Page 1 of 2 SPEAKING FREELY Indonesia: Among the happiest people
By Zeyneb Temnenko
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have
Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
For many people, Indonesia is associated with Bali, resorts, 2002 bombings, and
tsunamis. I was lucky to see a different Indonesia.
Indonesian people proudly say that they have more than 300 languages. They
proudly point out their Javanese, Balinese and Sudanese identities; yet some of
them are afraid of diversity and
want to stay homogenous.
Indonesian people often refer to themselves as being open-minded, at the same
time some of them are afraid of trying new things, eating new food and looking
at the world outside of Indonesia, or even accepting the fact that things can
be done the other way, not necessarily their way.
Some make premature conclusions about you, just based on the fact that you are
a white foreigner or "boule" - that's how Indonesians commonly refer to
foreigners. The boules and Indonesians usually have different entrances
to cultural sites. It is the largest Muslim country with Muslims making food
sacrifices to Mount Merapi, and Muslims working at Buddhist temples.
It is a country of diversity and tolerance. At the same time it is a country of
covert intolerance and internal fear of new things that seem alien to this
It is a country where rice is served at every restaurant and with every meal.
If you go to a Western pizzeria or pasta restaurant, some Indonesians wonder
why rice is not listed on the menu.
It is a country of predominantly devout pious Muslims that co-exist with a
population of 20 million non-Muslim. It is a country where 20-year-old girls
want sharia law to be implemented. It is a country where during the holy
Muslim month of Ramadan some restaurants and bars are open, and alcohol is
sold. Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI), an organization fighting for pure Islam,
is known for its attacks on clubs and bars that stay open during the holy
Islam in Indonesia is unique. While religious parties and politicians who put
Islam on their political platform lose elections, sharia law is
practiced in Aceh, and Abdurahman Wahid, the third president, came from a
family of Islamic clerics with his own father being a founder of one of the
most influential religious organizations Nahdatul Ulama, and Wahid himself was
the head of this organization.
Islam in Indonesia, in Java especially is very closely merged with local
religions and traditions. Food sacrifices to Mount Merapi, and only white rice
fastings (nasi putih) are still practiced.
This summer I had an opportunity to spend two months in Indonesia on a Henry
Luce Fellowship. I lived in Indonesia's special province, sultanate of
Yogyakarta, which is located on the island of Java. A lot of Indonesians
complain that Java is unofficially considered to be the dominant island.
The capital Jakarta is located here with the entire state government. The
Indonesian government is thought to give more attention to Java. A lot of my
Balinese, Acehnese and Sulawesi friends now living in Java were pointing out on
that inequality of Java de-facto acquiring the status of the very important
island in Indonesia.
A special province sultanate of Yogyakarta, is headed by Sri Sultan
Hamengkubuwana X, who is both the sultan and governor.
Currently there is a political debate about abolishing Yogyakarta's status of a
special province. In addition to that, the current sultan does not have sons
who could succeed him. He has daughters and a brother who technically could
become the next ruler of Yogyakarta. I ran into his daughter at a restaurant
opening where she was invited as a distinguished speaker.
With Muslims being a dominant majority of 87%, Indonesia is the world's largest
Muslim country. According to the Gallup 2009 Survey of top five most religious
countries in the world, Indonesia is ranked third. Ninety-nine percent of
Indonesians answered that religion plays an important role in their daily life.
After declaring its independence in 1945, the first Indonesian president
Sukarno introduced an ideology of Pancasila (five principles: belief in
one god, democracy, social justice, civilized humanity, the unity of
Indonesia), which is still practiced and plays an important role in the
Apart from Pancasila, Sukarno with his desire to join the communist bloc
laid foundations for the atheistic state, which the next president Suharto
further developed and ingrained in his policies. Headscarves and Islamic
parties were banned, daily Islamic practices became clandestine.
Despite its communist past, people in Java are highly religious. Doing a
five-time obligatory Muslim prayer salat, fasting during Ramadan, and wearing
headscarves for women are wide-spread. Pork and alcohol are not easily
accessible, and Allah-related phrases are deeply entrenched into daily
According to Indonesian constitution, Indonesia is a secular state. However,
there are only six recognized religions - Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism,
Buddhism and Hinduism, and not long ago Confucianism was acknowledged as an
One of these six official religions must be on the KTP (identity card) of every
Indonesian citizen. When one gets an Indonesian cell-phone number, one has to
answer the question what their religion is, and choose one of the six
This official acknowledgement of six religions creates a lot of problems in
daily life. Pak Suhadi, a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University, wrote a book on
inter-religious marriage. When I met him and asked about his research, he
immediately quipped that he only researches on interreligious marriage, and
that he does not practice it.
You cannot marry someone of opposite religion. Some inter-religious couples go
to Singapore to get married, others change their religion and get a new KTP.
Existence of the identity card with a religion on it created an expression in
Bahasa Indonesian about non-practicing Muslims. They are called a "Muslim KTP".
Daily practices of Islam
One of my Indonesian friends, who spent his exchange year abroad in the West,
confessed that while being abroad, he often missed the obligatory salat,
not because he forgot to do it, but because he did not feel pressured to do it.
In Indonesia you are not obliged to do salat.
The communal pressure turns out to be stronger than any laws. As my friend
explained, if he does not do salat in Indonesia, his friends and family
will judge him. The society makes you follow certain regulations and moral
standards. It is fear of being judged and categorized that makes you do what
everybody does. If everybody prays, or all your friends go to mosque on
Fridays, you have no other choice but follow the majority.
There is no law that imposes wearing a hijab, but one can find a lot of
veiled young and middle aged women. At the same time some Indonesian people
assert that hijab does not represent belief and religiosity, rather it
is a symbol of fashion. After spending two months in Indonesia, I came to think
that hijab is not about fashion. It is more of an escape from social
If you wear a hijab, it means you are a pious Muslim, and nobody will
dare to question your level of religiosity, and nobody will say that you are
too liberal or too Western. Although generally people in Java are very friendly
toward people from the West, sometimes being too Western might possess a
Hijab protects you from gossips and judgments, something that you cannot
usually protect yourself from because in a communal society it is rarely
appropriate to stand up for yourself and speak up. At a restaurant opening, I
asked my friend Hari looking at the Indonesian women all dressed in short
cocktail dresses: "Where are all those women in hijabs that I see in the
streets of Jogja everyday?" My friend replied: "They do not attend events like
this. The society will judge them. They will be considered party girls".
Some Indonesians put people into categories: you are from the West, it means
you have never eaten rice, and you do not like hot weather; if you are a female
Muslim who is not wearing a hijab, it means you are not religious
enough. If you prefer a shower instead of pouring a bucket of water on
yourself, it means you are a spoiled Westerner who likes to find an easy way of