Monday, October 08, 2007

Beyond the Fringe

There's another week to go until joy is unconfined once more and the holidays begin in earnest. Ramadan's spiritual meditation and contemplative abstinence will finally find ecstatic release as the feasting begins.

Unfortunately, this year's fasting month has seen a slight resurgence of those elements who would seek to undermine this very personal of religious experiences with threats, intimidation, violence and conformist dogma. I refer of course to the antics of the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) who seem only able to find peace and enlightenment through extreme acts of religious catharsis, to wit: smashing up bars and food stalls.

It's a bit of a shame that these boys are on a comeback tour and we all know the arguments about there being no compulsion in religion and fasting being a personal choice etc etc. In fact, perhaps one could even argue that the FPI should logically be thanking food stalls and bars that stay open for providing Muslims with greater temptations to resist and thus the possibility of an even stronger affirmation of their faith through fasting. Logic though, doesn't seem to be a priority here.

To be flippant for a moment, you could imagine that a real challenge for a fundamentalist would be to lock himself in a room full of beer, cigarettes and women during Ramadan as a test of his mettle. Actually that's not a bad idea for a reality TV show. I reckon TVRI could go for it. It certainly couldn't be any worse than the soppy religious ballads that have been hitting local TV screens this month, which are themselves almost as bad as the Christmas novelty records perennially released in the West. As an added bonus, the show would keep these firebrands out of trouble and prevent them from raiding my local Warung (food stall) which seems to be doing a roaring trade this holy month despite their wares being respectfully hidden behind the ubiquitous Ramadan curtains.

So where do the police fit in with these rather vigorous defences of the sanctity of the holy month? Well, as with most other aspects of the law here, they seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to the FPI's antics. Last week, national police spokesman Inspector General Sisno Adiwinoto declared, perhaps rather optimistically, that, "The police, as an institution, keeps public order and safety."

Well, they occasionally do I suppose although I have, with my own eyes, seen the cops stand by and do nothing alongside the usual hordes of rubber necking civilians whilst the FPI go about their God-given roles of holy demolition men. Cynics may even suggest that there is collusion between the two groups for the purposes of rent seeking but we won't open that can of worms today.

A friend of mine texted me from a Kemang bar last week to tell me that the FPI were outside making a noise and scaring people. The bar itself has admittedly been guilty of the heinous Ramadan crime of serving beer in coffee cups in a hilarious re-enactment of American prohibition. Personally I prefer to drink coffee out of a beer glass during fasting month; my optic nerves could really do with a break from the local draught brew.

So what drives members of a given religion to act in such a super sanctimonious way? Aren't they being rather hypocritical? Unfortunately, there's no easy knockdown argument to confront them with. We may think that a suicide bomber is crazy, to take an extreme example, but within the parochial confines of his own belief system he may be acting completely rationally.

It's a sad fact about religious ethics that for every Dr. Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi there's a Taliban foot soldier or a US pro-lifer ready to shoot a doctor dead (I've always loved the irony of that one) for what they perceive to be completely rational beliefs. So with all this in mind and hoping to put the FPI in context, I ran a little Internet search this week trying to source out a few examples of ultra extreme fringe religious behavior.

One strange story I found concerned a Saudi man who divorced his wife for watching alone a television programme presented by a male. The Al Shams newspaper reported that the man ended his marriage on the grounds that his wife was effectively alone with an unrelated man, forbidden under Islamic law in the ultraconservative kingdom. Now that's really taking gender segregation into La-la land.

Then there's the US extremist Christian group The Army of God who once kidnapped women's clinic physician Dr Hector Zevallos (and his wife I might add) and held them for eight days in an abandoned ammunitions bunker.

A current bĂȘte noire of US Christian extremists are the Harry Potter books which have been accused of indoctrinating children into occult rituals. One website I found described the books as causing readers to, “Spill the blood of roosters, have goats rape virgins and eat newborns." Another web based rant that I found laid into the Harry Potter merchandising circus thus: "The worst product available to corrupt our youth was Potter's vibrating broomstick, now taken off the market under pressure from Christian parents, because it taught young girls how to abuse themselves and awoke their interests in the sins of the flesh."

Ulp!! Give me the anti-Bintang league any time. They can't hold a candle to these weirdos. Perhaps my favorite and most succinct encapsulation of the paradox of religious extremism though came during the Danish cartoon protests. There's a famous photo of someone holding aloft a placard which simply says," Behead those who say Islam is violent". It is perhaps an unfortunate fact of life that the most dangerous people are often the most religious.

But let's put on a brave face. Have a good week, feel the love, be nice to each other and remember that your teacup is ultimately half full rather than half empty. And best of all, it's not filled with tea either.