A Sacrificial Feast in Indonesia

Many Americans know Indonesia by the numbers: the world's fourth-largest democracy and most populous Muslim nation. But fewer know about Indonesia's brand of Islam.
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As most Americans were winding down their Thanksgiving festivities, feeling fully satiated from a day of football and turkey, Indonesians were waking to perform their own sacrificial feast, or Idul Adha, an Islamic holiday that commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim's commitment to kill his only son in obedience to God.

Indonesians celebrate the holiday through the mass slaughter of goats, sheep and cows. Much of the meat is then donated to the poor who gather at local mosques to collect black plastic bags of the stuff. For days leading up to the sacrifice, the animals are kept in pens around the city. They are well-fed and cared for to meet quality standards necessary for killing. It is a fascinating spectacle to see herds of goats competing with motorbikes and bajais for room on Jakarta's crowded streets.

This being my first Idul Adha, I decided to wander the city to observe my neighbors enjoying the holiday. I was not looking to revel in the gore of watching men slice raw meat into tiny pieces. Bur rather to observe the array of faces and neighborhoods that make up this city, a place that carries both the promise and poison of all of Indonesia.

Many Americans know Indonesia by the numbers: the world's fourth-largest democracy and most populous Muslim nation. But fewer know about Indonesia's brand of Islam, a fact that may have to do, in part, with the US's more recent hands-off approach to religious affairs here. Previous engagement with Indonesia attempted to challenge people's perceptions of Islam though books and discussions about the need for moderation. But that approach bought little good will, as diplomats and analysts realized that changing people's faith takes more than a propaganda campaign.

Despite last July's terrorist attacks on the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels, security experts and diplomats still say the threat of radical Islam taking hold of Indonesia is low. And while the presence of Islam has become more visible in recent years, with more women wearing headscarves, mosque attendance on the increase and even advertisements catering to conservative Muslim consumers, the majority of Indonesia's Muslims continue to practice a form of the faith that embraces openness and tolerance.

Indonesia is a pluralistic society, so the acceptance of religious freedom is vital to the unity and stability of the nation, said Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. He was speaking during a November 17 counterterrorism conference jointly hosted by NU and the Washington-based Center of Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, which is hoping to get civil society organizations to help in the fight against terrorism.

Indonesia's secular constitution recognizes six religions -- Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Other religions are not protected by the government, which concerns human rights groups that say religious freedom applies to all religions.

The passage of a stoning law in Aceh and a bill to increase halal labeling, have caused additional concerns that Indonesia's Muslims are becoming more conservative and intolerant.

But Aceh is unique in being the only province in the country that operates under strict Islamic law known as Sharia, and despite several bylaws that discriminate against women and limit freedom of expression, efforts to politicize the religion claimed by 88 percent of Indonesians have not played out.

Indonesia has all the cross-cutting trends one would expect to find in a nation this size - ranging from radical to liberal perceptions of Islam, said Greg Fealy, an Indonesia scholar in the Department of Political and Social Change at Australian National University. He was referring to the pluralism display during this year's parliamentary elections, when Islam-related parties gained a mere 16 percent of the vote, one of the lowest percentages ever.

Islamist parties did worse in the 2009 election than previous years, with people putting support behind candidates they believed could improve the economy rather than those who appealed to religious sentiments, Fealy said.

It is Indonesia's many layers that have allowed moderate Islam to flourish in this nation of 240 million people, said Hasyim, explaining that NU has taken on the posture of moderation, which he called the ability to balance between faith and tolerance.

Dr. Din Syamsuddin, head of the country's other major Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, addressed Indonesia's approach to religion by rejecting any connection between Islam and terrorism, noting that non-religious factors are often the main motive for extremist acts. "Terrorism has no religion," he said.

The factors that provoke radical ideologies that give way to terrorism are basically issues of underdevelopment, said Rizal Buendia, from the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was referring to issues of injustice, discrimination, poverty and unemployment that marginalize certain people who are then easily swayed by radical groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah.

Helping strengthen moderate Islam requires the involvement of civil society organizations and government policies that provide benefits such as health care and education to the poorest member of society, the hosts of the counterterrorism conference concluded. But the outcome of the discussion deserves a longer post.

What seems clear from today's Idul Adha celebrations, is that people in Indonesia can and do come together. This is not only an incredibly diverse nation, but its size is vast and its national history is short. And the kindness I see displayed in a city filled with harshness and injustice is certainly something to be thankful for.

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