CLA graduate Ted Meinhover writes a letter home about his experiences in Indonesia.
Photo: Everett Ayoubzadeh
A CLA Graduate Writes a Letter Home
“Hanya tahu Indonesia saja, Ted." Just to know Indonesia. My friend Suroto has no interest in taking me to any of the tropical islands that Indonesia has to offer or in taking me shopping at the “traditional" markets where you can buy handcrafted batiks. So instead of lounging on some beach watching the sun go down over the sea, I find myself sitting on the floor in a small house in the village of Klaten, on the slopes of the still-active volcano Mount Merapi, in Central Java.
The large family and I eat rice in a circle on the bamboo mat, children staring in silent wonder, grandma inquiring about my marital status and pointing out the beauty of Indonesia's female population, the occasional question about world politics coming my way from a watchful father. Suroto is on a mission to help me to “know" Indonesia; he says there is nothing more important for me to do here, and I agree.
The future of democracy is being determined right now, here, in Indonesia. Suroto was a student during the protests that catalyzed the end of the authoritarian Suharto presidency in 1998, and his eyes cloud over when he speaks of his friends who disappeared in the desperate regime's military crackdown. Today he is part of an energized community working to restore democracy and increase the welfare of the Indonesian people.
Spirited debate has become a large part of that process. Suppressed violently and institutionally for so long, the right to discuss, criticize and mobilize is not taken for granted. Suroto and countless others I have met are by no means shy about the passion they feel about their country, its promise and problems. Fierce national pride blends with fierce self criticism. They discuss the presence of massive economic disparity, the influences that are bombarding the country as a result of globalization.
And, of course, they discuss religion. It is perhaps one of the most pertinent issues in Indonesia, all the more so in light of today's global scene. And with the fourth largest population in the world, including the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia will undoubtedly be playing a large role in that global scene.
Some here worry about American attitudes toward Islam. They've heard the pessimistic “clash of civilizations" prophecies. Conflicts between fundamentalism and liberalism are, to be sure, part of the discourse here, as well. And there are indeed factions pushing to implement religious law in the form of legislation. But Indonesians as a whole—Muslims, Christians, and the many others—want political modernization, freedom, the chance to live under a system of democratically created laws. NU (Nahdatul Ulama), an Islamic political party and the largest political party in the world with around 40 million members, rejects the creation of laws that legislate how people practice their religion.
The University has given me this scholarship because it recognizes society's and its own interest in understanding and building bridges to this part of the world. If my experiences in the global studies classrooms of the University and in the small houses of Klaten have taught me anything, it's that the self interest of the individual can be achieved by pursuing the self interest of others.
As naïve as I may feel when I make such an idealistic proclamation, I was rewarded the other day when my Indonesian friend Rina responded with a smile, “Ted, I strongly believe good friendship and working together can create peace and a better world."