Category: Middle East Conflict

A Muslim man on a quest to introduce Hebrew in anti-Israel Indonesia

Hebrew is unlikely to be among the most preferred list of foreign languages to learn in Indonesia. Not just because it is the language of Israel, the country that most Indonesians have a hostile view to, but also because there was not a place that offered the courses.

But a Muslim man who studied at an Islamic boarding school in East Java and earned his degree in Arabic literature from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Sapri Sale, saw this as an opportunity to introduce the language in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Sapri said there is nothing political or ideological in his mission to teach Hebrew in a country where solidarity with Palestine is a strong issue and Israel is regarded as the enemy. He also said despite the religious and political contexts, he just wanted to introduce Hebrew as a language worth learning for Indonesians just like any other foreign language.

“We lack information about Israel because we don’t have access to their language,” he said on the sidelines of the course earlier this week, which is held every Monday and Wednesday at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’, by learning their language so we can understand them better,” he added.

Sapri Sale showed his students how to write in Hebrew during a session at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The course at ICRP is the first one that has been open to the public, but Sapri has taught private courses for groups in several places in Jakarta since August 2017. Now that he’s open with his activities, he said that various groups in other parts of the country have asked him to teach them.

According to Sapri, unlike in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where Indonesian as a language is learned out of necessity because of the significant presence of Indonesian migrant workers there, Indonesian is introduced in Israel through cultural studies program in university.

Sapri became interested in learning Hebrew during his student days in Egypt in the early 1990s and noted that Egyptians in general see Israel as an enemy.

“It triggered my curiosity, so I decided to learn Hebrew to be able to know more about it,” he said, adding that he self-taught himself the language for two years and at the beginning he used second-hand text books from Cairo University’s Jewish literature studies. He then took a Hebrew course at the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.

Sapri, who also teaches Arabic, is aware that his positive intention to promote the language would result in a backlash against him and he has found himself the target of verbal intimidation from those who find his activities unacceptable.

“People have even called me ‘Sapri Jewish’, in a sarcastic way,” he said.

Sapri also wrote the first-ever Indonesian-Hebrew dictionary which he worked on for 10 years. The dictionary is divided into three parts, dictionaries for Indonesian-Hebrew and Hebrew-Indonesian as well as a glossary and was launched in late February.

Sapri said he was not surprised that he could not find a publisher that wanted to publish a book potential to trigger controversy, so he foot the bill to have the dictionary with 35,000 vocabularies published. As expected, major bookstore chains would not display it on their shelves, but Sapri said he could still make a sale through small, independent bookstores and online marketplaces.

The dictionary is acknowledged in the “Israel Berbahasa Indonesia” or Israel Speaks Indonesian official fan page on Facebook, which identifies its administrator as a government organization in Jerusalem and lists the Israeli foreign ministry’s web address in its profile.

His students come from different background, such as Alz Danny Wowor, a computer science lecturer at a university in Central Java and cryptography enthusiast. He signed up last month and since then, he has been commuting eight hours by train from Semarang in Central Java to Jakarta to learn the language in a 1.5-hour afternoon session. He takes the night train back to Semarang when the session is over.

“I have a keen interest in cryptography, and Israel is well-known for its sophisticated cryptography. I am learning the language so I can understand it better, such as the Atbash cypher,” Wowor said, adding that he hopes to study cryptography in Israel someday and learning Hebrew is part of his preparations.

Sapri said most of his students are Christians who want to improve their understanding of the Bible through its original language. They make up 70 percent of his students, with  the remaining 30 percent being Muslims.

“The 30 percent can learn Hebrew faster because as Muslims, we are usually taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic, so it makes them easier to understand Hebrew because of the similarities in the two languages,” he said.


Sapri said that geopolitical issues aside, he hopes Indonesians would not be “allergic” to learn Hebrew just because it is associated with Israel.

Musdah Mulia, the chairwoman of ICRP said the institution was willing to provide the space for the course because they share the same vision in developing better
understanding between faiths and cultures, though she is aware of the possible repercussion against the institution.

“Language is neutral. We can learn about another culture and history through language and Hebrew is a language,” she said.

This story has been expanded from its original version in Arab News


Terror expert: direct link between IS and Indonesian militants is ‘self-proclaimed’

There are no direct links between Indonesian militants and the leadership of IS in Syria, an Indonesian terrorism expert said on Tuesday.

Taufik Andrie, executive director of the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta, was speaking during a meeting about changes in the global terrorism network and the impact those changes have had on extremism in Indonesia.

Policemen were on guard around the police post damaged in bomb attacks by IS-affiliated militants in downtown Jakarta on 14 January, 2016. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

He said that attacks by self-proclaimed IS-affiliated militants in Indonesia “were not always related to IS, or even to Bahrun Naim or Aman Abdurrahman,” referencing an Indonesian militant believed to be fighting for IS in Syria and a convicted radical cleric who led an IS-affiliated network from his prison cell.

“There has never been a direct link between IS in Syria with those who claimed to be affiliated with the group here,” Andrie said. “Most of those so-called acknowledgements were self-proclaimed.

“If we follow the money trail, there has been little financial support coming in from Syria to Indonesia for terrorism activities,” he said.

However, Andrie said that remnants of the Southeast Asian militant network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) — outlawed in Indonesia since 2008 — still remain, with a clear organizational structure and key figures implementing their strategies.

Nasir Abbas, a former militant who is now known as a de-radicalization activist, said the group now operates anonymously, but still works toward the same goals using a mixture of preaching and violence.

“They are still on the move, but they don’t put a name on their organization. They use a strategy, unlike other militants who think that they are waging war by being lone wolves,” said Abbas, adding that other militant groups were now emulating JI by putting a solid structure in place.

“They would try to settle in a small region and strengthen their base, preaching to the locals about their intention to establish a caliphate and making the locals believe in their propaganda,” he explained.

Abbas said the conflict-torn southern Philippines remains the go-to destination for Southeast Asian militants returning to the region after joining IS in the Middle East. He claimed they pass through the porous sea and land borders from Indonesia’s North Kalimantan province to Malaysia’s Sabah state before entering the Philippines in Basilan.

“It’s the preferred trail because there is a chain of small islands in the Sulu Sea and there are a lot of separatist groups there, which means there is an abundant supply of guns and ammunition,” he said.

Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta, said there has been little change in the role of women in extremist groups, particularly in Indonesian and Filipino organizations.

“Very few of them have become combatants. When they do, the reason is usually self-empowerment,” she said.

“But most of them play the role of financier, treasurer and recruiter. They manage the money because they are housewives who are also entrepreneurs,” she explained.

This article first appeared in Arab News

Dresden university sheltered migrants despite hostile anti-Muslim sentiments

Dresden – It is not always easy to welcome migrants, especially from war-torn, Muslim-majority countries, in a stronghold city of Germany’s xenophobic movement.

“It’s a difficult situation. We have a minority of people who are against refugees, but a very loud one. That’s part of the reality,” Hans Georg Krauthäuser, the vice rector for academic and international affairs at Dresden University of Technology (TUD) told a group of international journalists that the German Academic Research Service (DAAD) facilitated to tour around the university campus earlier this year.

The capital of eastern German state of Saxony, Dresden is home to the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym Pegida. The anti-immigration and anti-Islam movement held its rallies every Monday since October 2014 in the square called Theatherplatz in front of the Semperoper, Dresden’s historic opera house. At most, the rallies gathered roughly 20,000 protesters, according to media reports.

“This is not good for an international city of science like Dresden,” Krauthäuser added.

After all, Dresden hosts dozens of research facilities and institutions with a roster of international researchers. They are run by all four major German research organizations; the Helmholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Leibniz Association and Europe’s largest organization for application-oriented research, the Fraunhofer Society. Together with TUD as one of the top technical universities in Germany, they make Dresden as one of the three hotspots in the eastern German research and innovation system along with Jena and Berlin.

RiG_Press Tour-2016_062
The communication acoustics lab of Dresden University of Technology. Photo copyright: DAAD/Robert Lohse

Michael Fristch, chair of business dynamics, innovation and economic change at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in neighboring state of Thuringia, acknowledged that East Germany may not be very friendly to foreigners.

“It’s a legacy of the socialist system,” he said.

However, it didn’t stop TUD to launch a refugee aid program that started in August 2015 by setting up three refugee camps on its campus. Managed by the German Red Cross, the camps hosted a total of 1,220 residents from August to October 2015. By March, the program hosted 300 almost all-male residents, with 66 percent of whom were from Iraq and Syria.

According to Eurocities, the network of major European cities, Dresden welcomed 5,500 people from crisis areas by October 2015. But in contrast to Pegida’s strong sentiments against migrants, the city administration welcomed them with open arms.

In a statement provided to Eurocities website, Dresden mayor Dirk Hilbert said the city wanted to welcome asylum seekers professionally and socially with good-structured programs to avoid them feeling of being sidelined.

TUD picked up the speed to integrate them by organizing activities such as German language courses, winter clothes collections or additional security service, with the help of 600 registered volunteers including students.

For teaching in the language courses, students can get credit points similar to those they would get from an internship, Krauthäuser said.

Tatiana Sandoval-Guzman, a Mexican biologist at the university’s Center for Regenerative Therapies who participated in the program, said they started sewing class for women and kids corner for children.

“We plan to have scientific activities for various age groups of children, despite the language barrier,” she said.

Ulrike Mikolasch, TUD’s refugee aid coordinator said the university offered a limited space for refugees to attend courses free of charge. There were 34 guest students, including 20 from Syria who mostly attended technical and economic studies.

“The main problem is language and other skills that they need to start the course, not the documents,” Krauthäuser said.

Locals also mobilized actions to provide assistance such as introduction to the German language for migrants with the support of more than 80 initiatives. A group of local volunteers were spotted on a spring Friday afternoon teaching German to migrants in a corner of the modern art museum Albertinum near the opera house.

“Integration in the job market or in the education system is one of the most successful ways to integrate into our society. Unemployment, lack of training and no knowledge of the German language have the opposite effect,” Hilbert said.

The city administration and TUD’s efforts to welcome refugees reflected findings of a June 2015 survey by the university that showed most of the locals polled had open attitude towards asylum seekers and only 12 percent agreed with Pegida, while 60.1 percent disagreed. Most of them or 78.6 percent also rejected the idea to prohibit Muslim migrants.

On a larger scale, the first-ever Refugees Welcome Index that global rights group Amnesty International released on May 19 also ranks Germany as the second most welcoming country for refugees after China.

The index was based on people’s willingness to let refugees live in their countries, towns, neighborhoods and homes. It surveyed more than 27,000 respondents in 27 countries worldwide, including a national sample of 1,001 respondents in Germany, who were interviewed by phone on February 4-8, 2016 and found that 96 percent Germans said they would accept refugees into their country.

“The survey shows people say they are willing to go to astonishing lengths to make refugees welcome. It also shows how anti-refugee political rhetoric is out of kilter with public opinion,” the report said.

Data from the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, showed Germany has the highest number of first-time asylum applicants registered during the first quarter of 2016, with almost 175,000 applicants or 61 percent of EU’s total. It also had the largest share of pending applicants within the bloc by end of March with 473,000 applicants or 47 percent.

Compared with the population of each member state, Germany had the highest rate of registered applicants during the first quarter 2016, with 2,155 applicants per million inhabitants. The top two countries of the applicants’ citizenship were Syria and Iraq, with 88,515 and 25,550 asylum seekers respectively.

The migrant influx was forecasted to positively impact on the local and regional economy. The EU first assessed the macroeconomic impact on the influx in its autumn 2015 economic forecast released in November last year. It estimated the flow of migrants could boost the region’s gross domestic products of 0.2 to 0.3 percent by 2020 through public spending on matters related to migrant inflows. It expected more positive impact on growth in the medium term when migrants integrate into the labor supply.

The International Monetary Fund said in a May 9 report that Germany could boost its economy if it speeds up structural reforms “by broadening the labor market participation of refugees, women and older workers” and set up new policies as the basis for refugees to integrate into its labor market.

The European Commission’s winter and spring 2016 forecasts also said Germany’s increased public spending to host and integrate asylum seekers would support growth to its moderate economic activity.

But for the university, economic growth was not the reason they welcomed the migrants. TUD’s Krauthäuser said it was understandable migrants who fled wars in their countries wanted to come to “a rich and free country” like Germany.

“If you are a refugee, where would you go? You want to live in peace. It’s quite obvious,” he said.

“We have to help those people just because they need help, not because it is good for the German economy,” Krauthäuser added.

At the heart of Europe, Indonesian oversees a Saudi mosque

Jakarta/Brussels – Syarif Abdullah Alqadrie was driving to work when a bomb went off at Zaventem airport last month. By the time the Indonesian arrived at the Great Mosque of Brussels, where he is an administrator, a second bomb exploded at the Maelbeek metro station. Continue reading “At the heart of Europe, Indonesian oversees a Saudi mosque”

Mixed views on whether Indonesia should join Saudi-led alliance to fight terrorism

Indonesia says it has yet to decide whether to join a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism, as observers weigh in on the merit of taking part in the initiative.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said Indonesia would have to learn the terms of reference and modalities before agreeing to such an international alliance.

“Saudi Arabia can’t show us the terms of reference yet,” Arrmanatha said at a press briefing on Wednesday

“We need to learn the modalities to determine whether they are in line with our foreign policy,” he added.

Hamdan Basyar, a Middle East expert from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said there should be no harm for Indonesia to join the initiative because of its purpose to combat militant armed groups.

“We should join for the sake of tackling violent groups like ISIS. It would create a sense of togetherness in this cause,” he said.

The head ofthe Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI)’s international relations and cooperation department, Muhyiddin Junaidi, said Indonesia should not join the alliance,  which gathers 34 Muslim and Muslim-majority countries.

He said there were indications that the initiative was meant to target a certain group and given that there are ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is not a member.

Muhyiddin, who also heads the same department in Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, said Indonesia should stick to its free and active foreign policy.

“We should refrain from taking sides in a dispute,” Muhyiddin said, adding that the Indonesian people should also understand that the conflict in the Middle East has nothing to do with Shia and Sunni rivalry.

Hamdan said that the perception that the Middle East conflict stemmed from the Shia and Sunni conflict may have caused Indonesia’s reluctance to join the cooperation.

He added that it would be irrelevant to tie it with the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabis, and this was not the cause why Iran is not included on the list.

“It’s more about jostling for dominance in the Middle East,” Hamdan said.

The Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry said in a press release on 15 December that the 34 Middle Eastern and African countries listed in the statement have decided to form a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism and they would establish an operational center based in Riyadh to coordinate and to fight terrorism.

“More than ten other Islamic countries have expressed their support for this alliance and will take the necessary measures in this regard, including Indonesia,” the statement said.

“We were surprised because the invitation was not to form a military alliance,” Arrmanatha said.

He acknowledged that Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was contacted by her Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir and talked about joint cooperation, but Retno stressed the need for further discussions before Indonesia could  agree on any cooperation.

“I think all countries support efforts to fight extremism though they may have their own ways to do it,” Arrmanatha said.

Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama confronts extremists with Nusantara Islam

Speaking to a Javanese gamelan soundtrack, Muslim cleric Mustofa Bisri implores: “We invite others to join us in launching a mental revolution.” Continue reading “Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama confronts extremists with Nusantara Islam”

In Molenbeek, just hours before the raid and Brussels lockdown

Brussels – It was a 20-minute metro ride from the Schuman station under the European Quarter to what seemed like somewhere in North Africa or Middle East, if not for the names of the streets that suggest the place is still very much part of Brussels.

One of the 19 communes in the Belgian capital of Brussels, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, also known as Molenbeek, has been described by some as the hotbed of Europe’s Islamic radicalism. It was thrown into the international media spotlight after Belgian authorities arrested seven people there over the weekend after the Paris attacks on Friday, 13 November.

Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek's town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Shops selling Muslim fashion lined a street near Molenbeek’s town square. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The spotlight was still evident on the following Friday, 20 November, with the presence of satellite news gathering trucks, camera tripods on standby and groups of journalists taking footage or interviewing people at Molenbeek’s town square, just a few metres away from the metro station exit.

Molenbeek is a 5.9-square-kilometre area with about 95,000 inhabitants as of January, according to Brussels Institute for Statistics and Analysis (BISA). Muslims make up 25 percent of Brussels’ roughly one million population and parts of Molenbeek have a Muslim population of 80 percent, mostly of Moroccan origin.

The shops have Arabic signage and names. Many of them were closed, probably because it was almost noon and the obligatory Friday prayer for Muslim men was approaching. The streets were quiet during the 15-minute walk from the town square to one of Brussels’ biggest mosques, Al Khalil.

It wasn’t easy to find it without a minaret or a wide, arched front entrance usually seen in a mosque, but a butcher from a nearby halal meat shop told The Parrot that the mosque was right across a white van that was parked on Rue Delaunoy.

A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
A signane of Molenbeek and the peace symbol posted on the window of a building in Molenbeek, Belgium on 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Even with such a clear direction the mosque seemed nowhere to be seen. The building across the white van looks more like a garage workshop and the only readable sign shows that the adjacent open space is a parking lot. But a notice posted on the building’s sliding doors confirmed that it was Al Khalil Mosque.

The notice was a press release from the biggest Muslim institution in Belgium Ligue d’Entraide Islamique or Islamic Mutual Aid League that runs the mosque, condemning the Paris attacks.

“Our humanity and our religious beliefs require us to firmly and absolutely disapprove these practices that have disturbed public order and prevailing peace in our societies,” the league said in the statement.

A quick look inside the building showed that Friday prayer preparation was underway and soon a man, seemed on alert that two strangers were curiously peeking into the building, came out to ask us what we wanted.

“If you want to meet and interview the Imam, please come back in one and a half hour when the Friday prayer begins,” he told The Parrot and a fellow Indonesian journalist.

But we were not the only journalists seeking to meet the Imam. Journalists from a Hungarian news outlet and Belgium’s French-language broadcaster RTBF were also there to interview him, to whom the man told the same thing.

There were also more journalists, whom we saw at the town square earlier, at a local deli where we had lunch.

Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Congregration listened to sermon before Friday prayer at the Al Khalil mosque in Molenbeek, Belgium on Friday, 20 Nov 2015. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

When we returned to the mosque, the man greeted us again at the door and invited my male colleague into the mosque.

“But you, madame, please go to the ladies’ prayer room through that door over there,” he told The Parrot.

He went inside the building with my colleague but quickly reappeared and approached me.

“Alright, you can go inside but you have to cover your hair first,” he said.

The mosque management seemed prepared that the media circus was coming as the man handed out the press release that was posted on the door and told us to go to a designated corner behind the hundreds of worshippers. At least 20 male journalists had already gathered in the corner on standby with their tripods and cameras.

“After the prayer, the Imam will meet you here. He will give a statement and you can ask him questions,” the man told journalists in the mosque.

The Friday prayer started with the Imam, Mustafa Kastit, reading out the press release.

“No reason nor devotion can justify those cruel acts,” he said of the Paris attacks that happened a month ago.

“Islam is a religion which advocates a society of coexistence based on respect and dignity for each and everyone,” he said and proceeded to deliver his sermon in Arab first and then French.

Mustafa said in his sermon that he addressed it to his friends, fellow Muslims and society in general. He also spoke about the need to have equal employment opportunity for local Muslims.

Moleenbeek had 53.2 percent female unemployment rate was while male unemployment was 28.6 percent, according to BISA.

The town square of Brussels' Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
The town square of Brussels’ Molenbeek. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Mustafa also condemned the terror attacks in Paris, saying “terrorists don’t have nationalities, [skin] colors and don’t have religions.”

After the prayer, another preacher delivered another sermon and by the time we got to meet Mustafa, after his interview with RTBF, the mosque’s muezzin was calling for Asr prayer. Mustafa said he would see us after the prayer but due to time constraint, we could not wait that long and had to leave Molenbeek.

Media reports said on that Friday evening, Belgian police raided an apartment building in Molenbeek’s Rue Jean-Baptiste Decock, which is about 400 meters from Rue Delaunoy where the mosque is located, in search of one of the Paris attackers Salah Abdeslam. They didn’t find him but found weapons in one of the apartments. A few hours laters, authorities raised security alert to a maximum level in the Belgian capital, which prompted the Brussels lockdown for several days.