Keeping the faith

WHEN I RECEIVED the link to a blog post by someone preaching that Muslims should not use contraception, of any kind, I was taking a taxi from Juanda International Airport, Surabaya, to Airlangga University. My close friend sent it to me via Whatsapp, accompanied with a message: ‘You need to read this.’ I skimmed over the article.

According to the writer, it is every Muslim’s responsibility to bear Muslim children in order to outnumber the infidels. He further explains that Muslims must not stop spreading Islam, and that their children are the future Muslim soldiers who will bear this holy duty. They will engage in intellectual fight through da’wah – described as a way to share information about Islam, though, for over-eager Muslims, it means convincing others that there is no truth but the truth of Islam – or, literally, fight for the cause of Allah. He goes on with a justification of polygamy, for it is another way that can be chosen to bear as many Muslim children as you can. He decorates his article with verses taken from the Qur’an and Hadith that support his argument.

I was very irritated with his simplistic notion. I was disturbed by his ignorance about the crisis of food and land already haunting this Earth due to overpopulation. He seemed to forget that raising children does not mean merely providing them with basic needs, but also education. Having many children without the ability to provide a healthy environment and good education will only add to the number of unqualified young people competing for an already tight labour market. I was also annoyed by his laziness in crosschecking the verses he quoted with others that, as paradoxical as it may seem, support family planning. From what I understand, (natural) birth control is permissible if becoming pregnant will be hazardous to a woman’s life. What disturbed me the most, however, was how he considered women no more than a repository of babies.

I snorted and texted my friend. ‘This is how a stupid, perverted man tries to justify his hobby of having multiple wives.’

A few minutes later she replied, ‘Since when have these stupid men grown so many? Shameful!’ And followed by, ‘Sorry to say, but this often makes me sick of my own religion.’

Many times, I have been broken-hearted over Islam because of these over-eager people. When I was in high school I decided not to join the Rohani Islam (Islamic Spirit) club, for I was irritated with the preaching its members delivered. I was a freshman at the time. We were all required to have extramural activity, and were given a week to choose the club we wanted to join. I attended the Rohani Islam club orientation, which was held in the school musholla (Islamic prayer room). We were divided into two groups, male and female students – if not legally married, the two sexes should not stay in the same room. The female freshers and I listened to a female sophomore who gave us a lecture about being a good Muslim woman. I could not resist the temptation to snooze. However, my eyes widened instantly when she lectured us about the importance of being a good wife. In her opinion, a wife must submit herself faithfully to her husband, for every wife who does so will be rewarded with heaven. She added that this kind of wife would be allowed to enter heaven from every door. I was angry, but kept my mouth shut. I decided not to join the club or be in touch with its members. I avoided them at all costs.

HOW SHOULD I describe my relationship with Islam? I was born with it. It is common for children to assume their parents’ religion; when they get older, they may embark on their own spiritual journey. This journey has two finish lines: one line will be reached by those who remain faithful to the religion they were born with, the other by those who either convert to a different religion or become atheist. My mother reached the latter finish line. She is Chinese–Indonesian – most of whom embrace either Christianity or Buddhism – and was born Catholic. She converted to Islam when she married my father. But she is a faithful Muslim, because she thought she had found what she was looking for in this new religion. I, however, am Muslim because my parents are Muslims. Islam is something I took for granted.

Being a Muslim in a country that has the largest Muslim population in the world technically makes me belong to the majority. However, because of my look, people usually think I am a muallaf – a term generally used to refer to people who convert to Islam. I inherited the Chinese look from my mother: lighter skin and narrow eyes. Although religion and race are two different things, people tend to equate them. That is how stereotype works. I am used to being thought of as a muallaf. It did not really bother me until the May 1998 race riots that occurred throughout Indonesia. It was then that I realised I was lucky to be born Muslim in this country.

Observing the history of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, being Chinese–Indonesian, or looking like one, is not something I should boastfully declare. Since the mid-eighteenth century, anti-Chinese riots have occurred. I imagine the reason was, for the large part, economic jealousy. Due to a boom, the number of Chinese immigrants in the East Indies increased rapidly, and many of them visibly succeeded in business. Seeing this as a possible threat to the Dutch East India Company, the colonial government implemented a policy requiring Chinese people to carry registration papers. Those who did not comply would be fined, imprisoned or, worse, deported. While the initial target of this policy were unemployed Chinese newcomers, it also created an opportunity for the government to extort those who were succeeding. Unrest grew significantly among the Chinese population. In 1740, ten thousand Chinese were killed in Batavia by the Dutch colonial government. That was how the colonial government responded towards ethnic Chinese uprisings. In 1912 and 1918, anti-Chinese riots occurred in Surakarta and Kudus respectively. Although spurred by business rivalry between Chinese and local merchants, the issue of Chinese nationalism was raised. In 1965, after the failed coup’d état of the Indonesian Communist Party, Chinese–Indonesians again became the target of slaughter due to an anti-communist purge. And of course, the May 1998 riots.

Factual details aside, Chinese–Indonesians are generally seen as everything that does not represent the Indonesian majority: they are not indigenous Indonesian, they are not Muslims and they are not poor. In Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Cornell University Press, 1952), George McTurnan Kahin mentioned how the Dutch protected and favored the Chinese, believing that with Chinese help, exploitation over native Indonesians could be efficiently achieved. Sentiments about ethnic Chinese grew more intense in the 1990s, stimulated by a meeting between former president Suharto and the most powerful businessmen in Indonesia, who were mostly ethnic Chinese. This spectacle was nationally televised. The May 1998 riots were the peak of latent resentment and suspicion of ethnic Chinese.

During the New Order regime (1966–98), former president Suharto worked hard to make Indonesia a safe place for foreign investment. Peace and social order should be maintained. There was a magic word in that era – SARA, an acronym for Suku (ethnic), Agama (religion), Ras (race), Antargolongan (social class). It was used to indicate that we were not supposed to raise an issue regarding differences in ethnic, religion, race or social class. It might sound ideal, except instead of providing intellectual means for having healthy dialogue we were not allowed to talk about this at all. Anyone who complained might be arrested for political agitation. Cultural historian and political activist Hilmar Farid accused the Suharto regime of taking the easiest way to avoid social problems arising from these differences ‘by hiding them under the carpet’.

I WAS FOURTEEN when the May 1998 riots broke out – perhaps too young to understand historical racial sentiments towards ethnic Chinese in this country. Nevertheless, it was very traumatic. When the riots started there were only my sister, my maid and me at home. My father was having a meeting in Puncak, West Java, and he was unable to return because it was too dangerous. My mother, too, chose not to come home from her office and stayed at our relative’s house. My sister, my maid and I could only watch what was happening on television and pray that the mobs would not come. Our male neighbours were on guard, protecting our residential area. My sister and I could not sleep that night because we were worried about our parents.

The next morning my mother’s boss called, asking how my mother was. I said she stayed at our relative’s house. Then he said, ‘Tell your mother to wear a headscarf if she goes out. But it’s better for her not to go anywhere.’ I did not understand what he meant at that time. I called my aunt, asked to speak to my mother and gave her the message. Both my parents came home later that day. We did not go out for the next three days, keeping our eyes glued to the television. From the news, I learned that ethnic Chinese had suffered the most from the riots. Their stores were looted and burned down, the women were sexually assaulted, and many were brutally killed.

I went to school again about a week after the riots. I rode on a bus, and through the window I could see abandoned stores among severely burned buildings, with ‘this store belongs to Muslims’ written over them. I never knew whether the stores’ owners were really Muslims. I could only ask myself, ‘Did Muslims do this?’ In that moment, I fully realised how my appearance might put me in danger. In my naivety, I also thought that Islam could be my protection, although I refused to fully cover my body. I was not ready. I thought that when I reached seventeen, I would have an ID card on which Islam would be written as my religion. By then I would have hard evidence that I am a Muslim.

Indonesia experienced a huge political change after Suharto’s resignation in 1998. While it welcomed democracy, radical Islamic movements also rose quickly to the political stage. The push for freedom of speech also seemed to reveal the prejudices that had, for a time, been hidden under the carpet. I remembered how Muslim political parties refused to support Megawati Sukarnoputri for presidency simply for being a woman. Sermons delivered in mosques, about how Islam has warned that people who appoint women to be in charge will never prosper, were infuriating. Not to mention the numerous Islamic terrorist attacks, nationally and internationally. I might be protected from the whole political turmoil because I am a Muslim – because I am part of the majority – but I could not deny how my disgust towards the extremists made me doubt my religion.

SO I LEFT Islam. It was around 2005, when I was staying in Japan as an exchange student at the Center of Japanese Studies, Nanzan University – four years after 9/11, three years after the first Bali Bombings, and two years after the JW Marriot Hotel bombings and a year after the Australian Embassy bombing, both in Jakarta.

Being Muslim in a foreign country, which culturally does not possess the same concept of religion as Abrahamic religions, I was stripped of privilege as part of the majority. All of a sudden I felt that I was put on the same plate as fundamentalist Muslims, simply because of my religion.

Before the major Islamist terrorist attacks, Muslims were largely seen merely as puritans who didn’t eat pork, prayed too many times a day and refused to have a good time because they avoided booze and nightclubs. Not to mention that in Islam, having a romantic relationship before marriage is discouraged and women are fully covered. Since the attacks, however, we have also been seen as a threat. During my stay in Japan, most of my friends were foreign students and many of them were Americans. They often questioned me about Islam, probably out of curiosity, but in my ears their questions sounded like accusations, since most of them began with the word ‘why’: Why do you have to pray five times a day? What if you are very busy? Why do you have to pray in Arabic? Won’t your God understand your prayer if you say it in another language? Why are you not allowed to eat pork? Why are you not allowed to drink alcohol? Why are Muslim men allowed to be polygamous? Why do Muslim women wear a headscarf and clothing that fully covers them? Isn’t that a form of oppression? Why don’t you wear a headscarf? Why does Islam encourage violence against non-Muslims?

I tried to answer each question merely by repeating what my religion teachers said at school. To be honest, those questions were also my questions. But they were undeclared questions because we were not taught to be critical, especially regarding the religion we were born with. We are supposed to accept it as what it is, because if we don’t we will be condemned to hell. Listening to how I now answered them mirrored the experience I had with my religion teachers. Only this time, I stood in my teacher’s position, unable to give satisfactory answers. It made me angry, with my religion teachers and myself. I was angry with them because they did not nurture critical thinking, and I was angry with myself for repeating the answers I had doubted for quite a long time. Eventually I got tired of being interrogated. That, and the opportunity of temporarily freeing myself from strong social control, lead me to leave my faith.

I left Islam for three years before I re-embraced it. I skipped the five-times prayer and fasting in the month of Ramadan. I continued to drink booze occasionally, a habit I developed during my stay in Japan. I knew my mother was disappointed with me, but she did not confront me. Once, I overheard her talking with my father. She was concerned that I had changed.

‘Don’t worry,’ my father said. ‘It will be temporary.’

My mother was tense. ‘How can you be so sure?’

‘Trust me,’ he replied. ‘She’s just young.’

What made my father so sure that someday I would embrace Islam again? Did he experience the same thing when he studied in The Netherlands back in the 1980s? How did Europeans see Islam then? He never gave me his story. He was right, though. After three years of apostasy I returned to Islam. But the broken heart was not completely healed.

ANXIETY DROVE ME back to Islam. The first year of being an apostate was like a honeymoon with freedom. I did not have to wake up early to perform morning prayer, nor pause from daily activities for the rest of them. I did not have to repress my anger for thirty days during Ramadan. I felt that I was in control of my life. Some of my friends were concerned about how I had changed. I told them to have a second look at religion, for it is merely one fragment of the bigger history of humanity.

But this changed after the first year. I could not help but feel punished whenever things did not go as well as I expected. When I had Islam, I could make Him my excuse for every failure – it was His will whenever things went wrong. After I left Islam, I could not blame Him anymore. The more I challenged Him over the control of my life, the more powerless I felt. It made me fall apart. I was upset and started to re-read the Qur’an, where I found verses such as: ‘Surely, with each difficulty there is ease’ (Surah Al-Inshirah ayah 5 and 6) and ‘Your Lord has not taken leave of you [Oh, Muhammad], nor has He detested [you]’ (Surah Ad-Dhuha ayah 3). I decided to surrender.

While trying to make peace with God, I still heard about Islamic fundamentalists’ activities. These people were getting ever sillier. Some district issued regulations about proper Islamic dress for women, adultery, fornication and homosexuality. Some groups made statements that the concept of nationalism is not in accordance with Islamic values and that Islam is the original spirit of Indonesian people; forgetting Islam was not prevalent in this country before the early fourteenth century. These things made it difficult for me to fully repair my relationship with Islam. So this time, I promised not to give a damn. If they cannot be persuaded to reason, then I’d better not make contact with them.

I did all my prayers at home or at the office. I never went to mosques except for Eid prayer. I never watched Islam-related programs on television, except when the lectures were delivered by Muslim scholars. I covered my ears to fundamentalist extremism in an attempt to develop a very personal relationship with God.


EID HOLIDAYS ARE the time for homecoming, but my father seldom went back to his hometown in Sumatra. Every Eid, he would say, ‘Let’s visit other people’s hometowns.’ So we visited major cities throughout Java. One of them was Surabaya, the second-largest city in Indonesia. The heat was unbearable and I did not like the food; Surabaya did not leave me a good memory on my first visit. But my second journey was an entirely different experience.

I went alone the second time. I was to deliver a presentation at Airlangga University. I left Juanda International Airport around 9.30 am and the taxi driver promised me that we would arrive in under an hour. I was late for the opening ceremony and morning panel, but I would not be late for my presentation at 1 pm. I told the driver to first take me to the motel I’d booked to check in, then on to the university. Because I was staying only one day, I told myself to attend all the sessions. This was the day I met Professor
Azizan Baharuddin.

She was one of the keynote speakers. What I knew right away when I saw her was that she was Muslim. Her outfit told it all – she wore hijab (headscarf). When the moderator read her curriculum vitae I learnt she was Malaysian, from the University of Malaya, and her specialties were environmental ethics and bioethics. She was also active in promoting interfaith dialogue.

The topic of Professor Baharuddin’s presentation was unani – Islamic traditional medicine based on religious texts in the Qur’an and Hadith. At first I was not really concentrating, lost in my own thoughts. But I listened when she raised her voice to remind Muslim physicians that, ‘Practising unani is not about challenging Western medicine, or what we know as modern medicine, but as an alternative healing, especially for the unfortunate people who live in rural areas which lack modern facilities.’ She explained the high cost of much modern medicine and that it was a luxury for the financially unfortunate. By acknowledging and accepting unani as an alternative healing rather than superstition, less fortunate people can receive the help they need. Further, she said, ‘If we want to be good Muslims then we must reach and help others!’ Helping others is Muslims’ moral obligation and social responsibility.

I was stunned. This da’wah needs to be heard in mosques or on television. When the panel discussion was over I approached her, and nervously told her that I was impressed with her presentation. Then, pathologically as always, I blabbered, in a mixed language between Bahasa Indonesia and English, about how uztadz – an honorific title for male Islamic preachers or teachers – should deliver such inspiring lectures and not bombard their congregations with provocative messages. I went on about how annoyed I was with radical Islam, expressing everything that left me broken-hearted and angry at my own religion.

‘Yeah, yeah. I lost my faith once too,’ she said. She went on to assure me how much she understood what I felt. We chatted about the global rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Sometimes we spoke in our own language – Malay and Bahasa Indonesia – and sometimes in English. I felt connected to her because we practically spoke the same language. Bahasa Indonesia is rooted in Malay. We did not need subtitles to understand one another. When necessary, we switched to English. But most importantly, we spoke in the language of Muslims who had lost their faith because we received no proper guidance.

‘I can sense your anger,’ she said, with a thick Malay accent. ‘Next time, when you encounter these people, don’t make a fuss about it. Just smile.’

Before we parted, she reminded me not to stop seeking knowledge and the true spirit of Islam.

IN THE EVENING, I went back to the motel. While I was having a shower, I revisited the encounter I’d had with the professor. I wondered what drove her to leave Islam. Did she ever feel broken-hearted with it like I did? Was she, too, angry at the practice of blind faith? What motivated her to take Islam back? With the questions running around my head, I burst into tears. It had been a long time since I’d cried.

To be honest, I had forgotten how to be sad. When I feel helpless, I end up feeling angry. I whispered, ‘God, please... I’m just tired of being angry.’

Naked under the shower, I felt I was being led to understand that I was a born Muslim, but have been easily provoked by fellow Muslims whom I assumed have little knowledge of Islam. I could see how I had criticised others for taking the verses out of context, but I too have insufficient knowledge about my own religion. I can’t comprehend the Qur’an without reading it in translation. I pointed my finger at the folly of fundamentalists while they pointed back, calling me a misguided liberal. They refused to engage in an intellectual dialogue but, equally, I avoided them like an infectious disease. If they are proud for believing that they practise the truest version of Islam, then I, too, was proud for believing that I was enlightened. I was no better than they are. I developed a very pragmatic relationship with Islam to gain protection and enjoy the privilege of being among the majority.

I needed to let go of my anger.

THE WAY HE looked at me out the corner of his eye was a signal that he wanted to talk in private. Once his classmates left the room he approached and asked, ‘Sensei, may I bring my baby to class tomorrow?’

This student practises an orthodox form of Islam. He has started identifying with it by always wearing black outfits. He also supports early marriage, believing that it is the most righteous way for youth to satisfy their sexual desire. He is married to a student from a different department.

I looked at this young man, probably no more than twenty-one years old and already struggling with the multiple roles of student, husband and father. I heard he also works part-time. Marriage and children never crossed my mind at his age. As his teacher, though, I am concerned now only about whether he will fail Intermediate Japanese again.

‘May I ask why?’ I asked.

‘My wife has classes until noon while my mother cannot watch our baby because she has some errand.’

‘And you don’t have a babysitter?’


‘I am only concerned with your baby. We always have discussion session and that means a lot of noise. Won’t your baby become upset?’

‘Don’t worry, Sensei. She always sleeps tightly.’

‘Well, I don’t mind then.’

He said thank you.

When I was just about to leave the classroom he stopped me by saying, ‘Sensei, about the class discussion we just had. I am wondering why did you leave Islam when you were in Japan?’

During the morning class we had read a short Japanese text about discrimination towards foreigners in Japan, followed by a discussion about our experiences in a foreign place. He did not participate, but he listened. I brought up my experience of apostasy in Japan. One of his classmates, who also spent a year in Japan as an exchange student, shared a similar experience and declared bravely that he is still an apostate. Some of my students seemed uncomfortable with this. And the young man before me now was one
of them.

‘You never doubt your faith?’ I asked.

He shook his head confidently. ‘I don’t understand why there are people who leave it in the first place.’

‘I guess some people need to walk on rocky roads once in a while. You must consider yourself lucky that you don’t feel such a need.’

‘So, what made you come back to Islam?’

I told him straight out. ‘I missed the feeling of being watched over.’

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