A Letter to My Sons, Part 6: Coming Home

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’m coming home. As I write this final letter to you, I am sitting in my room at the Paragon Hotel, which was the first hotel I stayed at in Jakarta seven years ago. I look at my reflection in the mirror and realize that I’m wearing the same shirt I wore back then as well.
Rooftop bath, early morning, Jakarta
The hotel hasn’t changed since my first visit back when you were just a little baby, Sam. The rooms look the same, although the bed sheets are grey now instead of white. There is still at least one cockroach lying on its back to greet me in the morning before I go to the bathroom, and there’s still only one plug in the room that works. I looked out my window as I woke up and noticed two men bathing on top of the building next to me; it looked like no one ever finished constructing the building.

Up until yesterday, I played games from morning until late at night. I know, it’s hard to believe that’s my work, but it’s true. I met a wonderful group of elementary school teachers who work in schools called pesantren. Pesantren are Islamic boarding schools; in other words, they are schools like any other schools but the teachers also teach about the Islamic religion. Bing and I spent three days with the teachers showing them how to play the games from our Play It Fair book. Sam, do you remember when we went to the gym in Vancouver to see Tom and you played a game called Robots and one with Daddy called Squirrel in the Trees? We did the same thing here, only most of the teachers have never seen a squirrel before.

We came all the way here to show them how to play these games with their students because the games help kids like you to learn about important values. Some of these values are helping each other (cooperation), being nice to each other (respect), playing with other children and making them feel like someone cares (inclusion), and a few other ones too. The children play the games and then the teacher sits down and asks them if they liked the game and if they learned anything by playing it. The last game we played yesterday was Bullying. Remember how each of you came home sad because some other kids were pushing you around during recess? Remember how Mommy and I told you to stand up for yourselves and to tell the bullies to just STOP? The last time it happened, I pretended I was you Sam, and you were the bully and you jumped on me. I didn’t like it and used my words to say stop.
With two of the workshop participants.
That’s what we did when we met the teachers: we showed them how to help their students get along better with each other. The games also help everyone to become better listeners. Before playing the always-popular Noisiest Game in the World, I asked the teachers if they’ve ever been in a situation where they try to talk to their students but the students simply don’t listen. One teacher opened her eyes wide and said: “You mean it happens elsewhere? I thought it only happened in Indonesia?” There are a lot of similarities between our lives and the lives of those here in Indonesia.

We played around twenty games over three days, and there’s one clear conclusion: all the teachers love the games and can’t wait to try them out with their students. They are all convinced that the students will love the games. For me, this makes me think that no matter where you are on this planet, children love to play. And if they can learn about helping one another and being kinder while doing it, so much the better. I was really glad that the teachers were happy and had fun – I don’t think I’ve heard so much laughter in a long time. We even talked a lot about SpongeBob.

Once the workshop was over, Bing and I said goodbye to everyone and hopped in a taxi to the other side of town. After checking in to this last hotel, I went downstairs to check my email and that’s when I saw Hendy. Hendy greeted me seven years ago when I arrived in Jakarta for the first time. He’s the one who gave you those World Cup shirts and always helps me find the “poopy coffee” no one back home likes. Last night he drove us to a nice restaurant where I gobbled up a much-needed cheeseburger and guzzled a cold beer. Today he patiently waited as I got my watch fixed and went searching for cool shirts for the two of you. Every time I am in Jakarta and he’s around, he goes out of his way to see me, to help me out, to drive me around. He even showed me a pair of Darth Vader Adidas shoes that you would love, Alexandre.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that as you grow older, you realize that the dozens of friends you had as children trickles down to only a few good friends later in life, and that’s if you’re lucky. And over the years you will make new friends, like I have. Friends are worth holding on to. I miss you, Alexandre and Sam, and I think of you every day and show your photos to everyone to the point where they are probably sick of seeing them. But even though I’m far away, I want you to know that I’m in good hands, because friends like Hendy and Bing and everyone else I’ve been with over the last two weeks take care of me. Your mother always tells me to be careful when I’m away, but in a sense I know I don’t have to be, because there’s always a friend wherever I go.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.

Religion, God and human rights (part 2): It’s complicated

I recently asked the question on my Facebook account whether or not religion should be addressed when talking about human rights. The answers are worth writing here:

  • Well, I see some mainstream religions operating as obstacles to human rights in North America, so I would vote Yes, discuss. Equally, there are other religions that do not have controlling values, so it isn’t a one sided thing either, of course. We certainly live in a judeo-christian society whose ideals are very much bound in the expressions of our laws and legal system, this often being the contact point for people with human rights and constitutional challenges both historically and currently. So much to talk about here…
  • We try not , but it the spot it is very necessary most of the time to give examples and to compare and to show that most religious values are not far from the Human rights values especially in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa].
  • I also think that at times it is necessary/unavoidable [because] people use religion as a reason/excuse to show why human rights can be denied. The challenge would be to find ways to show how ones religion is or can be compatible with HR values. So I vote: YES! Write about it!!
  • The Human Rights are before any religion as they are his rights, as a human being. But there are no contradictions between them.

For the most part in my human rights work, I have tried (deliberately) to avoid the issue of religion. But it was unavoidable in recent years working in Indonesia and the Middle East and North Africa. Especially when I would develop manuals for workshops that dealt with Shari’a and human rights. No circumventing the issue at that point. If anything, that workshop, held in Indonesia in May 2009, was one of the more productive and thought-provoking workshops I’d ever been part of in that country. Granted, the participants were government officials who’d already received training in human rights. But also present were drafters of legislation “influenced by Shari’a” – the laws they were drafting were not strictly Shari’a, but were inspired by the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Our approach was two-fold, trying to strike a balance between laws and values. 

In terms of laws, we tried to provide a balance in presenting international human rights treaties and standards on the one hand and Shari’a on the other, being as critical as possible of both legal frameworks. Doing this simply made sense, but it also helped to diffuse the frequently-cited argument that international human rights law originates entirely from a Western perspective. It is an argument that has certain merit. As Micheline Ishay notes in The History of Human Rights, “our modern conception of rights, wherever in the world it may be voiced, is predominantly European in origin.” But today’s Western-centric conception of rights should not be pushed aside and dismissed as a mechanism through which to maintain the West’s control over the rest of the world. Besides, the inherent character of human rights necessitates that the rights are defined and interpreted over time; they are not static and immutable. 

Examining the international human rights framework alongside Shari’a enabled us to appreciate the commonalities between the two, which clearly outweigh the differences. But the differences were nonetheless significant, and a great deal of them centered around equality between men and women (Shari’a was shortchanging women, in case you were wondering). We were fortunate enough in the preparation of the workshop to get the assistance of some university professors and Ph.D. students who developed a research document for the purposes of the workshop. The publication, Women’s Rights in Muslim Communities: A Resource Guide for Human Rights Educators, highlighted a number of substantive women’s human rights issues, namely:

  • Women’s political leadership rights
  • Women’s reproductive rights
  • Women’s rights in marriage: consent, child marriage and finance
  • Women’s rights to freedom of movement and choice of dress

The second part of our approach was to tackle values. It’s not a novel approach – we do this is most of our programs – but I think it was more delicate in this instance. We threw participants a survey been published in the Jakarta Post on beliefs of Islamic studies teachers. Some of the more disturbing results of the survey were as follows:

  • 73.1 percent of the teachers don’t want followers of other religions to build their houses of worship in their neighborhoods.
  • 85.6 percent of the teachers prohibit their students from celebrating big events perceived as Western traditions, while 87 percent tell their students not to learn about other religions.
  • 75.4 percent of the respondents ask their students to call on non-Muslim teachers to convert to Islam.
  • 58.9 percent of the respondents back rajam (stoning) as a punishment for all kinds of criminal and 47.5 percent said the punishment for theft should be having one hand cut off, while 21.3 percent want the death sentence for those who convert from Islam.

I had a mixture of disbelief and depression as I read the article. One fifth of the 500 teachers surveyed – over 100 teachers – wanted the death sentence for those who commit apostasy. It seemed more than a little harsh. Then again, at the time I was listening to Fox News in Jakarta and an ignorant right-wing moron was screaming that “the Jihadists would be loose on the streets of America!” 

Human rights law doesn’t mean much unless it reflects what people believe in or are at least are willing to believe in. That’s only going to happen if their values are in-line with these laws. I had presented in a workshop last year an assumption that basic human rights values – respect, equality, non-discrimination – had their origins in the great religions of the world. While I believe that the religions of the world have greatly influenced our unique and collective sets of values, I’m reconsidering that values originate from religion. In Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, he writes that values (he refers to “principles” and “moral precepts”) predate religion:

“The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms and behaviour and, where appropriate, to codify into law. But without exception, the fact that these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by – rather than learned from – religion. While it is fine that religions preach moral precepts, they have no basis to claim that these precepts were authored by their particular deity or, indeed, any deity at all.”

He goes on to say that, regardless of whether we are theists or atheists, we as humans have an innate sense of what’s “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.”  Having worked in human rights with a great number of people from dozens of different faiths (or none at all), I wholeheartedly ascribe to the notion that we as humans have a natural sense of what’s good and what isn’t. 

The topic of religion and human rights is vast and can be quite thorny. For me, this blog entry is only a small step towards a better understanding of the complexities that are behind addressing religion within a human rights framework. Your comments, and thoughts on other issues that should be addressed, are always welcome.

      The Dalai Lama is right on: altruism rocks

      I should try to sleep but I can’t. It’s 4 AM Vancouver time (where I am now), 6 PM Jakarta time (where I was), and 7 AM Montreal time (where I will be). The plane leaving Hong Kong was delayed an hour on the runway so that shortened my connection time here in Vancouver, already tight at two hours. Waiting for my bag at the luggage belt, a creeping sensation that I was about to miss my connecting flight began to sink in. It took one hour for me to retrieve my bag, and I was one of the first.

      I ran and ran. Through the doors, handing my declaration card to the customs officer, running down an almost-empty corridor, yelling at the two people walking ahead of me, imploring them to move because there was no stopping me. They said the flight would be not leave until 4:50, and it was 4:48. Times like this reminded me that work trips whack the energy out of me and I was breathless by the time I reached the gate. The plane was just backing up and leaving. I just wanted to be home.

      I took the shuttle bus to the hotel with three women about my age complaining about the challenges of travelling through Europe with their children, but how delightful Switzerland was at this time of year. Somehow I just can’t relate. Nor do I ever want to.

      Reinvigorated by one of the few hot showers I’ve had in the past week, I ventured outside and simply walked until fatigue set in. During trips like this, it’s so easy to feel grateful for the life I have when I return home. We really do have it easy in Canada. As I walked down the boulevard I got to thinking about the book I’m reading, “Becoming Enlightened” by the Dalai Lama (as I wrote previously, not the usual stuff of my bookshelf). He says that the true path to enlightenment resides in altruism. As he writes, you should “engage in altruistic practices so you can achieve an all-knowing state that will enable you to help others on a vast scale.” Maybe it’s easy for the DL, but for the average person the “vast scale” is not so obvious, at least not to me. But maybe the “vast scale” is not meant to imply that we try to affect as many people as we can, but rather that we make sure our actions are altruistic towards those whose lives we touch, however few people this may be.

      I have to admit the Dalai Lama’s got more than a few good points to make. But I have to hold off on believing I will be reincarnated. He’s also managed to surprise me with this little gem on page 79. It’s about practicing meditation effectively and not simply giving the outward appearance of doing it: “In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a person who was walking along came upon a fellow who was sitting in meditation. He asked the fellow, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I am meditating patience,’ was the response. So the man said, ‘Then eat shit!’ the meditator lashed back, ‘You eat shit!’ The meditator could not even withstand a little teasing.”

      As I end this trip and so dearly look forward to coming home, I am left with countless acts of kindness from people I’ve met, and I think I will most fondly remember Pak Luswi, whose limited English and my even poorer bahasa Indonesia made our conversations sparingly minimal. Pak Luswi greeted Steve and I at the airport in Yogyakarta and made sure that my colleagues and I were well taken care of. From driving us around the city, to providing me with coffee, Lux soap, water and a dental kit on the first day, to having my jeans washed and ironed (pleat down the middle, something I haven’t had done in about 15 years), Pak Luswi’s kindness left me feeling safe and welcome in an unknown city. Terima kasih, thank you, Pak Luswi, hopefully I can become more like you.