Forget La La Land – best foreign language Oscar nominees show the true diversity of cinema

The Academy Awards has been itself looking like a dramatic movie. US President Donald Trump’s travel ban was met with criticism by Iranian film director, Ashgar Farhadi, who chose not to attend the award ceremony as a form of protest. His film, The Salesman, won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film.

Such drama is far from being the first in The Academy’s history. The Academy itself has been under criticism with regards to lack of diversity in film nominations. Last year, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of actor Will Smith, was among those who boycott the Oscars for this reason. The move somewhat mimicked legendary actor Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept Best Actor award in 1973 due to his dislike of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans.

Diversity had been and still is under fire. Some say that the key is in the writers. Whitewashing of Asian roles is rooted on the fact that not many lead roles are written for non-white actors, thus giving the industry a preference over white lead to ensure desirable sales figures.

Certainly, this does not mean diversity has fully disappeared from today’s silver screen. The following article by The Conversation looks into this year’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees and argue that there is where diversity still stands.

Forget La La Land – best foreign language Oscar nominees show the true diversity of cinema

Pegah Shahbaz, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3 – USPC; Anders Marklund, Lund University; Kim Toft Hansen, Aalborg University; Lothar Mikos, Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, and Marc Tabani, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

A marriage on the rocks in Iran, a prankster German father and a grumpy old Swede. Landmines in Denmark and a love story in Vanuatu. These stories are all vying for the same prize: that of Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. The Conversation

Maren Ade’s tragi-comedy Toni Erdmann is favourite to take home the Oscar on February 26, but the whole field demonstrates the diversity of cinema outside the Hollywood bubble.

To explain what’s on offer in 2017, The Conversation asked scholars from around the world to write about why these films matter, both at home and on cinema’s biggest stage.

The Salesman: Iran

Asghar Farhadi will represent Iranian cinema at the Oscars again, with his 2015 picture, The Salesman. The film is an exposé of a subtle cultural issue in Iran: how to perceive violence and react to an act of abuse in a family relationship, particularly in a male-dominated society.

The story deals with a young artist couple, Rana and ’Emad (played by Taraneh Alidousti and Shahab Hosseini), who are putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Their own conjugal life is shaken when Rana is attacked by a stranger in her home. Farhadi uses this scenario to raise the question of how we behave in moments of crisis.

Farhadi tackles this contentious cultural issue in a society of traditional values, where women’s “honour” is defined by their sexuality and men’s is defined by the control they exert over that sexuality. The audience observes ’Emad’s inner struggle with doubt, resentment and self-control in order to reconcile cultural norms of revenge and forgiveness. Rana’s defenceless conduct evokes an image of a passive victim avoiding conflicts out of terror.

The narrative is full of suspense and anxiety, as we have seen in Farhadi’s previous films The Past (2013), A Separation (2011) and About Elly (2009). Along with his realistic narrative style, Farhadi reveals his remarkable expertise in documenting the rise of confrontation and conflict, leading his characters to make fundamental decisions about their lives.

After The Saleman’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won two awards for best film script and best male actor, the cast is looking forward to the results of the Oscars. As an act of protest against US President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban, Farhadi and his cast have announced that they won’t be present on the red carpet this year.

A Man Called Ove: Sweden

Ove lives alone, very alone, in a semi-detached home in a small-scale Swedish suburb. “Misery hates company”, the US tagline says, and the only company Ove longs for is that of his wife who has died. When the film begins, he is about to commit suicide, hoping to join her in heaven.

Such a beginning may sound particularly Swedish, well in line with an Ingmar Bergman film or a Lars Norén play. But Man Called Ove is different. You don’t attract the largest audience to a Swedish film in years if you don’t offer a somewhat more comforting vision of life.

Ove’s unfolding story, told in an emotional and warmly comic way, values the breaking down of barriers; barriers between individuals such as those between the grumpy old Ove himself and his more normal neighbours, but also barriers of class, ethnicity, fear and prejudices, hindering people from joining a supportive community.

One such modern barrier is that Bahar Pars, the film’s Swedish Iranian-born lead actress, could have been kept away from the Oscar award ceremony amid the uncertainty over US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

The film, and the internationally bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman it is based on, combine the contemporary story of overcoming loneliness with a series of progressive flashbacks to events in both Ove’s life and Swedish history. The film uses Ove’s life to trace the development of a successful Swedish welfare state. Viewers are invited to enjoy both nostalgia for the past and fantasies about how contemporary lives could be, once again, filled by meaningful relationships.

Made by experienced comedy director Hannes Holm, the film benefits from the match between Rolf Lassgård as Ove, and Bahar Pars as Parvane – Ove’s new neigbour, who disrupts both his life and his plans to commit suicide. Their acting – his stubborn reclusiveness and her energetic go-ahead spirit – carries the life-affirming transformation of a man called Ove. Misery needn’t hate company.

Tanna: Australia/Vanuatu

Lush tropical scenery of evergreen flora surrounded by turquoise-blue coral gardens. Smiling, healthy and athletic people consuming real food and living in perfect harmony with their natural environment. No cars, no telephone nor internet, no air conditioning, no tourists.

This is the scene set by Australian filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean for their exotic romance movie, Tanna, which takes place on the island of the same name. Tanna may look like paradise but the film’s protagonists deal with a serious problem: true love and one of its most fatal consequences, to die of a broken heart.

Having done anthropological fieldwork on Tanna over a period of 25 years, I have been invited to attend public screenings of the film, in order to contextualise the life of the actors who appear in it.

In discussions with audiences, my comments about real-life Tanna always provoked the same refrain: “the dream has been shattered”. The fact is that the tribal groups featured in the movie have been among the most filmed and also the most visited by tourists.

Like other Tannese people they have mobile phones, drive cars, watch movies and football games, eat rice and instant noodles. Those who migrate to the capital of Vanuatu, Port-Vila, often live in slums and work as security guards.

However, when they live on their home island, they still maintain relative autonomy. There, money is not yet the most important good, so people are glad participate in the shooting of a movie. That’s why the end result is pretty good.

This story, set in a remote corner of the world, has become a world success. Sadly, since the movie was shot, Cyclone Pam has very severely damaged the island.

After the disaster, there are no more leaves on trees and of course no more fruit, no more food, no more traditional houses, and perhaps no more smiling people ready to participate in a cinematic adventure about tropical paradise.

Toni Erdmann: Germany

German comedy Toni Erdmann tells the story of a father-daughter relationship. Ines (Sandra Hüller) works as an executive consultant and is driven by the demands of the consultancy business; she is a very serious person.

Her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a retired music teacher who always tries to be funny. He creates an outrageous alter ego, Toni Erdmann, and follows his daughter in character to confront her with the absurdity of her professional life.

When he arrives at Bucharest, where Ines works, he brings her into one absurd situation after another. At a private reception, he introduces himself as the German ambassador in Romania and Ines as his secretary Miss Schnuck. In an amazing scene, he starts to play the piano and introduces his daughter as Whitney Schnuck, performing the song Greatest Love of All by Whitney Houston.

Another scene captures Ines’s birthday brunch, which was also supposed to be a team-building exercise for her and her colleagues. As she is facing some problems with her dress, she finally cracks and decides to stay naked. She tells her colleagues that this is a ritual they have to follow. Some furiously leave her flat, others show their irritation but do get naked. Finally, her father shows up in a traditional Bulgarian animal costume. When he leaves her flat she runs after him, and finally hugs her father, respecting him as he is.

Toni Erdmann is Maren Ade’s third feature film as director. She has also worked as producer for several German films. Her latest work is an excellent staged dramedy, which is able to show the occasional absurdity of formal situations and self-imposed obsessions, whether they are professional or private.

The film gained international success starting at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. Such has been the film’s success that Paramount Pictures has announced an American remake starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig in the leading roles.

In the same way Toni Erdmann shows her daughter not to take everything so seriously, the audience of this remarkable film can learn that life can be much easier with humour and a sense of absurdity.

Land of Mine: Denmark

Danish film Land of Mine takes place just after the second world war on the Western coast of Denmark, where 2,000 young German prisoners of war are commanded to remove land mines from the coast by Danish and English allied authorities. During the process, almost half of the war captives are injured or die.

The story focuses on Danish sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen who has the command of a small German division of predominantly youngsters. He battles with pent-up anger towards the German occupational forces; the mining clearance is his chance to give vent to his bottled-up frustrations. However, the experience develops his hatred into an opportunity to forgive.

The film opens up a shady chapter in Danish history, with reference to actions that may have been in breach of international conventions of war. The film was very well received by the Danish press, but Danish historians were hesitant about the historical accuracy of the narrative. In a critical sense, Land of Mine not only narrates the historical past, it may also present a mirror reflecting disconcerting contemporary Danish foreign policy, such as its involvement in wars in the Middle East.

Martin Zandvliet, a Danish director with a rapidly rising profile, wrote and directed Land of Mine. He successfully stages the immense west coast drama as a condensed chamber play during which we gradually entrench ourselves in Carl’s emotional journey, and the German youngsters’ dread of death. Two fairly new Danish actors, Roland Møller and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, shine along with a number of highly talented upcoming German actors.

Land of Mine undoubtedly represents the rise of new Danish talent in film production, and indicates that a new generation of filmmakers is impatiently waiting in the wings.

Pegah Shahbaz, Postdoctoral research associate, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3 – USPC; Anders Marklund, Senior Lecturer, Film Studies, Lund University; Kim Toft Hansen, Associate professor of Scandinavian film and television, Aalborg University; Lothar Mikos, Professor of Television Studies, Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, and Marc Tabani, Senior Research Fellow, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Women at the Top: Cultural Change in Saudi Arabia and UAE

[Jakarta, LttW] Conservative Saudi Arabia, with its brand of what’s controversially known as Wahhabism, isn’t seldom referenced by Sunni Muslim leaders in policy making. Among the ongoing debates is the leadership of women in Islam.

Saudi Arabia has been notorious for banning certain rights for women. The most infamous of which is the right to drive.

Yet it appears change is taking place. In 2014, a woman by the name of Sarah al-Suhaimi extended the small club of women leaders in the country. She became the first female chief of NCB Capital, a Saudi investment bank. The year after was the first time Saudi women were allowed to vote. It was also the first time ever for at least 17 women to get elected to public office.

Not everything, however, has changed. Those elected public officials were not even allowed to speak to male voters. Even today, women are still obligated to cover up in public, and female drivers are yet to be approved.

But recent developments shine a new light. This past week, a woman by the name of Rania Nashar was named chief executive of Samba Financial Group, Saudi Arabia’s third largest bank by assets. The week prior, aforementioned Sarah al-Suhaimi took on the lead of Saudi Stock Exchange.

These developments came with an economic reform set out to bandage damages from low oil prices. Within the reform is a plan to increase the proportion of women in the workforce from current 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.

Speaking of change in strict, male-dominated countries in the region, the Saudis are not the only ones opening up to women. Nearby United Arab Emirates (UAE) appointed 22-year-old Shamma Al Mazrui as Minister of State for Youth in 2016. Not only is she another woman leader in the region, she is also the youngest minister in the world.

This brings up a question on the ongoing debate about women leading in Islam. If the so-called model for Sunni Islam is able to adjust according to current context, perhaps it is a reminder for fellow Sunni leaders to also observe context when designing policies.

Farewell to A Dear Friend… Larry Coryell

[Jakarta, LTTW] One of the pioneers of Jazz Fusion, Larry Coryell, died on Sunday, Feb 19th, 2017 in New York from heart failure. He was 73 years old. Coryell had been in New York to perform last Friday and Saturday night at Iridium club.

He certainly deserves a special place in the history books of Jazz Fusion. Introduced to piano at the age of four by his mother, he then switched to guitar in his teens. In an interview with Musicguy247, he mentioned “What sparked me to getting into the guitar was the mobility of the instrument–I had been taking piano lessons, but the piano, although a great instrument, was large, staid, and kind of ‘establishment’, whereas the guitar was portable—it was like a poor man’s piano, and that appealed to me”.

Although he counted country guitarists Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry among his early inspirations, he also took cues from Jazz masters such as Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, and John Coltrane, among others. He was also inspired by popular music of the period, such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and worked to bridge the styles of jazz and rock music into his technique.

In 1966, he formed a psychedelic band called the Free Spirits, a band that emphasized more complex instrumental improvisation soloing by Coryell and Sax/Flute player, Jim Pepper. Along with his drummer Bob Moses, they joined Gary Burton Quartet and generated what some music historians called the first Jazz Fusion band.

Gary Burton Quartet in Berlin 1967, uploaded by JR Ellison.

Coryell embraced many types of music during his long career. “If music has something to say to you, whether it’s jazz, country-and-western, Indian music or Asian folk music, go ahead and use it,” Larry Coryell told an interviewer in 1968 according to the New York Times.

His most noted breakthrough album was ‘Spaces’, recorded in 1969 with other innovators of Jazz Fusion such as John McLaughlin, Miroslav Vitous, Chick Corea, and Billy Cobham. All of whom made great contributions to Jazz Fusion throughout the 1970s. He played with McLaughlin again in the Guitar Trio that also featured the flamenco maestro Paco DeLucia.

Since then, Larry Coryell had performed and recorded a myriad of works, either as a soloist, as part of his band Eleventh House, or in collaboration with Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus, Stéphane Grapelli, Miles Davis, and many more. He also performed in our parent organization’s Sacred Rhythm Festival in Kyoto, Japan, in 2004.

Recently, he worked on opera adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. He also released a new album called Brefoot Man: Sanpaku last October, and a new Eleventh House album ‘Seven Secrets’ is scheduled for release on June 2nd. His music continues to inspire musicians and enthusiasts worldwide and will continue for a very long time.

Rest in Peace Larry. (SBF/LC/RS/NYT)

Image source: This image is a derivative of “Larry Coryell 168“, a photograph taken in 2013 by Jarek Pępkowski, uploaded by Wtg to Wikimedia Commons, where it was obtained, with slight zoom, crop, and added rectangle, as well as added photo credit, used under CC BY-SA 3.0. We therefore release this work under the same license.


Trump: Turning USA into Uncle Sam’s Abomination – Part Two

by Serrano Sianturi

Are Fragile States Farming Terrorism?

The Muslim ban was taken in the name of keeping America safe from the terrorist act by the Muslim extremist. So let’s see whether all or any of the listed countries are harboring terrorist and encouraging terror act around the globe.

The mess in Iraq started when the US took military intervention in 2003. The main concern over such action was not terrorism, but rather on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), dictatorship and unpredictability of Sadam Hussein, and democracy or freedom for the people of Iraq. The false intelligence report on WMD during the Bush administration was blamed for the continuing turbulence.

The invasion of Iraq by the US resulted in political conflict between the Sunni and Syiah parties that complicates the effort in establishing a legitimate and stable government. While the conflict continues, an offspring organization of Al Qaeda took the advantage of the dysfunctioning government and established itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in Anbar province of Iraq in 2006. Their main objectives are to fight against the US (and the Western world), and to eliminate the Syiah Muslims. When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, ISI again took the advantage in the absence of functioning government, and established a stronghold in Syria. In 2013, ISI declared itself as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). From this history, it is obvious that Iraqi government never harbors ISIS; in fact they are in alliance with the US in combating ISIS all along.

Iran has been the nemesis of the US government since Ayatollah Khomeini removed the Shah of Iran from the country. Their firm belief in the Islamic Syariah Law State, opposing view with regards to the US (and Western) thoughts, determination in eliminating Israel as the Jewish Nation State, and their effort in nuclear development, have projected a “terrorist” face to the Western world. Iran’s enemies are not just the West and Israel; being a Syiah Islamic State and aggressively campaigning the Syiah teaching have made Iran the common adversary to the majority of the Sunni Muslims around the world. The closest thing that may be tied to “terrorism” is Iran’s support for the Hezbollah in fighting the Israelis.

In 2011, the people of Libya stood up to the 40 year dictatorship while the NATO-backed rebels overthrew, captured and killed Khadafi. It was a glorious and hopeful moment for both Libyans and most Western countries, but then the transition has failed to establish one stable and functioning government; in fact, it has made Libya plunges into disarray. Armed conlicts and political deadlocks have made Libya dysfunction in all area. Given the facts that some of the rebels are in favor of strict enforcement of the Islamic Syariah Law, and unattended territory due to the chaos, the Islamic State seized the opportunity and proclaimed the city of Derna as one of its quarters. Libya is a potential threat indeed, but it’s not because it harbors terrorism; it is the lawlessness that makes Libya dangerous, not just to the surrounding regions and the world, but first and foremost, to its people.

Like Iraq and Libya, Somalia has also been in a civil war. The power struggle since 1992 among the clan-based warlords has also made Somalia a lawless country. The following UN’s mission in humanitarian relief, and restoration of law and civil governance failed just within three years. The presence of US troops was withdrawn even earlier in 1994, right after gun battles with the militia in Mogadishu.

Such international assistance or “intervention”, depending on how you look at it, was welcome by the Somalian in the beginning, but soon campaigned by Aidid, one of the warlords, as an agenda to convert the Somalian Muslims to Christian. This negative sentiment led to the rejection of any involvement from non-African country.

Although pulling out from Somalia, UN continues its assistance from its relocated office in Kenya. The US intervention also returned in 2007 with emphasis on eliminating Al Qaeda’s elements. The power struggle in Somalia undergoes in two main fronts, among tribes and clans, and between the secular and the Islamist that embeds Al Qaeda operatives. Their distrust of non-African nation apparently cannot serve as a common ground for unity since each tribe or clan shares the animus to each other that exists from the ancient time. Equally divided entities also add to the difficulty in expecting a more sizeable party to lead everyone to unity. Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former UN Secretary General, said that the war in Somalia “is a war of all against all”.

The recent general election in Somalia, took place just a few days ago on February 9, 2017, successfully picked Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known by his nickname “Farmaajo”, as the new President. Such success raises hope indeed, and it’s worth celebrating, but it will take tremendous efforts and sacrifices by the warring parties to establish a stable and functioning government.

Sudan has been at war within itself since 2011 when South Sudan gained independence. This separation has not made the condition any better. Within two years after its independence, South Sudan already in ethnic-related civil war – a power struggle between the Dinka (led by Slava Kiir) and Nuer (led by Riek Machar) ethnic groups. Involvement of Uganda and Kenya creates even more complications. The degree of violence and killings in Sudan and South Sudan is unimaginable, but harboring or exporting terrorism is something that they don’t have the time for.

The civil war in Syria was triggered by the Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt, and also by the longstanding dictatorship of Bashar al Assad and his father the late Hafez al Assad. Syria’s prime objectives are to kick out the US from the Middle East, and to eliminate Israel. Like Iran, Syria is also the main supporter of Hezbollah, the Palestinian militia. The warfare in Syria is triangular; it involves Assad regime, opposition militia, and ISIS. As mentioned earlier, Islamic State again took the advantage in the absence of functioning government, and established a stronghold in Syria in 2013. Assad regime does not support ISIS; in fact, his Russian-backed government also battles ISIS, but at the same time, he also commits war crime by killing thousands of civilians, particularly when attacking the opposition.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has also been suffering from internal armed-conflicts since 2011, in addition to food shortage, chronic corruption and high unemployement. The turmoil started as soon as the transition of power from the previous President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to Hadi, the Vice President. The loyalists to President Saleh basically refuse to go along while the Houthi that consists of Syiah Muslim minority continues and strengthens their rebel movement. President Saleh himself later joined this group in trying to overthrow his successor. This conflict is worsened by Al Qaeda, a separatist as well as terrorist movement. President Hadi was forced to leave the country in 2015.

Anxious by the growing power of the Houthi, and the suspected Iran’s support, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations stepped in with military intervention to restore President Hadi’s government. This intervention receives intelligent and logistic assistance from France, US and UK. As anyone could have predicted, the involvement of these foreign countries adds to the complication and degree of conflicts in Yemen.

These seven countries are at wars for sure; distrust, violence and killings are their daily menus, but the presence of Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen is not state-sponsored. Armed conflicts and dysfunctioning governments are what enable Islamic State and Al Qaeda seizes the opportunity to exist in these countries. Yes there are elements amid the conflicting parties that oppose and reject Western involvement and values, but they are not terrorists. These power-hungry entities can continue their warring as long as they like, but leave the innocent civilians alone. These people are the majority living in the countries, and they face the horror of not knowing whether they will continue living on the next day.

When nations are proven to be incapable or failing in building good governance, the world needs to engage to help out in the name of humanity, not politics! Armed conflicts leave scars and animosity, and reconcilliation is already arduous due to the problematic choices between “injustice” forgiveness and “retaliating” justice for all. Adding power politics into the equation will prolong and escalate the conflicts. Pulling out or leaving these countries alone will cost millions of innocent lives, and it will be the worst human tragedy in our history.

Refugee, Immigrant, and Native American

Not long after the end of World War II, there was a growing concern over individuals subject to persecution in countries they reside. In 1951, the United Nations responded to this shared moral responsibility, and issued the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This Convention was immediately followed by the establishment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure the implementation on refugee protection and solution that cover voluntary repatriation, resettlement in third countries, and local integration. Moral and legal norms are also emphasized on individuals seeking asylum by ensuring that any state cannot deport a person having a well-founded fear of persecution.

To respond to the growing and urgent concern over a person subject to persecution, the United States in 1980 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act by separating the status of refugee from immigrant.  The amendment defines a refugee as any person who is outside his or her country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Based on these moral and legal grounds, any nation in the world that has capacity to help must engage accordingly in protecting refugee. Closing the door means that we are victimizing human lives.

Immigrant, by legal definition, is anyone who departs from one’s native land and gets settled at another place with the intention to remain permanently. The United States is a nation of immigrants. The flow of immigrants has taken place for more than 200 years. The German immigrants already swarmed the US in the first few decades after the Independence, followed by the Irish in mid 1800s, then the Russian Jews and Italians in the early 1900s, and later the Hispanic and Asians.

Up to the present, the incoming immigrants always raise the anxiety among the earlier immigrants with regards to their existing “comfort zone” on many grounds. They fear that the incoming immigrants will implicate their economic, social, political and cultural lives. This fear, of course, never happens, at least not in the United States.

It’s truly mind boggling that the overwhelming numbers of scientific findings that prove otherwise cannot eradicate this mythical fear. Abundant scientific data has affirmed that immigrants do not undermine anything in the US; in fact, they have enriched American life in every front. Immigrants do not “rob” jobs, most fill in the works that Americans cannot and will not do. Immigrants keep the fresh blood flowing since they keep America demographically productive. Immigrants also keep America the most innovative nation in the world because they bring in new ideas. What’s more, they expand and strengthen America’s international networks that in turn give more weight to the influence of the US to the world. Last, but equally important, immigrants also keep the nation’s culture vibrant, enabling Americans continue to generate incredible cultural creations.

Being the land of immigrants, it is unthinkable that the United States would issue a travel ban, but Trump administration did. Let us view this ban from another perspective, and see how even more ridiculous it is. The US population consists of two main categories. First is the foreign-heritage based immigrants like British American, Chinese American, French American, Japanese American, Mexican American, Russian American, and so on. Second is the Native American. Let’s say that we were Native American, and how would we view this immigration ban? The ban is nothing but an act of (earlier) immigrants rejecting the incoming immigrants, and this is really hilarious. If anyone ever had the right to refuse immigrant, such right should be solely ours. Not only that, we would be the only American who could tell everyone else to get the f#ck out of our land!

Understanding Trump

From personality wise, most of us perhaps are able to draw a basic description of Donald Trump. A megalomania, very thin skin when it comes to critiques, quite allergic to incoming allegation but so easy to allege others, ignorant and/or naive in many issues, unapologetic, exaggerating, etc.

How about understanding his mind, and how he views the world? Well, the following description perhaps would suit the level of our understanding:

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In other words, most of us share a common understanding about Donald Trump: we don’t understand a thing.

Confronting Terrorism

The presence of Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and also Al Qaeda in Yemen, are not state-sponsored; in fact, their existence and actions in the area are quite disturbing and horrifying to the people of these countries. The civilians are the ones who suffer from the bitterness and agony of the conflicts; they are the ones who always become the victims. Al Qaeda and Islamic State act in the name of Islam, but terrorism and killing innocent civilians contravene Islamic teaching. So anyone doing terrorism cannot be a part of Islam, thus cannot be a Muslim.

Terrorism by the so-called “Islamic fundamentalist” has its roots in the views of the 13th century Islamic thinker, Ibn Taymiyyah, but it wasn’t until mid 18th century that this idea found its shape in a reform or repurification movement called Wahhabism. This name is taken from its founder and leader, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab or Abd al-Wahhab in short. His teaching rejects most of the mainstream Islamic thoughts that have been practiced well over eleven centuries before his presence. This movement also demands a complete obedience upon its own views and rules; there is no room for ijma or consensus that has been one of the virtues of Islam. Those who are not in compliance with their teaching are considered as infidels, and that includes the Muslims.

In 1928, Wahhabism had its biggest impetus in the founding of Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Egypt. This event has been the cornerstone of the militant movements up to this day. Since then, this militant movement has gained a sizable growth; it is estimated that the movement has converted about 15 to 20% of the Muslims into such belief.

What is so ironic about Wahhabism is the fact that its establishment was initiated and assisted by the West, the British government in particular, and yet they claim to be the West’s public enemy number one. Even more incongruous, their terror acts that create instability, distrust, and disunity among Muslims is exactly what the British government intended to achieve in the first place.

The establishment of Al Qaeda had a similar story. It started in the 1980s when a millionaire-volunteer from Saudi Arabia, Usamah bin Ladin, formed Maktab al-Khidamar (MAK), a front organization to help the Mujahidin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union troops. MAK conveyed funding, fighters, and arm supplies into Afghanistan. The organisation was fostered by Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan that was the main funnel of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in running covert war against Soviet’s occupation in Afghanistan. The US Senate and CIA were quite aware of what the future troubles that MAK will bring, but decision to support was taken anyway since it was considered as the most efffective way to remove the Soviet’s troops at the time.

Terrorism is the enemy of every one of any religion, race, and nationality that actually sum up the majority of people in the world. In simple arithmatic calculation, the overwhelming majority should easily defeat terrorism, but that’s not seems to be the case. The terrorist groups, like it or not, so far have successfully shaped the world’s view that this is war between Islam and the West, while it is actually a war of terrorist against everybody.

How could it be a war between Islam and the West while the largest victims by far are Muslims themselves? The international media tend to focus on terror acts taking place in Western countries as if they were the ones who suffered the most. If this continues, then Muslims around the world shall socialize the other side by using every medium available, from the mainstream media, online media to social media and let the world knows who the true victims are.

The root of the problem does not lie in the two opposing views between Islam and the West, but in the reality of economic injustice, technological dominance, corrupt governance, low trust societies, power-hungry individuals and groups, and lack of cross cultural understanding and respect. This reality exists everywhere, in Muslim countries and the rest, and this condition is the very fabric of the growth of terrorism. Muslims shall be at the forefront in addressing and tackling such matters instead of becoming the victim and believing that this is a war against the West.

Perhaps it is worth reminding that Islam was the beacon of world’s civilizations for hundreds of years in the past, particularly the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba during the Mudejar period between 8th and 14th century Iberia. Such achievement was not gained by warring the others, but by nourishing ideas, innovations, and cooperations in every walk of life. Muslim believes that Islam is “Rahmatan Lil’Alamin” that means Islam is the blessing for the world and all humankind. This is not a given condition; it is an endeavor to forever nurturing and materializing the betterment of humankind as it was proven in the past. It is a sacred responsibility shouldered by the true Muslim.

Part 1

Serrano Sianturi is the Founder and Chairman of Sacred Bridge Foundation.

Artwork: ytinamuh. Mixed media on paper, by Bintang Perkasa.

Trump: Turning USA into Uncle Sam’s Abomination – Part One

by Serrano Sianturi

The recent travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries ordered by President Trump has resulted in confusion, protest, and anger in the US and around the world. US District Courts of Washington State and Minnesota have suspended the order, and consequently challenged the President’s constitutional power. White House’s emergency appeal to reinstate the ban was denied by a panel of judges of the US courts of appeals. In a recent hearing session, Trump whipped the court by saying that the halt of the travel ban order is disgraceful and political; a statement that even Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch says is “demoralising and disheartening.” Just within four weeks of his Presidency, Trump has made people around the world scratch their heads.

A lot has “happened” since Trump took the oval office at the Whitehouse, meaning that the President signed several executive orders but seemed without a clue in how to implement such orders. Determined to fulfill his campaign promises, Trump issued executive orders, and among others are on building the wall along the US-Mexico border, repeal the Obamacare, pulling out from Trans Pacific Partnership, and immigration ban on Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Trump’s idea in making Mexico pay for the border wall not only ended up in a complete rejection from Mexico, but also resulted in the cancellation of Mexican President’s visit to the White House. Repealing the Obamacare seems to take a much longer time than expected, and obviously needs a clear and viable program. Trump’s concern on more American products are made outside of the US also seems to fall short. In its 2014 report, the US Department of Commerce stated that US manufacturers sold U$5.6 trillion of goods, and 79 percent of it was “Made in America.” The most recent International Monetary Fund report shows that 84% of the goods in the US are made in the country. Moreover, the unemployment rate had decreased from 7.2 percent to 4.9 percent during the Obama administration. The Travel ban is also a baseless issue that provokes distress both in the US and across the globe.

It’s not a Muslim Ban; really? 

In the name of domestic security and safety, the executive order on travel ban for the aforementioned countries was issued. This action resulted in implications on numerous subjects. As everyone knows, the order has no implementing guidelines for the immigration, thus gives a real hard time not only to those who arrive (or simply transit) at the airport, but also the officers on the ground. There is no guideline for the incoming people from the eight countries who hold dual citizenship, permanent resident (green card) status or legitimate visa. Moreover, it doesn’t say anything either about the citizens of the listed countries who already in the US holding valid visa.

The Trump administration insists that this order is not a Muslim ban, but it is an act to ensure the safety of Americans in the US. They also point out that the order says nothing about Muslim at all. It is hard to believe, however, that the order is not a Muslim Ban. The executive order does not stand alone; there are statements revolving it. On December 7, 2016, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor who resigned just a few days after being appointed, stated that Islam is not a religion; it is a political ideology hiding behind the notion of being a religion. He went on saying that Islam is like cancer; it’s like a malignant cancer that has metastasized. Flynn also endorses Mike Cernovich, a vocal figure of the white nationalist alternative movement who said, “I went from libertarian to alt-right after realizing tolerance only went one way, and diversity is code for white genocide. Diversity is bad for national security.”

Carol M. Swain, Professor of Political Science and of Law at Vanderbilt University, argues that the executive order makes sense. First she argues that the seven Muslim nations most affected were already identified when Congress passed the “Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.” This act prevented nationals of these countries from traveling to the United States without visas. Second, she also mentions that there are other Muslim majority countries – like Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates – that are not on the list, proving that the order is not a Muslim Ban.

She also agrees that Christian minorities in these countries are to be given a special attention. She is basing this argument on the data quoted from Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow of the Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, stating that only one-half of the 1% of the refugees admitted to the US by fall of 2016 was Christian.

Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and now Trump advisor, in an interview on Fox News suggested that the ban originally was aimed at Muslims as a whole, but he then redirected such aim by explaining how he and his team focusing the issue on areas of the world that create danger for the US. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

So when he first announced it he said “Muslim ban.” He called me up, he said, “Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.” I put a commission together with judge Mukasey [Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge], with congressman McCaul [Texas Rep. Michael McCaul], Pete King [New York Rep. Peter King], a whole group of other very expert lawyers on this, and what we did is we focused on, instead of religion, danger—areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis. Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, and that’s what the ban is based on. It’s not based on religion; it’s based on places where there is substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.  

So, is it a Muslim ban? Well, there are more facts stating that it is than facts saying otherwise. Is it a religious-based decision? The statement that urges special attention to Christians in the affected countries strongly suggests that it is religious-based.

Would the Travel Ban Ensure the Safety of Americans?

To the supporters, the ban is a sure thing in making America safe. So, let’s evaluate this through several facts. First, let’s review on the perpetrators of terrorism acts in the US, and see if any of them are refugee or even visitors from any of the listed countries on Travel ban, starting from the most recent events.

The San Bernardino shooting was carried out by Farook, a US citizen born in Chicago, and Malik, a permanent resident born and raised in Pakistan who lived in Saudi Arabia before coming to America. Orlando night club shooting was executed by Omar Mateen, US citizen born in New York whose parents are from Afghanistan.

Boston bombing was done by Tsarnaev brothers – US naturalized citizens born in Kyrgyzstan whose parents are from Chechnya. New York and New Jersey bombing was executed by Ahmad Khan Rahimi, a naturalized US citizen born in Afghanistan. The 9/11 attack was taken by individuals from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon. So, none of the perpetrators is from any of the countries listed on the Travel ban.

Now, let’s review the facts and figures of the act of terrorism in the US after the 9/11 and check out the percentage of Muslim’s involvement.


No. of Perpetrators, % in brackets


  1. Latino (42)
  2. Extreme Left Wing Groups (24)
  3. Others (16)
  4. Jewish Extremists (7)
  5. Islamic Extremists (6)
  6. Communists (5)


Source: FBI

The START Global Terrorism Database reported that from 1970 to 2012, out of 2,400 terrorist attacks in the US, 60 or 2.5 percent were carried out by Muslims. Homeland Security also reported that from 9/11 to 2012 only 33 out of 300 American deaths caused by political violence and mass shooting were shouldered by Muslim Americans.

More recent report that spans the period of 40 years (1975 – 2015) by the Cato Institute shows that foreign nationals from the listed countries killed zero American on US soil. Charles Kurzman, the author of the Triangle Center, and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also revealed his recent research data. According to his report, the total number of deaths caused by Muslim Americans in the US since 9/11 is 123. For a mere comparison, in 2016 alone, 188 people were killed due to the mass shooting in the US in which none involved Muslim American extremist. In the meantime, the number of murder victims in the US since 9/11 has reached 230,000.

Another worthy comparison is on the victims of terrorist acts in the world. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reported in 2011 that in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years. The Counter Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point in its 2009 report shows that Al Qaeda kills over seven times more Muslims than non-Muslims. In 2013, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database – a joint government-university program hosted by the University of Maryland revealed that between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks, and 60% of fatalities due to terrorist attacks, took place in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – all of which have a mostly Muslim population.

Terrorism act is no small matter, and it needs serious attention and effective solution indeed, but judging from the facts above, the travel ban is more likely a mistargeting act.


Continue to Part 2

  • Are Fragile States Farming Terrorism?
  • Refugee, Immigrant, and Native American
  • Understanding Trump
  • Confronting Terrorism

Serrano Sianturi is the Founder and Chairman of Sacred Bridge Foundation.

Artwork: The Death of an Old Page. Mixed media on paper, by Bintang Perkasa.