So I thought I’d write up a little piece about my experiences as an unashamedly open atheist in Indonesia to give anyone who reads this stuff an idea of what religion was like there. Here’s the first instalment.
Indonesia: A Moderate Islamic Country?
I jumped off the plane in Java expecting the worst. I’d heard something like 90% of Indonesians were muslim, and the rest were some other form of religion. I’d read and blogged about the treatment of an Indonesian atheist who posted a few Facebook statuses that upset his town and he was subsequently bashed and had his business place smashed up. So right from the start as I walked into the international terminal I was getting ready to shut my mouth for the coming month.
As I lined up at immigration I suddenly became aware of, and somewhat surprised at, the number of middle eastern muslims in the queue with us. Young men in their 20s and 30s were all hanging out chatting loudly whilst next to each of them stood their lesser half, donning the dark black burka from head to toe with barely a 2cm slit for their eyes.
I was with two others, Jane and Bill, who were from the museum and scientists like myself out here for fieldwork. Jane bumped into one of the younger men waiting in line as the queue moved forward. He turned and looked her up and down, and left his gaze on her chest as he grinned salaciously. Creeped the hell out of her, as it did Bill and I. As this happened another middle eastern man walked up to where we were standing in line and bent down under all the ropes as one of the immigration officers became vacant. Several Italian men at the front of the line became enraged, and one of them started shouting at him in english asking why he did that. The middle eastern man pretty much just brushed it off and said “It’s ok, I’ve been here before”. Man these guys were just oozing with self-entitlement and chauvinism!
Eventually we made our way through immigration and into the baggage collection area. I got my first real glimpse at a room full of Indonesian people. There were many women in the head veils, and men wearing their islamic caps, however there were also quite a few men and women not wearing any religious garment. We picked up our luggage and left the airport whilst getting quite a few stares from people, as ‘bules’ (pronounced ‘buley’, meaning Westerner or white person) weren’t that common in this country I quickly found out.
We were picked up by an Indonesian man who worked at the museum in Bogor, with which we were collaborating on this project (all research has to be done in collaboration with Indonesian scientists nowadays or it’s impossible to do fieldwork there). We crammed into his car and some of the first things I noticed were the arabic writing on islamic decorations in the car. I prepared myself for a long, awkward, silent trip to the hotel, but was incredibly surprised, and had to stop myself from giggling, as the man turned the radio on and out came blasting the latest album from the Indonesian Idol winner. Not the sort of music I picked for an islamic man (turns out Indonesians are obsessed with the worst kind of pop-music, and especially love Karaoke). This guy seemed already, and my first impressions of him were that he was a really nice, boisterous, eccentric, kung-fu Panda in appearance (seriously he had this look down pat), and happy man. Not the sort of adjectives I had expected to be throwing his way, but it was a nice surprise. The call to prayer sounded as we were driving, and kept getting softer then louder as we passed by the numerous mosques along the highway. I asked the man what does he do with regards to praying if he’s driving. He told me he never really bothered with it. I was shocked yet again…!
My first few weeks had me meeting some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, at least as a tourist in a foreign country. Everyone in the street wanted to say hello to you, wanted to speak to you, wanted to know your name and where you were going (never worked out why that was such an important question for them? “Hello Mister! Where you going?”). Within the first day I was approached by two groups of Indonesian girls, all wearing hijabs, who wanted photos with me and/or wanted to practice english with me. I was so surprised these girls were even acknowledging my presence, from previous experiences with islamic girls in Melbourne, Australia, let alone them looking me in the eye, smiling, laughing, wanting to speak to me. And pretty quickly it became obvious that this would be a repeated pattern all throughout our travels in Java and Sulawesi. No matter where you went, everyone smiled, everyone acknowledged you and pretty much treated you like a close mate, although sometimes too close…
Looking awkward during the first of 100s of photos I was asked to be in with locals
It had me questioning my previously staunch anti-islam beliefs. How could such nice, friendly, open people, despite being islamic, be so bad? They seemed like any other average person from Australia, just often wearing an islamic cap or hijab. I’d expected it to be like walking off the plane into Yemen or Iran when I’d gotten to Indonesia, after learning it was the country with the most muslims in it in the world. Maybe I was wrong, maybe these guys weren’t that bad…?
For the first week or so I felt somewhat ashamed that I had had such a negative preconceived idea of these people, solely based on religious grounds, prior to coming to this country. I had wanted to dislike anyone, thing or idea even remotely related to the religion of islam prior to coming here, but it felt like perhaps these guys weren’t as bad as the muslims of the middle east. I had always thought there was no such thing as a moderate muslim. That to be islamic meant you wanted death to all unbelievers, and for islam to spread and take over the world. But could I have been wrong? Could there be ‘moderate islamic’ country after all? Could it be Indonesia?
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