Remember to Love: A Response to Islamophobia from a Non-Muslim Teaching Assistant in a Muslim-Majority Country

I read the news of the bombings in Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris on my smart phone.  And not for the first time, I wished I had better access to internet or access to a paper newspaper in my native language, because the news was simply too heavy to be coming from a piece of technology that can fit in the palm of one hand.  That weekend, when I had the opportunity to go to the local internet café, I spent hours reading various articles and watching short videos about all the events that had occurred within a mere 48 hours.

A myriad of emotions weighed me down as I immersed myself in a world of the news: blocks of text, photographs, and chaotic videos attempting to encompass all that had happened.  I was saddened by the loss of so much life in such a violent fashion, and that so many families and friends would feel that empty space so poignantly.  I was angry at the way different media centers were covering the various attacks depending on where those attacks had occurred.  And I was also afraid.  Afraid of how people’s reactions to these tragedies—for they were all, each of them, tragedies, and I would never call them less that that—would further encourage Islamophobia around the world.

Over the next few days, every time I got on Facebook or other social media sites, I was bombarded by standardized profile pictures and French flags, as well as various explanations—some thoughtful, others not so much—as to why people chose not to change their profile pictures or overtly support France.  I saw vehement protests against the media’s coverage of the various attacks, which certainly seemed to be problematic, at best; and I read reminders that readers are also partially responsible for how informed they are.

And mixed into all of this, I saw a wide range of articles, posts, cartoons, and videos that epitomized all that I had feared: a blatant, cruel Islamophobia that often encouraged the same kind of violence practiced by terrorist groups.  Perhaps even more dangerous were those more subtly prejudice, celebrating the United States’ Bill passed recently by the House of Representatives that might limit the U.S.’s acceptance of refugees from Syria, even though this kind of fearful response is exactly what terrorist groups such as ISIS are seeking to create.

As all of this saddens, angers, and scares me, I find myself paralyzed as I try to determine how I ought to respond.  I try to carefully choose articles and videos to share on my own Facebook timeline.  I unapologetically argue with people whom I feel are perpetuating the unfounded general fear of Muslims I see so often in responses to such tragedies.  And now I find myself attempting to write a blog post—which may only reach a few people, but will reach people nonetheless—and not really knowing what I can say that will have any impact.

I can point out, as so many others have, that Islam is not inherently more violent than any other religion.  I can iterate that 81% of ISIS terrorists indicted in the United States are American citizens, and none of them were from Syria.  I can beg readers to stop seeing refugees from Syria as potential threats, and start seeing them as people, as families seeking safety and security.

I can proliferate the voices of Muslims from around the world who have created powerful campaigns to counteract the wrong opinions so many have about Islam as a whole, such as the #NOTINMYNAME campaign which started in London, or the group of students who bravely wear pins proclaiming, “I’m Muslim, Ask Me About Islam.”  This might in theory be one of the best responses I can have to these events, because as an ally my voice should not be louder than those who are actually marginalized by such oppression.

But I also know that not everyone will click on links related to groups created by Muslims.  I know that, as generally non-religious American raised in a Catholic household, my voice is sometimes more palatable to a Western audience.  Even if I should not be the loudest in the room, I should also not be silent.  Perhaps, if voices like mine speak loudly enough, the world will quiet enough to allow the most important voices to be heard.

I have now lived in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country for over a year, and this year I even work in a madrassah, a Muslim religious school.  And while I recognize that Islam is very different in different places, and this will cause many to disregard my argument, as the most-populous Muslim nation in the world, I don’t think that my experience with Islam here in Indonesia can objectively be ignored.

Because so many of the positive aspects of my experience here have directly stemmed from people’s devotion to Islam.  I have been welcomed with open arms into two very different communities by some of the most genuine and kind people I have ever had the opportunity to meet.  I came here barely speaking the language, and only superficially understanding the culture, and I have largely been met with nothing but love.  There are multifarious reasons that might go into my being accepted here, some of which might stem from a uniquely Indonesian friendliness, some of which might be related to my privileged idolization as a white westerner, but when I have asked friends outright why they are so open and welcoming, a majority of the responses are the same: “That is what Islam teaches us.”

This has, largely, been my experience with Islam.  That Islam is love.

Yes, there are levels of conservatism that are unfamiliar to me, the Northeastern American dripping with sweat in what I feel is far too many clothes for Indonesia’s tropical climate.  But, again, this is the particular form of Islamic belief to which I am exposed, in the same way that the conservatism of the Amish and Mennonite communities I grew up around do not represent the beliefs of all Christians.   Yes, I find that some of problematic views on gender roles may stem from people’s religious belief.  But they may also stem from a plethora of other influences, and I, too, was raised in a religion that still does not allow women equal roles within the religious institution, thereby influencing many members of this religion to believe that men and women are not equal.

I do not believe that Islam is perfect.  But I do not believe that any religion is perfect.  I recognize that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims (to make a vague and under-analyzed assessment of a large group of people), just as there are good and bad Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.  I cannot ignore that ISIS claims in its very name to be an “Islamic” organization, even as I cannot ignore that the KKK claims to be a Christian organization.

But, for all religions I have ever had the privilege to be exposed to or to study, I do believe that at their core they intend to make the world a better place.  I believe that, at their core, they are about love.  Islam is not different.  Islam, too, is love.

All I ask of people as they react to the various tragedies that have occurred recently is to try to emulate this same love.  It is okay to be sad, to be frustrated, and to even be angry at all that has happened.  But do not direct that frustration and anger towards people who have done nothing wrong.  Do not allow your fear and your rage to close your borders and your hearts to those who need love the most.  Be sad.  Be frustrated.  Be angry that the world still seems to be more ready to hate than to love.  But do not hate in return.  Keep your doors and your hearts open.  Remember to love.

While working on various paperwork for AMINEF and materials for lessons earlier this week, I was pulled away from my table in the corner of the internet café by a group of excited Indonesians who wanted to talk to the foreigner tapping away at her keyboard.  One of them was a Catholic Priest who has worked for the last twelve years in a neighborhood a little outside of Paris, and we inevitable ended up discussing the recent situation.  He is originally from Gorontalo, and had only returned to visit his sick mother.  In slow, carefully chosen Indonesian that would ensure I would understand even though I am not fluent, he expressed his worry at being here while his parish is seeking to understand recent events.  He felt he had a duty to his mother and that he could not leave right away, but he hopes that he can go back to France very soon in order to guide his parishioners.  “They will be sad,” he said to me, “But I do not want them to be angry.  I want them to remember to love.”

It was heartening to find a kindred spirit so far from home, a reminder that all people are capable to the love we both desire so much for the world.  And it, combined with various conversations with friends both within and without the ETA program, gave me the encouragement I needed to keep speaking, even as I am never sure what exactly needs to be said. Just as this man will return to Paris and remind his parishioners that Islam is not ISIS, that Islam is the faith of his beloved friends and neighbors from the Muslim-majority city he spent his formative years, I will remind anyone who will listen of the same idea.

Islam is not ISIS.  Islam is part of the spirit that creates such beautiful smiles on my students, helps build the system of support I have in the teachers at my school, ensures I am never left stranded in this amazing, baffling country without a friend.  Islam is love.

Whatever religion we may or may not belong to, however hurt we may be by the pain of the world, we must remember this.  We must remember to love.

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That Time I Went to Church in Indonesia, or, The Religion Post, Part I

I want to begin this post by pointing out that I am not an expert in either religious studies or Indonesian history and culture.  Though I had developed a limited understanding of religion in Indonesia prior to arriving here, and though I have sought to further that understanding through continued reading and asking as many questions as I have deemed polite, I still feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of this dense and multifaceted topic.  What I present here should not be treated as gospel truth: it is merely a collection of personal observations I have made during my time here, intermittently accompanied by more technical, “factual” context where I have deemed necessary[1].  The greatest hope I can cherish for this blog post is that it may inspire some to delve more deeply into the topic of religion in Indonesia, one which I promise will not fail to captivate.

Agama (religion) in Indonesia is fascinating and complex. Indonesia officially recognizes only six religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), and in theory all citizens prescribe to one of these religions.  Semi-officially, they must do so in order to receive an identification card (in reality, I have heard that people will switch this religion readily in order to get married to someone of another religion, sometimes without actually changing their belief system, and I have even heard that it is possible to leave that part blank, though I have not yet met anyone personally who has chosen to do so). Even to register the Nokia mobile phone with which AMINEF provided all of the ETAs, I had to choose one of the six religions.

In reality, there is a presence—if small—of other religious thought in Indonesia, though it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of how they operate within the Indonesian context. For example, there is a very small Jewish population in Indonesia—which has suffered various degrees of anti-Semitism, depending upon the time period and location—but it is unclear as to the exact size of this population, since Judaism is not officially recognized. And while religiosity does differ from person to person, and I’m sure that some Indonesians harbor beliefs which lean towards atheism or agnosticism, I have yet to meet any who openly identify as such.

Because while Indonesians are more-or-less accepting of different religions[2], there is a certain expectation here that everyone is a believer in something.  I am asked which religion I belong to every bit as casually as I am asked my name and where I am from, and I doubt it crosses anyone’s mind that I might not belong to any religion.  Religion is a give-in here.

Religion is also exceedingly more present in Indonesia than it is in America.  We pray at the beginning and the end of every school day, even though we are not an explicitly religious institution (there is no separation of church and state here).  No hope or wish can be expressed without someone breathing a gentle “Amin” (Amen) or “I’ll pray for you”, and nothing good can occur without a joyfully expressed “Alhamdulillah”[3].  The United States is not devoid of explicit expressions of faith, but I feel I can say with some conviction that they are not nearly as prominent as they are here. Religion has infiltrated every aspect of life here, it seems, which is possibly why I have given it so much careful thought over these past seven months or so.

I have identified as Katolik (Catholic) while I am in Indonesia. My connection to this religion is not completely false—my immediate family, and a good portion of my extended family, is composed of devoted Catholics—but the fact remains that I chose to never be confirmed and have not attended mass regularly since I graduated from high school.  Consequently, I have avoided attending church while here: there is only so much hypocrisy I can tolerate in myself.[4]

Curiosity does tend to get the better of me, however, and I found myself wondering how an Indonesian Catholic mass might compare to one in the United States.   And so, on Easter Sunday, I accompanied a small group of my students to mass.

For the most part, the experience was very similar to those I had every summer Sunday for the first eighteen years of my life.  The pews were uncomfortable; the ancient, clacking fans did almost nothing to chase away the stifling heat; and more than one of my students nodded off during some of the more monotonously delivered readings.  The hymns were sung both beautifully and off-key, but always joyfully; the priest—an energetic man I couldn’t help but like, even if I did not understand most of what he said—began his homily with a hearty “Selamat Paskah!” (Happy Easter), and cracked jokes throughout, eliciting smiles and laughter from the entire congregation; and there was a general feeling of community which, while not limited to religious institutions, I have found is always present in such places.  To be sure, the pure white lilies traditionally associated with Easter were of a more tropical nature, and people’s Sunday best seemed much more likely to consist of batik, but for the most part, the similarities seemed to considerably outweigh the differences.

That is not to say that more substantial differences did not exist.  There were entire sections of the mass I did not recognize, and during some of the call-and-responses, I found that even the Indonesian I could understand did not quite translate to that with which I was more familiar, and which I habitually said, a small English whisper in a chorus of Indonesian.  My Indonesian is not sufficient for me to fully understand or explain all of the differences, but this much is clear: it was not just a mass in Indonesian which I attended, but an Indonesian mass.

In some instances, it seemed the parts with which I was unfamiliar might be attributed to the congregation being generally more religious.  The bowing and hand raising I have always seen described in the margins of the missal-ette (noticeably missing from the pews of the church I attended in Indonesia), but happily ignored by every Catholic I know, were well-known to even my students.  In fact, my students used various hand gestures I generally associate with only the oldest members of the congregation: even most of those in my parents’ generation do not use them, and I know of none in my own who do.  This strict adherence to the traditions of the Catholic Church would fit with my overall impression that religiosity is stronger in Indonesia than it is in the United States, but I cannot claim for certain that this is the case.

There was also substantially more singing.  Even the early morning Sunday mass at Saint Bernard’s—which my parents prefer to frequent in part because it tends to include more singing than the other masses—could not compare to how much I heard echoing in this Indonesian church. This didn’t really surprise me: if there is anything I can say confidently about Indonesians, it is that they enjoy music to no end, and are generally much less hesitant to sing in public than most Americans.  It is possible that the amount of singing I encountered was partially due to it being Easter Sunday, but even the holiday masses I have attended at home have never been so musical, and so I believe at least part of its presence was due to the culture.  I felt it only appropriate, really, that the one time I entered an Indonesian church I encountered more singing than spoken word.

I also observed that the demographics of the congregation’s population were very different from what I am accustomed to seeing in Malang.  There were significantly more people present who, from their darker skin and in some cases unique batik, I thought might possibly be from Papua or NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timor, or East Nusa Tenggara)[5].  Though I had not predicted this, it did not surprise me.  Though when the overall population is considered, Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, it is really western Indonesia which is predominately Muslim. Much of eastern Indonesia, especially including NTT and Papua, is actually predominately Kristen (Christian) and Katolik, and it is only because the population is so concentrated in the western part of Indonesia that it is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world.  In Malang, I have met very few people, outside of my own scholarship students, who are from outside of Java, and to meet so many in one particular place of worship says much, I feel, about the incredible diversity across this archipelago, and the role religion plays in this diversity.

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Still, there is no denying that in East Java, where I am placed, there is certainly a Muslim majority. Masjid-masjid (mosques) dot the landscape wherever I go, and I have come to understand time by the call to prayer.  This is my first time living in a Muslim-majority culture, and I have gained so much from the experience.  I have had the opportunity to attend Islamic holiday events such as Idul Adha, and have the traditions and stories explained to me by my ever-patient students. I have been blessed with the trust of students who have come to me for support and advice as they decide if they are ready to begin wearing the jilbab[6]or veil.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from this experience is that of the powerful dichotomy between local and global perceptions and privileges, especially as it relates to Islam.  There is no denying that my Moslim students benefit from being in the majority here, from the ease in which they are able to attend their place of worship, to their security in knowing that most of their peers will understand their religious tradition.  My Christian and Catholic students must travel the half hour into the center of Malang in order to worship, and my few Hindu students have on occasion expressed to me that it is sometimes frustrating how little their classmates know about their religious practices.  It seems, then, that my Muslim students are at a distinct advantage, at least in East Java.

But my students are not separate from how the larger Muslim community is treated on a more global scale, and this complicates their experience.  Many of my students have turned to the internet to help them practice their English, through chat rooms and e-mail pen pals.  Some them have told me stories of how people have accused them of being members of ISIS, or various terrorist organizations.  One of my girls became visibly upset as she told me how a pen pal of hers, whom she really liked and hoped to someday meet in person, had sent her an e-mail after learning she was a Moslima, and asked her, “Why are your people killing us?” She tried to explain that it was not, in fact, her people who were committing violent crimes, and that she in no way condoned their actions, as “that is not Islam.”  Eventually, she had to terminate all contact with her pen-pal, as her voice was not respected.

My Muslim students, many of whom aspire to study abroad in Europe and North America, often ask me various questions about whether or not they would be able to find a place in Western society: “Miss, can I find Halal food in America?”  “Miss, are there many mosques in America?” “Miss, will people stare at me if I wear jilbab?”  The shootings in Chapel Hill led some of my students to go so far as to ask me if they would be safe if they were to study in the United States.  I try to answer them as honestly as I can, acknowledging that there is very present prejudice against Muslims in many Western places, including the United States, while also ensuring them that there are allies everywhere, and that they should always be able to find someone to help them.

Living here has, in some ways, changed how I think about my responsibility within the religious tolerance of my own country.  As my students express their various curiosities and concerns, I find myself thinking about how little most Americans know about Islam, and how strong Islamophobia is throughout the country.  Many people—both from my small home town and from the supposedly-educated university city where I attend college—when they learned where I would be going after graduation, asked me why I would ever choose to live in a Muslim-majority country. Then, I was frustrated by their responses, and tried to politely contradict them.  Now, when I read articles about anti-Muslim acts and statements, I see the smiling faces of my Muslim students, some of the sweetest and most intelligent young people I know, it is hard for me to control my fury. Then, it was an objective recognition that the way many in the United States treat Muslims is wrong.  Now, it is personal.  I am still unsure how to react to this new passion for religious tolerance, and for now I am merely seeking to educate myself more fully, but I do know I must continue to consider my own personal responsibility, and how my experience in Indonesia will play a role in that.

In truth, perhaps the only statement I can make confidently about all I have touched upon in this post is that I am unsure about everything, and still learning.  Quite frankly, I could probably make that statement about everything I have sought to comprehend in this incredible, baffling place.  I have decided to label this post as “Part I,” because this is a topic, amongst many others, which I will continue to explore when I return to Indonesia this fall, and will probably, quite honestly, study for the rest of my life.  Even then, I don’t know that I will be able to come to any real conclusions, and will simply continue to find joy in the wonderment and confusion that comes from trying to understand the world I live in.

[1] Much of the contextual information I provide here stems from what I learned prior to arrival.  I was fortunate enough to take a World Religions course during my senior year, and I focused on religion, specifically Islam, in Indonesia for my individual research project. Regretfully, the entirety of my work for that class was lost to the capriciousness of computer memory, and I am unable to provide the reading list for that project, interesting and informative though it was.

[2] As I acknowledged before, anti-Semitism does have a fairly strong presence in Indonesia, and various other inequalities and prejudices exist as well.  I am in no way qualified to pass any kind of judgement on the quality of religious tolerance in Indonesia, though I have sought to understand it, in part through comparison of what I know of the religious tolerance in my own country. Although they do function in different ways, I have come to see Indonesia’s purported religious tolerance in the same way I see the United States’: technically, it exists, and there are many individuals and organizations which put this idea into practice in wonderful ways, but it is also undermined by both outright and unintended prejudice (which are equally dangerous, in my mind), on both an individual and systematic level.

[3] Though phrases like Alhamdulillah come from Arabic, and other ETAs have been told they cannot say such things unless they are Muslim, in my experience here even the Christian teachers use them.  I cannot say which opinion regarding their use is more prominent, and can only appreciate the difference as yet another example of the diversity present in Indonesia.

[4] This is not to say that I do not have the utmost respect for religions and those who practice them.  I have sought to learn more about various religions in our world both formally and informally, and for the most part I find religion to be quite beautiful.  I have merely decided that practicing a religion is not for me personally, and while I have not felt comfortable with the idea of talking about that here, I do not want to pretend to be especially religious either.

[5] My students, some of whom are themselves from these areas, were able to confirm this some cases, as they knew those particular members.  However, I cannot confirm that all those I saw are originally from outside Java, and it is quite possible that they were born and raised in Malang.  As I did not speak with most of these individuals, I do not know.

[6] Traditionally, once a woman dons the jilbab, or veil, she must continue to wear it in public for the rest of her life. In practice, I have met many Muslim women who started wearing the veil, and then chose to remove it later in life, as well as others who work in religious institutions and wear their veil to work, but not in other public spaces.  I have not personally observed any difference in piety between those who wear the veil and those who do not, but there are some who believe that wearing the veil makes one a better Muslim.  It is easy, then, for me to see why this is such a difficult decision for my girls to make.  I have one student who stopped wearing the veil, after having worn it since elementary school, and I have another who started wearing it for the first time, even though her mother insisted she would look more beautiful without it.  The careful consideration they give to this decision is a testament to their maturity, and the wisdom they already possess, and I am honored that they have confided in me throughout the process.