Paranoia and Intolerance in Central Sulawesi

Sunset, Prince John's Dive Resort, Donggala, Palu Bay, CentralSulawesi, Indonesia

From the Jakarta Post, Sunday, September 18, 2011 13:47 PM

US family in Palu evacuated over rumors of proselytizing

In this story you have all the elements behind both the truth and the wishful thinking behind the phrase “Moderate,  modern Indonesia.”

The Central Sulawesi Police have evacuated a family of four American nationals from their rented house in the BTN Bukit Kabonena Permai residential complex in Palu to the local immigration office, allegedly because they were in danger due to rumors they had been proselytizing to locals.

The Graeff family, including father David Ray, 41, mother Georgia Rae, 41, and children Benjamin David, 12, and Daniel Earl, 14, were evacuated on Sunday evening reportedly after locals had begun to question the family’s presence in the region.

Locals then burned the family’s car after they were evacuated.

Palu Police Chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Deden Granada said that David Ray Graeff, who had been in Kabonena for two weeks, was a teacher at Uwera Theological School in Marawola, Sigi regency, Central Sulawesi.

“We had to evacuate the family for their own safety,” Deden said.(more)

I’ve been to Palu,  the capital of a region of stunning natural beauty, three times.  The town lies at the head of an lovely mountain girded  bay, so long that the sea is not visible from the city.  The first time was in in 1975, when I  flew over from Balikpapan, in East Kalimantan, to buy and sand and gravel for the LNG project I was working on.  Then, there were no hotels, so I stayed in a dirty boarding hose with light so weak I had to supplement it with candles.   Now there is a Swiss Bel-Hotel.  In 1994 there was a decent small hotel in town with air conditioning and hot water, and cable TV. Later in that trip  I stayed up the bay at a  German run dive resort, and returned there in 05.  During my first two visits, Islam never crossed my mind.  The last time I flew up there I was struck that every woman on the flight, including small girls, aside form two Chinese and the stewardess wore a hijab,  By that time, I had read that a local cell of  the terrorist Jemaah Islamiah had met at the Hotel Central..

In the thirty years between my first and last trip, communications, and the standard of living had increased immensely, and the natural beauty, and tourism potential was still evident, but little more exploited in 05 than it had been in 95.  The material culture was greatly advanced, but something ancient, and foreign has seeded the minds of many with distrust and hatred.

The story quotes Habib Saleh , a teacher at an Islamic boarding school, as saying he had heard rumors of foreigners engaging in missionary activity, and being transported by helicopter.  These schools, called pesantren, are often hotbeds of extremism, and sometimes incubators of terrorism.  The public can be rather volatile in Indonesia, and rumors spread by both the traditional gossip network, and nowadays, text messages, are often the source of violent incidents, as in Ambon last week.

The helicopter story is an example of  paranoid fantasy apparent not only in matters of religion here.  Despite the internet, cable TV, and more frequent travel abroad, many Indonesians believe there are dark forces ranged against their country.  I had students tell me that the US was working to break up Indonesia in order to seize its resources.  I tried to explain that a breakup  would be a security nightmare for America, but to a little avail.

Habib Saleh wondered why the seminary would import English teachers.  Having made a living as such in Indonesia  for more than ten years before my retirement, I can easily answer his question.  Since independence, English  has always been the second language of the Republic, and with the economic expansion the country has enjoyed the past few years, the thirst  for competence in English has become universal.  Even isolated villagers speak of globalization, and ask for a quick lesson or two.  The more progressive and modern pesantren have incorporated English competence into their curricula. It is clear that Mr Saleh is unaware of this, as he as quoted saying,  “What was going on? There must be some other agenda.”  The Indonesian phrase here for “must be”  is likely pasti ada, used in both a kind of conspiratorial subjunctive( “9/11 must have been an inside job,” widely believed here), or to express a fond, but unsupported hope( “There must be a gas station up ahead, I really have to go.”)

So were the Graeffs proselytizing?

Proselytizing is not illegal in Indonesia.  The Constitution  acknowledges one god, but there is no state religion.  The state officially recognizes five religions, a stricture introduced under the Suharto regime.  Atheism is not outlawed, but all citizens must state one of the recognized religions on their identification cards, and religion is recorded in all kinds of transactions, such as school registration, where it would be prohibited in the west. In theory, all are free to change religions, but bureaucrats make it very difficult to change a registration in Islam for a different belief.

Nevertheless, preaching Christianity to Muslims  In Indonesia, as in any Muslim majority country,  is extremely risky.

I don’t doubt that the Graeffs are dedicated Christians. Such schools as the seminary offer little more than a work visa and a token salary of perhaps two or three hundred dollars a month at most.  Like many I have met, they mostly likely financed their sojourn largely from their own resources. The province is almost 25% Christian, so their would be more than enough scope for pastoral work without proselytizing. Local Christian institutions are well aware of their inferior status, and would not encourage open preaching.

Indeed, all versions of the story, both in English and Indonesian, refer to rumors, and provide no proof.  The headline in the large circulation Indonesian Islamist newspaper, Republika,  took the proselytizing as fact, and only deeper in reported it as suspected.  Readers’ comments were uniformly incensed at the evidence of “Christianization,” and complimentary to the police for handling the situation.  Some were angry that the government had not dispatched the crack U.S. trained Densus 88 anti-terror brigade to capture the missionary terrorists,  seeing this as a sign of systemic discrimination against Muslims by the central authorities, and that the Jakarta government is subservient to Washington.

The religious school  teacher found it suspicious that the family lived in Kabonena, rather than in town. In Palu, as all over Indonesia, new suburban housing estates and satellite towns with modern facilities are springing  up to meet the needs of a growing middle class. Republika reports, but doesn’t comment on the fact that the Americans rented their home from a member of the provincial assembly, H. Nasir Djibran, clearly a Muslim name, and a person of some substance locally. The housing estate is one kilometer from the city center.  The seminary is in Wera ( not Uwera, which is in Uganda), near the port of Dongggala( where Joseph Conrad met Olmeijer, the protaganist in his first novel, “Almayer’s Folly,” so that Palu could add literary tourism to its already considerable attractions!) halfway up the western shore of Palu Bay, a reasonable and very scenic commute on the quite decent road, which I have traveled, in the large and comfortable Toyata Kijang the Graeffs no longer have.

This story summarizes all the difficulty caused by the insidious spread  of a dry, desert ideology, call it wahabism, salafism, or what you will, that threatens to overwhelm and supplant the syncretic forms of Islam that worked well for so long here, and reflected the reality of the archipelago’s cultural and religious history.  Palu, a region with immense potential for investment, tourism and recreation, and a decent life for its inhabitants of all faiths, could lose its chance to progress further and succumb to ”religious tensions.”

As has been seen many times on Java, the authorities do not punish attackers, and consider their work done if they merely prevent grave harm to those attacked, reflecting a greater malaise, and dangerous inertia, as the government  of a secular republic refuses to acknowledge its subversion.

.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s