Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Let’s all Make Moonshine

Back from Bali again into the sweating maw of Jakarta. Time to relax on the sofa, I thought. Hunker down with a bottle of hooch and a few DVDs. One quick trip to Hero later hooch! Yes, Jakarta's supermarket shelves have been cleared of all spirits and hard liquors, although the beer remains, which will be of some comfort to the city's old soaks. What's it all about? Perhaps some Machiavellian clash of business interests? Alternatively, it could be a religious thing. I remember reading in the paper a couple of weeks ago about an alcohol ban in Tanggerang that was introduced by the governor there in a plea for religious morality.

Now, I've got no problem with Mansion House and other local spirits being banned on the grounds of public health (see last week's column about my near death experience with the M. H.) but when all alcoholic drinks are banned for doctrinal reasons, then I start to get the shakes. Islamic law has been roundly rejected by the majority of the Indonesian electorate, however, since regional autonomy devolved power to the country's various provinces, some local regions have created their own strict laws which at times seem to amount to a kind of backdoor Sharia. Examples of this include the aforementioned outlawing of booze, compulsory headscarves for female local government employees and night-time curfews for women venturing out alone. Such tensions between regional and national government have been largely overshadowed by the many corruption cases that have surfaced since the regions started controlling their own budgets, but they point to wider issues about the country.

Recently, some friends and I were having spirited discussions about Indonesia's claims to being a secular nation, i.e. one in which church (or mosque) and state are separate. On the one hand, this country has legal, educational and governmental systems that are ostensibly secular in nature and which are part of its European colonial inheritance. On the other hand though, Indonesian secularism, perhaps uniquely, is compromised in a number of ways. For a start, religious freedom is not total; you have five to choose from. Other religions, or people of no religion, such as my devoutly atheistic self, are not recognized by the state. In addition, inter-religious marriages and religious proselytizing are not permitted. So in fact, church/mosque/whatever and state are not wholly separate; they overlap in some pretty important areas. A person's choices of religion and marriage partner are, after all, central elements of their life.

True secular society is about freedom, it's a safeguard against persecution of minorities and it treats all faiths equally under the law, something that is definitely needed in a diverse and fractious country such as this. However, some people here are deeply suspicious of secularism, perhaps wrongly conflating the concept with all the anti-Communist/Socialist propaganda that they have been fed over the years. They see secularism has an anti-religious system, as opposed to something that guarantees freedom of, as well as freedom from, religion.

Laws aside, a secular society's success or lack thereof also lies in the application of its laws and in this respect too, this country could be doing more to safeguard its minorities’ civil rights. When Christians are reduced the holding their services in the streets surrounded by taunting Muslims because their churches have been closed by mobs and while the police do nothing, then clearly things aren't right. When mild-mannered Sunday school teachers are sent to jail for three years for inviting a couple of Muslim kids to a party then you have to question the country's claims to secularity. Hundreds of churches have been torched in this country over the last 30 or 40 years, making a mockery of Indonesia's "Unity in Diversity" national motto.

Alas, attacks on evenhanded secular government are also becoming worryingly more common in the West, where Christianity, despite its 600 year odd head start on Islam, still wrestles with narrow and oppressive interpretations of the Bible and with its own lust for social power. In the US, George Bush holds prayer meetings in the White House and suckles at the teat of the quite loony religious right. Elsewhere in America, firebrand Christians are attempting to negate the overwhelming evidence in support of Darwinian evolution by bringing creationism into the science classroom under its new name of, “Intelligent Design". Meanwhile, in the UK, man of faith Tony Blair has allowed the Church of England to take over more and more nonreligious state schools. These new elitist church schools select their pupils carefully from a wide area and have both good exam results and parents queuing down the street, whereas those that genuinely fulfill their Christian mission by recruiting from the bottom of the social pile, do not. Also in the UK, attempts to curb free speech through the introduction of new religious defamation laws are thankfully being vigorously opposed. After all, heresy and blasphemy are important traditions in the West.

Behind all these religious power struggles lies fear I guess. Fear of one's religion being eroded, fear of divine judgment and punishment and fear of an all-powerful god. Thus, very often, those of faith seek to instill the same fear in others, usually to the detriment of more moderate religious voices unwilling to use violence; just witness the recent confrontations between fundamentalist and liberal Muslims in Jakarta. However, fear is not an emotion that springs from man’s better instincts and is unlikely to bring about the utopia of peace, love and Joss sticks that we all crave.

Well I'm glad I've got that off my chest. Serious stuff this week but that's what the prospect of no booze will do to a man. However, let's lighten up for a moment. Can I take this opportunity to wish everyone a nice, politically correct, winterval solstice holiday season.

Simon Pitchforth