Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breakin' Rocks in the Hot Sun

Well it's been a somewhat less than enlightening time in Indonesia over the last couple of weeks. The Youtube video of the Ahmadiyah killings certainly gave me a few nightmares and made me wonder about the new religious orthodoxy sweeping the nation in a scrum of white robes, wispy beards and incandescent rage ready to boil over and be directed against anyone who has the audacity to hold different beliefs.

The philosophical argument that orthodox religion makes people less, rather than more moral is one that I, as a card-carrying infidel, fully subscribe to. Given that our morality, like our physical bodies, has evolved and is innate, we should have the courage to rely on our own convictions and judgements.

In contrast, dogmatic beliefs demand that the faithful follow rules strictly, like automatons, without thinking or questioning why they are taking certain courses of action, or why certain acts are either moral or immoral. Fundamentalists lack moral finesse and depth as a result. Their morality is merely reactive. What Nietzsche dubbed a slave morality.

Well that's enough from Atheism 101 for another week. The president is quite rightly copping plenty of flak over the incident. As the philosopher Hegel pointed out, the most dangerous ideology to any government is its own. For example, despite the still stubbornly persisting anti-communist rhetoric, I think it is fair to say that communism is not a major threat to Indonesia these days. There certainly aren't any on the political scene, as there still are in other countries.

 No, the real threat to Indonesia’s elites is the ideology that they actually pledge their allegiances to, namely secular democracy. It’s a threat because people might have the audacity to expect their leaders to live up to these ideals, and actually do what they say they're going to do.

So will the Indonesian public at large rise up once again and walk like Egyptians? Well they are certainly down with the whole social media thing that's supposed to be so potentially insurrectionary these days, although I'm not sure that for the most part it actually stretches much beyond taking a picture of the ‘soto ayam’ that they had for lunch on their Blackberries and then posting it up on Facebook under a status update that says, "This is what I had for lunch, yummy!"

And what of the actual forces of law and order, the police, what were they doing during all this mayhem? Well they were standing by in their ill fitting brown shirts, with epaulettes the size of Korans, and watching it all happen it would seem. Possibly they have sympathies with the rioters, I mean there are plenty of circumstances under which an Indonesian policeman won’t think twice about kicking seven shades of crap out of somebody, you just ask Amnesty International.

Ultimately though, what the apoplectic critics of the police force that have filled the media over the last week have failed to grasp, is that the actual law is largely irrelevant to most things that happen in this country. The police force has been essentially privatised here, and the public can avail themselves of a full range of law enforcement services, which can be bought for an easily payable, interest free fee. Simply pop into your local police station and pick up a price list. I believe there's a 30% discount this month on having a bothersome business partner arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts and then banged up in the slammer.

Thankfully, I've never enjoyed the edifying experience of having an Indonesian policeman’s size 9 wrapped around my ear hole. Although, over the years, I have been stopped more times than I care to recall in those classic, late night ID checks. If the policeman rejects your photocopy, the only way out is, as the British euphemism goes, to "Buy a ticket to the policeman's ball." God knows when this Indonesian policeman's ball is actually going to take place, but they’ll need to hire Gelora Bung Karno stadium on the big night in order to accommodate the crowds.

The main reason for such late-night tappings on the driver's side window in any normal country would be to administer a breathalyser test. However Indonesian law enforcers generally seem unusually unconcerned about being confronted with a motorist driving with one eye open, who greets them with a hiccup punctuated, "Malamat Salam." Strange really, as our brave boys in brown could surely rake in a fortune if they attempted to actually enforce drink-driving laws here.

My most recent run-in with the cops here came after I executed a U-turn I apparently shouldn't have.
"Mister, look at the sign, no U-turn."
"Ah, I see now, yes there is a sign there, not the most visible of signs it has to be said, what with it being unlit and at night time, and I also see that it's been deliberately bent behind the tree in front of it so that no one can see it."
"You can help me Mister?"
"You pay now."
"Just enough for one packet of cigarettes, come on Mister!"
"Lord almighty, have some dignity man."
Thus it ever was and ever shall be. Amen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Phil Me Up

More comparative study touring this week folks, this time to the Philippines, somewhere I'd never been before. Alas though, Tony Fernandes' AirAsia doesn't fly to the country for some reason (you'd think he'd be a shoe in with a name like that) so I had to bag a non-budget Air Philippines flight to Manila. Four hours later I touched down at Ninoy Aquino airport and took a taxi that was every bit as dodgy as the ones down at Soekarno-Hatta into town.

It turns out that Manila is similar to Jakarta in many respects, only with more pork, booze and firearms on the menu. The capital of the Philippines is both crowded, traffic jammed, polluted and possessed of a rich/poor chasm that would turn Dick Cheney into a socialist. The people also look exactly like Indonesians, although frustratingly, and rather inconsiderately in my view, they don't speak any Indonesian.

I soon found myself taking in all the classic tourist sites, including a walk through the huge and action packed Rizal Park to the waterfront (which, I have to say, looks considerably cleaner and less likely to be incubating horrendous skin diseases than the turgid stuff sloshing around in Jakarta Bay does). Eventually it was time for a feed. I passed on a local fast food chain called Chic Boy but I felt unwilling to delve into the whole transgender can of worms that the name seemed to imply. Instead, I headed to an infamous bar called the Hobbit House and ordered up an Elvis flooring amount of pork.

The Hobbit House bar is rather unique in that its serving staff are all of diminutive stature. Basically they’re midgets and dwarves, as the not so politically correct terms for these delightful creatures have it. It was slightly unnerving to have one's beer poured by someone not much taller than the tabletop and I wondered if it was all a subtle psychological ploy to make the food portions seem larger in comparison with their tiny frames. I also speculated that naughtier Asian bars could exploit the low-on-the-ground-ness of the female waiting staff to offer customers various other services whilst they supped on their beers.

The classic rock covers band was soon shaking their locks though and, despite my usual misgivings about such bands, I had to admit that they were pretty good. The Philippines is famed for its musicians and, to be honest, the band that I saw at least, micturated all over their Indonesian counterparts from a great height.

The next morning it was time to jump on a bus bound for the beach. As I waited outside the hotel, I noticed a sign next to the security guard in the lobby saying, "Please deposit your firearms here." This is certainly not something you see in Jakarta thank God, as the place would be a bloodbath if your Budi Average was allowed to pack a piece.

The Philippines' recent history is somewhat intertwined with Uncle Sam of course, although I'm not sure that this desire to bang away like a porn star on speed is indigenous to the country or has been largely influenced by the old Charlton Heston brigade. In any case, I'm sure that Filipinos don't quite stretch to insisting, like Chuck, that they will only be separated from their weapons when they’re prized from their cold dead hands. Mind you, when Douglas MacArthur (in many respects perhaps a Heston antecedent) strode ashore and declared to the people of the Philippines that, "I have returned," presumably he was packing a few shooters in his belt.

Three hours from Manila, lays the tourist island of Mindoro and I thought that this would offer a genuine comparative study tour opportunity. It would thus afford me the chance test my firmly held belief that the people in charge of tourism in Indonesia, far from being experts in their own country’s geography and culture, would in fact find it hard to locate their own private parts without the aid of GPS system and are about as marketing savvy as a man who's just come up with a, "Honk if you're Ahmadiyah" bumper sticker.

Mindoro is a gorgeous place in fact and offers top diving, waterfalls, beaches, snorkelling, hot springs and mountains, much like any Indonesian island worth its salt in fact. Where it differed though was in its tourist numbers, which seemed to be at that Goldilocks, "just right," level. Neither creaking under the weight of sheer numbers with an infrastructure pushed to bursting point, like the comparably sized Bali is, but at the same time enjoying enough visitors give the place a bit of fun and life, unlike pretty much everywhere else in Indonesia outside of Bali, Mindoro is everything that islands like Lombok or Belitung could be, but aren't.

Alas, it was all too soon time to return to the Big Durian. I hadn't had nearly enough time to work on my pork belly, but it had been a thoroughly decent break from the psychic distress that Jakarta inflicts on me on a daily basis. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Friday, I'm in Prayer

This week, I attempted something that, I have to admit, filled me with a certain amount of foreboding and trepidation. Specifically, I strolled to a mosque across the road from my office for a good old Friday prayer session. Five times per day is de rigueur for Mohammedans everywhere and Friday prayers, known as Jumu'ah in Arabic (presumably the root of the Indonesian word 'Jumat' meaning Friday, etymology fans) are considered a special part of the week and apparently attendance is compulsory for all the chaps.

Women can also attend if they want but must remain in their own section at the back (in prayer as in life, one might conclude). There is a passage in the Koran which states that, "O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly), hasten earnestly to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business (and traffic): that is best for you if ye but knew."

Now, I think we can all testify to the business being left off every Friday lunchtime, and the perennial shrug of the shoulders followed by the age-old refrain of, “Sorry, it's Friday prayers, cannot... no ambulances until at least one o'clock I’m afraid Sir."

The traffic part in the above quotation is perhaps not observed with quite the same fervour however and I'm assuming that double parking in front of mosques, creating huge snarl ups, is not considered a mortal sin. Mind you, I'm guessing that camel jams were infrequent in Medina two millennia ago, and so perhaps religious guidance on this matter could be considered sketchy.

And so, I joined the guys as they spilled across the road with their hats and prayer mats last Friday and attempted to remain as inconspicuous at possible. I didn't have either a hat or a prayer mat myself alas, however I doubt that the possession of said items would have helped me in my quest for a low-key presence. I was in the, "Hello Mr" zone that's for sure and soon relaxed. It certainly beats worshippers spilling out of mosques pumped up on fiery anti-infidel demagoguery, ready to burn a few flags, throw a few stones, do a lot of shouting and set fire to my trousers, as is wont to happen elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Christopher Hitchens, the world-famous polemical atheist (who is now in the throes of terminal cancer, much to the delight of his religious critics) was once told by a devout Christian that he would surely feel safer knowing that a group of hypothetical met that were walking down the street towards him had just come out of a prayer meeting. Hitchens replied that far from being a hypothetical situation, he had had this experience in Belfast, Bethlehem, Bombay, Belgrade, Beirut and Baghdad, and when you see groups of men coming out of prayer meetings in these places, you know exactly how fast you have to run in the opposite direction. And that's just the Bs!

Obviously Indonesia has yet to reach this stage, although worrying signs of religious intolerance have been creeping into the country's body politic in recent years. Radicalism seemed far from the agenda at my local mosque though, and I removed my shoes and socks and quietly made my way around the back of the congregation to observe proceedings.

There was no fiery rhetoric this time, only imprecations to do God's will, whatever that might be on any given day. After the sermon and prayers, the faithful spilled out onto the street and, instead of burning effigies of Binyamin Netanyahu, instead hit the mini-marts and local warungs for a decent wedge of divinely blessed drinks, smokes and rice.

As I chomped on my beef rendang, I asked one of the guys how he’d feel if a church was built opposite the mosque. "Well, it's okay if the locals agree," he replied, as if this position delineated the absolute pinnacle of enlightened religious tolerance. Unfortunately though, this is the law now in Indonesia and religious freedom for minority faiths is dependent on the whims of the majority. The government has set an appalling example here by demanding signatures of local communities before and by allowing members of the public to enforce this law, thus legitimizing the lynch mobs that have started to run riot.

"I saw you at the mosque Mr. want to become a Muslim?" I politely declined, prostrating myself five times a day under the auspices of a religion whose name translates into English as, "submission" runs somewhat counter to the independence of mind and thought that I cherish so dearly. No, if I had to choose a faith, I guess that I’d be strolling around the base of Mount Olympus. At least the gods up there didn't really care too much about the affairs of men, at least not in the sense of giving him a list of rules to be adhered to strictly without question. This left the Greek mortals down below free to philosophically enquire into the nature of life and reality, unmolested by religious dogma, a project that proved moderately successful by all accounts. Now where's my toga? That should turn a few heads down Mampang way next Friday.