riddel, and Jef Tan who have been so dedicated to the project since its’ inception.

We held events to enable to purchasing of equipment, the payment of rent, and so on.

Community members pitching in to enable the building of the new school site from scratch
Community members pitching in to enable the building of the new school site from scratch

In early 2013 whilst I was in Indonesia, however, I received some sad news. Our dear friend and co-founder of the DEWA project, Asmath, was murdered. This was a sad reminder of the reality of life in Quetta, which is plagued by civil conflict, terrorism, and targeted killings of activists and prominent community members.

I spoke to him while he was in hospital but I didn’t realise at the time that it would be the last time I would ever speak to him. He didn’t mentioned to me that he had been shot.

For the DEWA and AFAR team it was a great loss, but the team in Quetta on the ground continued with their work despite losing their founder and despite personal risks involved until today.

Heading back to school after playing cricket. Some of these boys are the heads of their household, having lost their father to war
Students heading back to school after playing cricket, Naeem is pictured in the background. Most of these boys are orphans, and the heads of their household. Having lost their parents to war, acts of terrorism, or in targeted killings

Today, we celebrate the ability of the school to continue running on its’ own two feet, with the support of donors and the local government. We also celebrate the vision and leadership of our co-founder, Asmath.

I am so proud of the team in Quetta who have worked with so little resources to establish the project. As former refugees themselves, they understand the great value education offers young refugees living in poverty in another land.

If you are interested in donating or contributing to this project, you can find more information at Hope AFAR. Follow developments on Twitter also @HopeAFAR


The ‘Military Strongman’ Vs ‘The Man of the People’ – A Tired Narrative

In reading foreign coverage of the presidential election campaign I’ve increasingly seen descriptions of potentially two very different Indonesia’s emerging under two “very different” leaders. Coverage from expat journalists out of Jakarta is inevitably following the same tired narrative of an election between the ‘Military Strongman’ and the ‘Man of the People’, images that have, in fact, been constructed and exploited by strategists and marketeers from each candidate’s election campaign team.

At the moment, polls are showing an increase in the popularity of Prabowo, whose controversial human rights record from his years as a general has not seemed to be a major problem in the election race.

As Asia Sentinel reported, “with very few policy differences between the two campaigns, the more potent factor in Prabowo’s favor seems to be a rising perception that he looks more like a “leader” than Joko”. Or as Dr Dave McRae pointed out on Election Watch:

“At a fundamental level, Indonesians face a choice between a president who promises to govern with them, and one who would govern over them. Neither candidate is concealing this choice – it is fundamental to their respective image and appeal.

Whereas Jokowi is a product of Indonesia’s democratic era, springboarded to his current position by his popularity as a small-town mayor and Jakarta governor, Prabowo is firmly part of the authoritarian-era establishment”.

The Prabowo appeal is causing many Western commentators to wring their hands, and for good reasons. I’ve been following coverage from the Australian National University’s New Mandela website with articles written by very well qualified and respected academics, but all of the articles have also followed the same tired “goodie vs baddie” narrative, with less analysis of the electoral appeal of the leader than I would have liked to have seen.

Whilst I have absolutely no hard data about the reasons behind the emerging poll trends in favour of Prabowo, during this election period I have asked Prabowo many supporters about why they support him, despite his shady past. The reasons they cite are usually the following: A) Whilst they like Jokowi, they feel he is not ready for the role B) Prabowo represents a strong leadership figure C) They don’t like Jokowi’s running mate, former President Megawati D) Indonesia needs a more authoritarian government and E) With the exception of Gus Dur, they are exceedingly dissapointed with Indonesia’s Presidents following the fall of Suharto, and feel that democracy did little to change Indonesia’s situation for the better F) They don’t know “who’s interests” are behind Jokowi.

This discusion of the so-called “interests” behind Jokowi has probably come from some of the smear campaign tactics we have seen emerge of late, claiming Jokowi is a “Secret Christian/Chinese/American lackey”. The conspiracy theories abound, and it will be interesting to eventually see who was behind this election tactic. But back to the point..

Whilst I have not heard one Indonesian say they would like to go back to a military dictatorship, and this is about perception over reality, many Prabowo voters also say that they feel Indonesian democracy has served the interest of the elite more than anyone.

From what I have gathered through everyday conversations, it seems some supporters of the Prabowo camp represent a section of Indonesian society fondly remember the certainty and prosperity of life under a military dictatorship. Whilst other supporters, particularly the younger ones, explain that they look to Prabowo as a leader capable of making hard decisions and leading Indonesia from the top down.

Consequently, the Indonesian people are not choosing between vastly different candidates on a policy basis. There aren’t actually major differences between the two candidates on a policy basis. Indonesians are choosing between two opposing regimes which represent vastly different views on the role of the president and his relationship with the nation. And of late, that appeal is to the leader with a well-constructed-by-the-PR-team “tough man” image.

Karachi Airport Siege

There’s been a horrific attack on Karachi Airport leaving 23 dead.

I’ve spent several hours in this airport on multiple occasions, but always felt it was a matter of time before something like this would happen considering it is a strategic port for the war in Afghanistan and the proxy war in Pakistan’s West Provinces which have left thousands dead. I always felt on edge here knowing it was a transit-zone for so much destruction. 

I remember hearing a drone once near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and I can tell you it was one of the eeriest moments of my life. Locals said the sound of these cold, empty machines echoed often through the valleys which they called home.

It is hard to comprehend the terror created by the sound of a machine manned by soldiers somewhere out there, designed to drop bombs based on targets created by strategic intelligence officers somewhere else in the world.

Sadly this neighbourhood is now under siege by local and international terrorist organisations responsible for attacks that have killed thousands
This was the area I was in when I heard the drone. Sadly, this once relatively peaceful neighbourhood is now under siege by local and international terrorist organisations responsible for attacks that have killed thousands

The War in Afghanistan is insidious and seems to have destroyed any semblance of security in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

It’s hard to accurately define who is behind these attacks in Karachi because it’s common knowledge that the Pakistani Taliban seem to be as intertwined with the Pakistani Intelligence Services as they are with Al-Quaeda. Sometimes counter attacks on such sieges seem like well-staged war theatrics to Pakistanis who have little trust left in national security organisations.

The war in Afghanistan has increased the threat of terror in the West, and has caused a huge spike in terrorism attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all targeted at civilians.

Thousands of lives have been acumulatively lost through spilling of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan including through the Pakistani Government’s war against the Baloch in resulting in forced disapearances of activists under counter terrorism legislation established to combat the war on terror. Thousands more lives have been lost to sectarian attacks against Hazara and other minorities by Sunni militant groups. Add these tolls to the growing list of lives lost to the otherwise general civil unrest that has resulted in parts of the country being ruled by thugs and warlords despite the enforcement of Martial Law in areas and you have a death toll of over 50 000 people between the years 2003-2014. 

So very cliched to ask the question, but is the world actually a safer place now?

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 

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

May Day in Jakarta


Protests in downtown Jakarta (image courtesy Asia Foundation)

More than 100,000 workers are expected to fill the streets of Jakarta today to demand an increase to the minimum wage, workplace protections, and basic healthcare as Indonesia marks May Day as a public holiday for the first time.

Workers will march from several areas across Jakarta from the Pulogadung Industrial Area, KBN & Cakung converging at HI roundabout before heading towards the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta, and will probably shut down the city – as May Day protests did last year. And I won’t be going into the city until later, so I should be spared the chaos.

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Ex-Adidas workers who continue to protest their mistreatment will also march alongside unions. Women who worked at the Adidas factory in Jakarta reportedly earned around 50 cents an hour making shoes until they were sacked without severance pay. Adidas still hasn’t paid them.

For one day of of protest, Indonesia’s workers are not asking for all that much 

The minimum wage in Jakarta is 2,441 Rupiah or $209.00 USD per month, and is highest in the country. It is calculated as a workweek comprised of 7 hour days at 40 hours a week as a 6 day workweek, or as 8 hour a days at 5 a days a week. But most at the minimum wage end of the labour market do not receive the minimum, particularly in the informal and unskilled sectors. Those that do receive the minimum wage still struggle find it hard to survive with the cost of living in Jakarta rising each month.

Selamat hari buruh kawan-kawan!


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. 


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

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