095: Asia: A Muslim Woman Becomes a “Spiritual Citizen” of the World

ASIA SERIES: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

    In Part 3 of this series, we explored the idea of “spiritual globalization” through the story of Taiwanese TV anchorwoman Jenny Luo. But, the question that follows is this: What happens when men and women embrace this idea, begin moving around the world and, nevertheless, hope to maintain their spiritual roots?

    Consider today the story of Lily Yulianti, a Muslim woman who works as a journalist based in Tokyo but maintains her faith, her family, her community — and STILL is playing a leadership role in the distant homeland she left seven years ago!
    That’s Lily in the photo at right.

    THEN, if you want to “read more” on similar themes — click on the cover of Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” to read our earlier review of this amazing graphic novel that, in a sense, gives all of us a chance to “see” what it’s like to face dramatic, cross-cultural immigration around the world.


    I was impressed with Lily’s grace and optimism under fire at an international conference we both attended in January in Bangkok, Thailand. The East-West Center sponsored this first-of-its-kind Asia-Pacific Media Conference for four days in Bangkok and participants from 23 countries showed up.
    Lily was on a panel of speakers one afternoon, talking about emerging forms of media. She described her creation of a team of 50 “citizen journalists” in a grassroots community of eastern Indonesia. She was trying to describe the significance of such an unusual effort, which she organized through the Internet from her distant home in Japan. But,  many of the older, traditional journalists in the audience were shaking their heads immediately.
    At the end of the panel presentation, one older journalist rose to fire The Question that traditional journalists keep shooting at new-media pioneers like Lily. In essence, he said to her: Yeah, I understand that you’re enthusiastic about this, but how do you think you’ll ever make any money at it? Clearly implied in his question was a dismissal of the value of such projects.
    Lily was undaunted. She answered politely — even though the questioner only was interested in big-business models for media.

    In fact, the real significance of her work in founding a new-media Web Hub called “Panyingkul!” which means “Crossroads” in Indonesian, is not financial. It’s that she has become a new kind of journalist with her 50 “virtual reporters” in Indonesia — and, along the way, she is becoming a new kind of spiritual citizen of the world. She might make some money, eventually, from her new citizen-journalism Web project in Sulawesi, but whether she makes a profit misses the significance of her life and her work.
    (CLICK HERE if you want to take a look at Lily’s Web site, although most readers won’t be able to read the stories, which are printed in Lily’s native language.)

    After her session before the sometimes-skeptical audience, I sat down in the conference center lobby and interviewed her.
    Lily is 36, married and the mother of a 10-year-old son. A lifelong Muslim, her family maintains their religious customs wherever they travel in the world, including prayers five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Her homeland, Indonesia, is the world’s largest Muslim country, where it’s common for nearly everyone to follow the cycles of the Islamic calendar.
    But, seven years ago, she moved to Australia to accept a scholarship to graduate school. In Melbourne, she earned her graduate degree and embarked on a career in Indonesian-language media. First, she worked for the Australian equivalent of the U.S.’s Public Broadcasting System, translating broadcasts and online reports for an Indonesian audience. Later, she moved to Tokyo to work in the Indonesian-language division of the Japan Broadcasting Service.

    What she loved most about growing up in her part of Indonesia, she told me, is the hospitality the Muslim majority in her neighborhood expressed to religious minorities living nearby.
    “If your neighbor celebrates Christmas, you help him celebrate,” she said. “We enjoy each other’s celebrations. And our neighbors would visit us during Ramadan and celebrate with us when our Islamic holidays came around.”

    A few years ago, Lily had a chance to write a story about this sharing of holidays for a cross-cultural Web site, based in Asia. She didn’t expect much response from the story, “but two or three days after my first story was published there on the Web site, I got a note from a church in Sydney, a community church there in Australia. They wanted to print my story in their church bulletin, because they thought it was a different kind of message, a hopeful message, about Christians and Muslims living together.”
   Obviously, not every community in Asia has such warm-hearted relations flowering between religious and ethnic groups. The Indonesian island of Bali was rocked in 2002 and again in 2005 by suicide bombers. As a news reporter herself, Lily had covered the aftermath of those bombings. She knew full well the dangers of extremism and the vital importance of building strong, peaceful communities, she told me.

    So, freshly inspired by her own online story about sharing holidays, Lily circulated some emails — from her Tokyo home—among family, friends and former professional colleagues in Sulawesi. She invited them to write newsy feature stories for a new Web site she was organizing, called simply “Pangyingkul!”
    “In Makassar, the city in Sulawesi where I was born, people don’t have access to all the services we enjoy in Tokyo,” she said. “My citizen journalists have to go to Internet cafes to file their stories. Many of our readers can only read the stories from computers in cafes or sometimes at the places where they work. But, our audience is growing. We now have about 500 readers on a weekly basis and about 750 page views per day. And, on a daily basis now, we give people stories of human interest and important news for their lives. We write about education, health, welfare — things that matter to people in their neighborhoods.”
    All by reaching out through the Internet.
    “Have you even met your staff in Sulawesi?” I asked Lily.
    She laughed. “Some of them I know and I have met — but no, no. Some of my journalists I only know through the Internet.”
    Lily and her family are quite comfortable in Tokyo, now, she said. They have a choice of mosques, when they want to gather for prayers — or attend special programs, when the fast is ended for the day in the evenings of Ramadan.

    “We must greet the world by putting our best respect on others,” she told me. “But assimilation is not the right approach. That’s what so many have pushed people to do in the past. But I’ve talked to many experts who do not believe in this idea.
    “Assimilation means you sacrifice your own identity in the name of harmony and then you try to mix yourself into the new community where you live and lose your own identity. Trying to do this is not the right approach. The right approach is to move with respect — and then to learn from each other, to ask each other, for example, what is the origin of your traditions? And they may ask what is the origin of our traditions? We create harmony by learning together.”
    Like, in her culturally mixed neighborhood in Tokyo.
    Like, among her dozens of citizen journalists in Sulawesi, trying to report on a diverse array of community issues around Makassar.
    That’s why Lily’s life and work matters so much.

    “In all my work and all my journeys, I am trying to build up a new kind of wisdom about the world,” she said. “I don’t want to encourage the old problems in the world. I want to be a part of the future community that we all can build in this big world we have.”

    WANT TO GLIMPSE a scene from Lily’s corner of the world? She did not attend the particular boarding school shown in this 2006 video from Indonesia. But, watch the clip, and you may glimpse the hopeful energy in the circles of girls studying copies of the Quran on the floor of this mosque.
    CLICK on the video below to watch:



NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.

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