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Indonesia: A View on Life There From an Ex-Pat
I have lived in Indonesia for 5 years. It is a segregated country with 26 different provinces (regions) that are occupied by different peoples with different religions and different beliefs going back thousands of years: the Javanese, the Batak (North Sumatra), the Minang (West Sumatra), the Malayu (South East Sumatra), and the Balinese (Bali). Each of these different peoples have distinct traditions and have constantly fought for superiority within Indonesia and in some regions,. Still today there are in- house disagreements.
The Batak people are mainly Christian, comprised of Catholics and protestants, and although they are at odds with the dominant religion, Islam, there don’t tend to be major problems. However, when these people migrate to other parts of Sumatra, they house themselves away from Muslim areas and do not integrate well.
In my experience, they tend to be more extreme than say Christians from Europe, as it appears they have to be for their own survival - living among a majority of Muslims. There is a smattering of Churches, however these are well outside the city that I live in. Indonesia has a majority of approximately 88-89% Muslim.
To become a government worker, police, or to join the military, you must be Muslim. The president and his government are of course Muslim. In other words, everything is controlled by Islam; the television, power companies, and even the internet is controlled by the government. Corruption is rife from the top, all the way down to small wooden hut type shops. (Although corruption is publicly condemned and against Islamic teachings it continues in everyday life in all parts of society). As for my experiences here with the people, I can define them into two groups - the old and the young generations.
The older generations are more devout Muslims. They will pray 5 times a day and observe the fasting month. The women do wear a veil (Hijab) when they leave their homes, however the burka is rarely seen. The older generation are generally more submissive to their husbands or male relatives - by which I mean they do not work, they stay at home cooking and cleaning, leaving their homes only to go shopping and collecting children from school.
The younger generation appears to be slightly more modern in its thinking. The girls generally do not wear a veil (unless it has been forced upon them by a male figure in the family). They are free to go out with boyfriends/girlfriends in the evening. They dress in a similar fashion to European girls with the exception that no flesh is revealed, so long tops and jeans are common fashion here. Skirts are worn, however shorts are worn underneath. They generally have a great deal of respect for their elders/teachers but one thing must be remembered: although they do not go to the mosque as much as their elders, they have a firm 100% belief in Islam.
This is engrained into them from the age of 6 months old. Instead of nursery rhymes being sung to babies, parents here prefer Arabic songs about Allah and Mohammad. Everything in life here is 100% Islam, with no exceptions. That’s sounds contradictory to what I just wrote but a modern outlook to life doesn’t supersede the overbearing belief that there is indeed a God and his name is Allah. As an English person here it is accepted that we are Christian when we arrive. From the first meeting in the immigration office (where there isn’t an option to put atheist on your application form) you have to put Christian (or of course Hindu or Buddist, it isn’t recommended to put Jewish). This puts us in no direct danger of any conflict with the Muslims here. They accept the fact there are different religions, however you always get the feeling that they HAVE to consider you slightly stupid in your beliefs that they HAVE to contradict.
After having spoken to many students here I find it interesting that history is not a school subject. Speaking about important past events, the average Indonesian knows next to nothing of world history. When I asked why they thought this was, their answers have always been similar - Allah has done everything up to now. In asking about the Dutch and later the Japanese invasions of Indonesia, that was plainly the devil’s work. Continuing my questioning, when I pointed out the fact that it was two mainly Christian armies who saved Indonesia from Japanese and Dutch colonialism, their answer is always the same – that was Allah.
In the Koran it says that people should not deform their own bodies on purpose. This lead to my being interested in circumcision for boys and girls in Islam. For the boys it is done as it is considered cleaner. It is a big ceremony conducted as a party, usually when the boy is 11-12 years old. The operation is usually conducted by an elder man or woman in the community after which there is partying which can last up to 2 days.
As for female circumcision, I’m afraid the picture is not so festive. Although not as gruesome as in Africa, it is still barbaric and done as a show of male dominance. When the girl is 11-12 years old, they generally stay a night in the mosque reading the Koran all night, and in some villages, having to rest their heads on a coconut so they don’t sleep. The operation involves cutting a small part of the clitoris off. The operation again can be performed by a male or female elder in the community but I have heard of girls whose clitoris being too small for the operation to proceed being massaged and rubbed to enlarge the clitoris before the operation can take place. The reasons for this operation are clear. With a small part of her removed, she will not be as sexually active as a woman with it fully intact, and nor will she get pleasure from masturbation or indeed any stimulation other than from her husband. The basic idea presented here is that women do not need to enjoy sex and should see it as a duty only to their husband. The older generation of women have 3 jobs in Islam. The kitchen, the house and the bedroom. The man’s responsibility is to work and earn money for the home.
Racism is rife among different tribes in Indonesia. A black person MUST be African, and it is unthinkable they could have been born in a European country. The word ‘Nigger’ or ‘Negro’ is used as a common adjective and is not thought to be racist at all.
Immigration law is very tough on illegal migrants - deportation being at your own cost. The cost of food is your own until you can arrange for friends or family to buy you a ticket out of the country. Migration is discouraged here. I believe Geography, also not taught in schools, is part of the reason. It is my belief the Indonesian government do not want their people to migrate as they are frightened of losing the control – their people may see and enjoy the modern world outside of an Islamic controlled country.
Could Indonesians integrate in to a European country? Absolutely not would be my answer. The lifestyle is too different and too ingrained on the people.
Are there moderate or extreme Muslims here in Indonesia? The answer is simple. There is just Islam. There is no in between.