Giving Up on Clarity: Revisiting My Religion Post

Towards the end of my first grant as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), I wrote a short blog post outlining what I felt I had learned about religion in Indonesia during my short time there.  Because I realized how much I still had to learn, I promised to revisit the post during my second grant.

I never did.

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Mesjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.

This is not to say that I haven’t written about religion at all during the past two years.  As I mentioned in my first religion post, religion plays a role in seemingly everything here, much as it does throughout the world, and due to religiosity being perhaps stronger in Indonesia than it is in the United States (at least from my perspective), it was inevitable that religion, while perhaps not the main topic of my posts, played a significant role almost everything I wrote.  I was placed at an Islamic School during my second year as an ETA, which gave me ample opportunity to learn about the religion that a majority of Indonesian’s practice.  Recently, I remained in Indonesia after my grant almost solely to experience Ramadan in Indonesia, and of course wrote about my experience.  Visiting places like Toraja, I was able to learn more about how Christianity had adapted to Indonesian Culture (or how Indonesian Culture has adapted to Christianity, depending on how you look at it).  But at no point during past two years have I written a post explicitly on the topic of religion.

One of the reasons I avoid an overt religion post was because I didn’t feel qualified to say all that much on the subject.  This is part of what held me back my first year as an ETA, and why it was one of the last posts I wrote that year.  But religion seems to become a heavier topic with the passing of time, and I simply didn’t feel up to the task of addressing it, instead sharing articles and posts written by folks much smarter than I am.

This isn’t to say that I kept entirely silent on the issues surrounding religion and the roles it plays, or people believe that it plays, in politics and events around the globe.  I wrote my own piece against the Islamophobia I was seeing all over my news feeds and social media after the attacks in Paris in 2015, and during the summer between my second grant as an ETA and my time as the ETA Coordinator, I attended a local spoken word event to revisit the same topic.  Through conversations with relatives on Facebook and strangers in grocery lines, whether visiting the U.S. or still in Indonesia, I sought to do my part to combat the accepted ignorance that so many Americans have regarding Muslims.  The more I spoke, the more questions I asked, the deeper I realized this ignorance ran, and I confess I have felt wholly under-prepared for most the conversations I have had.

In turn, I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining and apologizing for American Islamophobia to Indonesians.  As a second-year ETA, I tutored several students through the application process for the YES Program, a scholarship that allows students to spend their last year of high school in the U.S., and following President Trump’s success in the Republican Primary, several of my students were pulled out by their parents, and not allowed to take the test.  A few of my students were still allowed to join, though I had to speak one-on-one with some of their parents, cautiously explaining that, though their fears were not unfounded, not all American’s shared such limited views.  One of my students actually qualified for the scholarship, a fabulous young lady I felt honored to teach and who would have graces any American classroom.  However, the final time her parents had to give permission for her to join the program came right after the U.S. election, and decided against allowing her to go.  They worried that in a country where the president had campaigned on the promise of a Muslim Ban, their daughter might not be safe.  I cannot say that I blame them.  A few months after this decision was made, I got to see this student in person, and it took all my self-control not to tear up as I apologized to her for what my country had done.  “It’s okay, Miss,” she told me, “It was a good experience, and I pray that I will have new opportunities to go abroad.”

But even as the facade of true religious freedom and celebration of diversity the U.S. started to crack, so too did it begin to fracture in Indonesia.  With a national motto of “Unity in Diversity,” Indonesia has long claimed to be a country of religious freedom, and has often been touted as such by many westerners as well.  I admit, I have always struggled to accept this idea, when people are limited to only six officially recognized religions in Indonesia[1], but if I questioned it before, there is no denying that I shake my head when people still try to claim this to be true after living in Jakarta through the many protests and the Ahok trials, and the anti-Christian and anti-Chinese-Indonesian sentiment that found a voice in the mayhem (in the same way that it is always difficult to decide if a person’s prejudice is based on someone’s religion or their race, people who were openly prejudice in front of me regarding Ahok couldn’t seem to separate his religion with his ethnicity)[2].  For a long time, I kept quite even during conversations regarding this issue for a long time.  Part of my silence was caused by my recognition that I am no expert on Indonesian politics, and part by my own guilt after the U.S. Presidential election: how could I speak out against what I was seeing in Indonesia, a country where I was a guest, after my native country had just committed what, in many ways, felt like a personal betrayal.  But though I was never able to write any sort of long-form blog that I felt satisfied with (I tried, I really did), I did eventually start speaking my mind on the matter, because prejudice is prejudice, and no teacher worth their chops can stay silent in the face of it.

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There is a Catholic Cathedral which was very intentionally build right across from Mesjid Istiqlal.  Indonesia, like the United States, is not without it’s attempts at pluralism.  But like The U.S., it doesn’t always succeed.

And though so much of my relationship with religion in Indonesia was as a learner, there are many times when I become the teacher.  Just as I have striven to educate Americans about the religions that they know so little about, I have had to correct Indonesians about their misconceptions regarding other religions, especially those that do not belong to the six religions recognized by the Indonesian government.  I had students and friends tell me that atheists worshiped the devil, and I had to explain that atheists, by definition, don’t in fact believe in the devil at all.  Anti-Semitism runs rampant in many places in Indonesia[3], and I was continually surprised at how uninformed people were regarding this religion.  Though Indonesian does have a word for atheist, aties, I had several friends instead use the word yahudi, which means Jewish.  When I questioned this usage, they happily told me that people of the Jewish religion do not believe in God.  Surprised by this, especially coming from Muslim friends who practice the religion from which the concept of People of the Book came from[4], I explained that people who practice Judaism do, in fact, believe in God, and in fact both the Christian and Muslim religions would not exist if not for the development of Judaism.  As someone with Jewish relatives, this was never a fun conversation, but it was a conversation that needed to be had, and the teacher in me didn’t allow myself to turn away.

How, amidst all of this, could I write a post describing what I had learned about the practices of different religions around Indonesia?  How could I, who myself could not pinpoint exactly where religion and ethnicity and nationality and age—etc., etc., etc.—began and ended and intertwined, say anything about the effect different religions have had on a country where I had lived for a mere three years?  How could I claim, in a world where followers of every religion seemed to forget how to be kind the moment they were in the majority, claim that the more I learned of any religion, the more I came to love it?

Because despite the horrors that end up in the news, the more I learn about religions around the world—through reading books, visiting places of worship, and talking to people—the more I come to love the effect that religion can have on people: both individuals and whole civilizations.  Whether it was speaking to my students or fellow teachers, for every comment or view that shocked me, there was one that warmed my heart, and made me feel so fortunate to be a part of this diverse—religiously and otherwise—human race.  And for every headline I saw that showed an American misusing religion to discriminate against a fellow American, I saw beautiful examples of how religion was motivating Americans to fight prejudice, both hidden in the news and in the work done by my fellow ETAs.  The more I sought understanding of religion, the more confused I became by the contrast of the horrors and the wonders that religion can inspire, but ultimately the wonder of the love somehow inherent to it all seemed to be somehow stronger.

Some might say I was predisposed to feel this way: I have long been an atheist whose favorite book is Life of Pi, a book in which main character loves God so much that he comes to practice three different religions.  Though I first read this book in high school, I revisited it each year while living in Indonesia, and it always seemed to have something to offer me along my journey of striving to understand the complexity of the religions around me.  For even as my time trying to puzzle out religion in Indonesia over the past three years has made me question everything I thought I knew about religion in Indonesia and America, it has also made me question, on several occasions, my own relationship with religion.  And while I have even fewer answers to those questions than I do to the questions about religion in Indonesia, I have come to recognize that if there is one thing of which I am certain: I seek out love wherever I go, and I always find it.  If I am to be accused of a predilection towards something, a tendency to love is one of which I will not be ashamed.

In short, I have learned so much, and nothing, since my last post on religion.  But I have learned that, despite this complete lack of clarity, I still love the subject, and I am not done exploring it yet.

[1] These six religions are: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confusianism.  There are those who practice other religions, but officially they must select one of these six religions (many who still practice more traditional religions are often registered as Hindus, for example).

[2] I do want to point out that there were many groups disappointed in the way that Ahok handled some of the programs he implemented.  Most notably, the eviction of many people who lived in some of Jakarta’s “illegal settlements,” in an effort to widen the rivers and prevent flooding (something that does need to be done, as flooding is a huge issue in Indonesia’s capital), did not sit well with many citizens.  Nonetheless, for every legitimate complaint about Ahok that I heard, I heard a purely racist or anti-Christian comment as well.  In many ways, it echoed my experience with the U.S. election: for every person who had well-thought concerns about the prospect of Hilary Clinton, there was another who felt it was okay to make a p#$$y joke.  I also need to point out that the blasphemy law that Ahok was taken to trial because of is a legitimate law in Indonesia.  Disagree with its existence if you will (I know that I do), but don’t confuse what might be unjust with what might be illegal.   (Unfortunately, unjust law still prevails in all corners of the globe.)

[3] A lot of this actually has a lot to do with the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  It is often difficult for Indonesians to separate the actions of the Israeli government from Judaism as a whole, in the same way that so many Americans cannot separate the actions of oppressive governments in the Middle East from Islam.

[4] People of the Book are those of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, who all believe in the same God and share some of the same stories.  This concept was actually developed by Sufi Muslims.  If you’re interested in more of these fascinating connections between the monotheistic religions, I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s History of God.

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One thought on “Giving Up on Clarity: Revisiting My Religion Post

  1. Pingback: A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

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