Indonesian aid a vital support

Indonesian aid a vital support

14 Feb 2011

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumb Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

First published in The Australian on 14 February, 2010.

Australians have been generous abroad in times of need, and now, the Opposition Leader claims, it's time to be generous at home.

The biggest cut he put forward was in the aid budget for Indonesia, in particular the education partnership aimed at providing better access to schools and improving the quality of the teaching at both government-run and Islamic schools.

This program is clearly crucial in the light of recent outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, both Islamic and non-Muslim, in Indonesia.

Recent attacks on members of the Muslim Ahmadiyya sect ended in loss of life and destruction of property. Ahmadiyya is deemed a heretical sect in Indonesia, and a 2008 decree prohibits members from proselytising. Reactionary and hardline Muslim groups had demonstrated and put pressure on the President to act.

Bowing to these pressures has meant that Indonesia, like Malaysia, has continually given over public space to hardline views within Islam, increasingly shutting the doors for alternative readings and views.

Islam in Southeast Asia has enjoyed a dual personality in the West. On the one hand, academics and governments propounded a vision of moderate Islam as syncretic, hybrid and peaceful. On the other hand, there are radical groups committing terrorist atrocities, such as the Bali bombings. The dichotomy was of good or bad Islam.

However, recent legal cases have shown a much more complex divide in the two largest Muslim countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia. There, secular moderates of all religions and, lest we forget, those with no religion, have called for religious freedom and freedom of speech.

The Indonesian blasphemy laws are another mode of control that has sparked controversy. A Christian man in central Java was sentenced last week for distributing pamphlets that were deemed blasphemous toward Islam. The maximum sentence is five years, for which he was sentenced, while crowds rioted, calling for a death sentence. Churches were set alight and Christians attacked.

In Malaysia, too, churches were burned after the controversy over the use of the word Allah in a Malay-language Catholic newspaper a year ago.

The public anger against incursions into what Islam is and how it is represented is palpable. But why should Muslims in these countries -- where they form the majority, control the political sphere and have achieved a degree of Islamisation of society that pervades government and everyday life-- be angry?

Many continue to feel insecure in their nation, which has not yet delivered them either economic prosperity or a fully fledged Islamic state -- the two most common demands. Thus they cling to their religion as their key identity marker. As such, it must not be sullied or even debated.

Dialogue and discussion are desperately needed to break the deadlock between them and those seeking more freedom -- freedom to express who they are in a climate of fear and control.

This does not just apply to religious minorities in the region. Most minorities, be they sexual, gender, economic or political, are subject to religious interpretation of who they are and what they do.

Difference is not encouraged in places where bigotry and fixed identities rule. However, difference is what makes us human, and violence will not make this difference go away. It may make these different identities seek refuge, go underground or hide themselves, but they cannot be wished, bullied or bloodied away.

To foster debate about difference and identity requires people who are reflective and willing to engage in such discussions.

This takes a long time, but an excellent place to start is a classroom. And that is what is at stake when Abbott seeks to cut the Indonesian school aid budget.

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow with La Trobe University's Institute for Human Security and a co-founder of the Melbourne Free University Project.




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