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The Indonesia that I know

Once again, Indonesia has found itself in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor – an ethnic Chinese Christian and a rare exception in a sea of corrupt politicians – has been found guilty of “blasphemy” against Islam and jailed for the next two years.

I do not think the negative coverage thus far amounts to fear-mongering, nor is the global backlash entirely undeserved. I’ve watched with alarm over the past few months, as bigots and powerful opportunists have successfully manipulated large segments of the populace under the guise of religion, blending their agenda with a toxic cocktail of racism and hatred. Indonesia may have gained its hard-won independence seven decades ago, but we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology imported from Saudi Arabia.

While more open-minded people are doing what they can to counter the spread of radicalism, the news reinforces the perception that Indonesia is deeply conservative and something of an Islamist rogue state. A concerned Australian sent me these words yesterday via Twitter: “I’d be too scared to visit as a tourist now.”

That message, along with Madhu’s recent post about her journey to Kashmir, reminded me how important it was to look beyond the headlines and see how places are actually like on the ground. So I will shine a light on the Indonesia that I have experienced both as a traveler and a resident of Jakarta, not the one that flashes through the TV screens.

The Indonesia that I know is the moderate Muslim clerics who use their authority to advocate peace, not violence, and forgiveness instead of vengeance. The Indonesia that I know does not condemn others for being “less” of something – less of a believer for supporting a political candidate who is not of their own religion, less of an Indonesian for being of Chinese, Indian, or European descent.

The Indonesia that I know recognizes its own quirks and celebrates its rich, syncretic traditions. It is the Sultan of Ternate, who makes weekly offerings to the active volcano towering above his palace. The Indonesia that I know is the figure who showers petals on a weathered statue at the 600-year-old Hindu temple of Penataran. It is the regent of Purwakarta, Dedi Mulyadi, who champions the local Sundanese culture in the face of creeping Arabization.

The Indonesia that I know does not invoke the name of God to advance a self-righteous and deeply hypocritical agenda. It is the people who have enough of a critical mind to form their own opinions when most are taught to obey and listen to those in power. The Indonesia that I know is home to forward-thinking residents who turn their grief and anger into song, railing against injustice with candlelit vigils instead of burning cars and tires.

The Indonesia that I know understands that our similarities are far greater than the sum of our differences. It is the coworkers that I meet on a day-to-day basis, a potpourri of ethnicities drawn from different parts of the archipelago – Batak and Acehnese from Sumatra, Minahasa from North Sulawesi, Javanese, Chinese, and Sundanese from Java. They are a mix of Sunni Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and perhaps even Buddhists. I have observed my coworkers talking, laughing, and eating together; they also celebrate one another’s festivals, heralding the arrival of Christmas with Secret Santa and a potluck feast, and breaking the daily fast with sticky cakes and deep-fried snacks throughout the Islamic month of Ramadan.

The Indonesia that I know values kinship, and realizes how the strongest bonds are forged when we are willing to look beyond race and religion. It is Tinus, a remarkable man I met on the rugged island of Sumba who taught himself English and freely narrated his life story between sword lessons. By the end of my short time in Sumba, Tinus would call me “brother”. The Indonesia that I know is also Bama’s doting mom, Auntie Dhani. Last July, when I tagged along to visit Bama’s parents at their house in Semarang, she told me over the dining table, “In Indonesia, I am your mother.” In no other country have I felt so readily welcomed and adopted as a native son.

The last few days have been very dark indeed. But I still have hope that in the months, years, and even decades to come, it is this version of Indonesia that will prevail.

32 Comments Post a comment
  1. For every step forward we take, it seems that we always take one (or two) step(s) backward. I hope that from now on Indonesians will begin asking themselves what it takes for the nation to move forward. The blasphemy law is a good start. Do we need to keep such a controversial and problematic law which is prone to be abused by those with dirty agenda? Does abolishing it mean it is okay to insult other faiths? There are examples in the world of countries that have been successful in building just societies, where everyone is equal before the law, where everyone is treated as human beings. We only need to take the right countries as role models, not those with a long history of repression and discrimination against minorities.

    May 11, 2017
    • Sadly, it’s apparent that there are some conservative-minded Indonesians who want to go back to the Dark Ages. I truly believe that blasphemy laws have no place in any modern society whose people are mature enough to discuss difficult issues. From a legal perspective, it is just so vague and records show that it has often been used against minorities. And if someone is already secure in their beliefs, they should not be so easily set off – it is their choice to react or simply to walk away. This ruling sets a very bad precedent for the future… we do not want to see people being persecuted and killed outright (as in Pakistan) for allegations of blasphemy.

      May 11, 2017
  2. A beautiful tribute to the true essence of Indonesia James. The India I knew, and the Hinduism I grew up with, was just as inclusive. Sadly politics has managed to alter the meaning of religion and nationalism today. Not just in our countries, but the world over. France, last week, gave us a brief respite. Adding my wishes and prayers to yours that our versions prevail.

    May 11, 2017
    • Thank you, Madhu. I suppose this is yet another area where India and Indonesia practically mirror each other! The blasphemy trial and sentencing has been a real wake-up call – it is already prompting more Indonesians to speak out and push back against those forces of radicalism and illogical, stone-age thinking. Recent events both here and abroad are a potent reminder that it is so, so important to keep religion out of politics… which is already toxic enough on its own.

      May 11, 2017
  3. Thank you for showing us your version of Indonesia.

    May 11, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Debra. There are so many Indonesians who are against extremist ideology – not all is lost!

      May 11, 2017
  4. For the Indonesia that you know to continue, and to move forward, not backward, it is so important to put spotlight on what is happening, and the invasive form of political religion coming from Saudi Arabia. To abolish blasphemy laws is a good start, if you have one. Religion has to be criticised if needed. I dare say, that is one of the reasons the Scandinavian countries developed as we see today. But unfortunately, we too see the effect of SA-imperialism on the world, and it certainly isn’t a good one. Important post!

    May 11, 2017
    • Scandinavia is certainly a role model – Bama has brought it up many times in our various discussions about work/life balance, welfare, and education. A major problem with Indonesia is the shoddy education system that results in a widespread lack of critical thinking. This makes it very easy for politicians and clerics to manipulate and deceive less well-informed segments of the populace.

      Saudi Arabia has been very active in funding/opening schools and universities that preach hardline Wahhabi/Salafist interpretations of Islam – it is wholly at odds with the traditional, more tolerant Islam that has been practiced in Indonesia for centuries. And yes, the blasphemy law should not even exist in a modern society. In Indonesia’s case, it has become increasingly apparent that the law is being used as a political tool to oppress religious minorities.

      May 11, 2017
  5. Thank you for writing a post like this.

    May 11, 2017
    • I’ve thought about writing a post like this for months – today I could not wait any longer.

      May 11, 2017
  6. Can we somehow get travel bloggers to rule the world?! Or at least present it to outsiders. Joking aside, when I need a dose of pragmatism and tolerance, I just open WordPress and find those like-minded people who understand that our cities and countries are not what our politicians and press make them appear to be. Your explanation about the lack of quality education and, therefore, critical thinking skills frightens me more than anything else – the idea that future generations will blindly accept what they hear on TV or elsewhere rather than investigating and thinking about things themselves. Not just in Indonesia, but everywhere – people have seemingly turned off their brains to follow misguided leaders who tap into fear instead of hope.

    May 11, 2017
    • I’ve told Bama he should run for president here in Indonesia, but for obvious reasons (too much corruption here) he doesn’t want to touch politics with a 10-foot pole! You’re right about the blind acceptance being a global phenomenon – so often those who don’t think critically are the ones who stay in their comfort zones and get fed a distorted view of the outside world. Sometimes travel is really the best form of education.

      May 11, 2017
  7. On my three trips to Indonesia, I found it likewise. But like India, it’s mainly the politicians who fuel religion/racism for their own ends while the rest of the population gets on with living.

    May 11, 2017
    • Sadly, I would venture that millions in both countries cannot see through the machinations of those politicians. The question now is how to raise awareness and improve education so that people will not be so easily manipulated.

      May 12, 2017
  8. Heartbreaking moments James. Politics is ruthless indeed 😦

    May 12, 2017
    • Yes Wien… the path to progress is a long and rocky one.

      May 12, 2017
  9. This is a very important piece to have written. I wish all the people who watch the “news” would also read this post. Almost all the news is fear-mongering and it makes me feel so sad when the world over people are basically good and kind. It reminds me of a post about why people should visit Egypt now. Tourism is way down because people are afraid to go there. It’s a chance to see all the monuments without the crowds, and we never once felt unsafe there.

    May 13, 2017
    • Egypt is high up on my wish list, Alison – and your eye-opening post about it was a refreshing change from all the bad news that have been coming from that part of the world. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Abu Simbel (not to mention Luxor) and floating down the Nile on a felucca. Fingers crossed that will happen within the next two or three years.

      May 14, 2017
  10. “we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology”

    The same words that I quoted above can now be used to describe the United States.

    May 15, 2017
    • I’m not surprised to hear that. An Indonesian friend of mine has made the same comparison – he says the ignorant, Islamist-leaning conservatives here are just like narrow-minded Republican Christians in the US.

      May 24, 2017
  11. This is a very thoughtful and important reflection. I was treated with nothing but kindness and friendliness in my travels to Indonesia. It remains one of my favourite travel experiences. Thank you for telling us about “your” Indonesia.

    May 16, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Caroline. The kindness and friendliness you mention was also true of my own trips, and that has not changed in my experiences here as a foreign resident.

      May 24, 2017
  12. Your Indonesia and mine are one and the same. I live a little south of Jakarta and whenever I go to the city there are demonstrations, although always peaceful. I’m scared for the country and the potential road to extreme muslim tradition as seen in Saudi Arabia. I’ve always appreciated the moderate nature of Indonesia, the largest muslim country in the world, for being open-minded and tolerant while practicing their religion. Excellent post, truly.

    May 17, 2017
    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. My worry is that too many people in Indonesia lack the education and critical thinking to see how they are being manipulated by politicians and bigots for their own ends. It is heartening though to see ordinary people fighting back and speaking out in defense of tolerance – if anything, Ahok’s verdict has given them even more reason to get their voices heard.

      May 24, 2017
  13. nearandearthoughts #

    I for one, am an Indonesian myself. This was a very important reminder of a post to me that we are more than we think our nation is. And yes, there may come a time where all the bad will most certainly outweigh the good, for these too shall pass. 🙂 Nice post!

    June 14, 2017
    • Well, I hope that time never comes… I still have faith that there are enough people in Indonesia who possess both common sense and empathy to see through the lies being told by corrupt politicians and hardline religious leaders.

      June 20, 2017
  14. Hi, James. Thanks for writing about Indonesia from a positive perception. I see that Indonesia is largely misunderstood, even by some of the citizens. It’s so weird seeing people talking bad about other races and people of different religions, while in daily life they also interact with each other, co-working and be friends. I really hope all this hoo-ha about religion and race is a way for us to take a step forward in an understanding.

    July 1, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Vira. It is a shame that so many people don’t seem to cherish the spirit of pluralism and inclusiveness that is in Indonesia’s DNA – and the very principles that the founding fathers and veterans fought bravely for during the struggle for independence.

      July 2, 2017
  15. Hi James, great post, loved seeing Indonesia through your eyes in this post, great stuff!

    August 10, 2017
    • Thanks! It’s not my usual sort of blog entry, but it was something that had to be written at the time.

      August 12, 2017
      • Enjoyed it, hope you have a great Independence Day tomorrow! 🙂

        August 16, 2017

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