Saturday, September 19, 2009

That Piece of Halibut Was Good Enough for Jehovah

Well it hasn't been a particularly holy month around the world if you ask me. Pitch battles have been fought outside a mosque in my home town of Harrow in north-west London, between local Muslims and fascist goons. It's a sad mirror image of what Indonesian Muslim hardliners have often got up to outside churches here over the years.

Meanwhile, Acehnese lawmakers have passed a bill that could actually see Indonesian citizens being stoned to death. Clearly I've seen Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' too many times because images of warungs selling packets of gravel keep flashing through my mind. Acehnese philanderers (mainly women no doubt) can now look forward to the full terminal rock 'n' roll experience.

According to a Mr. Iskandar of the PKS party,"We have received much support to ratify the bill. We hope with the existence of the 'qanun jinayat' that there will be a clear mandate to enforce Islamic Sharia in Aceh." Mandate? Ratify? That’s a nice little 21st century media sound bite isn’t it? The use here of the dull and bureaucratic language of modern secular democracy could almost make one believe that they were talking about implementing new parking regulations or something. I'm sure getting stoned to death merits prose a little more purple than this.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine converted to Islam last week in order to marry his local girlfriend. Down at the mosque, the cleric on duty ran my acquaintance through a short checklist which aimed to clarify why Islam is better than all the other religions. Apparently, Islam is the true word of God whereas other faiths were invented by man. My friend was informed that Hinduism was named after a river (The Indus) which supposedly disqualifies it from the off. In addition Catholicism was purportedly invented by the Pope (erm...) and, my absolute favourite, Protestantism was apparently founded by, "Martin Luther, the King". "God Almighty," I exclaimed when I heard that. Another convert for the lord.

Onto more personal family news, I also learned this week that my lesbian cousin has been impregnated by a gay male friend (probably a turkey-baster job) so that she and her life partner, who enjoyed a civil marriage ceremony last September, can have a child. I wonder how my cousin's unusual family setup would get on in Aceh? The Sharia police would probably have the gravel out before they could get through the arrivals hall.

I, for my part, was in the mood for some slightly more moderate religion this week. With this goal in mind I popped along to the Istiqlal mosque for a bit of peace and quiet. Muslims like to ask God's forgiveness during the final 10 days of fasting and many break their fast at the city's mosques every evening and then join in with the evening prayers. Some even spend the night or even the whole month down at the mosque.

I arrived at about 10pm and the Istiqlal complex was still a hive of activity. Outside the gates, sellers were hawking Islamic headwear and prayer beads; religion is always a good money-spinner. People were also tucking into a veritable Matterhorn of rice as well, not only outside but inside the mosque itself. "They are just breaking their fasts," the security guard informed me. "What? Still? They've been scoffing for four solid hours have they?"

People were sprawled all over the main prayer hall, sleeping, reclining or actually praying. Rather than the insomnia that the blaring of my local mosque usually induces in me, the gentle mantras of the faithful, as they filled the Istiqlal's huge central hall, started to make me feel a bit drowsy too. This was the real opium of the masses, as opposed to the amphetamine rush of the pre-fast wake-up call that's been a flea in my ear all month. The Istiqlal would make a great place for a concert of ambient music.

My guide, clearly looking for a tip, took me around the impressive mosque and gave me the rundown. The Istiqlal was built by former strongman Suharto in 1978, no doubt to burnish his Islamic credentials and thus confirming the Marxist suspicion that religion serves the interests of power. (Sorry, I'll stop with the Karl references). The mosque cost Rp.7 billion to build at the time and the site covers 10 hectares. The mosque itself can hold an enormous 120,000 people during Idul Fitri celebrations. The interior is a mix of Italian marble, Saudi Arabian carpeting and German stainless steel and the main hall contains 5 separate levels, reflecting the 5 daily prayers that are obligatory for all Muslims. The minaret is exactly 6666 cm tall and looms over the mosque, as does the national monument, Monas.

I was also shown the huge three ton drum, made from one single 300 year old piece of Bornean wood, that is thrashed enthusiastically when it's time to break the fast. Tour over, I gave my guide a Rp.30,000 tip, left the faithful behind and headed down to another local house of God for a few glasses of holy water. Worship takes many forms my children.