Joy In Jakarta

Jakarta was invigorating and exhausting.  It features the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced.  And the warmest people.  Some of the deepest poverty.  And perhaps the finest luxury hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  Shanty shacks with tin roofs in row after row, and gleaming high-rises and a glitzy mall called Mall Taman Anggrek  Jakarta was invigorating.  And exhausting.  A jumble of contradictions.

As should be well known, Indonesia features the world’s largest Muslim majority.   The number of Muslims in Indonesia—roughly 203 million—exceeds that of Saudia Arabia by nearly ten times (see The World Distribution of Muslim Populations Interactive Map courtesy of the Pew Forum at (thanks to Professor Greg Barton for directing me to this great asset).

What is not clear is whether Indonesian Islam, which historically has featured an openness and tolerance linked to indigenous traditions, will shape the Muslim world, or whether the influence—pushed by Arab petrol dollars--will go the other direction.  Based on my admittedly limited sample at two Jakarata Universities, I’m willing to wager on the Indonesians. 

I participated in two panels in Jakarta—one at Islamic State University (ISU) -- and the other at Universitas Negeri Jakarta (JNU) --  The first is the largest Islamic University in Jakarta.  The second is a state-sponsored former teachers’ college and now multiversity with 22,000 students. 

In a conversation with Rector Soeprijanto of JNU, we quickly converged on the importance of social business or social entrepreneurship.  He explained how the school sought to foster innovative development opportunities to build social capital through its various programs across disciplines in the arts and sciences; as we talked an Indonesian rock band practiced in an outdoor amphitheater nearby.  I shared with the Dean our newest program at LTSP—an MA in Public Leadership--which prepares leaders for existing social organizations and innovators who might develop new social businesses.  He got it.

Dr. Jon Pahl and students at Islamic State University (ISU)Our panels were held in packed auditoriums.  250 attended the first panel at ISU, and more than 350 the second at JNU.  Both rooms were steamy, with standing (and sitting) room only.  The topic was nothing more provocative than “Media and Values.”  Each panel ran for 90 minutes of presentations, with 30 more minutes of discussion afterwards.  Most of the participants were students, two-thirds of them women.  Most of the women veiled at ISU; maybe 10% did at JNU.  Nearly all stayed from beginning to end.  There was no discernible difference in enthusiasm or critical thinking at the two schools.  These young women, mostly, appeared to combine love of learning, love of neighbor, and love of God.   

Their grounding in faith was evident.  “Salaam Alaikum,” each speaker began; “Alaikum Salam,” the students replied in unison. “Peace be with you,” was what they were saying, “And peace be with you.”  If this religious civility set a tone for discussion, there was no lack of critical thinking in engagement with our presentations.

At JNU, I asked the students how many of them had been to a shopping mall.  As in the U.S., that experience was universal.  Then I asked how many of them had gotten lost in a mall.  The laughter and murmur of conversation that followed indicated that they immediately understood my point:  the simulacra of (post)modernity can disorient without some discernible map of tradition to provide guidance.

But these were not audiences of conservative traditionalists.  One of the students asked about Wikileaks in a leading question.  He implied that if diplomats and politicians were responsible to their people and kept their pants on they wouldn’t have anything to worry about. And one young woman, with whom I am now friends on Facebook, literally mouthed the words along with me as I suggested that the religion of the market as concentrated in malls and spectacular media productions leads to a world where “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

This young scholar, Ossi Seni Alisa, will graduate from JNU this Spring with a degree in marketing and then undertake study at UCLA.  Her first post on FB after my talk was a reference to the classic book about imperial travelers, The Ugly American.  “Sad to learn this,” her comment noted.  I don’t think the post was a comment on my presence.  We had a very friendly exchange of about 10 minutes after my talk, concluding with the obligatory ritual Kodak moment.  I do suspect, though, that had we had more chance to talk after the panel I would have learned as much from her as she could gain from me. 

More directly, I think her FB posting can help identify perhaps the most critical tension I observed in Jakarta.  Indonesians are aware of the ugliness of much of so-called “enlightened” Western culture.  The country’s poverty and pollution are globally and locally generated. And yet Indonesians are drawn (as are we all) to the seductive lure of its shimmering products, vividly on display at Mall Taman Anggrek. Much is at stake as Indonesians struggle to resolve this tension in an authentically Indonesian, Muslim, and global fashion.   

That they will do so with the warmth and compassion and hospitality I felt so vividly among them almost goes without saying. Whether economic and political contingencies will allow the young people to put their vision for a just peace into practice is the only question I have. 

Bottom line:  if the future is up to young people like the ones I met at ISU and JNU, we all have good reason to hope.  Hence, my joy in Jakarta (photo is of me with students at ISU). 

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