Guitar, Music, Faith, and Brotherhood

Today, many tragedies are happening around the world. We are facing moral challenges that will determine our future, for better or worse.

Tragedies keep occurring due to our lack of understanding toward differences, particularly the religious ones.

Religion today is believed to be a political tool used to dominate and to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. Unlike today, religion in ancient time was practiced as guidance for humanity to accomplish human virtue that separates the right from wrong.

Having said that, we would like to invite you to revisit the meaning of religions and their differences, through history of an era in which differences were embraced to elevate civilization.

The following article discusses about the time when religions used to gave us music, mutual respect and cross enrichment, while today religions give us nothing but hatred, terrorism and war.

Guitar is probably the most popular musical instrument in the world. Its popularity owes to many of its characteristics. First, it’s portable, thanks to its relatively small size and is light, allowing it to be carried around everywhere and played anywhere. Second, guitar is friendly; it doesn’t create a distance between the player and their audience. On top of that, guitar has a wide range of price so people from all economic status can afford it. From the musicality point of view, guitar can be used as melody, rhythm, or both, while its body can be used as percussion. Lastly, guitar has a specific overtone. It should not come as a surprise if big composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven famously said, “Guitar is an orchestra in itself.”

The history of guitar is still inconclusive. Guiterre morische, guitarra latina, and vihuela from 13th and 14th century are still considered the embryo of the guitar as we know it today. Guiterre morische belongs to the family of lute, which known in Indonesia as gambus. This instrument evolved from oud, a musical instrument brought by the Moors when they dominated Andalusia, Spain, in the 8th century. Of these three instruments, guitarra latina is believed to give the biggest influence to the birth of guitar, and therefore regarded as the direct ancestor of this popular instrument.

Many historians consider string musical instrument (chordophone) as the earliest form of guitar. Images of this instrument were carved in reliefs believed to be made in 1350 BC in a Lesser Asia region, known today as Turkey. The image of ‘guitar’ was, again, drawn in a set of prayer and psalter books from the Carolingian era in the 9th century Europe that covered the area of present-day Germany and France. Records from the 13th century churches contain more mentions and drawings of guitar. If chordophones are to be considered the embryo of guitar, then it is safe to say that guitar is a result of an evolution that spread across numerous civilizations in the span of 3000 years!

The term guitar is borrowed from the word that has gone through an incredibly long journey; from the Greek word khitara, Latin word chitara, and Arabic-Andalusia word qitara, which further evolved to guitarra, a Spanish word, and eventually adopted by English as guitar, French as guitare, and German as gitarre, and Indonesian as gitar.

Regardless when guitar exactly began to evolve, there is one era in history responsible for the birth of guitar: the Islamic Caliphate in Iberia Peninsula that stretched from the 8th to 13th century, centered in Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain. In the beginning of 8th century, the Moors brought and introduced the oud when they occupied Cordoba.

Oud is originated from Arabic language, al-ud, which essentially means wood. This word transformed to alaud in Spanish language, which further transformed to lute in English. This word transformation was also followed by the transformation of the instrument: the shape, sound, and construction. Unlike oud, lute has frets on its neck. Oud was part of ancient string instruments that has been played since the Mesopotamia era, between 1600 – 1150 BC, within the region that today includes Irak, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Iran.

In the 500 years of Islamic Caliphate period, Andalusia became one of the centers of civilization that brought about numerous discoveries and new thoughts in various fields such as science, technology, architecture, and art. Cordoba became the world’s center of intellectualism. Even though discriminating acts existed, such as special tax implementation and social status hierarchy, the life of the followers of the three divine religions was considerably peaceful and went on without violent conflicts. In fact, in many ways, they ended up empowering one another, as shown in the architectural designs and arts created within this period.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral) doesn’t only show how two different architectural styles can be combined, resulting in a unique, amazing building; it also shows how people of different faiths could live in peace and harmony. This building was originally St. Vincent Church, a remnant from Visigoth period. Abdul Rahman I, who acted as the new ruler, gave permission to the Christians to rebuild the church that was damaged during the war. He also bought a half part of the land and transformed it into a mosque.

Once the renovation finished, the people of the two faiths carried out their respective rituals side by side in the same area. The prayer area continued to be expanded into one building complex of unmatched architectural design.

The Moors’ musical instrument, oud, also experienced some transformations. Oud itself has evolved into a modern Arabic oud and became the icon of musical instrument in Middle East. Its popularity eventually reached Indonesia, where it was evolved into gambus. The evolution of oud significantly contributed to the birth of guitar’s predecessors, such as guiterre, gutrarra latina, vihuela, and lute.

In the eve of its golden era in 12th century, Islamic Caliphate still gave its contribution to the architectural design, which later called the Mudejar architecture. This style reflects the combination of both Islamic and Christian cultures and it continued to give influences to Western European culture until the 18th century. One masterpiece created in this period is the famous Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Even though the approach to the design is said to be started in 12th century, its unique style had already began to grow since in the beginning of the 8th century in Cordoba.

Mudejar is a borrowed term from the Arabic Mudajjan, that means: those who remained. Mudejar is also used to name the Muslim community that remained in Cordoba after the conquest of King Ferdinand III. They, just like the Jewish, were granted a special autonomy in the region and allowed to retain their faiths until the end of 16th century.

Out of the political, social, and cultural conditions of the Caliphate period, a new era was born in Europe, known as Renaissance era or The Age of Reasons that eventually brought the world to the new order, under which we live today, and this period gave us the guitar.

Guitar is the proof that humans were once lived in an era where culture was held in high regard. Since then, the world has seen countless remarkable inventions that might amaze our ancestors if they could live to see it. With that said, all those achievements are useless and meaningless if we can’t even surpass (or even only to match) our ancestors’ refined culture that they had achieved for hundreds of years, more than a thousand years ago.

Guitar and music can remind us that, initially, it was faith, beliefs, and religions that brought about “music”. It seems impossible to find a human being that has never been in contact with music. Ironically, many people have become closer to (and praise) music but only to walk away from the faiths that gave us music.

Sacred Bridge Foundation

Translated by Riri Rafiani

This article was originally written as a foreword in the program brochure of “MUDEJAR: Classical Guitar Homage Concert to Interfaith Cohabitation” – an event presented by Listen to the World at the Cathedral Church and Grand Mosque Istiqlal, Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 14 & 15, 2013.


The Shade of Northern Lights: A Current Reflection

How many people do you know would collect orange seeds, put them in a pocket, and throw them on land where they can fruitfully grow? We know one, Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005) [Ed.]**.

A sensitive character in a desensitized world, Semsar concerns himself with issues of humanity and disparity. Born in Medan, North Sumatra, 11 June 1952, Semsar spent his later life contemplating and working in British Columbia, Canada. There, came the idea for one of his most iconic works, G-8 Pizza. It showcases not only his stellar technical ability in painting, but also his concerns in life.

Semsar indeed is a man who feels. He considers his soul stolen by the agenda of global organizations.

Pizza, a global favorite, is a metaphor for the world. Right in the center are characters symbolizing strong economies controlling the human race standing behind them, i.e. on the periphery of the pizza/world. Eight slices are portions of the world divided among these G-8 countries.

Semsar’s other paintings present similar elements and messages. One created in Canada presents a view of how Native Americans are treated. Nature, a spiritual symbol of ancestry for the Native Americans, carelessly destroyed.

It wasn’t just Canada that shaped him though. In Jakarta, his works were carried by protesters against the new order regime prior to the fall of Suharto. Indeed, his concerns on humanity and disparity had been present during his university days in Bandung, Indonesia, long before his move to Canada.

The following article was written in 2004 as a companion to Semsar’s exhibition event at Indonesia’s National Gallery. It was written by our advisor, Serrano Sianturi, who was then the Managing Director of our parent organization, Sacred Bridge Foundation.

What truly intrigues us is the relevance of Semsar’s concerns 13 years after this article was written. Are we not still living in the same world Semsar grew up in? Disparity is far from over, especially when differences are involved. Even within the borders of developed countries today, disparity amongst different races and/or religions is still blatant.

Globalization is also a struggle. US President Trump’s immigration ban is a direct attack on the free flow of people. Continuing presence of protectionism very well affects free flow of capital. Meanwhile, the use of politically correct culture solely to avoid public outcry means free flow of information still struggles to transform us into a knowledge society. I think we can all agree how easy it is today, still, to find ignorance.

We hope the following article can be a way to reflect how far we have come and where we should go.

Throughout history, humans realized one decisive revolution, the industrial revolution. Within 150 years after its commencement, world’s gross domestic product has grown twice as large as total production of the last 6000 years. The industrial output of the 150 years is equivalent to two-thirds of the output of those 6000 years. It is an amazing achievement, no doubt about it. However, with the enormous growth, along came huge costs, such as the sky rocketing population level, relentless exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation, among others.

Now that we are entering the third millennium, the abovementioned problems are far from being solved. Yet, humans are already anticipating the formation of another revolution, with its own major problems. This time it is technology (comprising acceleration, convergence, and digitalization) and economy (including deregulation, privatization, and globalization) that are driving change.

It is safe to say, within the context of technology and science, that we are now living in an age of miracles. Humans have successfully climbed the steps to heaven when we explored outer space, drew the genetic code of humans, unfolded the mystery of the human brain, and created information advancements. They have brought us well being, but also left us one open question: are they accompanied by an equally sound progress in our ethics?

We have left, it seems, the age of ignorance. With information technology, we can now tap a gigantic pool of information within minutes, if not seconds. Misery in Africa, war in the Middle East, natural disaster in South Asia, forest fire in Sumatra, we can now get hold of such knowledge almost instantly thanks to our technological progress. The question is thus whether we have become more sensitive than our ancestors to human problems? Are we now in a better position to help our suffering brothers and sisters? If we have to answer with a reluctant “no”, then we have to ask further, what was the point of reaching those technological advancements in the first place?

Within the realm of economy, problems lie not only at the ethical level, but also in implementation. After the collapse of Soviet Union, capitalism has become the only globally dominant economic system. However, within the decades of “lonely” capitalism, we have seen more contradictions and problems than before – although there have also been plenty of proofs for increased welfare and justice. Capitalism becomes confused when it plays the role of the sole world economic system. It can no longer uphold one of its dogmas, competition, after its competitor abandoned the race.

There are other problems. The main principles of capitalism, “let the market rule” and “free competition”, actually contradict another important principle, democracy. The rule “one man one vote”, coined to protect equality and analogized with free competition where everyone has a chance, is really contrasting economic inequality, where only a handful dominates because of the same free competition principle.

Deregulation and privatization have also been conducted in the name of free competition, with the aim of reducing government intervention in the economy. Efficiency, an objective of market economy, is sought to be attained. Unfortunately, this ‘positive’ intention results in the government’s weakened problem-solving capability in handling economic issues. Simply remind ourselves of diminishing budgets and facilities for, among others, education, health, small and medium enterprises, and the arts, to look for proof. Also keep in mind that these problems occur in both developed and developing countries.

Globalization, basically the free flow of trade, capital, information, and human resources, has brought more benefits to economically advanced countries. For developing countries, this discourse has been hampered by the establishment of economic blocs. Every bloc is busy creating regulations to protect itself against competition from other blocs. This is ironically the reverse of free trade, a principle of free competition.

Free flow of capital, hoped to provide developing countries’ access to foreign investment, has not been sufficiently regulated. As a result, an investment can move between countries at anytime. Not only has economic stability become difficult to maintain, availability of employment becomes unpredictable. Furthermore, the under-regulated money market has made the concept of trade-of-balance irrelevant in the calculation of foreign exchange rates. A sound foreign exchange rate has become very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

Free flow of information through the Internet, news, and entertainment media has also not shown substantial progress. We are still a long way from a knowledge society. We also realize now the negative implications of global news and entertainment on local cultures.

Free flow of human resources is actually nothing new. Migrations have happened since the early days of humans. Today however, it is almost completely confined within the economic realm. Previously, migration occurred because of slavery, cheaper land, and ideological differences, among others. Now, it is almost always driven by higher wages. “Brain drain” is one the inevitable consequences.

Globalization is not absolutely “bad”. There have been positive developments. One of them concerns war. Because globalization has efficiently reformed the base of welfare and power to become non-territorial, war is no longer part of the major countries’ conflict resolution. Furthermore, the emergence of transnational activist networks, where people share a commitment towards human rights, the environment, economic wellbeing, as well as inter-civilization dialogue, is an effect of the free flow of information. Whether acknowledged or not, the anti-globalization movement has itself benefitted from the positive side of globalization. Sense of freedom is more palpable in the era of globalization. Democratization sounds louder in many parts of the world today.

This Janus-faced globalization, with all of its contradictions and dilemmas, has puzzled many. It has made people anxious. Bounded as communities, it gave people the right to become suspicious. The confrontations between those who favor and those who hinder have not refined the meaning of globalization. On the contrary, they have caused it to move without direction: two steps to the left, then forwards three steps, to the right one step, only to move four steps backward. For the neoliberals who prefer globalization, the future is bright. For those who oppose it, globalization is nothing more that the internationalization of capitalism, which will only bring more oppression, exploitation, and injustice.

However, injustice is the one issue that can be agreed upon by the two camps. It is also impossible to speak about injustice without mentioning the issue of human rights. They too face serious problems in this era of globalization. The first concern is in conjunction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is too oftenly cited in human rights campaigns all over the world. The use of the word “declaration” has not only limited the authority of this rule, but also made it unbinding. It is thus unsurprising that even oppressive government heads could easily adopt the declaration, because they knew it would not affect their leadership style.

This declaration is doomed to fail from the start, because it ignores the views of indigenous people and Islam. Indigenous people, represented by the Informal Working Group of Indigenous Populations, have claimed the right to self-determination, and asked for the acknowledgement of their societies as different and separated from the general public, but equal contituents of the human race. However, as of today, their demands are locked away at the UN. As for Muslims, the fact that they have not been involved in the formulation of the declaration is one of the decisive factors of the West’s questionable purchase of Islam.

Second, the issue of human rights has become a foreign politics tool for advanced countries in the northern hemisphere, to be used at will against developing countries in the southern hemisphere. Human rights become important when related to their foreign political interests, irrelevant when it comes to their own land. The development of human rights, like other things, should start at home, where infractions are real and painful.

Third, the upholding of human rights frequently confronts problematic conditions. In the case of reconciliation, for instance, which is a way towards peace, rule of law as a pillar of justice too often has to be disobeyed. If, on the other hand, justice has to be maintained, peace may not occur. More often than not, this condition occurs when one regime takes over another, or when two countries engage in war. Another example is the case of humanitarian intervention vis-à-vis sovereignty. We know that sovereignty is but one implementation of human rights. Up to this day, we still reject foreign intervention. However, interventions are often necessary to free people from repression and misery. This “noble” act is, in fact, a violation of the principle of sovereignty.

Another problematic condition rises from the issue of inter-generational economic rights. Poverty alleviation is both urgent and a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, because of its size and earnestness, it often justifies the consumption of natural resources in gigantic proportions, thus taking away the economic rights of our children and grandchildren.

It is this labyrinthine complexity, with all its awkwardness and difficulties, that was depicted by Semsar Siahaan during his domicile in Victoria, British Colombia, Canada. We sense such enormous emotions within his works of art and can feel his sincere intentions to change this sad fact of humanity. We have also found a glimpse of despair in his newest paintings and art installation. Therefore, we believe that this art exhibition is best presented as an aesthetical experience, so that all of us can start to do something to uphold human rights within our own homes. It is all important to summon the citizenry, popular sectors, and vulnerable constituencies of societies to develop a political language and effective means to collect and distribute relevant information. With such an active participation and consultation, there is hope for a culture of human rights and humane relations between state, society, and individual.

Our deepest gratitude to Semsar for entrusting us to organize this single person art installation and painting exhibition titled “The Shade of Northern Lights”. It is a great honor to participate in this outstanding event. We also salute Semsar for his persistence in defending human rights from abuse and ignorance wherever he stands. A word of appreciation is also extended to the State Minister for Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia, TIFA Foundation, Todung Mulya Lubis, UNESCO Regional Office Jakarta. We thank them for their generous support. Not to forget, we would like to apologize for all things short of what has been expected from us in the organizing of this exhibition.

Serrano Sianturi
Managing Director


G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan, 2003 Canada
G-8 Pizza by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza, charcoal on used corrugated cardboard

Featured image at the top of page is a painting by Semsar Siahaan titled “I wish I’m a Seagull“.

*Original article was slightly edited to better match our format.

**Slight edit. We added information about Semsar. He was born in 1952 and passed away in 2005, around five months after this exhibition.

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.

The Church and Afro-American Music

Recently, the Americans commemorated two major events. First was the 50th Anniversary of the famous Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “I Have a Dream”, and the 40th Anniversary of Hip Hop. These two commemorations may just took place a few days ago, but their roots go back a long way, over 350 years ago.

It all started in the mid 1600s when the enslaved Africans were brought for the first time to the New Land that later became the United States of America. Although taken out from their home and roots, and in most cases were not allowed to do their singing and dances, there were evidences that the slaves never gave up their cultural heritage. Archaeological findings confirmed that the enslaved men manufactured drums, banjo and rattle, while the women produce plaited rug, basket, mat, and quilt with African patterns. Afraid of the subversive potentials, the slave-owners were always suspicious of these cultural activities. Patterns used on quilts were suspected as encoded map, while drums beating were feared to incite rebellion. When manufactured musical instruments were not possible to use, ‘patting juba’ (complex rhythm through hand clapping) was the alternate. Another important, if not the most, cultural expression used to face reality was the folklores. With these tales, the slaves could “live in different reality” in which they could “experience” forbidden impulses and thoughts.

When Christianity was introduced to the slaves, Church immediately became a solace. Not only because beliefs or religions were important to the slaves, but also because the Church gave them the chance to become literate, and at the same time the chance to sing. Through the Church, the slaves learned the Western traditions and expressions, and they brilliantly incorporated that into their native culture. So the Church was the birth place of ‘field hollers’ (singing, call and response, and hollering), and ‘ring shout’ (dancing in circle, singing, and clapping). These forms of expressions are the roots of Gospel, Blues, Ragtime and development of Jazz. So it’s only natural if their influences are felt in all subsequent Afro-American music.

Slavery, thank God, was officially wiped out from the face of the earth, and hopefully never returns to our civilization, ever. Afro-American contributed a great deal to this abolishment; in fact, it even led the world in recognizing equal rights. For the hundreds of years of enslavement, they were certainly not to be heard, but all those time, they were never still and silent.