An Eid in Jogjakarta

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Spontaneous street parades popped up from nowhere, neighbourhood street bands and school bands marched up and down every street and alley, fireworks popped and fizzed in the sky and every home was lit with a plethora of colours. The atmosphere was gay and electric, and in the main square a pop concert was held as rock musicians and religious preachers took to the microphone singing songs of God and Love. God and Love: this is the Islam that seldom, if ever, gets coverage in the international media that seems more obsessed with the image of Islam as a religion of hate and violence, observes Aliran member Farish A Noor.

It has been many years, more than two decades in fact, since I last enjoyed celebrating Eidul Fitri anywhere in the world. Over the past decade Eid has always been a poignant moment for me, as I reflect on how badly things have deteriorated for Muslims the world over. It is sad, to say the least, that despite all the efforts of legions of progressive Muslim academics, activists and leaders the world over the image of Islam and Muslims worldwide has taken such a battering in the wake of 11 September 2001. During my long stay in Europe, Ramadhan was often a testing time when academic-activists like myself would be drawn into public debates about how Islam constituted a ‘threat’ to European identity (while of course the fact that the capitals of Western Europe have been colonised by scores of McDonalds and KFC outlets is seen as something perfectly normal, as if Chicken fried ala’ Kentucky state was as European as croissants, bratwurst or fish and chips…)

After twenty-one years of living in Europe and watching the slide to the extreme right in the politics of countries like Holland, Austria and Germany, it makes a huge difference to be back in Asia and in Java in particular, the home of my ancestors. The past two months however have been laborious as I was trekking across all of Java as part of my research project. Finally, after eight weeks of non-stop travel and fieldwork, I found myself tired, smelly, dirty but contented as I nestled back in my adopted hometown of Jogjakarta, just in time to catch the takbir that announced the end of Ramadhan and the coming of Eid.

What followed can only be described as spectacular in the most over-stated way: Within an hour of the maghrib azan, the streets of Jogja was crammed and overflowing with thousands of motorbikes as the student body of this campus-based town spilled into the streets. Boys and girls from Jogja’s many universities and colleges took to their bikes, claiming the city as the urban landscape turned into a riot of colours. Spontaneous street parades popped up from nowhere, neighbourhood street bands and school bands marched up and down every street and alley, fireworks popped and fizzed in the sky and every home was lit with a plethora of colours. The atmosphere was gay and electric, and in the main square a pop concert was held as rock musicians and religious preachers took to the microphone singing songs of God and Love. God and Love: this is the Islam that seldom, if ever, gets coverage in the international media that seems more obsessed with the image of Islam as a religion of hate and violence.

For outsiders, including Malaysians who live next door to Indonesia yet know little about their own neighbours, this would have been a revelation. How could Ramadhan and Eid be celebrated with such gusto and abandon? Could Islam really be as colourful and happy as this?

Yet I was there watching as hundred of kids ran about carrying lanterns and dragon and lion dance masks- Yes, dragon and lion dance masks that in neighbouring Malaysia or Singapore would be immediately identified as Chinese, and consequently non-Muslim. Yet here there were hundreds of Muslim kids playing around, laughing, cheering, smiling with dragon and lion dance masks without even thinking for a second that they could be signifiers of an alien culture. What after all, is alien about Chinese culture? Havent the Chinese in Indonesia been here for half a millenium already? To the everlasting credit of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), President of the Nahdatul Ulama, he will forever be remembered as the Indonesian President who with a stroke of his pen immediately classified all the Chinese of Indonesia as natural citizens and pribumis, in recognition of their immense contribution to Indonesian history, politics and culture. This is what happens when you have a progressive, open, pluralist Muslim leader in power.

The Churches were lit in Jogja and the citizens of Jogja of all faith communities came out to celebrate Eid together, as one big family (keluarga besar) that lived, worked, loved and suffered together. Jogjakarta’s sense of identity is as strong as its neighbouring city of Surakarta – where I am also based as Professor at Muhamadiyah University Solo – and in both cities we see how Indonesians have managed to build a sense of common identity and solidarity on the basis of a shared Indonesian citizenship where race and ethnicity have become secondary. It is to the credit of my Indonesia activist-academic friends and comrades that in both Jogja and Solo we have set up a common alliance between Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist groups to counter all forms of facist, racist, communitarian and sectarian politics be it in the corridors of power, the media or even academia. These are my friends, brave souls every one of them, who work hard despite the pittance they earn as academics and activists; all for the love of knowledge and the hope that the reformasi movement in Indonesia will eventually reach its appointed destination of creating a country that is free, fair and equal for all.

In the midst of this Islam and activism go hand in hand, and it is for that reason that the Islamic culture we see in places like Jogja and Solo – despite the emergence of right-wing extremists in our midst – remains open, plural and democratic. Indonesia’s progressive Muslim intellectuals realise that piety cannot be reduced to empty slogans or stale formalism only, but needs to be put to practice. You cannot call yourself a Muslim if you stand passively by and watch the rise of facist racist politics before your very eyes, any more than a pious Muslim can stand by and watch a child be molested and raped while doing nothing.

The result of the combined efforts to keep Indonesian Islam alive, vibrant and dynamic were demonstrated last night as I watched this city celebrate Eid in a manner unmatched anywhere else on this planet. The laughter, humour, joy and spirit of celebration that was so tangible that you could taste it in the air is something that Muslims in many other parts of the world have lost or forgotten. For that reason alone, we should take time to ponder the many roads not taken in the development of a democratic, progressive, activist-oriented Islam elsewhere in the world.

For now, however, I am left with the happy prospect of relaxing for a few days in Jogja before returning to my humdrum labours back at the University. And while doing so, I thank Jogjakarta and Surakarta for giving me a glimpse to the past, and helping me recover the many Eids that I have lost over the years.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta.

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