Hello from smoggy Jakarta,
The best thing about this hot humid capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country is my ultra-modern hotel room with its own computer, including respectable Internet access. The large flat panel display looks like the one I have collecting dust up in the mountain hideout. The USB port works and there is a CD-ROM drive, meaning I finally got the backlog of pictures processed. The pictures in the CaptureView binoculars camera were useless; I had switched on the low resolution mode and got nothing useful. The 43 high-resolution (1280 X 960) images in the little Aiptek Minicam took two hours to upload to ofoto. I'll use 640 X 480 in the future.
The train out of Yogyakarta lurched, jumped and jerked its way northwest for seven and a half hours. Every ten minutes or so the first class car air conditioning belched out a cloud of insecticide. Must have worked as none of the mosquitoes I saw flying around chose me for his lunch. Periodically, staff came by with airline style snacks and meals included in the price of the ticket.
A continuous panorama of agricultural fields along the way gave me the impression the country is mostly rural. Most fields included a rest shack providing shade during the hottest part of the day for the farm hands or a place to take lunch and an afternoon nap. At the frequent small towns along the way I saw many motorbikes leading me to believe this is the principle way people get around out in the country.
We arrived in Jakarta at sunset. I walked to the nearest decent looking hotel and asked the desk clerk for alternate lodging suggestions after feigning exaggerated shock at his $200/night room rate. With the natural light dimming fast I grabbed a taxi and headed toward the center of the city and the recommended Hamid Hotel. All they had left was a deluxe room at $78, but I took it... later discovering the rate included all the Internet I could eat plus a fabulous breakfast buffet banquet; expensive, but worth it for my last few days in Indonesia.
The buffets here in Indonesia all serve pork and offer “Halal” sections complete with turkey “ham” at breakfast. (I think Halal is the Muslim version of the Jewish Kosher.) American fast food chains are all over the place: Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Mc Donald’s, and others. Even though I have been eating well I’ve had to tighten my belt three notches; I’m sure I’ve lost weight again. I do sweat a lot, drinking liters of water during the day to counter incipient dehydration.
Most men smoke and generally are considerate of non-smokers; very few women smoke. Perhaps one in twenty women in the modern sections of cities wear the Jalbab head scarf and possibly one in five in the outlying areas. As a majority of the women wearing the Jalbab are fashionably dressed in expensive clothes, I have the impression the scarf is more a fashion statement than a religious observance. One woman replied to my question about the practice: “The Koran doesn’t require it, you know. It is up to the individual.” Ha! Tell that to a Saudi Arabian woman.
The ear infection continues to be a problem despite treatment with the Gold Bond triple antibiotic I carry. With the blisters healing, I walked down to the picturesque old harbor area during my only free day to see the tall ships. Gangs of men were busy loading and unloading the huge vessels, carrying bags of cargo on their backs… just as they would have done a century ago. Some of the guys seemed to approve of my taking their pictures. The adjacent old market smelled of fish and rope. Grizzled old fishermen sat cross-legged mending their nets and eyeing the numerous tourists in shorts and cameras. Fish mongers sang out the virtues of an amazing array of ocean bounty. One lady offered the most colorful selection of sea creatures I had ever seen, so I snapped a picture.
While waiting for my flight to Malaysia in the Jakarta airport I met Dr. Hasaunudin Hasnur Alam, an Indonesian Government employee responsible for developing eco-tourism in the eastern islands… and a Muslim. Well educated and eager to talk to an American, he answered my many questions about his religion and the attitudes of his countrymen. Asked specifically about Jihad he told me the Koran never meant for the practice to be used for coercive political ends. “Jihad is a personal matter between the believer and his God. It means being a good father and husband; doing a good job at work; doing no wrong… setting a good example for others.” Asked about extremists he pointed out: “Every culture has a few bad characters. Most people I know practice religious tolerance and abhor the terrorists.” His views paralleled those of other Indonesians I interviewed. This fact may well explain why the government has been reluctant to focus any attention on deviant fringe elements… or to publicly respond to foreign criticism that it coddles terrorists.
That’s it for this short stop in Jakarta. Next stop will be Kuching on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo.
PS: 20 October 2002 - At the moment I am back in Kuala Lumpur, after a week of being incommunicado up in Myanmar (Burma). The generals running the country refuse to let even foreign tourists use the Internet! It felt strange being completely out of touch with the rest of the world. But, more about that when I write a proper postcard from Yagon.
The local Malaysian TV news and papers from Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia all are preoccupied with the questions of terrorism in southeast Asia; the rest of the world has been critical of them for giving the problem inadequate attention in the past. The debate is intense and deeply probing. The official government positions reflect the seriousness of the acknowledged real internal threats, but individual politicians straddle the fence though, trying not to alienate significant segments of the religious electorate. The truth is that the majority of people in this region hate the violence as much as we do, but do not disagree with the criticism of non-Islamic western interests voiced by the groups thought to be responsible for the terrorism. But, the majority is silent, giving tacit approval to the actions of the radical minority.
Observations and pondering lead me to believe that while a majority of Indonesian Muslims do indeed "regret the loss of innocent lives" resulting from acts of religiously inspired terrorism, conflicting teachings of Islam predispose them to remain silent. This silent majority does nothing to discourage the tiny number of fanatics determined to oppose American hegemony throughout the world and Western support for Israeli subjugation of Muslim Palestinians.
The official Indonesian government position has done an about-face recently in response to Western pressure and the horror of Bali. However, politicians proceed cautiously to avoid alienating the sizable minority of vocal religious fundamentalists; condemning specific acts of violence, but stopping short of outright condemnation of the religious groups thought to be encouraging violent expressions of the most extreme religious views. This mixed message from the people and their government provides fuel for the fires engulfing susceptible minds among the moderate believers.
Fortunately, this situation also has opened a long overdue debate about the anachronistic aspects of the archaic Islamic teachings. Several prominent Indonesian clerics have spoken publicly about the need for new interpretations of Koranic messages, much as the Bible began to be reinterpreted during the Christian Reformation. This development may be the most important outcome of the current worldwide terrorist offensive by Islamic fundamentalists. If the violent Muslim extremists are eventually marginalized and seen as heretics within their own religion, a wider acceptance of religious pluralism is sure to follow. Already this position has become government policy in Singapore, a bell weather for the entire region.
After the Bali bombing I reread my postcard about that encounter with the four high school girls in Yogyakarta and the one girl’s outburst about violent terrorist acts: "I hate it!" One of the two Christian girls made that comment and I now remember how the two Muslim girls remained silent seemingly embarrassed by the discussion. While most of the people in Indonesia are no more radical than most of the people in America, devout Muslims are more likely to condone violent expressions of Jihad than say the average devout "Christian" might condone the killing of doctors performing abortions.
Fortunately, a large number of moderate voices condemning religious violence are being heard in this part of the world... along with the apologists of course. Meanwhile back in Bali, a long dormant separatist movement has been shaken awake by the atrocious 12 October blasts, widely thought to be the work of Muslim extremists.
Gentle Balinese are outraged by this disruption of the tranquility on their isolated island of the gods. This tiny enclave of Hinduism in the vast sea of Indonesian Islam has survived in peace for centuries, pretty much ignoring the potential threat of the country's majority Islamic religious teachings which brand them infidels and legitimate targets for annihilation. These political rumblings may have played a role in the president's decision to get tough on groups thought to be promoting violent expressions of their radical beliefs... that and the eminent loss of important foreign tourist revenues.
It is impossible to imagine Bali as a separate country! In another encouraging development, world leaders have been characterizing the deaths caused by terrorists as murders, as crimes. This is a good strategy... focuses attention on the fact that such atrocities are the work social deviants; the criminal element which is present in every society and should be treated as such.
There also are significant public efforts to promote racial tolerance; Singapore even has a new Pledge of Allegiance, which promises respect for all private expressions of every religious faith and ethnic culture. A big debate has just concluded in the city-state on the final wording of the pledge. So, all of this recent coordinated terror activity by the network of radical Islamic groups may have the unintended effect of opening up previously closed Islamic societies to religious introspection, something explicitly forbidden by the Koran, something long over due. I hope so... I am optimistic. FB
Fred L Bellomy