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. ◊