Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A Young Muslim Leader

Pak Sofia, Shire President at work at the Indian Ocean Group Training Association (IOGTA).

Many societies recognise leaders. Such leaders typically possess culturally specific roles and attributes. In this blog, I look at a young leader on Home Island in relation to contemporary Cocos Malay culture.

Cocos Malays on Home Island have chosen to adopt various cultural influences. Late in the afternoon, for example, you can see people heading back from fishing, preparing for a ritual (called either "selametan" or "kenduri"); watching Australian or Indonesian TV; playing cricket or tennis, or working out at the gym; all of this comes to an end as some of the men head off to mosque for Islamic prayers. Thus, aspects of Malay, Islamic, Australian, Indonesian, and global cultures can be viewed.

This variety of cultural influences equates to different leadership roles. One person who has taken on several of these is shire president, Pak Sofia (Aindil Minkom). Shire president is an elected role, as head of the local council. So, basically, Pak Sofia is Mayor of the Cocos Islands. But he is also recognised as a religious leader.

At the local school on Parent Teacher night.
He is the local Imam. An Imam is the elected leader of the Islamic community. In this role, Pak Sofia performs various religious functions, including prayers at formal events. I saw him at the Parent Teacher night at school. The food looked delicious, so I was hoping he wouldn't take too long. But, of course, prayers come first! "This is a prayer to bless the food before we dig in" Pak Sofia told me.

During the day, he works at a not-for-profit organisation that helps train unemployed people on Christmas Island and Cocos Islands. The Indian Ocean Group Training Association (IOGTA) as it is called, provides many services, but the core business is making "apprenticeships, traineeships and training happen". With unemployment levels sometimes reaching 65% this is an important organisation. Specifically, Pak Sofia's job is helping people who are out of work find a job.

At the Mosque. 

Additionally, Pak Sofia often gives the sermon at Friday prayers--the most important prayers of the week. If someone has the skills and experience, they might also be called upon to give the Friday sermon (khotbah); it is not solely the role of the Imam. The photo portrays Pak Sofia, staff in one hand, and about to give the Friday sermon. On the right, you can see the bilal; he is giving the second azan (call to prayer) which precedes the sermon.This sermon was about the balance between our efforts for this life and the life hereafter (such as good deeds and following what the Koran tells us to do).
At home after Friday prayers. This is the rest time before the mengaji starts at 3.30.

Along with Pak Medinna, Pak Sofia also volunteers his time to teach local children Arabic script (ngaji). These lessons occur later in the afternoon in a classroom by the mosque. Pak Sofia explained to me that reading the Quran and understanding it is the responsibility of all Muslims.

 Afternoon lessons in reading Arabic script. 

Teaching them at a young age will prepare them for this. As they reach maturity, they are obligated to perform the prayers which require them to recite the Quran.  "In an Islamic setting there is no one who is higher or lower. The fact that we are sitting on the same level as the student gives them an understanding that we are not better than them," explains Pak Sofia. The stick he's holding is not for whacking the kids; it's just a pointer.

At the gym. Packing up after a work out.

After ngaji you'll often find Pak Sofia at the local gym. Each day you can hear some huge, epic dance tracks blasting out of the tiny gym. There you'll find several young dads like him working out and helping each other out with lifting. Pak Sofia's secret to achieving maximum results at the gym is to eat gong gong soup (see blog "Spirals of Community Life") made by his wife Mak Sofia before work out. As night approaches, everyone heads home or to the mosque, responding to the call for sunset prayers.

Pak Sofia, as his name implies (see Blog "Naming and Family), is also a father. I ran into him on Sunday fishing by the foreshore with his wife Mak Sofia, and daughter Sofia. "Sunday is family time for us. We try to go out and do things together on the weekend especially Sunday. That's my time off from mengaji [teaching Arabic script] and work. So I dedicate that time as family time".

At the beach. Relaxing on Sunday.

Ritual life also makes demands on community leaders. Throughout the year, various ceremonies enliven community life. These include Hari Raya celebrations, marking the end of the fasting month. Pak Sofia is photographed in white, standing with his friends.

At the front in Malay attire.

Next to the main imam at ritual called kenduri arwoh

Anthropologists tend to be interested in leadership in general, rather than a specific leader. Nevertheless, it is always useful to look at one leader in order to see what can be gleaned about leadership. So what can be gleaned?

The very fact that there is a leader tells us something. Some societies recognize very little leadership. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, are largely egalitarian. In many aspects of life, decisions are made and executed through consensus rather than the authority of one person or a few.

With family at Cyclone Shelter

With wife Cyclone Shelter

When we look at a single leader, we can also reflect on larger cultural influences. All Malay societies I have read about have leaders. Ideally, such leaders emerge through consensus, maintain their status through being generous, and (especially in Javanese cultures) 'lead from behind'. That is, leaders should enact their authority subtly and slowly and with widespread support. It will be relevant to see, as our research progresses, if similar ideals are held on Home Island. Certainly, it appears to be the case.

But I think the roles of Pak Sofia indicate that there is much more to be said on the issue. My colleague, Sven Schottmann studies Malay people and their ideas of masculinity, government, and religion. He is the author of profound studies of Malaysia's former PM, Mahathir Mohamad. Hearing about my research here, Sven thought it provided insight into changing ideas of what it is to be a man. Guys like Pak Sofia are very close to the Malay Muslim ideal of a young man.

Thank you to Pak Sofia for his patience and generosity!

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