UBUD ~ Once again, this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival brought together a diverse mix of writers from all over the world. For four full days, Ubud was home to authors from Mexico, Africa, Europe, Indonesia, the Middle East, North America, Nigeria, Malaysia, India, Australia and beyond and were welcomed with the warmth of Ubud’s local community.
Inspirational daytime discussions were followed by cocktail parties, readings, dinners, launches and wild performances that ran into the wee hours of the morning.
Poets, novelists, journalists, publishers and others delivered their message to engaged audiences at more than 30 venues across town. I moderated several sessions and received valuable feedback from all meetings. But the one gathering that still lingers in my mind was the capacity-filled discussion at Indus on Religious Tolerance and Pluralism in Indonesia.
The event was hugely popular, ran over time and triggered a healthy debate between panelists and the audience. Our speakers were editor and activist Guntur Romli; Sadanand Dhume, journalist and author of My Friend the Fanatic; and Anand Krishna, an Indonesian of Indian descent who has published more than 110 books over the last 10 years in Indonesia, promoting peace and spiritual understanding.
Romli, a progressive Muslim, suggested that Indonesia is a secular country and its secularism is under threat from a rising tide of Islamist extremism. He is a courageous Muslim campaigner against fanaticism and associates of his were in the audience.
Dhume disagreed, and pronounced Indonesia to be a non-sectarian state but not quite secular. He read a passage from his book My Friend the Fanatic, which was critical of excessive mosque building and other religious practices. Dhume, an atheist, readily admitted that he was an outsider to this debate.
Krishna, of Hindu heritage, spoke passionately about his observations of extremism and of Saudi Wahhabism in particular. He raised concerns about non-Muslim students at state schools being forced to observe Muslim prayers and female dress codes.
Krishna gave an example of a growing Muslim sense of specialness and difference from others by recalling an incident when a Muslim asked a waiter in a restaurant whether the owner was Muslim or not. When the waiter confirmed that the owner was indeed Muslim, the customer exclaimed a huge sigh of relief, was satisfied and ate. Otherwise, he probably would not have.
As I listened, I was struck by the consensus on the panel. The moderator probed, and further consensus emerged.
And then an electric Q&A session started. Members of the audience stood to correct the impression left behind by panelists while our panelists put up a vigorous defense of their positions. Indonesia historian and journalist Nasir Tamara hit back with examples of moderation and pluralism in the Indonesian political class. He cited several occupants of the presidential office to make his point.
The audience watched the debate unfold, while I was wishing for more time, more speakers and a bigger venue for the gathering crowd.
As fate would have it, in our global audience we also had representatives of a London-based organization, the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think-tank, led by Ed Husain. Ed Husain is the pen name of the British writer Mohammed Mahbub Hussain, author of acclaimed memoir The Islamist. In this very personal account, Ed tells the harrowing tale of his five years as an Islamic fundamentalist and subsequent rejection of these teachings. He is a well-known figure in the UK.
Disturbed by what he was hearing, he stood up and questioned the underlying tone of some of the panel members and suggested that the reason why a Muslim might ask about the ownership of a restaurant was to learn whether the food would be halal, i.e. meets religious dietary requirements. Muslims eat halal as Jews eat kosher meat, not a sign of superiority but religious observance. Were our panel exaggerating the rise of extremism?
Last week’s Newsweek magazine carried a feature piece about Indonesia, hailing it as an example of economic prudence, democratic development and model of a moderate Muslim nation countering extremism. But our panel was less generous. And some in the audience felt that Indonesia was not being portrayed adequately.
Like most in the audience, I was captivated by the reactions and lively nature of this topic. Along with global warming, extremism and terrorism are the issues of our times. Bali has suffered the terrorists’ wrath and the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was set up in defiance of terror, to bring people back to Bali and help put a positive spin on the image our beloved island.
Building on this year’s success, I look forward to next year’s festival continuing debates of this nature, of being a hub of ideas and intercultural exchange between writers and readers: our own think-tank for contemporary issues.
And if this year’s attendances were any indication, 2009 will be bigger and hopefully even better. Once again, discussions will be vibrant and bipolar debates will continue with even more audience participation. Stay tuned!
Ed Husain will be appearing at the 2009 Ubud Writers & Readers festival.