Muslim--friend or foe?

This post was submitted by AAA Past President James Peacock.

The place is Indonesia, the fourth largest nation in the world and the one with the largest Muslim population. The time is 1962-3 on the eve of "The year of living dangerously. Recently married, my wife, Florence, and I were living in Surabaya, Indonesia. She was bitten by a rabid dog. No serum was available, it seemed, at this time of economic crisis. A Muslim woman appealed to friends on behalf of Florence and in the nick of time one Indonesian doctor found serum for injections, which saved her life. Note this point: this Indonesian Muslim secured a scarce serum for a foreigner, an American. This life-saving gift was given not to an Indonesian but to an immigrant, deemed by President Sukarno an enemy, a neocolonialist at this time of the cold war when Indonesia had the third largest Communist party in the world.

Before the mad dog incident we had lived with an Indonesian family in a slum, together with their many children. One of them lives near us today. His son, a graduate of Brown University is a close friend to our middle daughter.

In 1970 I returned to Indonesia to live with and learn about Muhammadiyah, a Muslim organization of 30 million members. They accepted me as a participant observer and during the next 8 months I travelled to their branches and participated in their training camps. Participants in the last training camp, for branch leaders, asked me to speak to their branches, critiquing them. I did so, throughout Java, criticizing their scapegoating Christians. I told a joke: four cars crash, who is at fault? Answer: The Christians. While we sometimes disagreed, I and the Muhammadijans remained friends.

In 1998, Amien Rais, a friend from the camps, became head of Muhammadiyah. He achieved an important life saving act. He persuaded General Suharto, then President of Indonesia, to step down. This act headed off an Arab spring like that stimulated by Mubarak's refusal to step down in Egypt. Rais became a major candidate for President of Indonesia and he championed the election of a woman as President, Megawati, who served during 9-11 and offered the USA mediation with Muslilms.

Today, Muhammadiyah is a positive force. While adhering to the pillars of Islam, it has built many universities, schools, hospitals, and its women's branch Aisjijah is one of the most active in the world. These Muslims are not terrorists; they are more like the "good Samaritan" who helps the foreign stranger.

I am not a diplomat. I am an anthropologist. My work is not to make friends or combat foes but to do research, in this case, research on Muslims and Islam. A byproduct of this work is friendship with those with whom I have lived and worked. Many other anthropologists have done such work and made such friends. One is the mother of President Obama, who also lived in Indonesia as did Obama, from age six to ten.

Nor am I a pacifist. My father was in D-day, my uncle a co-founder of the Green Berets. Defense is necessary as is offense. So is friendship.