Life

Emha Ainun Najib: Delivering
the message of peace

EMHA AINUN NAJIB: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)
EMHA AINUN NAJIB: (JP/R. Berto Wedhatama)

When a group of priests from the Dutch Protestant Church approached renowned Indonesian poet and Muslim scholar Emha Ainun Najib to ask him to stage a performance of his musical band Kiai Kanjeng in The Netherlands, Emha did not think twice about accepting.

The offer was made not long after the release of Geert Wilder's controversial movie Fitna.

"They wanted us to help reduce the tension and enhance understanding among religious communities," Emha told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of Kiai Kanjeng's performance at the Islamic Cultural Center in Deventer, The Netherlands.

He acknowledged there was a section of the Muslim community that spoke the language of intolerance and that was committed to acts of violence against those whose religions or opinions differed from theirs.

"The world has seen tension among religious communities. I have never seen such a growing hostility in my life ... When I was a child, things like this never happened," said Emha, also known as the "renaissance figure of Indonesian culture".

Emha is unlike other Muslim leaders, who are often in a state of denial regarding the gap between the normative and the practice of Islam.

"We have laws that should anticipate this and deal with (those who commit violence)," he said between puffs of a kretek (Indonesian clove cigarette) during a stroll in downtown Deventer.

"However, there are also other groups who advocate peace and tolerance among us, and we should give them more chances so their voices can be heard by people all over the world," he said, giving the example of the Dutch Muslim and Protestant Women's Association in Deventer, which aims to foster understanding among religious communities.

Emha's musical group, Kiai Kanjeng, is currently embarking on a tour in several cities in The Netherlands: Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam, Zwolle, Leeuwarden, Deventer, Nijmegen and Etten-Leur from Oct. 8 to Oct. 19.

Emha has also held dialogues with various religious communities during his cultural tour here.

"The spirit is to recognize humanity everywhere in every nation, group and religion, and to respect and love all humanity, wherever it exists.

"The East is in the West, and the West is in the East," said Emha, whose wife and singer Novia Kolopaking is also a member of Kiai Kanjeng's 15-strong entourage.

Muhammad (Emha) Ainun Nadjib was born in Jombang, East Java, on May 27, 1953, the fourth of 15 children.

He was expelled from Gontor Ponorogo Islamic boarding school near Surakarta for leading a demonstration against the school's security department during his third year of study.

He later graduated from Muhammadiyah senior high school but later only managed to study for one semester at the Faculty of Economics at Gadjah Mada University.

Emha's first anthology of poetry titled "M" Frustasi (the Frustration of "M") was published in 1975. With his colleagues, he set up theater group Teater Dinasti. It did not take long for him to establish himself as a foremost figure on Yogyakarta's poetry scene.

Living for five years on Yogyakarta's downtown Jl. Malioboro, Emha studied literature with his most revered Sufi-teacher Umbu Landu Paranggi, who is believed to have led a mystical life.

Umbu greatly influenced Emha's work, which is often described as deeply religious and philosophical but esthetic.

He was later involved in various literary debates over ideas he introduced, which included "contextual literature" and "literature of liberation". The former rejects elitism in the arts and the latter campaigns for more freedom in the arts.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, Emha was most productive in producing poetry. Some of his works from this period include Sajak-sajak Sepanjang Jalan (Poems Along the Road, 1977), Tak Mati-Mati (The Immortal, 1978) and Tidur Yang Panjang (Long Sleep, undated).

Some of his essays, poems and play performances satirized the repressive Soeharto regime. As a result, Emha earned a certain measure of "notoriety" and often was in the company of a security entourage.

While he was threatened with defamation against the regime, Emha was persistent in pursuing dialogue. He was once involved in a heated debate with the then chief of social and political department of the Indonesian military Syarwan Hamid in the media on the course of the nation.

From 1984 to 1986, Emha lived in Amsterdam and the Hague, the Netherlands. In the Hague, he assisted Prof. C. Brower of the Institute of Social Studies in conducting workshops on religion, culture and development.

"The themes were mostly political messages against authoritarian regimes," he recalled, adding that it was during the heyday of Soeharto in Indonesia, and Pinochet in Chile.

He said his stay in the Netherlands was a critical juncture in his life, "It contributed to my personal transformation".

Back in Indonesia, the father of Letto band's vocalist Noe set up a monthly gathering known as Padhang Bulan (Full Moon) in 1989 in Jombang, East Java, which attracted thousands of supporters who were enthusiastic about music, poetry and religious and socio-political debating.

Ironically, this is when he produced Santri-Santri Khidir (Students of Khidir) with the Salahudin Theatre in 1990, staged on the field of Islamic boarding school Gontor, which had expelled him many years before.

Emha was engaged in the reform movement that led to the downfall of Soeharto's regime in 1998. He was among nine prominent Muslim leaders invited to meet then president Soeharto minutes before he resigned. However, his role in ensuring the smooth exit of Soeharto has always been misunderstood and controversial.

He set up another monthly gathering called Kenduri Cinta (Feast of Love) in 2000 to stimulate love among people affected by displacement and poverty.

In recent years, Emha has traveled abroad extensively, including to Australia, the U.S., the UK and Europe, either participating in literary festivals or embarking on cultural tours with Kiai Kanjeng.

However, according to Ian L. Betts, author of Jalan Sunyi Emha (Emha's Silent Pilgrimage), despite Emha's popularity and his massive influence on Indonesia's social discourse, his work is not really part of the Indonesian literary mainstream.

Still, in 2005 he received The Muslim News Award of Islamic Excellence in London. A year later, at a series of keynote panels at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, Emha spoke on Islam and relations between Indonesia and Australia post-Bali terrorist bombing.

When asked why there is still religious tension among communities nowadays, Emha said, "there has been misinterpretation of the holy book".

Emha argued that most of the Koran could be re-interpreted. He metaphorically compared the belief system to rice grains, which he said must be well cooked before becoming "edible" for all people.

He said there were some terminologies in Islam that had been misunderstood, even by Muslims. He cited as examples tafsir and jihad.

"Tafsir denotes attention, evaluation, assessment, in-depth analysis, drawing conclusions and making choices about a thing or situation," he said.

"Jihad means struggle or effort. A man or woman who works to support a family is performing jihad, anyone who works in the social interest can be said to be a mujahid, or one who conducts jihad."

Lastly, Emha said, the religious tension was also due to the social, political and economic interests of certain sections of society that were benefiting from such tensions.

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