Indonesia’s Answer to Islamophobia: Fun

Indonesia’s Answer to Islamophobia: Fun

By Farish A. Noor

As the centre of my universe has moved to Central Java, I find myself traveling to the cities of Jogjakarta and Surakarta quite a lot. The last time I was there was during the celebration of Eidul Firtri (or Lebaran) as its called in Indonesia, just in time to catch the celebrations that customarily take place on the last night of Ramadan and on the eve of the month of Shawal. On that night, I set by the road in the middle of Jogjakarta, camera in hand, to watch hundreds of kids from their respective schools and mosques parade in the streets in a myriad of funky and funny costumes: There were Pokemons and Doraemons, Sponge Bobs, Devils and Angels, Dragons and monsters galore. I watched as the bands marched past blaring their horns and drums, and as the floats made of paper and plastic rolled past. As this colourful parade marched past, I wondered aloud about how and why there seems to be so much fun in this country, and so little elsewhere in the Muslim world today…

Now of course it is a well known and well established fact that Muslims celebrate Eidul Fitri all over the planet. Indonesia is not unique in this respect and one can make the rather facile point that celebrations are celebrations, wherever they may be. But one qualitative difference has always distinguished Indonesian Muslim celebrations from other celebrations I have seen elsewhere in the world, and it lies in one subjective factor that has to be seen and felt rather than theorised: Indonesian Muslim celebrations are fun. Yes fun. Remember what it was like, to actually have some real fun during Eid?

I throw this question to the readers for the simple reason that in my own accounting I have suffered a deficit of fun over the past two decades or so.

As a child in Malaysia I recall celebrating the end of Ramadan with fireworks, oil lamps, music and a jolly dose of cake-eating, which kids are wont to do. Ramadan and Eid were fun then, during those days in the 60s and 70s when the entire month of Ramadan was spent cleaning the oil lamps, filling them with kerosene, lighting them up every evening, buying (and hoarding) fireworks and having firework fights with my neighbours. Things however began to change as soon as the tone and tenor of normative Islam in Malaysia took a turn for the political and the Mullah-wannabes began to preach from the pulpit about the evils of fun and happiness.

By the 1980s, as Malaysia went into full swing in the spirit of an Islamisation programme that witnessed little fun but rather the rise of more and more conservative types in mosques and the Parliament, the element of fun was slowly but surely stamped out. We were told that music was haram, that the oil lamps were Hindu, that the fireworks were decadent and corrupt. Tell that to a seven-year old and you kill his love for fun for the rest of his life.

As a researcher working on comparative religious politics across the Muslim world, I have witnessed the massacre of fun from Pakistan to the Magreb, from Malaysia to Brunei. Which is why Indonesia is such a startling place for me, as it seems to be one of the few places in the Muslim world today where Muslims can actually be happy and have fun, despite the difficulties - both economic and political - that the country faces.

As an academic-activist who has been engaged in the constant effort to improve the image of Islam in the international media for years, I have been recommending Indonesia as the antidote to Islamophobia for years. Yes, it cannot be denied that Indonesia has witnessed the violence of religious communitarian politics during the conflicts in Ambon. Yes, Indonesia has had its share of radical militant groups that go around harrassing and even killing innocents when they can.

But at the same time these negative factors have constantly been balanced by an intangible factor that can only be accounted for through recourse to cultural essentialism: Indonesians are at the same time intensely proud of their cultural and heritage, and will not compromise that for the sake of some radical fundamentalist sending out messages of Jihad from a cave in Afghanistan. It is that sense of self-confidence, and the knowledge that Indonesians can be Muslims and Indonesians at the same time that perhaps accounts for how and why Indonesian society (particularly in Java) has not gone down the path of Arabisation as we have seen elsewhere; and that despite the millions of dollars that have been pumped into the countries by the Wahabbi and Gulf Arab states, it has not gone down the road of Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Malaysia.

It was also interesting to note how the Indonesians are prone to jokes and self-derision: As a country that has suffered an inordinate amount of bad press thanks to the negative image of Indonesia created by the Bali bombings and groups like Jamaah Islamiyah, Indonesians have learned to deal with this image and play with it. One of the parade floats was in the form of a giant stick of dynamite, made of paper and plastic, with the slogan ‘Islam is not Terrorisme’. Humour has never been needed as much as it is now, and such irony and humour are perhaps the best foils against an Islamophobic media that can only see Muslims as murderers, fanatics and terrorists. Tell that to the boy in Jogja as he sings ‘Allahuakbar’ dressed as Sponge Bob.

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Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor
Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Malaysia


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