Dr. Robert Carle Reports on Second Indonesia Study Abroad

In May 2018, Dr. Robert Carle led a group of six King's students to Jombang, Ponorogo, and Yogyakarta in East Java, Indonesia.

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In May 2018, Dr. Robert Carle led a student venture to Tebuireng Pesantren in Jombang, Gontor Pesantren in Ponorogo, and the Indonesia Consortium for Religious Studies in Yogyakarta. Six King’s students participated in the venture: Audrey Cooper, Kyle Kendrick, Brittin Ward, Carter Fletcher, Kara Simmons, and Taylor Johnson. The trip was funded by a grant from the Fieldstead and Company. The students wrote articles for The Media Project based on research and reporting in Indonesia. Dr. Carle wrote the following report about the team’s experiences in Indonesia.

Our team arrived in Surabaya on Saturday, May 12 at about 6:00 p.m. Our hosts met us as the airport and we immediately left Surabaya for Jombang, which is one and a half hours west of Surabaya. Java is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and the ride to Jombang felt like a ride through one continuous village. The streets were full of people relaxing and chatting, and enjoying relief from the sun.

Jombang is located on a plane in the central part of East Java. The houses are built right along the edge of the road and are shaded by banana and mango trees. Rice fields, growing in straight lines, began directly behind the houses. The water in the paddies reflect the bright colors of the dresses and sarongs of people working in the fields. Through the haze, we can see ranges of blue hills and towering mountains. There is no air-conditioning in Jombang, and temperatures during the day climb into the high 90s.

At our welcome lunch on Sunday, May 13, our hosts told us about three church bombings in Surabaya, which killed 27 people and injured 50. Back-to-back bombings targeted three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, as worshipers gathered between services on Sunday morning. One suicide bomber was disguised as a churchgoer. Another drove a Toyota minivan with a bomb to one attack site. Still another drove a motorcycle into a church courtyard before the explosion.

The bombings took place at Immaculate Saint Mary Catholic, Indonesian Christian Church, and Surabaya Central Pentecost Church. The first explosion took place at Saint Mary’s. The second and third explosions followed within an hour. Twenty-seven people died in the attacks. Thirteen of the dead were terrorists. Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a local branch of the Islamic State, accepted responsibility for the attacks.

The explosions were the work of couples and their children. “With the Surabaya bombing, we have stepped into a new stage of terrorism… with families and parents sacrificing their children,” said Dr. Halim Mahfudz, one of our hosts in Jombang.

There was an outpouring of Muslim support for Christians in Indonesia in the wake of these attacks. In Surabaya, Bandung, Solo, and Yogya, thousands of people gathered for candlelight vigils to mourn the victims of the attacks, defying pubic warnings not to gather in large groups at this time. In Jakarta, 8,000 police officers were assigned to guard Christian churches on Sunday morning after the bombing.

Indonesia’s President, Jokowi Widodo, called the attacks a crime against humanity. As he was visiting survivors of the attack in Surabaya, President Widodo said, “All citizens [should] remain calm and vigilant. Only by being united can we fight against terrorism.” He announced that the government will cover the entire medical costs of all of the victims.

Our hosts expressed shock and outrage that people who called themselves Muslim would attack churches in this way. Our hosts talked to us about the Tebuireng Pesantren’s history as a moderate sufi alternative to Wahhabi extremism. At the Tebuireing Pesantren, teachers and administrators see countering ISIS as central to the mission of the school. Our hosts argue their pesantren teaches a sophisticated view of Islam that is rooted in the shafi’i tradition, and this inoculates students against extremism and internet indoctrination. The founders of the Pesantren also founded the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1926. NU is now the biggest Muslim organization in the world, with fifty million members.

In the last two decades, the Nahdltul Ulama has sought to spread its message of moderation through media campaigns, literature drives, and foreign exchanges. The day of the bombings, NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj issued this statement: “NU condemns all acts of terrorism, whatever the motive and background. Islam condemns any form of violence. There is not a single religion in the world that justifies violence as a way of life.”

On Sunday night, May 13, our team visited Mojokarta, a predominantly Christian village thirty minutes north of Jombang. The Protestant Church in Mojokarta was hosting a harvest festival, and Petrus, a seminarian who interns at the church, spent several hours talking with us about the ways in which his denomination was developing a contextualized, Javanese brand of Christianity that is attractive to local Indonesians. A centerpiece of the harvest festival was a concert featuring Javanese instruments and telling Bible stories using traditional Indonesian puppets (wayang). Petrus said that he was horrified by the bombings, but encouraged by the support that the Indonesian Muslims and the Indonesian government is giving to Christians at this time. He said that we have to trust in the vigilance of the government and in Indonesia’s tradition of harmony and peace between religions.

The festival was guarded by the Nahdlatul Ulama’s all-volunteer, paramilitary force (banser). The banser are trained in martial arts and (sometimes) carry knives, but they are not allowed to carry guns. We were intrigued by the professionalism, courage, and civility of the banser. There are more banser in Indonesia than the combined police and military forces, so they are crucial element of Indonesia’s counter-terrorism efforts. On the last day in Jombang, we spent the morning with a local banser unit.

The banser are Nahdlatul Ulama’s all-volunteer, paramilitary force. The banser are trained in martial arts and (sometimes) carry knives, but they are not allowed to carry guns.

From the banser, we learned the story of Riyanto. In 2000, Riyanto, a twenty-five year old banser, removed a bomb that he found underneath a pew in a Christian church in Mojokerto on Christmas Eve. Riyanto yelled for parishioners to get down and took the bomb away from the crowded church. Before Riyanto could dispose of the bomb, it exploded in his arms. The explosion killed him instantly. For his sacrifice, Riyanto is a hero in Indonesia. A street is named after Riyanto in Mojokerto and a shrine was built in his memory. The bloody remains of the shirt he wore the night of his death is featured at the Nahdlatul Ulama museum in Surabaya. Brittin Ward (MCA ’18) collaborated with me in writing an article on the banser for the Media Project.

Ramadan began on May 16, and we quickly surrendered to the disciplines of the season. We woke for breakfast with the call to prayer at 3:30 a.m. We took a rest (siesta) during the torrid noonday heat, rising again to enjoy the relaxation and colors of the late afternoon, when the sun turns red and people yield to the pleasures of relief from the heat. Our hosts were unable to serve us food until sunset (at about 5:30 p.m.).

In Jombang, we had many conversations with our hosts on spiritual formation as an antidote to extremism and terrorism. “Moderate” is a word Westerners like to use to describe Muslims who are civil and peaceable, but this is a word that our hosts reject. “Moderate” implies lukewarm, but the disciplines of the pesantren are rigorous. Student life is structured from 4:00 am to 10:00 p.m. There is a strict dress code and rules prohibits dating, alcohol, and movie-going. All students must learn Arabic and recite the Quran. What separates our hosts from terrorists is not an anemic religious commitment, but an indigenous Indonesian brand of Islam that is rooted in sufi mysticism and is expressed politically in Pancasila.

One recurring topic of discussion was the political and cultural implications of women’s clothing in Indonesia. Women who wear the hijab are markers of modesty and morality, creating a public and collective identity for women that cuts across power relations between Islam and the West; modernity and tradition; secularism and religion. At the same time, our hosts view the niqab as a dangerous Middle Eastern import that Indonesians must resist. In Jombang and in Gantor, all the women we encountered covered (hijab), but they were forbidden from wearing the niqab in the pesantrens. Audrey Cooper (PPE ’18) reported on women’s clothing as a marker of Muslim identity.

In Indonesia, the hijab (women’s head covering) is seen as a marker of modesty and morality.

On May 18, our team left Jombang for Gantor, an East Javanese “modern” pesantren that has an impressive educational model, but is theologically very eclectic. Unlike most Indonesian pesantrens, Gontor is not associated with the Nahdlatul Ulama or the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s two big indigenous Muslim institutions. It calls itself moderate but prides itself in accepting Muslims of all theological persuasions. Gontor bans the niqab, but it allows all brands of Islam to be taught, and it doesn’t form students in any one school of Islam.

Gontor is all male, but it has a sister institution 100 kilometers east of the campus. Gontor offers a rigorous education, and it has an impressive array of alumni who are leading Indonesia’s strategic institutions. Students at Gontor get up at 4:00 a.m. and work until 10:00 p.m. All students have to learn Arabic and English, and if they are caught speaking local languages, their heads are shaved as a punishment. All students are required to write a thesis in either Arabic or English before they graduate.

Our guide, Mahdi, was a student at a public school in Jakarta. He was getting poor grades in his school, and his parents, who both work as professionals, were increasingly frustrated with him. He feels that Gontor was the perfect medicine for him. The discipline that the school demanded turned him into a top student. He majored in International Relations. He is now twenty-two, and he aspires to serve in the diplomatic service. He told me that he will not date or marry until he is in his late twenties, but he told the King’s students that he has a girlfriend in Jakarta, and when he is home he goes to discos.

Gontor does a great job forming a certain type of Muslim leader, and the eclectic theological education seems to be a moderating influence on most students. There is, however, a dark side to Gontor. On the night of our arrival, the head of the Religion Department gave us a video and slide presentation to introduce us to the pesantren. Prominently featured in the presentation was Yusef Qaradawi, the most prominent theologian in the Muslim Brotherhood, who has justified suicide bombing in the Palestinian struggle, corporal punishment for homosexuals, and wife-beating. When I challenged our host about Qaradawi, he defended Qaradawi as a great scholar. He said the school teaches Qaradawi, but doesn’t agree with everything he says. I suggested that it would be more proper to repudiate Qaradawi. Later, privately, our host told me that his sister is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood has had a very salutary effect on her life.

On the last night of our visit to Gontor, one of Gontor’s alumni, Hidayat Nur Wahid, a member of the Parliament and the head of the PKS, visited the school and was treated with great honor. The PKS started as Indonesia’s Muslim Brotherhood Party. Nur Wahid gave a speech in the mosque, after which he and his followers took over the dining hall and rearranged the seating, separating the men from the women. Our dinner with Nur Wahid only lasted thirty minutes, but I had a chance to ask him about the attacks against the Ahmadis in Lombok. He said the Ahmadis were troublemakers and lawbreakers, and that reports of attacks against them were fake news reports. I was appalled that a politician of his stature in Indonesia would sacrifice vulnerable people for political gain in this way.

On May 21, we left Gontor for Yogyakarta, a city of 700,000, with throbbing main streets, cybercafes, towering banyan trees, quiet kampung, and majestic palaces. Yogya is ruled by a sultan (king) rather than an elected governor. The sultan lives in a palace in the center of the city, full of luxurious halls and spacious courtyards and pavilions. He is attended by a phalanx of elderly retainers in traditional Javanese dress.

In Yogyakarta, we were housed in a shantytown that is built along the banks of Kali Code, a river that runs right through the heart of Yogya. Our host, Pak, has worked since 2001 as a community organizer in Kali Code. This community is 30% Christian and 70% Muslim, and together, the Christians and Muslims have formed a powerful organization that has managed to begin cleaning up the river, digging wells and pumping clean water into homes, and offering a host of educational opportunities for the kids in the shantytown. Kyle Kendrick (PPE ’19) wrote his Media Project article about these interfaith organizing efforts.

Kali Code River
Christians and Muslims have formed an interfaith organization that has managed to begin cleaning up the Kali Code river, digging wells and pumping clean water into homes.

In Yogyakarta, the Indonesia Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) organized two excellent lectures for us, one by Dicky Sofjan and the other by Noorhaidi Hasan. Dicky spoke on Managing Religious Diversity in Indonesia and Dr. Hasan talked about combating terror in Indonesia.

Yogyakarta was physically demanding. Our tiny second floor bedrooms had no air conditioning and were oppressively hot, even at night. It was like sleeping in an oven. Our hosts took us on endless midday walking tours of the city’s kampung, which left us exhausted and dehydrated. It was Ramadan, so we had no food between sunrise and sunset. Our dinners, which were served at exactly 5:30 pm, consisted of tiny pieces of chicken and vegetables that come in a little box. Fasting shrinks stomachs, so the dinners were surprisingly filling. There was a McDonald’s a half mile from our homestay, and the students made nightly visits.

On our final day of the trip, we stayed at the ICRS guesthouse, which is located on the Gaja Mada University campus. The guesthouse was comfortable, spacious, and air-conditioned. The students had access to ICRS resources (faculty, students, and library), and they spent their final day in Indonesia preparing articles for submission to The Media Project.

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