The following article appeared in the Jakarta Post on 22 January 2005 and coincided with the visit of 5 delegates (including yours truly) as part of the Australian Muslim Leadership Exchange Program organised by the Australia Indonesia Institute. It was also published on The Aussie Mossie blog.
A group of Australian Muslims are currently visiting Indonesia to take a closer look at Islam here, which is often, if not most of the time, seen as a radical religion in the neighboring country.
Irfan Yusuf, an Australian newspaper columnist, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday that many Australians were not aware of Indonesia's two moderate Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.
"Australians may only know Ba'asyir. Not many Australians, including Australian Muslims, know NU and Muhammadiyah," said Yusuf.
NU, which claims to have around 40 million members, is the country's largest Muslim organization, followed by Muhammadiyah, with around 25 million. Muslim cleric Abubakar Ba'asyir, who is currently serving time for immigration violations, was tried and acquitted for alleged links to regional terrorist group Jamaah Islamiyah (JI).
JI, which is believed to be a regional group of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network al-Qaeda, has been blamed for a spate of terrorist attacks in the country since 2000, including the deadly Bali bombings in October 2002, the JW Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003 and the Australian Embassy bombing in September 2004.
Yusuf, along with four other Australian Muslims, arrived in Indonesia under the Australia-Indonesia Institute's Young Muslim Leaders Exchange Program. They are scheduled to spend a week in Jakarta, two days in Bandung and five days in Yogyakarta to meet with their counterparts.
The program was established in 2002 to help address misperceptions about the role of religion in both countries by bringing young Indonesian and Australian Muslims into direct contact, so that they may experience life in each nation and observe the practices and interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in a broad range of contexts.
In Australia, Muslims are a minority, numbering about 300,000 people, and are exposed to radical Islam because of a lack of access to moderate sources.
Most Islamic books and brochures circulated are published in Saudi Arabia, which carry a more puritan version of Islam called Wahhabi, the official school of thought there. "Although there have been Islamic books in English published in the United Kingdom or the United States recently, books from Saudi Arabia are still the cheapest and easiest to get," said Rowan Gould, the secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria.
Gould, whose mother is a native of Padang, West Sumatra, admitted that the demand for Islamic books among Australian Muslims was still very basic, such as books on how to observe prayers and simple fiqh (law).He said not many Australian Muslims -- who come from 70 different ethnic backgrounds -- studied books written by Indonesian Muslim scholars, although many Australians speak Bahasa Indonesia. "Only a few of us (Australian Muslims) speak Bahasa Indonesia. We should learn more about Islam in Indonesia," Gould said.
Several leading Indonesian Muslim scholars have written books and developed progressive thinking on Islam, using new interpretations of the Koran and Hadith (a collection of the Prophet Muhammad's deeds and sayings), which they believe are still relevant to contemporary challenges, such as democracy, human rights and gender issues. The problem is that these books are written in Bahasa Indonesia, which make them less accessible for other Muslims abroad.
The Young Muslim Leaders Exchange Program may be more effective if it went beyond visits and meetings among young Muslims, and an exchange of knowledge and ideas was held on Islam as a religion of peace.
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