Media coverage

Media coverage of the project

Indonesia-Canada Islamic Higher Education Cooperation, published January 2000 in Into the New Millenium: Indonesia Canada (a publication of the the Embassy of Canada in Jakarta and the Indonesia Canada Chamber of Commerce):

For the past 10 years, a unique partnership between Canada and Indonesia has quietly built bridges between the two countries -- bridges that are contributing to the evolution of the largest Muslim country on the planet.

The Indonesia-Canada Islamic Higher Education Project, administered by McGill University, has brought 91 young Muslim teachers from cities across the sprawling archipelago to Montreal to further their studies. The direct result of the program has been to strengthen the teaching, research and management capacities of the State Institutes for Islamic Studies (IAINs) and to support the participation of women in those activities. But the downstream affects are far more profound.

"The ultimate goal of the project is to contribute to the development of social equity and stability in Indonesia -- an ambitious goal. However, the IAINs are seen as playing a key role because of the basic relationship between religion and development in Indonesia," says project director Wendy Allen. "These institutions train about 80 per cent of the teachers for the Islamic education system which includes elementary, junior and senior secondary schools as well as the IAINs. Graduates of the IAINs also work as judges in family courts, journalists and community developers and are active in the large community-based Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, and in non-governmental organizations."

"The future of Indonesia rests on the modernization of Islamic education and the McGill project is critical to the evolution in thinking about Islam in this country," says Mochtar Buchori, a top advisor to the country's new vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and long-time champion of the project.

McGill also supports Indonesia's commitment to religious pluralism. Specialists in Hinduisim, Buddhism and Christianity from McGill's Faculty of Religious Studies are working with the IAIN in Yogyakarta on a program in comparative religion and inter-religious harmony.

The McGill project is one of the major programs funded by the Canadian International Development Agency in Indonesia, a country of more than 215 million - fourth most populous in the world . To date, the project has graduated six PhDs - five more are in progress - and 88 MAs, with a further eight underway at McGill. One-third of the participants are women. In addition, more than 1000 IAIN staff have received short-term training in Canada and Indonesia and 82 received bachelors degrees in Library Studies from Universitas Indonesia to meet the urgent need for improved libraries in the IAINs. Upon graduation, McGill alumni return to teach at the IAINs, to bring their expertise and experience in the West to students who have never been exposed to the broader, contemporary thought about Islam and its place in the modern world.

"It has been ascertained that Islamic Studies has mainly been dominated by Arabian and Egyptian graduates or graduates from Indonesian institutions clearly linked to Middle Eastern centres of learning," says Dr. Fuad Jabali, 34, who completed his PhD at McGill in the spring of 1999 and lectures at the IAIN in Jakarta.

"Their views are dominant and static and it is not good for the development of healthy academic discussion, learning and research. There are books you're not allowed to read or cannot find, and questions you cannot ask in class. If the assertion is true -- I think to some degree it is -- and the situation is not changed, we will continue to produce generations of students who are narrow-minded and they in turn will educate others the same way."

The "trickle-down" effect of new perspectives into contemporary religious study in Indonesia cannot be overestimated. In the 700 years since it first appeared in Aceh at the northernmost end of the archipelago, Islam has woven itself into the fabric of the country. Particularly in Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, the mosque is the center of community life and local religious leaders wield immense political, social and economic influence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the local "pesantrens" or Islamic boarding schools, the last educational opportunity available to many of the poorest families and the seedbed for numerous political movers and shakers, including Indonesia's newly elected president Abdurrahman Wahid, and influential Yogyakarta university professor Amien Rais, the new parliamentary speaker.

Most IAIN students, including Canadian project graduates like twenty-seven-year-old Yeni Ratna Yuningsih, come from this environment. A firm believer in the importance of pesantrens in breaking down old orthodoxies and anti-West biases at the grass-roots, Yeni's desire to study at McGill was supported by her father, a Kyai, or religious leader in the West Java town of Sukabumi.

"Many people have negative opinions of the West, that is the truth today, but I have the opportunity when speaking to the women to show that those opinions are not necessarily true, that we can appreciate the differences between people," says Yeni, whose family runs a pesantren with 500 students. "They believe we will get indoctrinated, that we'll return believing that the Islam we learned was wrong. This is not the case, I tell them. We can learn about ourselves by studying in the West. We can learn about Islam from non-Muslim academics. It is important to open their eyes to this fact."

There are plans to expand the scope of the project into the new millennium, says director Allen. The proposal would see McGill University assist in improving Islamic education at the primary, junior and senior secondary school levels through programs in Education and Library Studies. It would also bring the School of Social Work at McGill together with the Faculties of Community Development at the IAINs to work with NGOs at the grass-roots level.

The Faculty of Arts and the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill will develop an interdisciplinary graduate diploma which would greatly enhance the IAINs' capacity to produce PhDs, critical to the development of the IAIN system. The diploma program would be part of a "McGill Corner" on campus which, like the program of the University of Al Azhar (the well known Middle Eastern Islamic University), would add to the international dimension on IAIN campuses.

"Indonesia is a deeply religious nation where religion and development are inextricably tied," says Allen. "We have lots to learn about and from Indonesia. The project is a unique fit that provides benefits for both Canadians and Indonesians."

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