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Conflict Film Club Indonesia

Confucianism Gets the Short End of the Joss Stick in Hanung Bramantyo’s “?”

In one of the opening scenes in Hanung Bramantyo’s new film “?” (“Tanda Tanya,” or “Question Mark”) we meet one of the main characters, Rika, who is busy cleaning up and organizing the shelves in her bookstore. I don’t remember her exact words, but she says with exasperation to her friend Suryo who stops by at closing time, something to the effect of: “The novels are in the self-help section, the school books are in the business section, and worst of all… these pulp romance novels [Rika holds up a paperback with a sexy scene on the cover] are in the children’s section!”

With these few lines Rika has summed up the whole movie for us with a cute metaphor. The multi-faith, multi-ethnic characters in “?” live in an old tempo doeloe nostalgia-inducing downtown neighborhood of Semarang called “Pasar Baru” (“New Market”). Pasar Baru is like Rika’s disorganized bookstore, and the characters are the books, who try relentlessly to classify and organize each other onto their respective book shelves (by religion, ethnicity, gender and family roles), but always come up against the messy realities of everyday life that refuse simple classification. Ironic that Rika complains about her disorganized books because her story poses the most confounding and stigmatizing situation of all (like pulp romance in the children’s section) for her neighbors and family: Rika is a recently divorced single mother who is unapologetically yet haltingly in the process of converting from Islam to Catholicism. Janda murtad! Apostasy!

The characters’ melodramatic stories of faith and family, love and death, take place in present-day Indonesia, specifically throughout the year 2010, which is to say their mixed-up lives are set against the backdrop of increasingly intolerant black-or-white religious discourses. The film begins, climaxes, and ends with scenes of headline-grabbing religious violence—all in Pasar Baru no less—that sadly and too easily overshadow the small acts of tolerance, consideration and accommodation that nearly all of the characters make, with plenty of personal struggle, for one another. Here is the promotional preview clip:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1rBl4KJc4U&w=560&h=349&rel=0]

Hanung Bramantyo has produced this film as a statement in favor of tolerance in a diverse society, and the film is sparking a lot of debate on social media that generally embraces the film’s message, at least on the surface. A quick search for #TandaTanya on Twitter yields a lot more favorable than negative comments. But of course, a small number of religious purists are able to hijack the debate and denounce the film making absurd statements and fatwas peppered generously with shallow understandings of words like haram, sesat, murtad, pluralism, and kafir to describe it. They say it’s a hate piece against Islam, as if there were no crass depictions of intolerance among the Catholics and Confucians, as if there were no positive images of Islamic faith and practice, as if we can safely assume that the depictions of violence were committed by Islamic extremists. Hanung addresses these silly one-track diatribes point by point here, so I’m not interested in addressing further the strange and disruptive influence of just a few adherents to Indonesia’s majority religion so dangerously insecure and uncomfortable with everyone else around them.

Although I should probably question my methods, I tried to do a little score-keeping throughout the film to see who gets the short end of the metaphorical joss stick. The main groups depicted are Javanese Muslims, Javanese Catholics, and Chinese Confucians. One character from each group dies violently in the film. We witness one conversion from Islam to Catholicism, and another from Confucianism to Islam. If we want to zealously police the boundaries of organized faith—keeping our bookshelves in order so to speak—then we might consider conversion into a faith as a net gain, and conversion out of a faith as a net loss, or a metaphorical death, for each faith community. By my count, the Confucians in the film lose two characters, the Muslims lose one, and the Catholics come out even.

Ironically, it’s the Chinese-Indonesian family in the film that makes the extra effort to accommodate the Muslim majority in Pasar Baru. They keep a separate set of dishware and cooking utensils at their restaurant for the customers who don’t eat pork; they gently remind their Muslim staff that it’s time for prayers; they cover the windows and do not serve any pork during Ramadan and then stay closed for the major feasting holiday at Ramadan’s end. It is the elderly Chinese couple who own this restaurant that stand out as compelling moral anchors of accumulated day-to-day wisdom and tolerance in the film, no doubt born from necessity living as a persecuted minority for generations in Java. They remind me of the wise old black women and men that show up in so many Hollywood films. (to be fair, there is also a wonderful young ustad and an elderly priest who each give wise counsel to their congregations throughout the film) For all that wisdom, in service of some greater communal good in Pasar Baru, the Chinese characters are rewarded with an unequal share (per capita, let’s say, for emphasis) of death and departure from faith. The film ends with a secular celebration of the New Year (2011) for everyone in Pasar Baru—its community reconstituted and at peace once again—plus an affirmation of the human capacity for change, to continuously struggle for what’s right for oneself and one’s community based on heart and faith… but there is little evidence to suggest that any deeper change has occurred. The categories that organize the people in Pasar Baru remain in tact, and the religious and ethnic minorities have made disproportionate and requisite sacrifices in order to keep it that way. Rika’s book store? Still in business!

Categories
Indonesia

Response to Hartoyo’s Opinion Piece in the Jakarta Globe

A few days ago, an opinion piece appeared in The Jakarta Globe titled “Longing for Acceptance, Homosexuals in Indonesia Find Hatred and Discrimination”, written by a gay Indonesian activist named Hartoyo.  His editorial was prompted by Front Pembela Islam’s (FPI, the Islamic Defender’s Front) success in preventing an international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) conference from being held in Surabaya a few weeks ago.  An absolute miscarriage of justice, FPI’s embarrassing pre-emptive threats of vigilante violence triumphed over the rule of law in secular Indonesia. The organizers already had a permit from the local police to hold the event, but FPI successfully pressured and convinced the police to rescind it. In national headlines, mixed opinions were put forth, and while most do not support FPI’s methods, I think it would be safe to report that in aggregate, more than half of the opinions expressed were in favor of banning the event, and not least from Indonesia’s Minister of Religion.

But something about Hartoyo’s editorial did not sit well with me. His argument for legal protection for gay and lesbian Indonesians was narrowly constructed upon what another response described as “a world of rights defined by strata of acceptability.” I also left a comment under the name “kopyor”, and I reproduce a slightly revised/corrected version here:

 

Hartoyo makes the case to normalize his own sexuality at the expense of other marginal groups in Indonesia. He argues that he practices a ‘normal’ Islam, based on a mainstream Muhammadiyah upbringing, which “is not like those branded by ulema as ‘devious,’ such as those from the Ahmadiyah or Lia Eden sects, or even Shiites.” Whether Hartoyo meant it or not, the suggestion here is that within the diversity of Islamic practices found in Indonesia, some are less normal than others, and in turn less worthy of the recognition and protection he argues should be accorded to gays and lesbians. Then Hartoyo extends the comparison to “infidels” and wonders why infidels are accorded more respect and protection than gay and lesbian Muslims… again suggesting that infidels are somehow less worthy.
Hartoyo’s argument really falls apart when he sets up the supposed “legal protection” for religious diversity against the lack of it for sexual diversity in Indonesia. Sufi beliefs and practices are under attack in Aceh, the Ahmadiyah sect is under attack in West Java, and “kejawen” beliefs in the Java countryside are routinely belittled and condemned. In each of these examples, the formal modernist Islam that feels “normal” to Hartoyo (as “normal” as his homosexuality) stridently attacks its ‘other.’ And beyond Islam, the paranoia surrounding so-called kristenisasi (Christianization) is an excuse to prevent construction of churches and even to burn them down with legal impunity. In Banda Aceh, the local Confucian temple was prevented from holding a public celebration of Chinese New Year for the city’s Chinese community. Let’s not even start a discussion about Jews who officially do not exist in Indonesia.
I applaud Hartoyo’s broad argument that gay and lesbian Indonesians require legal protection. We need more voices, in particular from LGBT allies, and in Bahasa Indonesia especially, championing this cause. The FPI success in preventing an international LGBT conference in Surabaya constitutes nothing less than the failure of the rule of law and the triumph of vigilantism. But I condemn Hartoyo’s argument which implicitly throws other minority groups under the bus and forecloses possibilities for meaningful coalitions among Indonesia’s diverse communities.  –JHG