Encounters With Islam: Conclusion: 2000 – 9/11/2015

National Mosque, Jakarta

National Mosque, Jakarta

(To read  the series from the beginning go here )

 

I began this months ago. Readers of earlier segments will see the inevitable conclusion. Nothing that has occurred across the world since I began series has done anything but reinforced my sense that Islam is fatally flawed. So it’s time to finish, and fitting that I do so on another 9/11, as the reports of  the Islamic invasion of Europe come in, towards the end of another year of escalating Islamic violence in nearly all quarters of the globe.

September 11, 2001

I had grabbed my coffee and turned on the computer. The start page was Yahoo. I took in the top headlines.

“Hey,” I called out to my older daughter,” somebody’s hacked Yahoo!”

No.

The older girl and I were now in Bandung, where she was in her junior year of high school. Suffice it to say that the radical move from the States had not produced much in the way of favorable outcome. Her mother and younger sister remained in Bali for a time, then returned to the U.S. Eventually we divorced. I had gone back to work, as an English instructor.

Stupefied, I went off to work, riding the public minibus. Indonesians are a gregarious lot, and regular commuters and and even one off riders will quickly strike up conversations. Today they were silent.

I was the only American at the school, and the British lady who ran the place, on learning I had family in New York and DC, let me call Stateside on the company dime. I was unable to get through anywhere (It’s parenthetical, but I cannot resist the near miss stories that so many of of us have. My sister worked in Midtown, but had a regular downtown meeting canceled that day; brother in the Pentagon had taken the day off to go to a daughter’s soccer game; and at the same time, most fortunate, but saddest, my NYFD cousin, a company commander, was off that day, and both towers had fallen by the time he got there.)

The minute I knew those headlines were real, I knew what kind of people had done it. There was no point hoping it wouldn’t be Muslims. This was after the East Africa embassies, the Khobar towers, the U.S.S. Cole, and others.

Al Qaeda wasn’t until that day a household name, but it was no secret.

Yet, aside from the school head, if you listened to the to other foreign staff that day, you’d have thought that America did it to itself. This was my first exposure up front and personal to the familiar litany: Israel, imperialism and oh yeah, Israel. Worse than their perfunctory and patently insincere expressions of sympathy that prefaced these diatribes was their manifest cowardice.

What would America do, they wailed, and how would it effect them there in Bandung? There was talk of sewing British and Australian flag patches on their clothes. This cravenness in the face of Islamic violence is drearily familiar now, but it was new to me then.

As the names of the hijackers came out, I was for putting some hurt to Saudi Arabia, but in the end we invaded Afghanistan, missed Bin Laden and later, invaded Iraq as well.

Shortly after the Bush ultimatum to the Taliban and the countdown to the invasion when they failed to produce Bin Laden, an army unit, with some APCs and light crew served weapons, showed up in my neighborhood, home to many foreigners and my daughter’s international school. The commander came to my door and assured me that he, his men, and the nation guaranteed my safety. This was quite refreshing after the reaction from my colleagues.

For many years, it’s been common for those in opposition to Islam, radical Islam, or jihad to say “I learned everything I needed to know abut Islam on 9/11. This was not the case for me.

Signs and Portents

Perhaps I had simply not looked around me until Islam was in the worldwide news, but the Increasing Islamization in Indonesia that I had noted over previous decades seemed to have accelerated.

Bandung remains the most Dutch of Indonesian cities.

Bandung remains the most Dutch of Indonesian cities.

Right away, there were Bin laden T-shirts for sale . A small boy wore one to my class and I sent him home. His parents complained and I found myself in a sit down with the mother – hijab – and father, dressed normally in Western clothes but with what looked like a fairly recent scraggle of chin beard.

I got an earful of how evil America was, but held my tongue, and explained that this had hurt people I knew, and nearly killed some of them.

We smiled, shook hands – well not the mother – and I went away with hate in my heart.

Which, in time, subsided.

I taught there for two years. Religion, I found, played a huge role in the young students’ lives. Ask “What’s the best book you’ve read” and the answers were the Bible, or the Koran, according to confession. I found such discussions mind-numbingly dull. However, Christians and Muslims seemed to get along well, and while many girls wore the hijab, they were not a majority.

The kids loved to hang out with their teachers, and one day during Ramadan, we went out for pizza. After a text message telling them the fast had lifted, we dug in. I’m not sure when I first heard the word Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, but in my childhood I have no memory of it being used, but instead the Malay, ”bulan puasa,” fasting month. Now it was ubiquitous, with special sales in the malls, deals on iftar(fast breaking) buffets, and Arabic music.

Bandung prides itself on being a university city, a place for the young, artistic and hip, and so it is. It was early oughts and “gap” was in style, with hip hugging jeans and bare tummies. Around the universities, one might even see coeds wearing a hijab but showing belly button.

Outside town, things changed quickly.

Early one morning, on the first day of Eid ul Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, we drove out of town early., bound for Bali. The roads were jammed with people making their way to the mosques, torrents of them pouring in from the small villages up in the hills, thousands, all in Muslim dress. My daughter remarked that she didn’t remember this from previous years, and her boy friend, a life long resident, said he too thought that the crowds were far larger than before.

Dieng, Central Java, 2002.  There was no mosque there when I visited in 1975.

Dieng, Central Java, 2002. There was no mosque there when I visited in 1975.

I had occasion in the next couple of years to take other trips across Java, and it was apparent that Islamic observance was far more strict than it had been when I had first traveled the island as a young man. Women working in the fields still wore the conical “coolie hats” that reflected an ancient migration from southern China, but now wore head scarves underneath, surely adding to the heat and discomfort.

Islamic schools and other institutions, with their Arabic signs, were in the smallest villages. One day, not far from the great Buddhist monument Borobudur, on a country road winding through the rice terraces, I came upon a sight I will never forget.

An open truck full of young men lumbered a long in front of me. They were waving banners, which said, “Front Anti-Yahudi,” the “Anti-Jewish front.” They wore once piece black costumes, painted with white skeletons, as if for Halloween. Waving, and cheering as I overtook, some then donned skull masks.

There, in the green valleys of Java, with the volcanoes rising to clear blue sky, scenery that had long inspired postcards and landscape painters, was raw hatred from the desert lands

This wall in the former Sultan's compund  shows both Hindu-Javanese and Chinese decorative styles

This wall in the former Sultan’s compound shows both Hindu-Javanese and Chinese decorative styles.  Java has absorbed one culture after another, but will it survive Whaabbism?

I had left so many years before.

My daughter graduated and went back to the States; I moved to Jakarta,where there was better pay and considerably more fun. The old regime under Soeharto had kept Islamists under tight control, imprisoning, or outright snuffing any who looked to be a problem.

Now, the new president, not directly elected but voted in by a legislature that was put in place by clean elections, was all for letting people express themselves. While a Muslim himself and a cleric, he was a of a liberal cast of mind. Physically frail, and nearly blind, his “why can’t we all be friends” outlook(He spoke for a while of recognizing Israel) led him to myopia towards the forces being unleashed.

I taught at a school in a shopping office complex in Central Jakarta. There were plenty of nice restaurants and nightclubs nearby. Many of my classes were off site, at major businesses, and my students were well educated and well dressed. It was rare to see woman in a hijab.

Yet even in this milieu, I would at times catch a whiff of something going on. I remember our personnel manager, a married woman, very good looking, always in well fitted suits and heels, remarking that Bin Laden was “hebat,” an Indonesian word that in that context would be best translated as “bad ass.” There was considerable admiration for Saddam as well, but as in this was often in the context of tirades about American hegemony and regurgitated Chomsky, so chose not to see it in as related to religion.

On the streets, beyond the highrises, deeper trouble was brewing. An organization called

View from my terrace, Jakarta, 2002.

View from my terrace, Jakarta, 2002.

Front Pembela Islam(Islamic Defenders Front) took upon itself the role of a civil auxiliary in suppressing vice. They attacked night clubs and bars, starting out in the seamy dance clubs and semi-brothels of North Jakarta, where eventually the largely Chinese owners came to a modus vivendi in a protection racket that would be familiar to the Mafia, but then striking Kemang, home to diplomats, multinational executives, fine dining establishments and quite legitimate music clubs.

Nothing at all was done to stop them.

It was then that I saw a trend that has only continued. Radical Islamic elements push, engaging in mob action, while the civil apparatus of an ostensibly non-confessional state, not only does not punish offenders, but accommodates them.

Ramadan came, and for the first time, the City government decreed that late night venues must close early, and the sale of alcohol in such places was suspended during the fasting month. That this meant a month without paychecks for tens of thousands was of no import. Nor did anyone point to the underlying absurdity that alcohol and fornication are forbidden to Muslims at all times, not just one month in a year.

This attempt to put the city’s residents in a pious state of mind appropriate to the season lead to some quite absurd accommodations. The hot tub at my health club was drained, as apparently being in the water with ladies was an affront during Ramadan.

A popular hangout with a classical theme, put pasties on its faux-Greco-roman statuary. There, as at other places, the bar was cleared of bottles, but you could get some beer in a coffee mug. We grumbled that no good Muslim would be in such places anyway, so why couldn’t they just leave us alone.

As I was learn in the coming years, that wasn’t the point. Islamic behaviors, even practiced by unbelievers is an affront to Islam, as are the unbelievers themselves.

In late 2003, I went back to the States for a while, to work with my younger daughter on her college applications. I had left just after the Iraq War began, and I saw its effects when I was substitute teaching in Phoenix. Many kids were enlisting after graduation. They seemed to be disproportionately Hispanic, Black and Native American. Another war in the Middle East, anther conflict among Muslims, yet it still wasn’t something that would direct to me to examine Islam closely.

I was offered a job in Surabaya, East Java, where I stayed for seven years, where I again taught English, living with my partner, an Indonesian Chinese, and an atheist as I was. And am.

becakoldhousel

Dutch era buildings, Surabaya, 2003

Surabaya is and has long been a center of industry and commerce, known as the “City of Work,” because largely that is what there is to do there. I had first seen it n 1970, when it remained a somewhat cobwebbed display of faded grandeur from the Dutch East Indies. Later in the decade, when I was working in Kalimantan, I often had occasion to come down to Surabaya to procure goods and services, and the place had clearly picked up. I dealt largely with Chinese businesses, and the Chinese are today still quite prominent in the city.

Yet, while it is in some ways fairly cosmopolitan, it fronts on a vast agrarian hinterland, and it is in these small towns an villages that the struggle between traditional syncretic Javanese religion, a meld of Islam and older beliefs, against Orthodox Islam, continues, after a very bloody start in 1965.

Synagogue, Surabaya, 2003.  Long disused, but maintained with a grant from overseas,  it was the site of demonstrations when anyone was angry at Israel.    It has since been demolished.

Synagogue, Surabaya, 2003. Long disused, but maintained with a grant from overseas, it was the site of demonstrations when anyone was angry at Israel. It has since been demolished.

This is a long stretch of time, and I could here provide a string of anecdotes to buttress my case, but I’ll instead provide a general outline of those years.

After 9/11, it was the consensus among Western governments that much of the problem was due to misunderstanding between cultures. Thus, a concerted effort was made to reach out, identify and select young Muslims for education in Western nations. Indonesia, bastion of “moderate” Islam was key to the program, and the school where I worked, was involved in many programs financed with American,British,Australian and New Zealand money

One day, we were warned to keep a low profile. Hizbut Tharir, a world wide organization( banned in UK, legal in the US) was demonstrating in favor a of a universal Caliphate. Completely covered women in black held up signs condemning the US and Israel, and demanding global Islamic rule.

In 2005,many of my students were in an uproar about Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza. The world, I thought, has many examples of pain and oppression. Why was it that these young people, so far from the Middle East, were so concerned? And as I read more about Islam, and Islamic history, I came at last to the conclusion that the Arab Israel conflict was, in fact, the Islam-Israel conflict. Territory once Islamic, simply cannot be given over to non-believers, and that the Jews, reviled in the Koran and other foundational texts, had taken Muslim land was an affront past bearing.

I said nothing about these things, and if anything, were pleased with my knowledge of Islamic belief and practice. I wanted to be liked, and as my doubts grew, I still dissembled.

Yet the atrocities and violence across continents continued, never relenting.

Beslan.

The spin was “Chechen Nationalists,” nationalists who called, “Allahu akbar!”

Soccer Field, Darussalam University, Aceh 2006.  Since I was there, sharia has sitigtnd and unrelated men and women may not ride together, or be alone anywhere

Soccer Field, Darussalam University, Aceh 2006. Since I was there, sharia has tightened, and unrelated men and women may not ride together, or be alone anywhere

For some years we had a large contingent of Achenese students, beneficiaries of study abroad programs established in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami. They were fine students, hard workers, but fun-loving, coming from a linguistic tradition that valued poetry and oration. It was, and still is a source of great pleasure for me to see how well they have done.

Still, all the women wore the hijab. The rebels let a few errant locks peep out. One fellow, a secret free thinker, was reduced to hiding when drinking coffee and having a smoke during Ramadan. At one point the program took me to Aceh to do some preparatory work with students before they came to Surabaya.

It wasn’t so bad. There was a lively coffee house scene, and it was common to see couples double dating. Of course, around ten, the boys would take their girl friends home, then come back and watch the footie. Rather charming, perhaps like small towns in America in bygone days

Outside town was a newly constructed governmental complex, and one large building was devoted to the administration of sharia law. It was not yet in force, but notices said it was coming. One would not need to be a forensic accountant to state that the building was at least in part paid for by the charitable citizens of the West who donated to tsunami relief.

Now, in Aceh, offenders are whipped publicly. Amputations and beheading have yet to arrive, but one wonders. A number of my students asked me to return to Aceh to attend weddings, but I am never going back.

With some of my Aceh students, Surabaya, 2006.  My late mother was astonished at this picture, as she had never herself seen Indonesia women so dressed.

With some of my Aceh students, Surabaya, 2006. My late mother was astonished at this picture, as she had never herself seen Indonesia women so dressed.

Looking back, I can find no road to Damascus moment. I read the Koran, I various translations,learned about the hadith and the sira, delved deeply into the history of Islamic expansion, so that around2009, when I first started hearing of Boko Haram, I spoke of these matters one evening to my partner.

She asked, seriously, “are you an Islamophobe?”

I spoke of somewhat to what I have written here,and she began her own journey of discovery.

And my distaste only deepened.  Sometimes people refused to sit next to me on the minibus I took to work everyday. Indonesians generally assume that foreigners don’t speak their language, but I understood the word, “najis,” unclean, as are all unbelievers. This did get me shotgun all by myself, where normally two passengers were crammed in.

I simply couldn’t take it anymore, so retired earlier than I had thought I would.

It’s been a little more than four years since I retired to Hindu Bali. I conceived of the project that became this “Encounters” series before I even got here. Yet I have tarried, and I tarry now,

My father-in-law, the late Haji Kamal, 2005, Bandung.  Dutch educated, civli servant in both the conolnial and independe regimes, Natioalist Party actvist, at teh endof his life, besides his beloved coffee and cigarettes, there was only Islam.

My father-in-law, the late Haji Kamal, 2005, Bandung. Dutch educated, civil servant in both the colonial and independent regimes, Nationalist Party activist, at the end of his life, besides his beloved coffee and cigarettes, there was only Islam.

Because in the end, I know the conclusion, and even after all these many years,it’s hard to just spit it out.

I’m done.

With Islam and with Muslims.

I’ll continue my study of the issues, and of course will be civil when meeting Muslims. I enjoy hearing from some of my former students. But as for all the efforts and blather at outreach, understanding, bridging the divide, and on, and on.

It’s useless.

This is to use a Marxist term, a world historical process. Islam is what it is. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, this is Islamic reform.

Those who await some kind of Islamic Episcopalianism are fools. A millennial conflict will not be resolved by church suppers.

This is my stand. I have come to it through long experience and study. Others will make their own journeys of understanding, in their own way, in their own time.

Mine has ended.

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Encounters With Islam: Part 4: 1980-1999

(To read this series from the beginning, go here )

This, the penultimate installment will cover around two decades, and as I set out to write it, I can see no narrative thread that follows the topic, Islam. So, I’ll commence, and see what develops.

I left Saudi Arabia, went back to San Francisco where I and my wife found work, and settled in. An old friend, who worked in movies and TV, in a minor but interesting position, came to me with an idea. Like everyone on the fringe down there, he wanted to make a score, and thought my experience in Saudi Arabia might yield some fictional gold. First a novel, then a screenplay.

The protagonist would be a young American educated Saudi man, love interest a Jewish American woman he met in the States, with, at first unknown to him, ties to Israeli intelligence. He stumbles on, and then infiltrates, a fundamentalist plot to take over the Kingdom and use its resources to finish off Israel, once and for all.

Ikhwan troops, 1911, prior to their revolt.

Ikhwan troops, 1911, prior to their revolt. via Vox

This required a lot of research, because as I found when my friend asked various questions, having lived in the Kingdom without access to English language books and press on the place, was by itself not all the informative. I was astonished to read that almost from the beginning of the Kingdom there had been elements that considered the House of Saud to be traitorous to Islam, in particular for not continuing the jihad that had unified the country onwards beyond its borders. These were the Ikhwan(Brotherhood), who revolted in the late 20’s and were only suppressed a couple of years later with British help. It was to their descendents I then ascribed the plot in the novel.

Also informative was Raphael Patai’s “The Arab Mind,” which if you look at the reviews on Amazon is condemned by many as “racist,” usually, and certainly here, in my opinion a sign that the work makes uncomfortable points.

Thus I first encountered the Islamic concept of a binary world: Dar-ul –Islam, the House of Islam, and Dar ul Harb, the House of War, that part of the world which has yet to accept Islam, and which in its very unbelief is an affront and an aggression in itself that must eventually be subdued.

In any event, we got a certain way into the project, and my friend sold a couple of scripts to a show he was working on, while I started to quail at the extent of research I would have to do into espionage and security trade craft. So we never finished. Yet, one could take my concept and start fresh right now.

My father-in-law came to visit. Then I learned that my conversion was not at all expected to be pro-forma. This is when I first had to conjure up excuses and sometimes comical ( running around comedy terms) to conceal what an utter fraud I was. Kamal wanted to go to the mosque. We told him there wasn’t one, which was technically true at the time, but we did know people who met for Friday prayers. So, we prayed at home, and there would be an after you Alphonse Gaston routine, in which he suggested I be the imam and lead the prayer, and I deferred to his age and dignity. It was a dispute that I had to win, because as Imam he would face forward, and sit in front of us.

Older Roman Catholics may remember the Latin version of Nicene Creed, recited after communion. I served mass – certainly not my idea – and never learned the whole thing. Somewhere half way through I was reduced to “mumble,mumble, somethingque et otherbus.”

Having never again recited the Islamic prayers again after an initial demonstration to the father in law before the wedding, similarly here, I was reduced to something on the order of “Obble, Allah, gobble, Allah.” It was a charade I was to master in later years. Or, perhaps not. I may have fooled none, but was never called on it.

For much of the 80s I was busy with work, and the two daughters born during that time. Yet I did follow the news as always, and while events in the Middle East and the greater Islamic world were framed within the Arab Israel conflict, and that also within the ongoing Cold War.

There was the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 to Beirut, where passengers with Jewish sounding names were segregated and an American navy diver murdered and his body dumped on the tarmac. Here was a clear sign of Islamic Jew hatred, yet I had been programmed to process it as part of the Israel issue, with Arabs wrongly but perhaps understandably conflating Jews with Israel. And I suppose this implanted algorithm kicked in when poor Leon Klinghoffer was dumped into the sea from the Achille Lauro.

Much of the violence was Iranian inspired: The Berlin disco bombing, the Beirut Marine Barracks bombing, the many kidnapped Western hostages held for years,  but there was also Lockerbie. Television news had horrifying, yet also inspiring stories of the resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. After so many decades of appeasement and indifference, Reagan supplied weapons and, less spoken about, advisors, so that American policy was killing Soviets. This was refreshing after the hand wringing during the Viet Nam War that we might accidentally sink a Soviet ship moored in Haiphong.

One day In 1989, that same friend with whom I had worked on the abortive novel, called me.

The Red Army that day had withdrawn its last units.

“Victory!” my buddy shouted, so hard I had to hold the receiver away.

Red Army withdraws from Aghansitan, February 18, 1989

Red Army withdraws from Afghanistan, February 18, 1989  Via RT

Indeed. Victory, something we had never in our lifetimes known, and this win was only a prelude to the final triumph when the wall came down. Where I lived, San Francisco, there were a few long faces among old time reds, and there wasn’t the dancing in the parks that I remembered from the day Nixon resigned, and again, which had disgusted me, when Saigon fell, but generally, across the board there was a sense of jubilation, a great weight lifted. The garrison state into which I had been born had done its duty, stood fast, and now so long after 1945, we had truly won the peace.

The Reagan, and the Bush years, had also been good for me personally. After futilely waiting out the doldrums in the energy business, around 1984 I moved to a major defense company with a big bump in pay. My wife and the older daughter had gone back to Indonesia to visit family but I had felt insecure and financially stretched, so from 1981 to 1987, I went without a vacation.

Finally, I felt secure and prosperous enough for all of us to make the trip.

President Soeharto, the general who had pushed aside Soekarno in the late 60s was still in charge. The Indonesia I had known in the 70s was still recovering from the socialist excesses of the 60s, with onerous interest rates after the hyperinflation of Soekarno’s last years, and little prospects for those who did not not work for International organizations, as had my wife, or in energy.

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National Mosque, Jakarta 1987.  National Cathedral in the distance.  Those who showed us around were eager to point out that the mosque’s architect had been a Christian

Now, despite the crash in oil prices a middle class seemed to be developing rapidly. Friends and family were prospering, some with foreign employers in manufacturing others in their own businesses, and some in the rapidly developing tourism and hospitality sector.

There was another change, small at first, which I noted: some family members had begun wearing the hijab. This was an article of dress I had never seen in Indonesia before, and could only name because I had read of changes occurring in Egypt. You saw them here and there in Indonesia that year, and it looked kind of weird. Still, to each his own, I told myself and gave it no more than a passing thought.

We were traveling with another American family, that of a work buddy, who had heard my tales of the islands and decided to have a look. They enjoyed themselves immensely, and in the following years we evolved a routine wherein I traveled in remoter islands with them, as my kids were too young for such adventures, and in any case more interested in hanging out with their cousins.

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Muslim women singing as they prepare for a wedding in Bandaneira, 1989. No one wore Islamic dress. In 1999, the entire Christian community, about 10% of the population, was evacuated.

Over the next few years we came to focus on the Moluccas, the Spice Islands, an island group with a storied history from the Age of Discovery, and one in which we found mixed Muslim and christian populations living in harmony and tolerance, as they were quick to tell us. It was a lovely story, one which we bought gladly, and which was to unravel with astonishing speed and brutal results a decade later.

April 19, 1995

My older daughter and I were traveling to visit relatives in Texas were between planes in Dallas, and like everyone else, transfixed as the monitors showed the horror in Oklahoma City. After some minutes we spontaneously looked at each other and said, “I hope it’s not Muslims.”  It was barely more than two years since the first World Trade Center bombing.

Indeed,this was my standard response to any such outrage, and when it was Muslims who were the perpetrators, I was an early adopter of the “anti- backlash” fear, which while still never having occurred anywhere in the West that I am aware of, is the standard media and political response in the West, even as the wounded are being given first aid, and the body bags zipped closed.

For, you see, these were people, indeed, by marriage,my people, and as tedious and annoying as I found their religiosity, people for whom I cared, and in whom I found enjoyment for their other traits. And sticking by them was critical to my own self image. From my earliest encounters with world geography, I  had wanted to roam the world, and it was its peoples, not the exotic beasts of National Geographic, whom I wished to meet and know.

My older daughter was now in Middle School, and had a unit on Islam, or was it just Arabia?. I don’t remember, but her assignment was one of those collaborative exercises where she and her friends imagined themselves running a caravan service to Mecca. I supervised, made suggestions, thought the who idea was fun. The whole history of conquest is now elided, and I think it must have been then as well, because neither of my daughters, as adults had any idea of this until I brought it up.  Just the other day, reading about the terrible situation in Syria,I thought of my trip there in 1980, and the Christian villages around the Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader fortress.   I distinctly recalled my thoughts that day, how I said to myself, these Christians must have been  there since the Crusades.

Which is utterly false. They had of course been there since Roman times.  How could I have thought such a thing, when, by the time I finished elementary school I had a basic grasp of both classical times and the middle ages?

This is a testimony to the power of pro-Islam, anti- Western propaganda, which has been building for decades, and these days is disseminated everywhere, and not even discernible as such to most.

Sometime in the late 90s local TV in the Bay Area started broadcasting Ramadhan greetings.  I thought that was nice.

It is hard to remember how and when things changed in that part of the Islamic world familiar to me, and in the hearts of the Muslims I knew.. This was a large span in a life, and the changes were gradual. I don’t remember when it was no longer proper to buss my sister-in-law on both cheeks in the Dutch style, and instead, hold my right hand over my heart in the Muslim style. Nor do I remember when she began wearing a hijab. Her children did not, but by the end of the 90s, married and with children, they all did, as did the granddaughters. I noticed that people I had known who used to keep a bar at home no longer drank. The empty bottles stayed for a while as decorator items, then vanished entirely. Those who had ignored the fast entirely now fasted, and their very young children joined them.

No do I remember when my brother-in- law became admirer of Khomeini. There were many more changes to come, and those I saw in family in friends only mirrored what was shaping the world at large.

Children in Minangkabau(West Sumatra) costumes, Indonesia National Day.  San Francisco, 1990s

Children in Minangkabau(West Sumatra) costumes, Indonesia National Day. San Francisco, 1990s

We joined the local Indonesian community for national days, and events aimed at raising the profile of the country in the US. Many of these took place at the Indonesian consulate in San Francisco. Earlier there had been heaps of liquor, then a new consul and the place was dry and convocations began with Islamic invocations, despite the fact that a large part of the community, who had attended for years, were part of a long established settlement of Christian, mixed Dutch Indonesians, centered in San Jose.

I returned a number of times to the Moluccas. These were storied isles indeed. H.L. Tomlinson, in “Tide Marks,” (1924) quoted a sea captain who had spent his life sailing them: “They are like stars in the sky, these islands. Some are great kingdoms; others are one coconut. And you could not see them all in a thousand lifetimes.”

The pull for me was as much as – if not more than – than their astonishing beauty, but their

The Muslim settlement of Wahai, North Ceram, 1991. Note the schoolgirls do not wear Muslim dress.

The Muslim settlement of Wahai, North Ceram, 1991. Note the schoolgirls do not wear Muslim dress.

place in history and the  cultures that remained to testify to those who had come from all quarters of the Old World(And the New for that matter: I have read an account of Spanish adventurers,who arriving inn Peru too late to join the Peru, took off for the Moluccas, and washed up shipwrecked at Wahai, a town we visited) Spain made a try for the spice wealth of the great Sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, but lost out to Portugal, and later the Dutch took them all, after giving the upstart English a drubbing.  And well before them had come the Arabs, those great seafarers who learned the secret of the monsoon, tying these distant dots to the Red Sea and Africa, and the greater world of Islam, as the dynasties they established built states – the “great kingdoms” of Tomlinson’s words  – that traded with all who came – from China, India, and even pre-Tokugawa Japan. Here, in one place were all those currents that had entranced me as a boy.  India, China, far Araby, and the island peoples themselves.

Aboriginal Nuaulu man, North Ceram Island, 1993. This group maintains its animistic beliefs.

Aboriginal Nuaulu man, North Ceram Island, 1993. This group maintains its animistic beliefs.

Mauslea, Central Ceram, 1991. Tearerails  build thechurch had been brought over an 8000m pass, carried on men's backs.

Manusela, Central Ceram, 1991. Materials for the church had been brought up  over an 80000m pass, carried on men’s backs.

Christianity came with the Europeans, and as in most such contacts, the Muslim populations were largely impervious to evangelizing, but some animist groups, a few of which survive today, remained unconverted.  Thus one might find a cluster of villages, all with the same name, but with a sobriquet: Islam, Catholic, or Protestant, evidence that various branches of an ancient clan had embraced different religions.

One such was Hitu, on the north shore of Ambon, capital and largest island in the south Moluccas. Ancient ties of blood and obligation knit the separate communities. The Western New year is a major feast day in the Moluccas,and in fact, the celebrations go on pretty much throughout January, ending when  the booze runs out,

In HItu, during this time,  Muslims will join  Christians in painting and repairing the church, and Christians return the favor to the mosque.  When the work is finished, there is a great feast, but the two confessions eat separately, so the Muslims might avoid pork, but gather together after, for an all night boozer. As Muslims drink less, they help the staggering Christians home.

Early in 1999, fighting broke out in Ambon, capital of the South Moluccas. First reports showed Christian and Muslim youth groups armed with spears and bows and arrows screaming at each other in the downtown area. The BBC and CNN had some film, but the area soon went dark, and the conflict went on for another four years, strangely under reported. The origins remain obscure, but the Muslim side drew in support from across Indonesia,and beyond, with the army supplying some weapons to the Muslim side, and more coming in from the southern Philippines.

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“…isles Of Ternate and Tidore, whence merchants bring Their spicy drugs…(Milton, “Paradise Lost.”) Here Tidore, seat of an ancient Sultanate, one of the original Spice Islands.

My brother in law was from Halmahera,an island north of Ambon, populated by Muslims and Christians, as well as tribal animists in the interior. Halmahera natives in and around Bandung had a mutual aid society that served both social and business networking needs. A relative had headed the association for many years. He had been born Christian, seen which way the wind was blowing and converted to Islam. He prospered in West Java, owning a fleet of small trucks and distributing consumer goods to smaller villages throughout the province.

He was an an impressive man, and I had always liked him. And he was on to me. When we visited, he always saw that one of his sons found something interesting to show me on his extensive property when the rest of the family was gathering for prayer.

Thus I was shocked and appalled when, as it  turned out, the last time I saw him, he berated one of his sons before a house full of relatives and neighbors. The boy had gone to Ambon to fight, lost heart, and come home.

“I would be a kshatriya(a Sanskrit word translated as knight in Indonesian, and in India the warrior caste) were I your age. I would, fight jihad, drive the kaffir away, but you., you…”

This was the first time I ever remember an Indonesian using the Arabic word that we would translate as infidel, or unbeliever. Nowadays, sadly, Indonesian Muslims are so arabized that they use the plural kuffar, correctly. And these days, jihad needs no translation.

During this time, that lovely village, Hitu, turned on itself, and both its 17th century mosque and 18th century church were destroyed.

Imanuel church, Hitu village, Ambon Island, 1991. Destroyed in intercommunal fighting.

Imanuel church, Hitu village, Ambon Island, 1991. Destroyed in intercommunal fighting.

So as my account moves to the millennium, little seems to have change in my attitude towards Islam. My knowledge of its theology was no deeper than it had been when I was a schoolboy, and still the avid news consumer I had always been, as I read of each large scale Islamist attack, I still placed them in a long internalized context of inter -state(Israel and the Arabs) and communal conflict.

When I was in Indonesia I would note increasing fundamentalism, but still see much of Islam, as it had long been practiced there, as part of the country’s fascinating cultural mosaic, with many aspects actually quite charming.  1995 had marked

These young women wear tradtional clothing from across Indnoesia.  The oe coverig her face wears a drees from interior Kalimantan, where inhabitants are either animist or Christian.  Teh others are in costumes from Muslim r3egions.  I have been correcting epole for decades whenthe efer to the hijab as traditonal muslim dress.  It is not.

These young women wear traditional clothing from across Indonesia. The one covering her face wears a dress from interior Kalimantan, where inhabitants are either animist or Christian. The others are in costumes from Muslim regions. I have been correcting people for decades when they refer to the hijab as traditional Muslim dress. It is not. (Sumenep, Madura, 1995)

the 50th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence and on a bus trip through Java and Madura there were celebrations everywhere,the smallest villages putting on shows of both national pride and love of their traditions. Along with the red and white bunting of the national colors, there was yellow, from the land’s ancient Hindu and Buddhist past. Children and young people dressed in traditional costumes, and wore garlands of jasmine. Islamic green was absent.

Independence celebration parade, Sumenep, Madura, 1995. The bare legs would be totally unacceptable today.

Independence celebration parade, Sumenep, Madura, 1995. The bare legs would be totally unacceptable today.

Yet, in the back of my mind synapses were firing, and connections being made, for its only now, fifteen or twenty years after the fact, that I recall a late afternoon, early evening conversation at work. The office was quiet and only I and one other guy, an Indian – a Parsee- remained.  I cannot recall how we came to speak of such things, but a shared antipathy to Islam surfaced and I said, in reference to the Iran Iraq War, that one bunch of Muslim motherfuckers killing another was all to the good.  We high fived.

Yet somehow, I packed this inchoate sense of enmity away.

Sumenep, Madura, 1995. Headmaster of a pesantren(Islamic boarding school) and drum line director. Many such schools were later to become hotbeds of extremism. His wife, earlier in the sequence of photo wore a kind of mantilla,but here leaves her hair uncovered. Just couldn't resist, I reckon.  She is a handsome woman.

Sumenep, Madura, 1995. Headmaster of a pesantren(Islamic boarding school) and drum line director. Many such schools were later to become hotbeds of extremism. His wife, earlier in the sequence of photos wore a kind of mantilla,but here leaves her hair uncovered. Just couldn’t resist, I reckon. She is a handsome woman.

Shortly after this, a confluence of events – a reorganization at work that sidelined me, the retirement of a beloved boss who had been my mentor, the fall of Soeharto and an economic crisis that made Indonesia a bargain basement, my wife’s longstanding discontent in the United States, and my own middle aged yearning to do something entirely different -, not to mention an inflated sense of wealth from the dotcom boom – led us to sell up and move to Bali, Indonesia.

Crazy.

But we did it, and in the event, this

brought me closer to Islam than I had even been.

Encounters with Islam, Part 3: 1975-80

Al Khobar 2

Old town, al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, 1978

Dead_Iranian_generals

Executed Iranian generals, 1979

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Old City, Lahore, Pakistan, 1978

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Shalimar gardens, Lahore Pakistan, 1978

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Mughal fort, Lahore, Pakistan 1978

Ghost_Dance_at_Pine_Ridge

Plains Indians Ghost Dancers, 1880s

(Read part One here, and Part 2 here)

It was late 1978. I pulled my truck up on an embankment to watch the spectacle. For three days, white C-130s with the Iranian tricolor had been roaring in to the American airbase at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Every fifteen minutes, one came in, and another took off, heading back north. The Shah was tottering, and this was a sure sign of the end. Scuttlebutt was that these planes were clearing out technical assets from CIA listening stations in Iran. Iran had been a bulwark in CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), an arc extending from Turkey to Pakistan. A few months before, on the recommendation of a coworker, I and some buddies had bought tickets for Shiraz in Iran. They had Israeli beer, a few discos, the ruins of Persepolis, beautiful ancient mosques and gardens. Iran Air went on strike and Saudia was full, so we didn’t go. I got my money back, and given a last-minute choice between Oktoberfest in Munich, and Pakistan.  I’d been to Munich as a child, so I went to Lahore on  the recommendation of my Pakistani travel agent.  There, one could – with a police permit – have a drink, and explore a city that combined a jumble of slums, markets, the British cantonment, and some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere.  It beat Saudi all hollow. The change in Iran was spectacularly swift. And yet, although the old regime fell to the Ayotollah, the events were still couched in the familiar vocabulary of nationalism and Cold War alignments. Pundits ascribed the anti –Americanism to memories of the coup against Mossadegh, hence the prominent role of the Tudeh(Iranian Communists) in supporting the Revolution, and some geo-strategists saw it as a wash. While Iranian leftists were celebrating the end of American influence, it was unlikely the Ayatollah would align with the godless Soviets. The Tudeh, of course, are long gone, mostly murdered by the regime. At the time, I did see a little beyond this, thinking and writing that this was in a sense, “Ghost Dancing,” in that just as the Plains Indians on the verge of defeat and near extinction had put their faith in spirits, so here was Islam, lashing back at Modernism, in a violent death throe. I still think I was right, but at the time I would never have thought such issues would still be foremost in discourse today.

POster

Indonesian movie poster from the 70s

My road to Saudi Arabia had led through Indonesia. In 1975, the San Francisco based construction company for which I worked won a contract for an LNG project on the east Coast of Kalimantan(Borneo) My background put me up on the shortlist of candidates for an open position in logistics, and May of that year found me back In Indonesia after an absence of five years. Soekarno was gone, a general ruled, and for our reposes here, I could almost elide these years, as Islam, while present, was not ascendant. It was the 70s, and bell bottoms, short skirts, and big hair were as popular in here as anywhere else. There was still only one television station, state-owned, black and white, and it broadcast a prayer call in the evenings, but the local cinema ground out comedies that were thinly plotted efforts on which to hang chicks in short skirts and showcase local rock bands.

Jalan Thamrin, Jakarta 1974.  Photo: Thomas J. Strei

Jalan Thamrin, Jakarta 1974. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

Jakarta was a roaring town. Oil and gas ruled. There were slot machines in the bars, and there were a lot of bars. Along the new thoroughfares, high rises went up, but from the roof top lounges, one still looked out over a vast, poorly lit sea of shanty towns. There was far more going on than I imagined. (V.S.Naipaul describes repressed Islamist sentiment in 1970s Indonesia in his “Among the Believers.”) Indonesia then, as now, was a supremely religious country. Nor were questions we would find cultural offensive of the table. “How old are you” “What is your religion?” I had long since taken up agnosticism, but I knew better than to answer that I had no religion. After 1965, Communism, and the entire left, by extension had been discredited and were beyond the pale, but this was not due to matters of economic policy or political organization, but rather the atheism considered fundamental to Marxism. So I answered, simply, Catholic, as I had been raised, and of which there were quite a few in the country, with the national Cathedral in Jakarta just across from the National Mosque. With the Indonesians with whom I associated, religion was hardly an issue. I was young, and so were they. Mostly we talked about the job, and of course, girls. A group might meet in a Chinese restaurant, where the westerners and Chinese Indonesians had pork, the Muslims chicken, and we all drank the excellent local beer ( now sadly diminished as successive hikes in the excise tax have forced the brewers to lower the alcohol content.)

Me with local staff, Balikpapan, 1977. One of these ladies was Muslim, the other Christian.  Which was which wasn't obvious back then.

Me with local staff, Balikpapan, 1977. One of these ladies was Muslim, the other Christian. Which was which wasn’t obvious back then.

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Big hair and bell bottoms, Palu, Central Sulawesi, 1977. For the last twenty years this area has been a hotbed of Islamist violence, with may gruesome murders, inter communal mayhem, and volunteers going off to fight jihad abroad.

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Muslim Malay villagers, Sengatta, East Kalimantan, 1977.

After some months, the project build took off and I moved up to Balikpapan, an oil town not far from the job site, and later, towards the end of the project to the site itself. In all this time, working with local staff, no one ever broke off from his duties saying he had to go and pray. No doubt many managed to meet their devotional obligations, but it was never an issue. At evening one heard the call for prayer from the old town below the oil company compound, but as it had been in Sumatra for me, years before, it was a pleasant reminder that I had gotten out in the world and was someplace different, and exciting. At the site, the mess hall provided both Western and Indonesian food. There were separate lines, but all came from the same kitchen. The chef was German, and there was pork. And I was utterly delighted when as the operational team formed for the plant start-up but who should show up but Abu Bakar, from Sungai Gerong, famous for his wild boar barbecues. He was soon off in the forest banging away and put on a great pig roast for all, and as before, while not eating the porker, happily swigged on the bourbon that was his secret barbecue sauce ingredient. We had Sundays off, access to speed boats and free fuel, so we ranged up and down the coast, exploring the rivers and estuaries, stopping at small towns little changed from Conrad’s time( he had mucked about these parts)

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Bugis settlers, from across the strait of Makassar. Renowned as sailors and traders, the Bugis have been Muslim for many centuries, but here, in 1978, no head scarves.

These were Muslim settlements, each with its tin-domed mosque, but there were no head covers on the women and if we had run out, it was easy to find more warm beer to throw in the igloo coolers. There were thousands of Muslim workers on site, but no prayer times, and work continued through the fasting month, with no acknowledgment. When the work was done, and the plant dedicated, oil industry grandees, along with the President of the Republic, General Suharto showed up . It was quite a party. Two major headliners from Jakarta, stars of stage and screen. The late Benyamin S. the still revered Muslim son of West Sumatra, and Grace Simon, a Christian from North Sulawesi (Celebes) put on a show, singing duets half way to dawn, at a well lubricated party.

CyberViewX v5.11.00 Model Code=58 F/W Version=1.12When it was time to go a couple of months later, I joined a buddy and I embarked on a long-planned trip across the interior of Kalimantan and into Malaysia. This was an epic in itself, but has little bearing on this narrative other than that we were surprised at how far up the river the reach of Islam extended. It was week and more before we came ashore at a long house settlement of the native Dayak people, and finally a town, without a mosque. Months later, we stumbled across the border into Malaysia and made our way to Singapore. So,I left Southeast Asia, and returned to California, where I stayed only briefly. I had left a girlfriend in Jakarta. It was far too early to make a commitment, but I needed time and money to go back and forth to Indonesia.

Dayak longhouse, Long Pahangnai, East Kalimantan, 1977.  Dayaks are largely Christian, but many remain animist.  Those that enter Islam must perforce leave all their traditions behind.

Dayak longhouse, Long Pahangnai, East Kalimantan, 1977. Dayaks are largely Christian, but many remain animist. Those that enter Islam must perforce leave all their traditions behind.

Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia 1978

Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia 1978

There was work in Saudi Arabia. So it was that in May 1978, from 25,000 feet, I looked out into the night and saw as far as the eye could see, the gas flares of the Saudi fields. It was as a small cog in the vast Aramco effort to capture those flared resources that I was employed. Saudi Arabia. No women, no whiskey, but so what, I thought. I had known Muslims the better part of my life. No problem. I bought Lawrence’s “Seen Pillars of Wisdom,” Douty’s “Arabia Deserta,” and “Thesigers “Arabian Sands.” These famous men had found adventure and fulfillment there; so might I. Arabia!! Like China and India, one of those fanciful lands from childhood tales.

In the event, Saudi was, as you might expect, awful. The visible population was overwhelmingly male. The Aramco television station showed “Love Boat” Reruns, which we watched assiduously, just for the pool scenes. There were some echoes of the sleepy kingdom in those slides my father’s friend had shown us back in the 50’s In downtown Al_Khobar , where the old whitewashed houses had jalousies in the upper stores, from which women might look out. Down the road was the town of Qatif, with winding alleys, a mud-walled Ottoman fort, and dhows at the quayside.

Qatif, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia,1978

Qatif, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia,1978

The strange and anti-human segregation of the sexes was difficult, indeed, for me, impossible to adjust to. Friends of mine in Riyadh told me of getting random phone calls from women, who passed around expatriate telephone numbers among themselves. They would talk yearningly, for hours, but never meet.

A Safeway opened in Dhahran, and it was soon thronged by veiled women who made a great show of examining produce and reading ingredients on cans. For this they had to throw back the veil over their faces, and one saw, as they glanced away from the lettuce, towards you, great dark eyes, perfectly made up, deep pools in which hid shadowed souls. It was here that I saw what remains the single most erotic vision in my life. Late one day driving along a road crowded on both sides with mid-rise apartments, the street empty, and the sun sinking in the east filled the corridor with orange light. Then a woman, all in black, but clearly young, for the light pierced her dark cloak and illuminated the full curves of her body, as if she were naked., She was faceless, and magnificent.

There was a train line from Dammam to Riyadh, and once I rode with some friends as a lark. Sitting opposite us was a jolly fellow, in his thobe and dishdasha.  He was a trader of some sort, had traveled extensively, and spoke his own variety of expressive and quite amusing English. As he regaled us with stories of his travels, he continuously cracked a variety of nuts, and passed the meats s around. A stand up guy. Next to him was , I presume, his wife, all in black and with a leather mask, something one saw among the Bedouin. She might as well have been a piece of uninteresting luggage. Yet, while I knew this was a consequence of Islam, I saw it as Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. I was not at all ready to write off Muslims in general, or even Saudis, although I learned they weren’t all that popular among Arabs.

There were still those touching human interactions that are part, or even the main reason, that some people seek out time in other cultures. The kind of contact that says, yes, we are, in the end all just people, and such differences as we have,are worthwhile in themselves. Shortly after I arrived in Kingdom, I realized I was going the wrong way while out working one day, pulled off a very a narrow road and got bogged down on a deceivingly solid shoulder. A Caprice slowed down and stopped. The locals loved these behemoths: they were hardy and up to all the crap the desert could throw at them. A portly fellow in Arab dress got out, smiled, pointed to the tow hitch on the back of his car, hitched me up and pulled me back to the road. Then he gave me a cake. An enormous chocolate wonder in one of those pink cardboard boxes. His card said he was a baker, from Kuwait. We shook hands and he took off.

Then there were the middle-aged and elderly merchants who dealt from their stores in the old towns, while their MBA sons ran huge warehouses on the outskirts. It was a pleasure to sit with them, exchange intricate pleasantries, and sip tea and coffee, before getting down to business. One of these guys was a cat fancier. Islam prohibits dogs

Old commercial district, Al-Khobar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 1978

Old commercial district, Al-Khobar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, 1978

but the human love of companion animals will out. He would had me a cup of cardamon infused coffee and – a cat. While exchanging praises to god for he good weather and our fine health we would sip our drinks and pet our purring friends.

And this I shall never forget.

Salim was the proprietor of a busy machine shop.  Black, he had been born into slavery, and when slavery ended in the kingdom, he had gotten work in the oilfields and eventually set up on his own. His crew was also black, from similar backgrounds One day, I was dropping off some drawings, when a commotion broke out.  A worker had been injured – I don’t remember how exactly –  but as his crew gathered around anxiously around for the ambulance to come, Salim cradled the moaning man cooing to him,  and kissing his shaven skull.  Salim was an excellent and reliable supplier, and he was also a good man.

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Bahrein, 1979

Saudi Arabia was full of foreigners, from high paid executives to laborers, and many of them were Muslims .. I hung out with French-speaking Tunisians who made their own wine, and Pakistani guys who cooked up amazing curries and biryanis in their quarters. While I spent most of my leaves in Jakarta, I did see a little of the Middle East. Bahrain had alcohol, old British hotels, and souks filled with Arabs, Europeans and Indians. Syria, while under the thumb of Assad Pere,

Palmyra, Syyria, 1979

Palmyra, , 1979

was nevertheless a wonderful place to visit, Damascus a jumble of classical ruins, stunning mosques from the first Caliphate and an Oktoberfest at the Hilton. Jordan was a friendly, open place, with television in Arabic, English, French and Hebrew. Like Saudi Arabia, these were Muslim lands, but there the similarity ended.

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Damascus, 1980. This engine was part of the order to Krupp for the Baghdad-Berlin railway. Lawrence blew some of them up in the Hijaz.

Looking back, it’s bemusing – and discouraging -to see forerunners of today’s strife in the area. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by rebels who thought the royal family corrupt and un-Islamic, and there were uprisings in the majority Shia Eastern Province where I was. The Press was tightly controlled and we learned the truth of such things via letters from abroad, although rumors and unease abounded in 1979.

One night I was driving home after a day visiting friends up north. Suddenly the light traffic piled up. The Army was checking everyone. Some vehicles were waved though after brief conversations, others searched. I had a load of homemade wine stashed behind the seat, and I thought I was in big trouble. Fortunately, my night class in Arabic paid off, as I was able to understand a demand for my license, and produce it with the usual polite pleasantries.

Old city center, Homs, Syria. Now almost completely destroyed.

Old city center, Homs, Syria. Now almost completely destroyed.

As the soldier and I talked, I heard distant fire, and looking back as I drove on, saw flashes of light to the East. Months later, I learned that gunships had been putting down a revolt in Qatif.

Plus ca change.

Jerash, Jordan, 1980

Jerash, Jordan, 1980

I was in the Kingdom for a little over two years( Well, two years, there months and six days. If you took extra days off to travel, without pay, it was added to your sentence, erhm, contract) I often took extra time, because I was going back and forth to Jakarta. The girlfriend and I decided to marry. She was a secretary at one of the UN affiliated international organizations in town, had friends among the embassies and foundations, and also knew quite a few people in music and film. Jakarta was in a certain way, a small town back them. In short, she was quite sophisticated for the time and place. We had never at all discussed religion. I had met her sister who was married to a hotel manager in a nearby city, but her father was a distant figure. She had always said they didn’t get along. My fiance’s mother had been his first wife, and had died young. He had had quite a few since then.

One day he showed up in Jakarta, on a mission. If we were to marry, I must become Muslim. So this man, in his floppy trousers and Muslim skull-cap, was the father of my fiancée, who had excellent English, some French and Dutch, and was an accomplished stenographer. He was from West Java,and his native language was Sundanese, but of course he spoke Indonesian. Nevertheless, I had great difficulty understanding him, at least in regards to the matter at hand, since a good deal of what he was saying was Arabic. This was a bombshell. I had not attachment to the religion I had been raised in, and had gleefully stopped going to church as soon as nobody made me do so. Nevertheless, I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do, and Islam, the religion of those difficult raghead over in the Sand Box, was not at all something I wanted to take up. I said no, and there was an enormous scene. I called the movers to pack up my stuff, Then, I backed down. I had sent out the invitations, liked the idea of being married, and well love and all that stuff. I went back to Dhahran with an Indonesian language booklet on Islam that told me how to pronounce the Shahada(the Islamic profession of faith), how to pray and so on. I chanted the payers until I knew them, and in the end not so resentfully. Just anther cultural exploration, I thought. So it was, on my next leave from Saudi, I went down to the mosque and recited the Shahada. First I had had to go tot a doctor, drop trou, and show that my junk was regulation. Wen I was born, circumcision was seen nearly universally as a hygienic necessity. ‘Nice work.” said the doc. The imam congratulated me,and we all exchanged a lot of “Alhamdullah,” Arabic for Praise the Lord. I was then able to marry in the Islamic rite. Then I shredded the conversion certificate, and no doubt the mice have since eaten the carbons. Some months after the religious wedding, we married at the civil registry and had a big reception with enormous amounts of booze: I returned to Saudi to finish out my contract. At the Jakarta airport,there were a large number of young Indonesians, dressed in a manner I had never seen before, the boys in skull caps and thobes, and tho women in white, faces visible,  hair covered. They were boarding a Saudi flight, and they told me they were on the way to the Kingdom for religious education. I thought then, what kind of ideas will they bring back?

(To continue to Part 4, go here )

Encounters With Islam: Half a Century of Connection, and a Final Separation (Part 1: 1949-1961)

SaracenCastleThe Crusaders in their heavy mail at first paid little attention to the arrows that struck and wounded them lightly. The Arabs stood a good ways off and their shafts were half spent when they struck.

The Europeans dismounted and formed a shield wall, waiting for the Arab onslaught.

Which never came. Just the unending flights of arrows. Of so many, some did strike vital areas, and heat and cumulative bleeding brought other men down. Maddened, some charged, and then the Arabs came and struck some down, wheeled and stood off again.

The sally was over, and the siege would not end today. As the Franks retreated to their castle they were followed by the ululating war cry La illalah ilahi”

There is no god but Allah.

Then my mother called me for dinner.

UrbanII-220x300I put the solders and castle away. After dinner there would be homework, but I didn’t mind. In Catholic school we were studying the Crusades. We had just received our first issue of a Catholic magazine for juveniles, called “Crusade” and on its cover was Pope Urban, blessing kneeling knights as they took the cross.

We were to learn and celebrate the achievements of these warriors of Christ, but I had a secret. I was drawn to the bearded men in white robes, with their curved swords and exotic war cry. I was nine, and all I knew of Islam is that it had been at war with the Church, my church, the one I had been born into. The history book showed their sweep across the Near East and Africa and up into Spain and even beyond in the name of their god Allah, and their Prophet Mohammed.

In Geography there were pictures of some famous Islamic structures, the Taj Mahal, and the Hagia Sophia, which we learned had first been a great Church with minarets added later. Camels, goats, and women covered from head to foot. In school,the followers of Islam were called Mohammedans, and I cannot now remember when I first encountered the terms “Islam” and “Muslim.” I was a great reader and much interested in knights and armor. Old books with rotogravure illustrations taught me about Richard Coeur d’Lion, but also Saladdin and the just Caliph, Haroun al-Rashid, walking his city incognito in the night.Henty

At the movies there was “the Seven Voyages of Sinbad,” with a cute princess, a roc,and a caliph, and on the black and white television. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and old Sabu movies, all with men in robes and turbans, and sometimes,not very well veiled women with excitingly bare midriffs and transparent harem pants,  but I don’t remember anyone mentioning Allah. 220px-Seventh_voyage_of_sinbad

An old ship mate of my father’s had worked in Saudi Arabia for a while, and he showed us slides of the dusty streets and veiled women, and close ups of comically grinning camels. I had no idea why their women were veiled ,but I do remember one excellent shot of a crowd at an Aramaco(Arabian American Oil Company, now wholly Saudi government owned) night ball game. Women in the back, all in black, boys in checkered headdresses in front, drinking Pepsi.

HalliburtonArabia

Richard Halliburton with Abdul Aziz, first king of Saudi Arabia.

This then was what I knew of Islam, which we knew as Mohammedanism, as I played at Crusaders versus Saracens: it was sort of a heresy, its warriors had conquered great swathes of the wold, starting from Arabia, and the lands of Islam looked quite exotic, the kinds of places I’d like to explore, like Richard Halliburton, celebrity explorer and writer of the 20s and and 30s, who swam the Hellespont with the minarets of Constantinople behind him, and met the King of Arabia. Islam seemed largely for and of Arabs, although I knew the Turks were in there somewhere.

Then, in 1961, my father was transferred to Sumatra along with all of us. I read up in the library.  Islam was the religion of the great majority of Indonesians, I found, and took up some basics: they had no Trinity.  Muslims prayed five times a day,( and I found that particularly awful, as I hated church and did not enjoy good night prayers. My mother’s occasional spurts of piety sometime resulted in family rosaries that seemed interminable), and revered Jesus as only a prophet, didn’t eat pork, or drink alcohol, and went on pilgrimage to Mecca, that forbidden city Halliburton had tried to visit.Halliburtonturban

In May 1961, we boarded a plane, then a ship, then more planes, and one bright, equatorial day, my encounter with Islam began.

(Read Part Two here)

The Obamas’ Not So Excellent African Adventure

obamas-arrive-south-africa

The Obamas arrive in South Africa

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa drew some criticism for its estimated  60-100 million dollar cost. In addition to his wife and daughters, his mother-in-law and a cousin were in tow. Much of the costs are guess-work as security operations are classified. Overall,there is a case for the president as a big spender, but this trip is more or less in  line with what has gone before.

US presidents go to Africa. The president went briefly to Ghana  in 2009. Mr Bush went twice, and as ex-President has been a number of times, and was on the continent while Mr Obama was traveling there this time. President Clinton took a one week trip in 1998. Jimmy Carter was the first American President to visit Sub Saharan Africa. While Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush did not follow on Mr Carter’ s trailblazing, it now appears to be de rigueur for American presidents to take an African trip.

The question is, why? With it its resources and unstable governments, the continent was a cockpit during the cold war, but left to development and intelligence types. The US has no strategic alliances with any black African nation, and while the establishment of the Africom (Established in 2006 under the Bush Administration) command may presage a future struggle, it would be hard now to find any compelling national interest in Africa. Wars may rage and populations flee, but the brutal fact is that ii matters little in current geo-strategic terms, and not at all to ordinary citizens.

So why do our leaders go there?

First, it’s fun. The reception there seems heartfelt, and it’s hard to find anyone getting the treatment Nixon once did in South America.

011309+bush+africa+p2

Cute kids, colorful local dress

There were a few demonstrators out in South Africa, but Mr. Obama was generally received enthusiastically, and courteously. African kids are just too cute, and that makes for great visuals. The music, dancing and colorful dress must provide a real boost, particularly when things are not going so well Stateside.

Then, being from the government, and leaders, our Presidents want to help, and do stuff. Every African trip results in some sort of “initiative” with a few billion dropped off to keep the local rulers in gold braid and the foreign NGOs in SUVs and Macs.

OBAMADANCE

The LA Times noted the proclivity of American leaders to dance when introduced to African rhythms. The President refrained, they say, but he’s either jogging or getting with the beat. Messrs Carter and Clinton kept their feet firmly on the ground, But Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton get their groves on whenever they are in the region.
   The VOA, Hurriyet, the Tanzanian press, and other displaying this image all lead with news of a new ‘initiative.”

That all such help seems to have had no effect at all is lost on these guys, regardless of party. There is a bland well-meaning and quite unself-conscious condescension in all this.

Really, what on earth can people who live in a taxpayer-funded mansion, travel in a luxury jet, and who move with great ease through a continent were many are lucky to find an over crowded bus on an appalling road. If there are roads at all. The Obamas did as well as any of their predecessors in displaying a tin ear as they dispensed platitudes in the course of their progress.

In Senegal, the First lady engaged with students at a girls’ school. It is customary for politicians to “relate” to their constituents. Just a regular Joe.  Mrs Obama deployed this technique when she said:

I know a little bit about this{the students’ struggles and adversities} from my

2013-06-27T125304Z_1330206877_GM1E96R1LWV01_RTRMADP_3_SENEGAL-OBAMA

Heartfelt reception: First Lady at girls’ school in Senegal

own experience.  See, like many of you, I didn’t grow up in a family with a lot of money.  My parents had to work hard every day to support us, so they never had the chance to get the kind of education they wanted for themselves.  But they had big dreams for me.  And more than anything in the world, they wanted me to graduate from secondary school and attend a university.  So they, too, made tremendous sacrifices to make that dream come true.”

Michelle-ObamaHouse07

             The First Lady’s childhood home.

The President’s wife has been poor mouthing this way since at least her time in Princeton, as  her thesis demonstrates. Her father had a secure city government job that provided adequately for his family. Working hard every day to support a family is a situation millions would wish for. Michelle Obama has always had a warm bed, food on the table, decent clothing and, beginning not long after her graduation from Princeton, considerably more.

It is grating enough for public figures who have never suffered want, and who have done extremely well, to pretend to a history of deprivation so as to make themselves seem authentic, but it is downright embarrassing to have such people wallow in this petty whining abroad in a far less fortunate corner of the earth, in the faces of some who have known, and are still engaged in real struggle. One wonders what the young ladies thought. The First Lady at least was attempting to encourage her audience. Her husband was distinctly discouraging, although one doubts he would see it this way.

Ultimately, if you think about all the youth that everybody has mentioned here in Africa, if everybody is raising living standards to the point where everybody has got a car and everybody has got air conditioning, and everybody has got a big house, well, the planet will boil over — unless we find new ways of producing energy.

boiling-planet-tm

             Boiled planet

I took this quote from Media Matters, which was incensed that these remarks would be seen as condescending and demanding. They point out that the president spoke in the larger context of aiding Africa in benefiting from the advances he sees as necessary to prevent the continents from melting and the seas vaporizing.

This could exonerate the President only in the eyes of those who are thoroughly committed to the green agenda. The “new ways of producing energy” are not rolling out next week, so the essence of the President’s admonition is that Africa( and the world’s poor) must wait.

Why should they?

One wonders if any of the young African audience were science majors. The most ardent anthropogenic global warming seers do not posit a burning planet. Climate scientists are in fact revising their forecasts downward. Mr. Obama has perhaps been too busy with one thing or another to have heard about this.  Wherever one stands on the climate issue, the President in this instance sounds like an arrogant fool.

There is nothing wrong, in my view, with privilege. We should all aspire to it. Too often, however, the privileged are not only blind to their own advantages, but rather mean when it comes to extending them to others.

The kindest thing world leaders such as Mr Obama could do for Africa would be to simply stay away. And the same could be said for the “initiatives” they scatter like party favors.

A public figure long associated with Africa related causes, who has learned a little something about condescending to Africa, is Bono of U2, who last year said in regards to development in Africa:

Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

Humility in regards to Africa is not something we can expect from Western leaders. It just feels too good to spread money and good cheer in places where men and women survive, live, and sometimes, yes, thrive, in conditions the President, you, or I, cannot comprehend and could not last out a day.

The Romans had  saying “Semper Aliquid Novo ex Africam.”  “There is always something new coming out of Africa”.  While it is a continent of wonders, for too long the news has been monotonously dismal.  This has changed.  Unevenly, not fast enough perhaps, but still, incomes in Africa after decades of stagnation and decline, are rising.  Not “initiatives,” but Africans themselves are bringing this about.

Thus it behooves us to take something new to Africa.

Respect.

//

Merry Christmas and Eid Mubarrak

Chistmas mid 1950s

I’m not much for religion, and never have been, pretty much telling the Supreme Being to bite me in first grade.  I thought being Lord of the Universe was a pretty good job, and I wondered how he got in.  Seemed unfair, fixed, to me . Raised Catholic, I dreaded Sunday mass with the droning Latin and boring sermons, and the feeling that I had to “act holy” when basically, I didn’t give a shit.

Christmas was different. Of course, the presents under the tree were the highlight as we woke near dawn and squirmed in our beds waiting for our parents to rise.  But  on that day church too was enjoyable.  The choir gave its all to those beautiful old carols. I found myself singing and meaning it,   not in a devotional sense, but fully embracing the communal sense of good will, and the the world was a beautiful place, and we fortunate to be in it together.  It might have rained or sleeted on some Christmas days, but my memories of Natal mornings are always sunny,  snow on the ground in New York, or warm with a light breeze in southern California.

And there was  the food.  Not just turkey and  trimmings, but the nuts, cookies, and sweets, that for this one day we could eat with out limit and no fear of  adult admonitions. A chance to play and show off our new toys to neighbor kids.

When my family lived a few years in New York, Jewish friends had me over for Hannukkah celebrations and passover seders, and I saw that while these gatherings were about religion, and a different one than that I had been told was mine, they were also about family and community, and just plain fun.

Having spent a lot of time in the Islamic  world, I found that the Muslims have their feasts too, and in their own way celebrate family and community just as the Christians and Jews do.  During the fasting month in some places there are dazzling night markets where families eat seasonal treats and greet their neighbors after breaking the fast.  Once on the island of Morotai, in the far north  Moluccas of Indonesia, I attended a celebration of Eid Ul Adha, the feast of Sacrifices, where local Christians joined as well.  There was even a dance – no touching- as young men and women did simple steps, circling each other and flirting.There was an enormous buffet of sizzling meets, savory curries and fresh fruit.  Christians in the Moluccas will tell you the Muslims are far better cooks, and it’s true,

Some years after that, the Moluccas erupted in religious violence, jihadis poured in from Java, and the different religious communities remain separated to this day.

A predictable sign of the holiday season these days is  postings on YouTube of varius imams and mullahs urging Muslims not to give the heathenish greeting: “Merry Christmas.  In Indonesia, it was years ago common for Muslims and Christians  to extend cordial greetings on their respective holidays.  This is no longer the case, and sadly, it is largely the majority Muslims  who have withdrawn from these neighborly rituals.

A former student of mine,an Indonesian engineer  who spent many years working in Saudi Arabia,  an official in a local Islamic charity and who has a large zabiba (prayer bump), startled me some years ago by mailing a Christmas wish,  and he has done so every year since.

That means  a lot.  I’m an atheist, but I acknowledge that religion is hardly going to disappear any time soon.  Thus, my Christmas wish is to see the hatred taken out of religion. But let’s keep the holidays.  And the food.

Shariah Says: No Mohawks

An Indonesian "punker" rallies in support of his Aceh brothers and sisters.

Euro punks ca 80s

Not lost amid the events roiling the world – the threatened euro meltdown, riots and repression in Egypt, killings  of protestors in Syria, the death of North Korea’s dear leader, is the story of a bunch of kids snatched up by police at a Punk rock concert in Aceh, Indonesia.

Punk has been around a long time.   Sid vicious and Johnny rRotten raged in the 70s, but to a lot of kids around the world, adapting what they see as a punk lifestyle,centered on music, tattoos, piercings and just generally, looking and acting weird, and not fitting in, is the way to find identity in repressive societies.

Aceh, the northern most part of Sumatra in the West of Indonesia, is a beautiful land of forested mountains, rushing rivers, long white beaches and reefs teeming with life. A trading entrepot for many centuries, its culture is a an eclectic mix of local, India, Arab and Chinese influences.

Caning in Banda Aceh. Despite generally very nice people, great food, and stunning scenery, Aceh's tourist potential is unlikely to be developed soon.

It is also the place where Islam entered Indonesia, and has been under Shariah law under the terms of the autonomy agreement signed in Helsinki,in 2005, between the Indonesian government and rebels who had fought a three decades long independence war.  Aceh has long been a place ruled by traditional Islamic mores, and while the shariah regime is yet lighter than in Saudi Arabia,  it is tightening its grip.

Aceh first came to the notice of the entire world for its enormous suffering from the 2004 Tsunami,  but lately its press has been rather poor.  The punk round up is the latest in a series of stories  that have shown the brutal, and frequently illogical,  face of shariah to the world.

Ritual Purification? Punks are unclean!

“There will be a traditional ceremony. First their hair will be cut. Then they will be tossed into a pool. The women’s hair we’ll cut in the fashion of a female police officer,” Iskander said on Tuesday. “Then we’ll teach them a lesson.” said Aceh police chief Ins. Gen. Iskandar Hasan, as reported by the Jakarta Globe.  “I’ll remind [police] not to breach human rights,” He concluded.(13 December)

Human rights in Islam are analogous to animal rights in an abattoir: they may be acknowledged, but the outcome in both cases is equally grim.

Chief Hasan may sound hypocritical and illogical, but within the closed system that is Islam, he makes perfect sense: helping Muslims adhere to Islamic rules upholds their right to be perfect Muslims, and more importantly, the right of the Ummah ( Islamic community) to have no imperfect Muslims among its members.

The Globe headline speaks of “reeducation,” but what the police chief proposed, and subsequently carried out, has much in common with Isamic religious practice and jurisprudence.

He has every right to proceed  as he has because

“That which the Muslims consider good, Allah considers good.” *(see end note)

.And clearly these Muslims do not consider being a punk good. The “pool of water ” is reminscent of the ghusl, a purificatory  bath to remove janaba, ritual  defilement. The haircuts too, have some support:

It is offensive to shave part of the head and leave part unshaven.

So mohawks are out.

Mohawks are prohibited, but a clean shave is OK,

However,

There is no harm in shaving it all off

On the other hand,The girls  who had their long hair shorn may have a beef:

These self righteous frumps seem to be multiplying exponentially here in Indonesia. Maybe a burqa would be preferable in the barberess' s case.

It is unlawful for a  woman to cut her hair to disfigure herself, though if done for thesake of beauty it is permissible.

So Siead O’Connor is ok, but one would think have disfigurement imposed would not be, but the policewomen with the clippers no doubt would take the legalistic view: the ruling says “disfigure herself” and they did it for these wayward girls.

The Aceh punk roundup story has legs that are still running strong. “AnarchoPunks n Moscow have grafittied the Indonesian Embassy in Moscow with slogans such as:

“Religion=Fascism.” and  “Punk is not a crime.”

Buy those lads some vodka!

Sinéad is shariah compliant, as long as she didn't intend to "disfigure herself." Who knows?

As of  yesterday, December 20, the punks were holding up well.. This WP/AP story details their defiance.

At the same time, Secretary Clinton has been holding a conference( closed proceedings ) with the OIC in

Fully compliant

Washington so as to work on eliminating defamation of religion and religious prejudice.  No doubt a press release announcing a multifaith center with a church and a synagogue  in Mecca is forthcoming.

What's the big deal? It's just a haircut! No disrepect to Holocaust victims meant. Islam, like Nazism is a supremacist, totalitarian ideology. Totalitarianism starts incrementally.

Listen to the punks: they know the truth.

*( From: “Reliance of The traveler, a Manual of Islamic Sacred Law”  A compendium of scholarship of the Shafi school.  Published in English and Arabic by Amana Publications, Maryland USA. 2008 edition.  Certified for accuracy of translation and scholarship by Al Azhar University Cairo and the International Institute for Islamic thought, Herndon, Virgina, USA, among others.  All other comments on Islamic law and religious practice in this piece are from the same source.”

Hey Mustapha!

"Can I borrow a cup of sugar?"

It is a true pleasure to live in Bali in a neighborhood where I have never heard what Obama called “the loveliest sound on earth.”

As a child, living in an oil camp in Sumatra, it was kind of nice to hear the evening prayer call from across the river. President Obama, too, was referring to the evening prayer.  He didn’t mention the brutally early morning prayer which comes well before dawn.

Mr. Obama grew up in a far poorer, and much less Islamic Indonesia. Nowadays, with the availability of cheap electronics , and a kind of arms race in ostentatious piety in Muslim neighborhoods( and pretty much anywhere you find a mosque or prayer room, Muslim majority neighborhood or not),  the earsplitting cacophony of hundreds of different amplified calls to prayer would drive one insane without a coping mechanism.

I’ve know some folks to use industrial grade noise reduction headgear.  Turning up the TV helps.  One’s mind does adjust:  I found that in a deep enough sleep, the call became incorporated in to my dreams, so that I would wake thinking I had just dreamt of a concert length version of “Stairway to Heaven,” when in fact some mysterious brain function had morphed the morning prayer call into something bearable.

It is evening here, and rather than a prayer call, I hear birds,  a bar or two of gamelan music floating on the wind,and children playing.

I like it that way.

Church Bombing in Java’s Heartland

Batik workers at Danar Hadi batik museum, Solo. The television is not part of some oppressive surveillance apparatus, but for the entertainment of the workers.

"Rumahku," My House, a refurbished 1930s Dutch era house, now a guesthouse and restaurant.

Slamet Riyadi, Solo's main street. The city moves at a slower pace than larger cities nearby. The quiet heart of old Java.

Here's the guy. Pretty tastless of me to put it up, right? Well, tastelessnespales in the face of moral cowardice. The daily outrages, 10 dead here, 30 there, these are real people, as is this man, as much a victim of a vicious and death worshipping ideology as the people he attacked. Churches burned, mosques bombed( by other Muslims, with Shia and Ahmadiiah, as well as the occasional moderate Sunni cleric taking the hit from the more pious). Buddhist monks, and children, beheaded in Thailand, cross border shoppers bombed there too, beer drinkers executed in Nigeria, and on and on…all real people. So have a look at it once in awhile to remember who these people are, and what happened to them. Tastelessness is nothing in the face of this holocaust. I like Solo. This pisses me off, so I put the pic up. Deal with it.

Solo, or its formal name Surakarta, the seat of an ancient sultanate, is a  center of  highly refined Javanese culture epitomized in its batik, court ceremonies, dance and gamelan music.

Less visited than its better known neighbor, Jogjakarta, it is quiet place with good accommodation, excellent shopping without the touts and traffic of Jogya, accessible by domestic air lines, with Silkair coming in from Singapore. Tourism will not be enhanced by the latest outrage in “moderate“ Indonesia, a  poor omen for  success in the country’s drive to  improve arrivals numbers, 7.2 million in 2010, compared to 12.6 for tiny neighbor Singapore.

Solo is also the birth place of Abu Bakar Basyir, radical Islamist and convicted, although lightly sentenced, terrorist mastermind.  In Solo, the cultural civil war between syncretistic Hindu-Islamic Javanese culture and Wahabiism  rages just below the surface.  The historic tendency of the Javanese toward syncretism and openness to different spiritual beliefs also resulted in a large Christan population,  Now there are jihadis to attack them.

Egypt’s and Tunisia’s tourist industries have been ruined, and will most likely never rebound as they become shariah dominated Islamic republics. This could be Indonesia’s fate as well.  Jihad is bad for business,

From  Reuters, via MSNBC
“A suspected suicide bomber attacked a church on Indonesia’s Java island on Sunday, killing himself and injuring 17 people, police said.”

The ubiquity of cell phones here, and lax policing procedures means that a pic of the dead bomber is already viral.  He looks like an offal stand in a wet market,  No “suspected” about it.

The story goes on: “Religious tensions still bubble near the surface in the officially secular nation.”  “Bubble” is a rather weak verb in this context.

“Officially secular”…yes, but not in a sense that nations like the US or France might recognize.  The country has a Ministry of Religion, which, given the demography concerns itself mostly with Islamic affairs, but does allocate some funding to other beliefs.  Domestic airliners, along with the emergency instructions and barf bag, have prayer cards for the major religions in the seat pockets, just the thing for white knuckle fliers,

In Indonesia, religion trumps everything , and one religion trumps all others.

And… “Religious conflicts flared up between Muslims and Christians in Maluku and Sulawesi, in the eastern part of the sprawling archipelago, following the overthrow of former President Suharto in 1998.”

This is a case where “religious conflict,” rather than being the value neutral and history shunning whitewash it usually is, may be an appropriate term, at least in terms of the inception of the conflicts, which were actually large scale regional civil wars.  Both sudden explosions, over perceived slights that quickly spread and dragged on for years.  However, in both areas was only the Muslim side that brought in arms and fighters from outside, with the indifference, if not outright collusion of the security forces,   To my knowledge, no clear journalistic account, in any language, has been written for either conflict.  At the time, local media withdrew and foreigners were banned.  Despite widespread lawlessness, and the deaths of thousands, only three people ever prosecuted, Christians Fabianus Tibo, Dominggus da Silva, and Marinus Riwu, all executed in 2001.  No one, Christian or Muslim was ever charged in the Maluku war.

Instead, academics, religious leaders and government actors spoke of “horizontal conflict,” convened conferences and hammered out intercommunal agreements.  This is the Indonesian way, where confrontation is avoided, and consensus, regardless of justice, is valued above everything else. That is, until tempers rise too far.  “Amuck” after all is a Malay word(for non- Indonesian readers, the  Indonesian language is based on the Riau-Johore dialect of
Malay.)  This, as much as political indebtedness to Islamic parties, may be at the heart of President Yudhyonos’s passivity in the face of rising Islamist agitation and violence.

In its story, the Jakarta Globe quotes police sources as saying the attack may be linked to recent violence in Ambon.

Note that once again, a “clash“ is Muslims attacking Christians, just as this is usually described wherever it may be, Egypt, Nigeria, or Indonesia, among others,

Since the end of the wars in Maluku and Sulawesi almost ten years ago, I would challenge anyone to find an instance of a Christian initiated “clash” in Indonesia; If nothing else, those “conflicts” taught the minority that they are not going to win, even in areas where they have numerical equality, or even superiority.

Another Globe story quotes Christian and Muslim clerics as warning against a plot to stir up “conflict.“

Here in microcosm, is Indonesia’s quandary, and the world’s, in confronting Islamist extremism.  A refusal to look at the core texts of Islam, not the various islams practiced in different forms across continents, but the texts whose exact words motivate terrorists and jihadi fighters, results in logical fallacies, x-factor searches for conspiracies, leading to abject  failure in defending the societies attacked.s

Just as is standard procedure in the Us and Europe, when a “lone wolf” jihadi is caught, or acts,, we are told that he or she is not part of a network, as if that is reassuring, and police and press speculate as to motive.

Motive?  I posit Islam.

“When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them and lie in ambush everywhere for them.”

Surah 9:5 Al Saif(the Sword)

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.

.