Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What is the Indonesian identity - a foreigners perspective on the protests of December 2nd, 2016 in Jakarta

I've grown used to being a foreigner; five years spent mostly overseas in India and Indonesia. It's been the best experience of my life. The best reasons being a foreigner for a prolonged period are more than this:
  1. It has enabled me to get to know myself and others more intimately,
  2. It has forced me to ask some deeper questions about my relationship to the world,
  3. It has given me a unique perspective.
With regard to "1" (above) I have come to accept that I am Christian, and that this set of beliefs has its short comings, and benefits, just as any other faith. I cannot rightly represent Christianity, and would never attempt to try. Yet, I have found myself with my back up against the wall for those fervent "Christians" that have caused harm to themselves and others by loudly carrying this distinction, so they have felt, on behalf of God. My experience overseas has forced me to realize what a mistake it is to be so presumptuous. There are those of other faiths, even my own, who are far more righteous than I am. This is despite my having tried to be a better person, but my lack of winning over myself, let alone others, with a greater sense of righteousness has failed, and our differences in beliefs persist. Many believe themselves to be better than I am. Generally, I would agree. Also, I will never be a "good Christian", because I will never proselytize to those whose relationship with God(s) clearly outrank(s) my own. I will say that it is my firm opinion that determining what such a ranking may be is not a job any human being should attempt.

With regard to "2" (above) my relationship with this world consists of nouns; persons, places and things. What lies beyond this realm holds my intrigue, and it will until my last breath. There is probably some interaction between the two realms; some influence one realm holds over the other, and vice versa. There are perhaps more than two realms, science says that is likely. Here I risk floating off into complexity regarding things I know nothing about. What is certainly of this world is confusion, despair followed by delight, a tedious experience followed by one that is charming, and everything in between. I am a perpetual dreamer, an observer, and a philosopher, but have reluctantly come to these conclusions. As a long time foreigner I have done away with most other conclusions.

With regard to "3" (above) my unique perspective is that my perspective is not original or entirely uncommon; that people from other places, for the most part, think like I do too, but they see me as being separate, and I from them. My unsubtle presence intimidates them and threatens their sense of what is right and just. I have learned to walk with my eyes pointed down, and to speak quietly. There are obvious reasons for this. However, the subtle reasons are more the cause, and they are rarely discussed openly. So, allow me to articulate my point of view about the current status of things in Indonesia as I risk being exposed.
We who are not Muslim find it difficult to speak about what seems to be an Islamic identity crisis in the context of a broader society. Should we not speak of it? In Indonesia we are sitting at the brink of a war between Islam and everything that is not Islam, even while the whole of Islam seems to be engaged in infighting. 
What remains of Indonesia's former identity, what existed here before Islam? This would be of importance to the majority of Indonesians today, irrespective of religious preference. But, I think a debate about it has been erased from contemporary history, it doesn't seem to be on the agenda.
With the protests planned this coming Friday Indonesia's brand of Islam is at stake. Muslims will take to the streets of Jakarta this Friday as they carry concern for the reputation of their religion, perhaps a fair amount of anger, distrust, and bigotry too - as they are the self-purported representatives of God's will. That is a lofty set of propositions, if any of them are correct. But, I wonder what God thinks of this (of course he is beyond thinking), and here I would like to make a distinction between my thoughts and His. No doubt there is a difference. Is God's will the will of those who will protest this Friday against Ahok? Are these protesters bound by notions of politics, self-righteousness and entitlement, or purely that which is concerned with God; that which is far beyond this world? Does God require this proof of devotion? Who is right; someone expressing that religion ought not come into play when we speak of politics, or someone who says politics is inseparable from religion?

As a foreigner, in Indonesia, what is particularly foreign to me is how one person, of any faith, could not withstand criticism that might cause us to think more deeply about the effect of one's religious beliefs. Is there now a certain risk of being accused of blasphemy and being thrown in jail if non-Muslims possess a contrary opinion to that of the status quo Muslim? Do politicians operate with separate laws? What if someone becomes offended by your religious-oriented objections? Does the mere possibility of insult preclude conversation between Muslims and non-Muslims? How do we accommodate dissenting opinions on the matter? Who possesses God's rightfulness on this Earth, majority? Should my notions of religion determine for whom I may vote, with whom I may disagree, or whom I may favor? Should the color of one's skin, or the shape of their face keep me from getting to know the person behind the eyes? Are my loyalties which I inherited sacrosanct and above reproach? Are my intentions, actions and my self-interest consistent? Am I a bigot, or a racist because of my indoctrination, or lack thereof? Am I a representative of myself, or of my culture, or both? Do I possess an open mind so as to better see reality for what it truly is today, which allows the possibility of a brighter future tomorrow? Are my morals good for me, and others? Do I unequivocally adhere to my own sense of morality, or to what may be seen as right according to others? Does anyone's opinion matter if they don't think like me?

What about Indonesian, or more specifically, Javanese identity? What is the sense of morality within it that may be generalized, for the purposes of a foreigners understanding? Few Westerners (like myself), and perhaps even some Indonesians, may forget, that this identity and sense of morality comes from several complex and competing schools of thought (not only religious ones). However, it is said that one school of thought is Shari'a-oriented-Islam, clearly not originally of Java, let alone Indonesia. Another is Sufism, not of Java or Indonesia either. A third, Kebatinan, is perhaps closer to something which may be considered endemic, but perhaps only here in Java. However, it is said that Kebatinan is an amalgamation of Animistic, Hinduistic, Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian ideas including ancient practices of Java. Soeharto may have been a follower of Kebatinan, and had reportedly been a practitioner of kejawen according to his "autobiography"; "Speech, Thought and Action" written by K.H. Ramadhan and G. Dwipayana. If his magic was any testament, Soeharto did spend 31 years in office, and is said to have embezzled great fortunes.

The practice of Kebatinan and kejawen by Muslims within elite spheres speaks to the acceptance of pluralism and syncretism in Java, and in so far that Soeharto may have been representative of Indonesian people, and their multifarious ways. There are as many cultures here as there are islands, or at least, that was once true of this region.

Now there is a plethora of shopping malls harboring the same shops on the inside, looking pretty modern for all intents and purposes. Is this is the new character that is sought by Indonesia at-large; being a part of a fashionable modern world? Is it fair that any such generalizations about Indonesia may be the subject of propaganda, or might be made "objectively" through Google searches, rather than subjectively?

I'd like to think that in many ways 'pure Islam' is a completely new advent in Indonesia, if the last 30 years may be seen as a rather severe departure from its past. Syncretism is arguably as much endemic to Indonesia as India, or to the US, or any other nation for that matter, only because it is unnatural for human beings to repel variety.

Now here we have a Christian arguing against mono-culture and for diversity. So, what is "pure", what is foreign, and what is preventing us from being honest about the need to permit some diversity and ambiguity among people of faith to spur on a substantive debate, and a healthy bit of competition, as opposed to more group think, and a lack of independent thought? After all, what business is this of a foreigner's to stir up controversy regarding the sociopolitical environment in a country where I am but a guest? I suppose we humans are all guests on this planet-island, for a limited time, despite our impact on one another.

Admittedly, I have struggled with fair answers to these questions. At times I have affirmed my own hatred of others and found my emotions it to be a sanctuary well-suited to preserve my ego. My ego has a tendency to make fun of itself, because it finds itself to be a redundant nuisance to myself and others, and I know it has nothing to do with God, and more to do with my confused humility. So, let my sense of confidence come and go. Right now my confidence is lacking in so far that my family and I will be safe in Indonesia for the foreseeable future. That may change after the planned protests this Friday. Funny that a lack of confidence could be coupled with some degree of optimism.

I've walked the streets of Jakarta and have kept my eyes and ears to the ground with the feeling that others watching me are seeing my presence as a threat because I am a Westerner. Sometimes I feel like this is becoming a more frequent occurrence, but I really don't know for sure. When our eyes do meet on the streets I try to smile and remain open, and unbiased, occasionally one detects nothing of any significance in reciprocation, but what I have definitely encountered is a certain discomfort among some Indonesians.

My being in the neighborhood, or the restaurant is problematic to some, if a lack of eye contact, furrowed brows, whispers and grumbling are any indication. My formidable persona is not helpful in these situations, but I temper my behavior so as to be discrete as possible. I do not wish to disturb! I wish to quietly sip my kopi! One kopi shop I used to go to allowed me to sit quietly among the locals, I was starting to feel unnoticed. That was good, but the last time I went in there the same barista, at the same coffee shop, he asked me repeatedly, three times, if I wanted my coffee "to-go". Perhaps I took this the wrong way, but I don't think so. He'd seen me before, and I'd always taken a seat quietly inside. I would go there and pretend I didn't hear the masjid outside blaring this horrid noise. It wasn't always difficult to ignore the loudspeaker, there was a curious mystique in that ambiance that I really enjoyed. When the loud singing wasn't out of tune it was charming, but that was a rarity...even at the shopping malls. Karaoke was pervasive and overbearing. Some people feel loud is good. Most of the time, to me, it sounded like wailing zombies. Zombies couldn't think for themselves, or hear themselves. I relented even 'good' music wasn't fond of everyone, that trying to sing might provide relief to those in need, to those sitting sadly, to those whose needs are not met by this greedy secular world that tries to be so fashionable and apart from history. We are so obsessed with money and status, not soulfulness.

There is rarely soulfulness in success today. Maybe I should go to the masjid and pray, even as a christian, but for some reason I felt I wouldn't be welcomed, that it would become habit, and end badly. My mind was in fact closed to it. There are still those who cannot see we pray to the same God(s), even if there is only one we may call by a different name/by different names.

Then there was that flying drone that bounced off my back porch a few weeks back and landed in my backyard. Call me paranoid, but I did return the thing to the owner, a middle eastern man, who said he was my neighbor. I'd never seen him before. He said he lost control of the drone in the wind. I finally believed him, after I yelled at him for this provocation. The drone had a camera attached to it and it was flying closely to our gated compound around which were perimeter walls fifteen-foot-high, garnished with razor blade wire, the gate guarded by pribumi ex-pancasila

So, I am wondering what I need to be protected from, if it is not my own paranoia. Maybe it is the growing sense among some Indonesians that America stands against Islam. After all, I'm not Chinese, and I live in a compound. These people don't hate me just because I'm American. Both of my grandfathers chased the Japanese out of their country, despite the Dutch. Now Indonesians feel more a part of the Middle East than their own country? Have some of them forgotten their roots? Maybe I should be more critical of my own irrational fears, my own intolerance.

Let the Muslims protest, let them exercise that right to disagree, let them express their sense of democracy, and pray hope they do it peacefully, and allow others to do the same.

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