Agam's Gecko
Monday, October 25, 2004
Your humble correspondent is writing to you today from the central Javanese court city of Surakarta, also known as Solo. However let not that name be misleading, for if ever there was a place in which one is unlikely to spend much time "going solo" -- in other words, alone -- this would be it. This must surely be the friendliest little city to be found anywhere, and it's like that 24 hours a day. If one should feel lonely, or hungry, or just restless at 2 or 3 in the morning -- just going out to find a tasty glass of coffee or iced tea, some chicken sate or another of the variety of delicacies sold from little canvas covered warung street stalls, always meets with success. For along with one's tea and toasted tempeh, you can always count on finding some friendly conversation under the warm light of oil lamp or candle -- and if one is lucky the proprietor might even have a transistor tuned to the all night wayang performance, and the chiming tones of the gamelan orchestra add an extra dimension to the intoxicating atmosphere. This is the quality of Solo which gave it the nickname, Kota yang tak pernah tidur -- the "City which never sleeps".

I will be here until Saturday, when it will be the Argo Lawu Express overnight back to Jakarta, in time to fly home to Bangkok on Sunday. After all, no point in passing time in the noisy, hectic and smoky capital, when I can pass the time here instead. That might sound funny to some ("Wait a minute, isn't Bangkok noisy, hectic and smoky as well?") ... Yes, very true, but it's a lot better than it used to be. Jakarta beats Krung Thep in the unbelievable traffic jam department as well as the noise and air pollution departments nowadays, and after all, home is home. Jakarta would be almost unliveable I think, except for the fact that it's full of friendly Indonesian people, and it is they who make it bearable.

Of course it goes without saying, that the qualities that Agam finds so appealing in most Indonesian people -- tolerance of differences, an open and friendly attitude toward strangers -- is not quite universal. So one of the issues most talked about in recent days here has been the return of certain intolerant activities, as has become all too common in the last few years during the month of Ramadan. Certain Islamist groups are determined that if they are going to limit their desires for a month, then nobody else is going to have any fun either. So under the pretext of making sure that everybody "respects the holy month" they go about in bands to chase patrons out of bars and cafes that are deemed as potentially "sinful", and maybe smash up a few billiard halls to boot. Not that shooting some pool is necessarily equivalent to gambling, but it might be, and that's enough for these boneheads.

My friends here in Solo often say how disgusted they are with such behaviour in the name of their religion, at seeing such people making a show of pretending to be "pure" with their turbans and other Arab-like fashions to display their piety and "Muslim-ness" -- while destroying the property of others and closing down the workplaces of thousands of fellow Muslims. Where in al Qur'an does it condone the destruction of another's property, achieved by his own work and sweat? Not to mention the families of those who now have no jobs, and therefore no paycheck with which to feed their families during the "holy month" -- and especially when the Great Day at the end of Ramadan rolls around and one is expected to buy one's children nice new clothes, and the special dishes for the feasts on Lebaran? This is equivalent to Christmas for Muslims -- and just imagine if virtually all service workers in the entertainment spots of a Western country had to lose their jobs (and paychecks) for a whole month running up to the Christmas holiday.

There is an Islamist group called the FPI (Front Pembela Islam or "Islamic Defenders Front") which has been engaging in this nonsense every Ramadan for the past few years. But like my friend here says, "when there's flooding or some other emergency in Jakarta that requires volunteers to help, they're nowhere to be seen." The past few nights they've gone on a rampage in some entertainment areas of the capital, to make sure that everyone remains suitably pious -- Muslim or not. Well finally the newly installed Attorney General has had something to say about it, and hopefully it will give the police some backbone to take action against them. It's really pathetic to see how these thugs have been treated with kid gloves, simply because they use their overt religous piety as a shield. Police seem unwilling to get rough, but after some tough words from the minister concerned, I expect we might be seeing some arrests and prosecutions of the FPI leadership in the near future. The new A-G seems to be a no nonsense guy, and this is a very welcome attitude, according to many people I've talked to. He's apparently planning to reopen some dormant corruption cases against previously powerful figures, announced that he will be putting as a top priority the capture of the Malaysian fugitive terrorist bomber Dr. Azahari, and now made clear that he's not going to stand for any more of this FPI nonsense. It's about bloody time. And if catching Dr. Azahari wasn't a top priority for the last government, then somebody should have some 'splainin' to do.

There have also been some demonstrations in the capital and a couple of other urban centres in the past two days, demanding that the new government scrap the current constitution and install Islamic Sharia law for the country. Well a few hundred piously attired (turbans for men, jilbab for the women -- neither of which are traditional Indonesian articles of dress) demonstrators might look impressive from certain camera angles on the evening news, but these sentiments have limited appeal to the wider population. With signs reading "The People are Longing for Sharia Law" and "Join Together to End Secularlism" -- all I can do is wonder where these people live... perhaps in closed, like-minded communities. Because otherwise surely they would realise that "The People" at large are longing for no such thing. What "The People" are longing for is for somebody to get the economy rolling again, get some projects going that can hire workers, a government that can restore a sense of security so that investment can start creating some jobs. That's what people are longing for, and I have no idea how Qur'anic Law and stamping out secularism and tolerance for minorities' religious traditions will be particularly useful in this area.

Virtually everyone I know in this country -- and this is typical of people from all walks of life -- rejoice in the phenomenal diversity of their country. Diverse in religious traditions, diverse in cultures, diverse in languages -- everyone is quite well aware that these are strengths and not weaknesses. The silly desire of some minority of Muslims to stamp out this incredible variety and gentle tolerance, and force it all into a mold of their own narrow preference, just has no traction with the general population as far as I can tell. And I sincerely hope it remains that way.

If by some far fetched possibility, this country ever came to be ruled by religious fundamentalists of the Taliban sort, all the life would have been robbed from it and it would then cease to be a place worth visiting. And that would be an incomprehensible loss, so I am glad to report that such an eventuality remains well outside the realm of possibility.

I must not neglect to make one correction to something I wrote last week from Jakarta. I had said that Solo, in addition to being a centre of central Javanese culture (the Court of Surakarta being known for its refinement of music and performance styles), is also the home base of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and his fundamentalist pesantren known as Ngruki. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, the people of this city are not happy with the association -- and my good friend Hary has now enabled me to make a correction. The Ngruki school is in fact located at the edge of Solo's city limits, in the neighbouring district of Sukoharjo. So we can truthfully state that the old fanatic imam and his intolerant teachings are not based in Solo at all -- we can pin it on Sukoharjo instead.

By the way, Ba'asyir is due for another court appearance in Jakarta (on Thursday, I think) so it will be interesting to see what mischief his followers get into for the occasion. I hope and expect that the police will be in the courtroom in force, and be unwilling to stand for any of the rowdy nonsense that embarassingly made them look like such wimps the last time. A little pep talk from the new, tough minded Attorney General may be all that's required. "Look, you can arrest anyone who disrupts the courtroom -- whether he's wearing a turban or not." It should really go without saying, but unfortunately even police have seemed willing to be intimidated just by a silly little turban sometimes.

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