Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Unknown, therefore unloved": An interview with Meutya Hafid

by Wahyuana
26 February 2008

Jakarta - Meutya Hafid is a global journalist. She was held hostage by a militant group while covering the war in Iraq, and recently travelled to Australia on a three-week exchange program after receiving Australia's Elizabeth O'Neil Award for Journalism. The award, granted to one Indonesian and one Australian, fosters mutual understanding between the two countries while promoting accurate and informed media coverage. Hafid speaks with journalist Wahyuana about her experiences in Australia and the Middle East, as well as her views on democracy, Jewish-Muslim relations and the role the media should play in encouraging dialogue instead of divisions.

What did you do while you were in Australia?

As we know, Australia is a country with a complex, multi-cultural migrant society. While I was there, I engaged in dialogue with Jewish and Muslim minorities, as well as certain racial minorities.

What is life like for minority groups in Australia, particularly Muslims?

Structurally, minorities receive equal treatment from the government, though socially they are often discriminated against by majority groups. For instance, Australian Muslim women are sometimes insulted and mocked because they wear hijab. However, minority groups have the right to bring up their concerns in public debate or before a human rights council, where the options are either negotiated settlement or going to court.

In Indonesia, there are many serious cases of discrimination that are mentioned only briefly in the media before being forgotten by the public. The case of Ahmadiyya, a Muslim community that believes the second advent of Jesus has been fulfilled, comes to mind. The community's mosques were recently vandalised by some groups that accused them of deviating from Islamic doctrine. Police took many Ahmadiyya followers "to safety", but in doing so gave the attackers virtual free rein to vandalise that property.

Do you believe that the issue of protection for minority rights is part of a clash of civilisations?

I don't see it as a clash of civilisations. It's a phenomenon that usually happens in countries with significant majority and minority groups. In Indonesia, this kind of racialism and/or discrimination sometimes emerges subconsciously, over ethnic and group differences.

Meanwhile, in Australia, immigrants come from many different cultures and countries – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Integration takes time and does not always occur smoothly, yet in Australia all citizens are legally protected from discrimination, no matter where they come from or what colour their skin is. I think Australia can serve as a multi-cultural model.

What makes Muslim minorities in Australia appear to be better protected than Muslim minorities in Indonesia?

This may be because democracy is deeply rooted in government systems in Australia. Australian minority groups are also well aware of their rights. For example, in several states where migrant populations are dense, the police have created multicultural division units that not only take legal action over conflicts related to cultural differences, but are also responsible for building intercultural harmony. They work together with religious minorities and community leaders.

Is democracy the best way to protect minority rights?

I think democracy is one of the best ways, though I don't think it's the only way. It should be remembered that democracy is not only the awareness of one's rights, but also of one's responsibilities. If those can be balanced, I think that conflict can be minimised.

Besides democratisation, good values, such as religious beliefs that are deeply rooted in individuals, certainly play a major role in reducing majority-minority issues. There is no religion that teaches aggression against minorities in its midst.

When you visited Israel and Palestine at the invitation of the Australian/Israeli Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), did you see a similar phenomenon to what you see in Australia or Indonesia?

The situation in Israel and Palestine is very different from the situation in Australia. However, something I noticed that was interesting in Israel and Palestine was that, at the grassroots level, individual Jews and Muslims actually need each other and depend on each other. Many Israeli houses are built by Palestinian workers. And several of the Palestinian journalists that I met preferred to live and work in Tel Aviv. Also, during a dialogue I observed between political leaders, such as former Israeli's Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the mayor of Ramallah, I felt their palpable desire to create peace.

In both the Middle East and South East Asia, how do you see the relationship between the Muslim world and the West?

There is an estrangement between the Muslim world and the West because of misunderstandings between the two communities. I think what is happening is a clash created intentionally by specific groups on both sides who have various ulterior motives.

I deeply encourage dialogue between civilisations, cultures, religions and/or beliefs. We need to know each other, and accept that we are indeed different, yet put those differences in the context of our different histories and of our commonalities. The media should play a major role by providing more accurate and fair information about both sides, making room for greater understanding and appreciation, and providing an alternative to the proverb "Unknown, therefore unloved".

* Wahyuana is a Jakarta-based journalist and founder of the Maluku Media Centre (MMC), an institution for peace, conflict resolution and peace journalism. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

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