20 November, 2016
TAMU = “Talk with Muslims”
TAMU (= acronym for “Talk with Muslims”) Project launched recently by the Japan Foundation is inviting 7 (seven) Muslim young men and women from Southeast Asian countries to Japan to engage in dialogue with Japanese young men and women. The project is aimed at countering the rise of Islamophobia in Japan by promote the understanding on Islam among the Japanese counterpart. They will present the moderate and peaceful nature of Islam as it is believed and practiced in Southeast Asia. Several scholars of Islamic studies of Japan, including Dr. Mitsuo Nakamura, Professor Emeritus of Chiba University and Dr. Ken Miichi, Associate Professor of Iwate Prefectural University, in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Azyumardi Azra CBE of UIN Jakarta, Dr. Ahmad Najib Burhani of LIPI/Muhammadiyah and Mr. Ahmad Suaedy of Ombudsman RI/Wahid Institute, from the Indonesian side, formulated the initial idea for the project last year. Their initiative was well received by Dr. Tadashi Ogawa, then Director of Jakarta Office of the Japan Foundation, and has become an officially instituted program supported by the government funding for the current fiscal year. The project is expected to last at least for five years until 2020.
“Seven Young Muslim Samurais” Visiting Japan
The first year’s “TAMU Project” invites to Japan seven young Muslim activists from Southeast Asia. They include two Indonesians (Ahmad Imam Mujadid Rais, Maarif Institute, and Rifqi Fairuz, Gusdrian Network), one Malaysian (Nurul Hafizah Binti Mohamad Ramli, International Islamic University), two Thais (Fadel Heeyama, Save the Children International, and Fitra Jewoh, Thai-European Business Association), and one each from the Philippines (Ruhollah al-Hussein J. Alonto, Institute of Bangsamoro Studies) and Singapore (Goh Muhammad Redhuan, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore). The number of invitees is expected to increase in the coming years.
Program: Talks with Japanese Youth
During the ten days stay in Japan, 21-30 November, the TAMU participants are first going to be briefed in Tokyo on Japanese society and religion and Japan’s relationship with Islam and the Islamic World. Then, they will visit Sophia University（Catholic college established by Jesuits in 1913）to attend a meeting for exchange with Japanese scholars of Islamic studies hosted by Prof. Midori Kawashima. They will also visit Chuo University (one of the leading private universities in Tokyo since 1920) for dialogue with students hosted by Prof. Hisanori Kato, as well as Toyo Eiwa Jogakuin Senior High School (Protestant girls school established by Canadian Methodist missionary in 1884) for school tour and exchange with students, hosted by Prof. Tsuyoshi Kato. On Friday, 25 November, the TAMU participants will join the noon prayers at Tokyo Camii Mosque (Turkish Culture Center) and have talks with fellow Muslims living in Japan.
Visiting the Region hit by Great Earthquake & Tsunami
The latter half of the program will be conducted in the Iwate Prefecture hosted by Dr. Miichi. The participants will visit the town of Otsuchi for viewing local cultural performance and its role for community development. They will also observe the activities of “Collabo School”, run by NPO KATARIA helping school children and students suffered from the disaster of “Great Eastern Japan Earthquake” and Tsunami in 2011. After visiting historical sights in Kamaishi City and Morioka City, they will have a meeting with students at Iwate Prefectural University.
Back in Tokyo, the last day of stay will be spent for a meeting with young journalists for discussion on the reportage in Japan about the Islamic World. This will also wrap up the first TAMU program.
My personal rationale for the TAMU project is as follows:
A series of recent atrocities committed by the so-called ISIS and its affiliates upon Japanese citizens overseas have shocked the Japanese public. Most of TV programs, press reports and journal articles, and instant publications on the ISIS in Japan have started to disseminate a massive amount of negative images and impressions on Islam, inducing the rising of Islamophobia. At the same time, however, the violent incidents have stimulated a great deal of genuine curiosity on Islam and Muslims, too. In other words, ironically, the current situation presents a chance for the Japanese public to learn about the reality of Islam without biases and prejudices. The curiosity seems especially high among the Japanese youth.
Muslims’ Favorite Feelings towards Japan
On the Muslim side, especially those Muslims in ASEAN countries, they have had favorable feelings towards Japan and Japanese people in general. Among others, Muslim youths are quite enthusiastic about Japanese technology and pop-culture like Anime, Manga and popular music. Many of those Muslims who have ever visited in Japan for study, work or business admire Japanese people’s positive characters like cleanliness, discipline, diligence, honesty, kindness and orderliness. Some even say that Japan is an Islamic society where Islamic values are prevailing without Islam! The rapid increase of tourists from Southeast Asia to Japan thanks to the growth of the middle classes in the region are also enhancing the opportunities for mutual understanding between the Japanese people and the Muslims from Southeast Asia. To accommodate them, Japanese tourist businesses are busily adjusting themselves now by providing halal foods and other services specific for Muslims. (Ex. major international airports like Narita now have “prayer rooms”.)
Disseminate “True Image and Reality” of Islam
Considering such a situation, there seems to arise an opportunity for Southeast Asian Muslims to disseminate the true image and reality of Islam to a wide audience in Japan in order to counter the rise of Islamophobia. It is assumed that the Japanese public, especially the young people, are willing to get acquainted with Muslim counterparts from ASEAN countries at the personal level. According to my understanding, this is the background against which the Japan Foundation has launched the TAMU (=“Talk with Muslims”) project this fall in cooperation with civil society organizations and academia in both ASEAN and Japanese sides. (“Tamu” in Indonesian and Malaysian languages means “guest/s”.)
People to People Diplomacy
Such an approach pursued by civil society organizations and academia, being different from and along side security approach employed by the government, will be contributing in the long run to the formation of a pre-condition – elimination of Islamophobia = freedom from the fear of Islam – necessary for the formation of rational public opinion and prudent diplomacy in countering violent extremism.
Japan’s Unique Position in Relation to Islamic World
Japan has been occupying a unique position in its relationship vis-à-vis the Muslim World. It has NOT been involved directly in the military operations of the Western Powers. Perhaps, this is one of the most important elements in Japan’s diplomacy, making its neutrality credible.
In spite of recent controversial legislature, latest polls indicate that the majority of Japanese people want to maintain its pacifist Constitution, i.e. the avoidance of military engagements overseas. It is my personal wish that the TAMU project aimed at mitigating Islamophobia will also be contributing to the continuation and confirmation of Japan’s pacifist diplomacy.
From “Guests” to “Partners”
The TAMU project is expected to continue for a number of years to accumulate a “critical mass” of the participants from both Muslim and non-Muslim sides to nourish mutual understandings and to work together in countering the growth of Islamophobia in Japan. It is, therefore, hoped that the TAMU = “inviting guests” project will be developing eventually into the creation of a number of “partners” instead of mere “guests” in their efforts to counter Islamophobia. It is also hoped that the project will be not merely inviting Muslim youths to Japan but also developing to an exchange program, providing opportunities for the Japanese youth to visit Muslim communities in Southeast to learn the reality of Muslim lives firsthand via their own eyes.
My Personal Responsibility
I feel it my personal responsibility as an academic who has been engaged in many years in the study of Islamic social movements in Southeast Asia, like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia, to join the collective efforts of my Japanese colleagues to counter Islamophobia via TAMU Project in Japan. I wish further understanding and cooperation from my Southeast Asian, especially Indonesian, colleagues for the TAMU Project run by the Japan Foundation.