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Indonesian state of change
Indonesia is a country with well over two hundred million people spread over seventeen thousand islands, speaking more than seven hundred languages. It's hardly surprising then that the McGill Indonesia Project over the last 10 years of its existence has continued to grow and become more complex, much like Indonesia itself.
Now entering its third and most ambitious phase, the McGill Indonesia Project has expanded from the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies (MIIS), where it started, to include law, library science and several units in the Faculty of Arts, including the School of Social Work. The aim is no less than to help rejuvenate the Islamic education system, integrating new technologies and notions like democracy and gender equity in the Southeast Asian country.
And it might get bigger. "We are hoping for real sustainability and looking at ways in which our cooperation will continue to develop and expand, both here and in Indonesia," said Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Ian Butler, who is the chair of the project's advisory board.
Project director Wendy Allen explained that McGill has had informal ties with the Indonesian Islamic academic community ever since the MIIS opened its doors 50 years ago. In 1989, with the help of CIDA and the Indonesian government, McGill began cooperating with State Institutes of Islamic Studies (IAINs) in Indonesia to upgrade their instructors' skills with master's and doctorate training at the MIIS. McGill also sent professors to teach at IAINs.
Now the agenda is more ambitious. "The goal is grassroots development and the institutions we're working with are part of a vast network that includes the poor in rural communities and urban areas throughout Indonesia," said Allen of the Indonesia Project's newest phase, called the Social Equity Project.
Although Indonesia is not an Islamic country, its population is eighty-seven percent Muslim. It has an entire education system from primary to secondary school that serves the Muslim community. The IAINs are part of a network of post-secondary institutions that include 13 IAINs, 47 STAINs (State Islamic Colleges) and now one university, UIN Jakarta. McGill works primarily with the two oldest and largest institutions, IAIN Yogyakarta and UIN Jakarta.
Allen explained that the IAINs are the primary source of teachers for the rest of the Islamic education system. Improve the quality and breadth of education offered at these institutions, and there will be a "trickle down" effect as graduates take over responsibility for the madrasahs and pesantren (types of Islamic schools) in the rest of the country. In addition to this, the IAINs can facilitate dialogue as Indonesia tries to define itself as a modern democracy after years of repressive dictatorship.
Indonesian Ratno Lukito is currently completing a PhD in comparative law at McGill, and already holds a master's degree from the MIIS. He said that Indonesia is now trying to come to terms with how to manage its pluralistic culture in the post-Suharto era. "Suharto had a policy of not talking about differences in ethnicity or religion. But with no discussion, conflict is hidden. When Suharto left it was a time bomb," he said. Ratno said that already scholars at IAINs - over a hundred of which are McGill graduates - are more likely to become involved in public debates on these issues than before.
One crucial public issue in Indonesia is that of human rights - an area in which Ratno's former thesis supervisor, Professor Wael Hallaq of the MIIS, has a particular interest. He is currently conducting a study of human rights thinking in Indonesia with a group of scholars in that country. Indonesia currently has a secular system of law, but Islamic (Sharia) law and local customary law heavily influence it. Hallaq wants to find out how these sometimes conflicting systems will deal with treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he points out is largely derived from Western experience.
"Human rights issues are very interesting as a case study and Indonesia is the place to study it. It is a place that is traditional but looking forward in a very strong way," said Hallaq, who adds that he considers his visits to Indonesia a learning experience. "I don't think that there was anything in terms of an intimate knowledge of a culture that contributed so much to my own academic, and even personal, development as my four stays in Indonesia," he said.
Phil Buckley also feels that his intellectual interests have been profoundly affected by his visits to the country. The chair of McGill's philosophy department is currently helping UIN Jakarta set up an Interdisciplinary master's program, which will include Islamic studies, political science, comparative law, sociology and philosophy. The curriculum, which will be taught in English, will include two terms taught by McGill professors. Buckley's project is part of UIN Jakarta's process to develop new programs. "Their long-term goal is to have a really 'hot' degree that will attract students from throughout Indonesia and from other countries in Southeast Asia," said Buckley.
Yeni Ratna Yuningsih, a philosophy PhD student from Indonesia at McGill, will one day teach in that program. She said she found visiting Canada to be a broadening experience - Indonesians who want to study Islam abroad usually choose a Middle Eastern country. For her, getting an outside perspective was important. "Hopefully, I can learn something new - I can find out what people think about my religion in the West," said Yeni.
McGill's School of Social Work will be playing a large role in the project's goals of improving Indonesian education and social conditions. In addition to taking in students for training, Estelle Hopmeyer, acting director of the School of Social Work, will be travelling to Indonesia in October to help in the planning to design a social work program there. "It's very important that the program be congruent with the context that it is working in," said Hopmeyer.
The School of Social Work is currently training five graduate students from Indonesia. In addition to giving them a one-year bachelor's degree prior to their graduate work, Hopmeyer said that these students will do their field placements at the Douglas Hospital. There they can see first-hand the wide range of out-patient, in-patient and community-based interventions that can be used for social problems related to mental health, as well as work with their strong professional social work staff.
The students' experience will not necessarily be directly transferable, Hopmeyer said. They have already pointed out some differences in approach to similar problems in Indonesia.
Adapting to local conditions is a concern of Graduate School of Library and Information Studies director Jamshid Beheshti as well. The school has been involved in the Indonesia project since the mid-nineties, when they helped the IAINs in Jakarta and Yogyakarta automate their library management systems. Now professors from the MLIS program are helping UIN Jakarta and IAIN Yogyakarta set up their own bachelor's program that will train librarians for the madrasahs. Beheshti recently returned from Indonesia, where he visited a madrasah in a rural area.
"In the elementary school, the library had only one shelf that was full of books, all with the same title. The rest of the shelves were empty," he said. The administrators of the school were keen to improve their holdings, and hoping for money to materialize. They also need professional librarians. He said a program of teacher-librarians working with the guidance of a circuit librarian responsible for many schools might be an appropriate approach. But that is only a suggestion. As with all the programs under the Indonesia Project, it is the Indonesians who will decide if this is the best solution for them.