Categories
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
Conflict Indonesia

Reflections on the Recent Religious Violence in Indonesia

On Sunday (6 February 2011), a mob attacked the home of a local leader of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in the remote area of Cikeusik in Banten province. There is terrific coverage in The Jakarta Globe, the New York Times reported on it as well, and there are gruesome videos on youtube documenting the violence. The outrage on the Indonesian Twittersphere and facebook was pretty amazing and there was a protest by civil society groups at Bundaran HI yesterday, because this is just the latest in a long string of attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia over the last couple of years. But Indonesian leaders responded with sadly typical and embarrassing statements. The Indonesian president “regrets” what happened and ordered an “inquiry”, the Indonesian Minister of Religion blamed the victims, saying that Ahmadis were proselytizing and brought it upon themselves, and Banten’s governor said she hoped the incident would encourage Ahmadis to realize (insaf) their heresy and return to the rightful path of Islam. She even said that her government is sending religious outreach to the Ahmadi community in Banten to help them achieve insaf.

Now, even as I’m typing, in the district of Temanggung in Central Java province, Front Pembela Islam (FPI, or the Islamic Defenders Front) is attacking and burning down churches, at least three of them. For preliminary coverage in English, click here and here. On Twitter right now, there is good coverage if you follow hashtags like #Temanggung or #TMG

The protests and critiques have been eloquent, and I have very little to add but my support. Instead I’d like to quote in its entirety a kultwit (kuliah twitter), or a set of serial tweets, that my friend Daniel Ziv (@DanielZiv on Twitter) posted mid-day yesterday. His Twitter timeline is often full of biting sarcasm directed at Indonesian politics, celebrity, and society, but yesterday’s meditation on religion in reaction to the violence in Cikeusik, was serious and clearly from the heart. Before it gets buried away in the ephemeral Twitter timeline, I thought I would reproduce it as a complete text, with abbreviations removed. Each line was a separate tweet from Daniel:

Some reflections on yesterday’s [6 February 2011] awful attack on Ahmadiyah sect and what it reminds us about religion.

A passive government bears plenty of blame for the attacks on Ahmadiyah, but we allow far too many excuses for religion itself.

The tragic Ahmadiyah attack is a textbook case of religion’s dog-eat-dog nature; a primitive, medieval pissing contest.

Senseless, irrational things done in the name of something ‘sacred’ are immune to criticism, even by government.

If bicycle riding, atheism or jazz music caused this much evil and injustice, those activities would be immediately banned.

But religion’s inherent self-righteousness and claime to ‘absolute truth’ allows it to get away with anything.

From India and Iran to Ireland and Israel and Indonesia, violence is committed by religious groups. Those are just the countries starting with ‘I’.

“But REAL religion doesn’t tolerate violence,” we’re reminded. Must be a lot of ‘unreal’, deviant religion out there.

Far too often, asserting one’s religious identity involves not inward-looking faith, but one group’s singling out “the other.”

It’s time we recognized religion for what it is: a human social construct, a mix of folklore, culture, myth, heritage, history.

Religion is not the word of God, because there are too many Gods and too many religions for this to be possible.

If we were content with religion as culture/heritage, it could be beautiful. When it’s peddle as “absolute truth” it is dangerous.

One’s religion is entirely random, as accidental as one’s language, communal history and place of birth.

Met a young woman who’d just converted from Islam to Christianity. “So you decided that for 25 years you followed the wrong book?” Her: “Yes.”

Christopher Hitchens famously said: “Religion poisons everything.” Far to often, the faithful prove him right.

Tons of well-meaning believers don’t use religion to impose evil. Tragically, they are a far-too-silent majority.

Religion is too often driven not by faith but by blind faith; not by human morality but by herd mentality.

Faith can and should be deeply personal and introspective, but religion everywhere is externalized, arrogant, coercive.

Religion is mostly a reflection of society’s insecurities. We outsource our anxieties to a “higher entity” when we don’t know how to deal.

Religion is a lazy solution to identity: it sidesteps human complexity and independent thinking, offering rules and structure instead.

Religion co-opts self-evident human morality, re-brands it and makes it exclusive. The ultimate marketing scam.

Here in Indonesia, religious attitudes of “pasrah” and “Tuhan yang menentukan” are the greatest obstacles to our development.

Thanks for listening, Next week (if anyone is still following me) I shall tweet about atheism, which is not a religion. 🙂

People complain about the silent Muslim majority that allows this violence to continue. That is part of the problem, and I notice it daily, but I think it’s appropriate to note that Daniel’s kultwit was retweeted by hundreds of his friends and Twitter followers; he received lots of positive and very little negative feedback. I chose Daniel’s tweets because they were in English, and they go out on a limb beyond Indonesian politics, but there are plenty of well-informed and respected Indonesian public intellectuals that are speaking out too. I think it’s more than just a silent majority of Indonesians failing to speak out against this latest trend in religious violence. In addition to religion’s sacred and dangerous potency that Daniel identified above, there are those who leverage it as a tool for their own ends. It’s a chess game of power politics playing out systematically across the archipelago, using brutal zealots and religious minorities as pawns. It’s the potent combination of religion and power that explains why milquetoast President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his ministers, the police, and the legislators in parliament do not act to protect victims of violence, why public servants like Minister of Religion Suryadharma Ali and Minister of Information Tifatul Sembiring are able get away with statements that blame the victims, and why the majority of Indonesians remain silent in the face of so much outrageous inhumanity.