Sunday, March 01, 2009

Join the Club

Browsing the Globe's online archives last week I chanced upon a recent feature entitled, Converting for Love. The piece took a look at non-Indonesians (usually males, it has to be said) who have converted to Islam in order to marry their Indonesian partners. Most of the interviewees seemed very upbeat about life and said that they didn't miss the bacon sandwiches (I'm presuming they weren't lying here).

During my time in Indonesia I have also known a fine body of men who have converted to Islam in order to marry their local lady friends. In fact, only last weekend, my recently departed ex-housemate tied the knot with his girlfriend in a traditional Islamic wedding ceremony held in Kemang.

The happy day had finally arrived for my associate however his conversion last month had irked him somewhat. The vicar down the mosque had had a 10 point checklist which he had methodically run through. The list speciously set out why Islam was the one true path and why all other religions were wrong. Hmmm. After all the boxes had been ticked, my chum was declared a member of the world's fastest-growing faith and was now free to get hitched to his I mean betrothed.

Mind you, that's nothing compared to the sine qua non pre-marriage conversion that another acquaintance of mine went through a couple of years back. As he entered the mosque, his bag was checked by mosque security, who joked with him, "I'm just checking to see if you've got a bomb in here." My friend shot back as quick as a flash, "I didn't know you needed one." Rather cheeky although, ultimately, cosmic karma was restored when our jokester woke up half way through his circumcision operation after being given insufficient dose of anesthetic. That'll teach him to make offensive jokes.

Fast forwarding to last weekend’s wedding though, my departed housemate's nuptials were in many respects the classically Indonesian. The bride and groom stood up on stage flanked by the in-laws and shook hands with all of their friends before traditionally dressed Ibu Ibu, sporting the kind of voluminously coiffured hairstyles that look as if they could shatter in a hard frost, attacked the buffet like vultures swooping on carrion.

Being a mixed marriage though, there were plenty of palefaces in attendance. Most of them seemed to naturally congregate, in their ill fitting Batik shirts, at the side of the hall which was serving Heineken. There they stood, juggling glasses of beer and plates of food whilst chatting jovially (for some reason there always seems to be a lack of chairs and tables at Indonesian weddings). After the formalities, proffered congratulations and photo sessions were over, we retired back to my friend's new pad for a more informal shindig.

And so married life begins from my newly converted friend with the full blessing of his new faith. Other couples who choose mixed faith marriages don't have things quite so easy in Indonesia however. Many mixed religion marriages apparently fail here. This could be down to more corporeal, cultural factors however Indonesia is a country in which mixed faith marriages seem almost doomed to failure from the off. Couples have to leave the country even to register their marriage as being of mixed faith, which perhaps doesn't give their union the most auspicious start. Couples also face rejection from both parents and the community at large and what with the country's Ulema passing increasingly batty edicts regarding yoga and smoking, this situation can’t be getting any easier. I wish they would issue an edict prohibiting displays of public bigotry and ignorance. Then they could declare a fatwa on themselves and give us all a break.

Thankfully, there are some brave pioneers who are willing to pursue this more pluralist view of marriage. Good luck to them I say. In a country that has seen more than its share of internecine religious bloodshed over the years, and a world in which ethnic boundaries are being increasingly blurred by the synaptic networks of our technology, mixed religious marriage should perhaps be a paradigm to aspire to rather than an aberration to shun.

Mixed marriage is a question asked about the future of society in this country and something that we need a good old dialectic on. Maybe Islam could be the thesis, Christianity the antithesis and the well-balanced, open-minded children of mixed religion marriage, the much-needed synthesis.

Such marriages need not throw up the kind of child rearing problems that afflicted Woody Allen in one of his gags. Woody claimed that he was an agnostic who married an atheist and consequently the two of them didn't know which religion not to bring their children up in.

The current crop of religious deniers (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al) have all noted the religious labeling and the indoctrination of children in their work. We wouldn't label a five-year-old child a Marxist or a Keynesian but we seemingly have no objection to labeling him or her Muslim, Christian or Jewish and sending him to a religious school. How about letting them grow up first and then letting them decide for themselves? Amen.