Exploring Muslim identity in Australia and Indonesia

3 July 2017

An Australian and Indonesian exchange program is breaking down stereotypes and educating both nations on the diversity of Muslim identity.

Group of participants sitting on a carpet.
Australian participants of the Muslim Exchange Program in 2017 visited Indonesian cities Jakarta and Makassar and met some of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations and schools. The group is pictured here during a visit to the Sunan Panandaran Islamic School in Yogyakarta. Credit: Elis Zuliati Anis.

Established in 2002, the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s Muslim Exchange Program (MEP) establishes and nurtures the ongoing contact between emerging leaders of Muslim communities in both Australia and Indonesia.

Run in conjunction with the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and Paramadina University, the program also builds links between Muslim community representatives and other religious, ethnic and community groups in both countries.

Each year, the MEP provides participants with the opportunity to experience each nation’s diversity, culture and traditions first hand, allowing participants to return home and share with their own communities what they have seen and learnt.

‘Islam is the most important religion in Indonesia and Muslims are one of Australia’s fastest growing communities,’ explains MEP manager, Rowan Gould.

‘By fostering friendship between these two groups, we enable them to act as ambassadors to each other’s communities and to promote cooperation and understanding between the two nations.’

Successful applicants travel to their neighbouring country for a period of two weeks.

Activities include meetings with academics, community organisations (including youth and women’s organisations), religious leaders, schools, the media, and government representatives.

There are also sporting and cultural activities, tours of important sites, and most importantly, the chance to engage with ordinary Australians and Indonesians in their daily lives.

On their return, participants are expected to make a commitment to integrate their experience into their existing networks.

In 2017, Indonesian participants visited the Islamic Museum of Australia, the historic Carlton and Auburn Gallipoli Mosques, and the architecturally innovative Newport Mosque, as well as St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, a number of Islamic and Christian schools, and Parliament House in Canberra.

The delegation also met with the Governor of New South Wales and media personality Waleed Aly on the set of the television panel show The Project.

Australian participants travelled to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, as well as Makassar, one of the most important emerging economic centres in Eastern Indonesia. They met with some of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations, as well as Islamic schools and universities, museums, sporting clubs, and media, and visited Indonesia’s largest mosque, Masjid Istiqlal.

Australian participants were interviewed for the Indonesian MNC television network, as well as appearing live on the morning religious television program Islam is Beautiful.

Among the many program activities, Rowan stresses the significance for both nation’s participants in getting the opportunity to see their neighbouring country close up. This includes crucial meetings and contacts that are not available to the casual visitor.

‘Participants deepen their awareness of Islamic diversity by meeting people with different viewpoints to their own,’ says Rowan.

‘In addition, they are exposed to ways of living, practicing and contesting Islam in a nation that is democratic and plural, but in many ways quite different from their own – all participants witness firsthand how issues of religious, cultural and political diversity are dealt with differently in each nation, with significant opportunities for shared learning and exchange of ideas.’

According to Rowan, the MEP provides an opportunity to leverage the affinity between the Muslim communities of both nations to bridge the cultural and linguistic barriers that continue to exist between these two very different neighbours.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation and the role of Islam is increasing in public importance. Many different interpretations of Islam coexist with other religious minorities across the archipelago.

In Australia, Muslims are a small but increasingly important minority group, with strong civic and public engagement.

Despite its small size, Australia’s Muslim community is even more diverse than Indonesia’s, with members coming from around the globe.

Importantly, the MEP allows Indonesian Muslims to see that Islam in Australia is thriving and that minorities enjoy significant legal rights as well as broad community acceptance.

Meanwhile, Australian Muslims visiting Indonesia learn about a way of living Islam that is unique in the world, while acting as ambassadors for Australia’s diversity and rich multicultural heritage. Ultimately, they witness firsthand the many developments and contestations taking place in the world’s largest Muslim democracy.

Two students looking at a book.
Indonesian participants of the Australia-Indonesia Institute’s Muslim Exchange Program visited several Australian schools, including Balcombe Grammar in Melbourne, during their trip to Australia in 2017. Credit: Oki Setiana Dewi.

Since the establishment of the MEP a number of very high profile leaders have emerged from among the program’s alumni.

In Indonesia, Mr Abdul Mu’ti, the Secretary-General of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s largest modernist Muslim organisation with over 30 million members, was one of the earliest MEP participants. A number of alumni are now successful authors while others have moved into politics. A recent participant, Oki Setiana Dewi, is a well-known Islamic film actress and media personality.

‘The program has been described by many participants as ‘life-changing’ because of the doors it has opened and the opportunity it has given them to see their own Australian, or Indonesian, or Muslim, identity in a new perspective,’ says Rowan.

Stay up to date with news from the MEP on its Facebook page.

The MEP is supported by the Australia-Indonesia Institute.

The Australia-Indonesia Institute was established by the Australian Government in 1989 to contribute to a more broadly based and enduring relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and to project positive images of Australia and Indonesia in both countries.

Grant rounds opened in February 2017 for projects deepening connections between Australia and Indonesia.

Last Updated: 3 July 2017