Monday, October 03, 2011

Questioning Religious Divides

Note: Article published at Inside Indonesia. Unfortunately it doesn't include the recent FPI-SCTV debacle. More reading here.

A recent film supporting religious pluralism stirs public debate

Inaya Rakhmani

In April 2011, thousands of Indonesian film-goers flocked to director Hanung Bramantyo’s latest film with the intriguing title of ‘?’ (Question Mark – in Indonesian, Tanda Tanya). Hanung has had a string of successful Islam-themed films starting with Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, a film addressing the personal aspects of polygamy. That was followed in 2009 by Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman with a Scarf around Her Neck) which dealt with Islamic feminism, still a highly controversial topic. In 2010, he directed Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener) which portrays the life of Muhammadiyah founder KH Ahmad Dahlan (1869-1923) as a progressive leader – one who was modern, open-minded and rational and dared to challenge the authority of the more dominant, traditional religious teachers of his time. Audiences now expect that Hanung’s films will deal with contemporary issues confronting Indonesian Muslims.

They were not disappointed with this year’s film. In ‘?’ Hanung once again deals with a sensitive issue, religious pluralism. The date of the film’s release, as well as its content, underlines its theme. Fresh in viewers’ memories were the September 2010 attack on Christian pastors in Bekasi, the devastating violent acts against Ahmadis in Cikeusik in February 2011 and the ongoing revoking of church permits, the latest that of Yasmin Church in Bogor in March 2011.

In contrast to the violence of the anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadi acts, which threaten peaceful co-existence between religious groups, the film ‘?’ centres on the intersection between people’s daily lives and their (chosen) religion. One of the film’s main characters, Rika, converts from Islam to Catholicism. Rika’s conversion is explained in a scene where her husband speaks about loving another woman, as if he is considering polygamy, while Rika cries in bed, hugging their son. Although Rika’s inner spiritual journey from Islam to her new faith is not revealed, the film touches on socio-cultural practices in Indonesia, particularly in multi-faith Semarang. The film highlights how these practices affect converts and community members of different convictions.

An illustration of such practices is provided by restaurant owner Tan Kat Sun, who shows sensitivity to the beliefs of his Muslim customers by using separate cooking utensils when preparing pork and non-pork dishes. He also allows his Muslim employee, the veil-wearing Menuk, to take prayer breaks during work hours. In these and other ways the film depicts the lived realities of religious practice, and shows the compassion and tolerance which can exist between community members.

With violent acts motivated by religious extremism on the increase in Indonesia, the film’s message is a significant one. The country’s commercial media in general and television stations in particular favour sensational news over quality journalism because the former attracts ratings. Hanung’s film offers an alternative and more nuanced view to the sensationalism and extremist positions that currently dominate Indonesia’s information and entertainment industry.

Conservative reactions

Hanung Bramantyo and his film ‘?’ have been heavily criticised by conservative Muslim groups. One example is the organisation Voice of Al Islam. In an online article entitled Hanung’s Film “?” Should be Entitled “The Apostate”, Voice of Al Islam claims that Hanung’s definition of tolerance erodes the faith of believers and is the gateway to hell. Desastian, author of the article, asserts that the film presents Islam negatively, as being ‘exaggerative, tendentious, and fatalistic’. In the same article, KH Cholil Ridwan, the Head of the Indonesian Ulama Council’s (MUI) Centre for Culture, stated that ‘The film clearly propagates religious pluralism, which has been declared haram (forbidden) for Muslims.’ He refers to the film’s opening statement: ‘Every path is different, but heads to the same destination: seeking the same entity with the same objective, God.’ He suggests that Hanung should learn how to recite and understand the Qur’an rather than speak about issues he does not fully comprehend.

Cholil seems to believe Hanung’s inadequate knowledge of Islam has led him to treat all religions as having the same goal. Yet, somewhat ironically, through his film Hanung argues that religious violence stems from ignorance. In an interview with the Jakarta Globe soon after the film’s release, he said ‘to wage a proper battle against the stupidity and ignorance that causes so many problems in our lives we should strive for a well-rounded and informed viewpoint’. In the same interview, he argues that ‘Islam today is readily associated with intolerance toward people of opposing faiths, acts of terrorism and even violent theology.’ It is clear that he is using the film to communicate his own views of religious tolerance.

Support for the film

The message on pluralism delivered by ‘?’ is apparently in line with the government’s current projection of religion as part of national identity. The Minister of Culture and Tourism, Jero Wacik, told journalists that the film should be entitled Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity, Indonesia’s national motto) for its depiction of ethnic and religious tolerance, particularly its depiction of Indonesia’s multiple ethnicities and religious groups. The minister says the film, particularly because it is made by an Indonesian, represents the nation’s character.

The online magazine, Majalah Madina Online, has also praised Hanung’s efforts to present a positive image of Islam in Indonesia. A supporter of religious pluralism, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Ade Armando, reminded readers that despite incidents of violence in the name of religion, Indonesia is a country that can nurture a peaceful Islam – one that respects diversity. Armando also praised the film’s main investor, Mahaka Pictures and its Chief Executive Officer, Eric Thohir, for supporting pluralist ideas. As Armando notes, ‘This is very important considering the fact that Mahaka is the company that also publishes Republika newspaper, known for its conservative position in on pluralism.’

A public ‘space’

The public debate surrounding the film is an interesting one. It is a general trend that institutional media, namely televised news programs, have mainly focused on Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. For instance, the strident demonstrations of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are often featured in the TV news. The FPI demonstrators with their loud chants, threatening gestures, and ritual burning of objects provide sensational footage and dramatic scenes which have become the staples of commercial television.

By contrast, Hanung’s ‘?’ provided the trigger to initiate an internet-mediated debate that questions the role of Muslims in a plural nation. Being a medium that does not rely on sensationalism to attract an audience, the internet provided a space for different and even opposing ideas to interact. While religious issues reported by television news often feature violence or provocative behaviour, the debate between Desastian and Hanung about ‘?’, was conducted in a low-key and even balanced way on Voice Al Islam’s website. Although Desastian and Hanung disagreed and sometimes used aggressive language, their arguments were rational and each respected the other’s right to speak their mind.

Readers of Armando’s article in Madina Online also praised Hanung for his depiction of religious tolerance although some condemned him for over-simplifying Islamic teachings. This was also the atmosphere when I saw the film in the theatre. A man in the audience audibly exclaimed ‘Astaghfirullah’ (God forgive me) in a scene where one of the film’s characters, Surya, a down and out Muslim actor, played Jesus in an Easter play. But when the film ended, I heard several members of the audience applauding and no one left the theatre in anger.

By its fifth day, ‘?’ had reached almost 100,000 viewers, a number predicted to grow to over one million by the end of 2011. The number of viewers indicates that Indonesians are interested in films which deal with sensitive topics in a realistic contemporary context. The relatively civil debate that ensued about the film’s subject matter indicates that that Indonesian citizens, be they film makers, audiences, or religious authorities are not always passive bystanders. When the state fails to protect vulnerable groups, some choose to use the internet to argue for the rights of those groups and peaceful co-existence. And, in contrast to the flowering of action at the end of the New Order, it is not happening simply because of the emergence of a more liberal political and economic climate – it is happening because Indonesians are actively seizing these new opportunities for debate.

Inaya Rakhmani ( is a Media Studies lecturer at the Department of Communication Science, University of Indonesia. She is currently completing her PhD thesis at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. She wishes to thank Dapur Film Productions and Voice of Al Islam for permission to publish images from the film.


colson said...

As someone who didn't see the film, I should refrain from an opinion on it. But I can say your great article is illuminating. And upbeat and positive in the stride :).

I ( of course!) do agree with you that a number of hotheaded individuals and some relatively small groups of vigilantes should not dominate the discourse, like the way they sometimes seem to do - thanks to the media and politicians.

However the sky isn't sunny and blue all together. There also are some dark and threatening clouds over our heads, I'm afraid.

I for one think this quote is chilling: "The film clearly propagates religious pluralism, which has been declared haram (forbidden) for Muslims", coming from the mouth/pen of a leader of MUI.

Alas his is not an insignificant voice.

Inaya Rakhmani said...

Hi Colson! To be honest, my own ideological position is not reflected in the article. I treated the article as holding a certain role (public sphere), because I think in the current context, mediation moderates radicalism. I'm fully aware of the dominant view and how marginalising it is towards 'others'. But I decided my personality does not extend to 'fighting fire with fire' - although in some situations, it's a must.

And I don't know where to start with MUI. :p

Mauricio said...

In today's Indonesia there are two phenomena that are corrosive to the body politic. One is the fear of political secessionism, most clearly seen in the rigid, doctrinaire approach to separatism in Aceh and now in Papua. Indonesians have made the "harga mati" of territorial integrity into a demi-god. The other one is the fear of religious secessionism, the fear of apostasy. To speak more concretely, Muslims' phobia of apostasy. The treatment meted out to Ahmadiyah can no longer be seen as an isolated incident or the perversions of rural, poor, uneducated kampung folk. The problem of religious intolerance in Indonesia is systemic, structural, and ingrained in the laws of the country, but also in the attitudes of the people. Indonesia ranks among the countries with the most restrictions placed on religion. Why? One reason is the fear of apostasy. Witness for example the sad chorus from NU, Muhammadiyah--putatively mainstream organizations--calling for a ban of Ahmadis. Ultimately Islam will not be judged by the lofty ideals of its texts, but rather by the mundane actions and attitudes of real-life Muslims in the here and now. I do think you are much too optimistic about the problem corroding the social fabric of this country.

Inaya Rakhmani said...

@Mauricio: I am deliberately too optimistic, particularly also because Inside Indonesia is a space to do so. I do acknowledge the sad state of how the dominant reading of Islam in Indonesia has become increasingly intolerant towards opposing views and practices. My own academic and ideological position is reflected in your arguments. But I choose to play a role through that article to communicate that, in this context, the interaction of ideas has become a way to practice tolerance.