Indonesia and the 'M' Word


It’s official: Prime Minister John Howard doesn’t like the ‘m’ word. Neither do his supporters, whether they be (at least) one anti-abortion MP, or some allegedly conservative columnists writing about the Cronulla riots in the op-ed pages of that American publication calling itself The Australian.

Which ‘m’ word is that, you may ask? Is it the name Mohammed? Certainly, that’s a word open to abuse in most neo-Con circles, especially after an obscure neo-Con newspaper in Denmark decided to publish a dozen or so cartoons.

Or maybe it’s that other ‘m’ word, the one that could well be used to describe Australia unless we follow Danna Vale’s advice and make abortion pills a tad harder for Australian (as opposed to, say, Muslim) women to access. I mean, let’s face it: in today’s conservative parties, you can say what you like about Mohammed and Muslims, but don’t even suggest the Health Minister’s rosary could cause any harm to non-Muslim ovaries.

Actually, the word I am thinking about combines both these distasteful alien religious elements. John Howard has declared that he doesn’t like the word ‘multiculturalism,’ and his view is shared increasingly by members of his Party (both organisational and parliamentary wings) and by his friends at The Australian.

 Children at Dar al-Qolam Pesantren (Boarding School)
outside Jakarta. Photo by M Khalaf

That diplomatically useful ‘m’ word

Howard may not like the word, but successive Australian Ambassadors to Indonesia can’t get enough of it.

The present Ambassador, Bill Farmer, and his staff are still nervously housed behind tight security in the fortress-like Australian Embassy building on a main street of Jakarta’s CBD. The building was the scene of a terrorist attack on 9 September 2004 in which 10 Indonesians died and over 200 were injured. The blast was so powerful that the 100kg Australian crest fell from the Embassy wall and crashed to the ground.

Despite their understandable jitters, Farmer and his crew maintain brave smiles as they struggle to find all sorts of novel ways to use the ‘m’ word in almost every press release. The problem is that Indonesian journalists are just as smart as ours. And they can read.

During the last two weeks of January, I travelled with a delegation of Aussies on an exchange program sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Each year, the AII sends a delegation of young Australian Muslims to visit a range of individuals, organisations and institutions from across the spectrum of Indonesian opinion. Delegations of Indonesian Muslim youth leaders also visit Australia.

Our delegation consisted of two lawyers, an engineer, a researcher and a police woman. Two of our delegation could speak fluent Bahasa Indonesia. We had to front up before some of Indonesia’s top journos for a news conference. We felt confident we would represent the national interest well, and so did the Embassy staff.

Indonesian journos do have internet access

One of the Embassy heavies was with us, and she very capably and confidently briefed Indonesian journos about how Australia is multicultural, about how Muslims are all living very comfortably thanks very much, and about how we even have a Ministry for Multicultural Affairs.

The Indonesian journos, of course, had heard it all before.

So, when it was their turn to speak to us, they had already memorised the relevant offensive lines from the op-ed pieces by those writers who are regarded as reflective of ‘mainstream’ opinion by the head honchos at The Australian.

It became a bit embarrassing listening to the Indonesian journos as they threw neo-Con mantras in our direction like patriot missiles. In the end, we had no option but to speak the truth. We were cornered by well-researched scribes, and had to somehow weasel our way out.

‘Guys, listen: the stuff you are throwing at us is published in an American-owned newspaper. Seriously. It isn’t reflective of what most Australians think. If it were, it would sell far more copies and be much more profitable than it actually is.’

The journalists just weren’t convinced. One blurted out: ‘But the newspaper is called The Australian. And we know the paper is very supportive of the Howard Government. We followed it during your last Federal election.’

What could we say to that? Indonesian journos, after all, do have internet access. They can read Latin script, and many can speak fluent English. In fact, quite a few were educated in Australia.

So there we were, a bunch of Australians trying to help the Embassy sell an official line, and our biggest obstacle was an American-owned newspaper. Yep, some op-ed writers may think they are helping the Government, but their infantile rants and imbecilic prejudices are harming our national interests in our own backyard. They are actually facilitating the unspinning of DFAT spin by savvy journalists in our region.

 Costumes by Sister Michelle Leslie?
Photo definitely by M Khalaf!

The Indonesian press and the ‘p’ word

Howard may not like the ‘m’ word, but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and most of the politicians and religious organisations in Indonesia are all in favour of the ‘p’ word.

An Indonesian academic from the liberal Muslim Paramadina University in Jakarta told our delegation that ‘pluralism’ is a much more effective and inclusive concept than tolerance or multiculturalism.

Indonesia is not the first country that comes to mind when words like pluralist, liberal and democratic are mentioned. During the decades of Suharto’s ‘New Order,’ liberal democracy was in short supply. And we have all heard the horror stories of violence between various Muslim and Christian denominations in Ambon and Sulawesi.

Indonesia isn’t a perfect place. During our stay, we saw plenty of evidence of inter-racial and inter-religious tension. In the university town of Yogyakarta, we visited an interfaith group known as Interfidei. We heard from their (mainly Muslim) workers about the difficulties Christian communities face in establishing new churches.

We were also given the rundown on how Catholicism and Christianity are regarded as separate religions (a sectarian relic of Dutch colonial rule), and of efforts to have Judaism recognised as an official religion. Believe it or not, there are Indonesian Jews living in Surabaya.

But in Indonesia, inter-racial and religious conflict and its underlying sentiments are not applauded in the op-ed pages of national broadsheets. Indeed, media ownership in Indonesia is a reflection of the pluralism that Indonesians take for granted. In the world’s largest Muslim country, the highest selling national broadsheet, Kompas, is owned by a Catholic foundation.

Imagine the outcry in Australia if Muslim interests bought our own national broadsheet.

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