When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono commuted the death sentences of four individuals found guilty of narcotics crimes, the backlash was instant, huge and fierce.
Anti-narcotics activists and politicians denounced the decision as a defeat in the battle against illicit drugs. The National Narcotics Agency cast doubt on the administration’s political will to wage that fight. Some leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, joined the chorus of censures.
The jubilation was justified. When the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” last week, 16 years of sporadic negotiations finally reached a new bright peak. The war-weary people of southern Philippines and peace-loving people everywhere welcomed it.
“Bangsamoro” as used in the agreement refers to areas of Mindanao where there are large Muslim majorities. The term “Moro” was first used by the Spaniards to refer to the Muslims of Mindanao, after the Muslim Moors of Spain. It used to be a pejorative word but was eventually adopted by 13 Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao as a proud way of identifying themselves — in the same way “Indio” was once derogatory but in the course of history became a badge of honor.
Some Western pundits are wringing their hands, lamenting that a war is raging against freedom of speech in the UN General Assembly. In effect they are accusing Muslim leaders like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of battling against freedom of speech.
What the president did was to propose the development of an international instrument that would prevent the unbridled defamation of any religion, and serve as a reference point for all countries in dealing with this problem. He proposed that in a speech before the UN General Assembly. That speech doesn’t qualify as a declaration of war against freedom of speech.
Like many Indonesians, Syamsi Ali has a disarming smile. Years ago, when I first met him at the Indonesian mission in New York, he told me, in answer to a question, that he did public relations for the mission. I concluded that he must be the writing kind. He did not have the body language of the stereotypical PR man. It would surprise me the following Friday when I went to prayers at the mosque in Astoria, Queens, that the imam delivering the double sermon turned out to be Syamsi Ali.
Born in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, and educated at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Syamsi Ali was teaching at the Islamic Education Foundation in Jeddah when he was invited by the then Indonesian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Nugroho Wisnumurti, to lead a small Indonesian Muslim community in Queens. The job brought no salary, so for a living he had to do PR for the mission.