personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

"The Jihadists loose on the streets of America!" and other stories

Jakarta, May 24, 6 AM


I’ve been up for a couple of hours now watching crappy TV. “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” is now playing, with the contestant getting his second question wrong. At least he knew the sun rises in the east.
Speaking of morons, I was watching Fox News a couple of nights ago. I don’t get the channel back home, and even if I did, I would not watch it. But with jet lag kicking in, I was channel surfing. The newscaster was interviewing some right-wing nut who was commenting on President Obama’s speech on national security earlier this week. The nut was blasting Obama’s actions on the eventual closure of the prison in Guantanamo. The nut was deeply concerned that the closing of the infamous prison would result in maximum-security prisons on American soil being inundated with these prisoners. And if they should escape from these prisons (and Obama was quick to point out that no one ever had), then, and I am quoting, “the Jihadists would be loose on the streets of America.” Wait a minute – the Jihadists? The Fox interviewer simply nodded in agreement. Tell me that such nonsensical, ill-informed, just plain dumb-ass opinion does nothing but foment further oversimplification of current events pertaining to human rights and contribute to the continued demonization of a religion. The news media should abide by greater standards to provide its audiences with a more balanced, informed analysis of human rights issues. But then again, I think Fox’s “news” is more entertainment; the least they could have done is bring in someone else with a different opinion to be interviewed as well.
Oh wait. The Smarter than a Fifth Grader contestant is on another question: In which country did Buddhism originate? He’s thinking of Buddha, and he’s imagining “a big happy, smiley guy with a big belly.” His answer was China. The fifth graders all mentioned India.
Well anyway, I am here in Jakarta for a number of reasons, one of which is to address the occasional thorny issue of human rights and Islam. Equitas and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights here in Indonesia held a consultation last November on the topic, and now we’re ready to hold a workshop for government human rights trainers and drafters of local regulations. Some of these regulations are based in part on Shariah (sometimes written Syariah in Indonesia). So we’re all coming together to get a better understanding of both human rights and Islam. The local regulations have been under scrutiny by some human rights advocates because they do not respect basic human rights principles. For example, there are a number of regulations “banning prostitution and social illness”, and the concern is that the interpretation of prostitution means a woman walking out alone at night can be arrested as a prostitute.
Through this workshop it is hoped that the human rights trainers will deepen their understanding of Islam and try to gain ways of educating people in order to foster a dialogue on human rights and Islam, rather than sustain an opposition between human rights and Islam. For the drafters of the local regulations, the other half of the participants, it is hoped that the local regulations they draft will reflect human rights principles as much as possible.
What’s going to happen? Don’t know, but we’ve tried to create a workshop environment which will foster an openness to this dialogue. There are a number of documents supporting the workshop, and I’ll post some of them shortly. Apart from the workshop manual, we have the proceedings of the November consultation in bahasa Indonesia, coming soon in English, along with research on women’s human rights issues in Muslim Communities (also available soon, in English).
The workshop begins in a couple of days. Tomorrow we meet the 4 facilitators to see how we will work together, and I’ll write about it during this blog.
There are other reasons for being in Jakarta with my colleague Bing. The Indonesian Equitas alumni have recently held their second “Annual Human Rights Training Program” for Indonesian NGOs and other civil society actors, and we spent Friday evaluating the program with its six facilitators, and yesterday with members of the various committees which make the AHRTP happen. Long meetings, long days, and hopefully I’ll get to write about what happened at some point.
Off to breakfast now, I’ll sign off and leave my friend’s computer behind. On the way here, through Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, the usual security checks resulted in an unexpected surprise when I arrived in Jakarta: I had taken someone else’s computer. Thankfully, she had her name written on it, unlike our office computer, which has “DID YOU LOGOFF?” written on it, which is of little use to someone trying to find its owner. I wrote to her and she called me back, telling me that she had my office computer and it’s safe and sound in New Zealand. We’ll meet each other at the end of the month in Amsterdam, having carried each other’s computers halfway around the world. I’ll remember to double check my computer next time I pass through airport security…
Logging off, p

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Jakarta, 5:30 AM, May 26
Stupid quote of the day, thanks to Fox News:
“There were terrorists before Gitmo [Guantanamo prison] was set up, there will be terrorists after Gitmo is closed, so why bother closing it? Closing it will make no difference in terrorists’ actions, they will still kill people because that’s what they do.”
Well now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the workshop begins in less than 3 hours. I met with three-quarters of the facilitation team yesterday, one who works at a university here in Jakarta and who has an expertise in Islam, and two others whom I have known for 6 years and have facilitated numerous workshops together. In four hours, we covered the content of the workshop and reviewed the details of the first day to see who would do what.
The meeting began with one of the facilitators pointing out a mistake which could potentially rub people the wrong way: we wrote perda Syariah (perda is a local regulation), and we should have written perda nuanced Syariah. The reason being is that Syariah is law only in the province of Aceh, not elsewhere. In other parts of the country, local regulations are said to be nuanced by Syariah or at least “religiously oriented”. For example, West Java has a regulation for civil servants to wear “Muslim dressing”, Bupati Cianjur has one on “the movement of civil servants who have good Islamic moral conduct and Islamic civil society”.
In order to clear things up, we’ve decided to stick a label at the beginning of the manual with a statement saying that perda Syariah should in fact mean perda nuanced by Syariah. The last thing we want to do is rub people the wrong way with the terminology. This is perhaps the one concern I have about this workshop: I don’t want the participants who are the legal drafters of these perda to feel like we are targeting them by dissing their laws as not respecting human rights. But at the same time, I want them to realize that some of the laws don’t in fact respect human rights. A local regulation on “social illness” is so fraught with ambiguity and subject to interpretation of whoever’s in power that it cannot possibly be accurately defined and meant to respect principles of non-discrimination and equality. Having said that, I am willing to hear more about what these regulations mean in order to draw a more sensible (and rights-based) conclusion.
One of the facilitators brought up a concern, and it’s that our approach – namely that of ensuring harmonization of local regulations with international human rights treaties ratified by Indonesia – may give the impression that we are pushing aside Islam in favour of international human rights law (and, by extension, some people argue, Western law). The truth is, we are not. Our justification for using harmonization is based on the Government of Indonesia’s national plan of action for human rights, which has harmonization as one of its pillars. So we’re going with what’s already been decided by the government. Nonetheless, the facilitator has a valid point, and we’ll have to figure out a way to make sure we don’t give the impression of ignoring Islam.
Having said that, there are times when I feel like I am at am impasse when addressing certain issues here, in particular when it comes to women’s rights. I remember a workshop we had a couple of years ago in Banda Aceh where a resource person talked to participants about gender equality. In participants’ evaluation about her presentation, a number of participants accepted and appreciated her intellect and ability to present, but steadfastly refused to buy in to any of her arguments because God has already made things clear when it comes to equality between men and women. Arguments stop dead in their tracks when God comes into the picture.
I keep reminding myself that human rights education is a long – very, very long – process.
Time to get ready for the workshop.
p
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Jakarta, May 27, 4:34 AM
I’m in a central part of town, so I’m listening to the call to prayer from several muezzins all around me. I shouldn’t be up at this time, but since I am, some thoughts on yesterday’s first workshop day.
The workshop yesterday was scheduled to start at 8:30 with an opening ceremony and presentation from the Director General of our partner organization ending by 10. We wrapped up by 11, and being an hour late the first morning always leaves me with multiple schedule manipulations swirling around my head.
Most participants were on time, and the Director General was early, but our other guests of honour – the Canadian and Norwegian ambassadors – were a little late. When they did arrive, I was a little surprised that we did not make our way to the workshop room, but instead sat in the hotel lounge for a drink and some snacks. So I sat with the three of them, my colleague Bing and a couple of others. I’d met the Canadian ambassador a number of times before; an affable man who never lets the conversation die out for more than a few seconds without starting up another topic. In other words, a small talk master.
I have to admit that I suck at small talk. At parties, I always rely on my wife to take over the small talk duties and talk nonsense with people we don’t know well. I simply don’t have that ability; sure, I’ve tried a few times to show interest in someone telling me her hair colour just isn’t right or that his lawn is full of weeds or that their children have a hard time eating vegetables, but in reality I don’t give a crap. I can talk human rights or Star Trek for hours, but at small talk, I am truly hopeless.
So I sat there with a smile on my face the whole time marveling at the Canadian ambassador’s ability to engage people in conversations with the greatest of ease. I guess that’s what happens when you do…ambassador stuff. He was on solid ground with the Norwegian ambassador, a man with a sprightly step and energetic smile who made me think he’d be a pretty funny army general on a TV comedy series.
So the ambassadors and the Director General small talked each other: how good the hotel was at such-and such a conference, the ICC guy talking about something or other, their trips around Europe, the political climate in Indonesia, and so on. The rest of us sat back and watched the exchange with little input on our end. I tried my best to keep my smile on as I felt increasingly uncomfortable at the fact that 30 people were upstairs waiting for us to get the workshop started. But there wasn’t anything I could do about it, so I sipped my cappuccino and kept the smile on (this is especially difficult because I don’t have a naturally smiley face).
The opening ceremony went well, and for the first time during one of these things, the ambassadors took the time to answer questions from the participants, which I thought added a nice touch and I think was appreciated by the participants. A quick coffee break and we began the workshop.
I find the first day of a workshop always the most difficult, because you’re trying to pack in a lot of stuff for participants (in terms of workshop objectives, expected results, getting to know each other, building a group dynamic, establishing a workshop agreement, managing expectations, playing around with the schedule, adding some energizers here and there, setting the context, identifying the issues, and so on). I sat in the back of the workshop confident that the four facilitators would do a commendable job, and they did. Their confidence as facilitators filled me with a great sense of reassurance, and that’s a stark contrast to the first time I met two of them six years ago. Back then, in 2003, Herizal and Yudha were co-facilitating an Equitas workshop on monitoring and advocacy, and it drove me nuts when they would assign group work to participants and leave the room to smoke. Stay in the room and guide the participants, I urged them, but it was a struggle to get my point across. I had asked them to post a daily schedule for participants, and they never did. Our debriefs at the end of the day would sometimes last 2 hours, and I still felt that they were not fully comfortable with the content nor their facilitation. Yesterday’s debrief was all of 20 minutes. In 2003, we were making frequent changes to the schedule, and I had to rack my brain to think of most of them because they would not make decisions promptly enough; now they make the decisions and all I can tell them is “OK, that’s fine.” It’s such a relief, and great to see how they have strengthened their abilities as facilitators.
So everything turned out well yesterday, and the group even managed to cut into their lunch break and finish over a half hour later than planned, and they were still working last night on homework assigned to them. Now that does not happen often. The homework was on exploring “opportunities for dialogue” between human rights and Islam, and we’ve written a number of situations in a Worksheet and asked participants to explore how they would react to them. A few of the situations were as follows:


  1. Some people oppose local regulations based on Syariah because the regulations are not in agreement with human rights principles.


  2. Some groups are unfairly discriminated against due to local regulations based on Syariah (for example, women or religious minorities).


  3. Human rights principles such as dignity and equality are already found in the Qur’an, therefore Perda nuanced by Syariah respect human rights.


  4. Some people think that Islam is being used as a political tool.
We took a safe way out by qualifying some of the above statements with “some people” or “some groups” and therefore leaving it general enough and not target anyone in particular. So they’ll start the day this morning by presenting what they discussed last night, and hopefully it will prompt a healthy debate and lead us to discussing the big issues we’ve come here to talk about.
Off to breakfast and more later, p



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