Indonesia’s Muslims are completely normal people

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While Radical Islam is on the rise in Indonesia, it’s not as if there’s a car bomb going off on every corner, or enraged crowds of jihadis attacking people on the street on a daily basis. For the most part, travel for non-Muslims is pleasant in Indonesia, and the place isn’t going to implode any time soon.

Sure, there’s been a disturbing trend that has seen radical groups going to businesses —with police escorts – to intimidate employees wearing Santa Clause garb during Christmas. And there’s been an uptick in arrests of those who were allegedly engaging in consensual gay sex, being prosecuted on trumped up charges. There’s also been an uptick in laws influenced by Islam, as well as attacks on transgender people. Not to mention, the ouster of a Christian mayor of Jakarta by the Islamist mob.

But readers should know that the place is not about to succumb to radical Islam the way Iran did around 40 years ago — at least not yet. In fact, it largely remains friendly and hospitable to non-Muslim foreigners. It’s also becoming more modern. Jakartans are completely plugged into the Internet (more tweets come from Jakarta than any city worldwide), and the streets of major cities are completely safe to walk around.

Global media has not exactly been inaccurate in reporting the rising influence of radicals. But what media often leaves out is that radical Islam has not come anywhere near dictating everyday life — in most of Indonesia, anyway — as it does in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Women still walk around without the headscarf and many wear quite revealing shorts. And oh, by the way, a LOT of unmarried young people are having sex – even young women who wear the hijab. Twitter also functions as a place where young freelancers advertise sex for money, and many are university students. Say what you will about this practice, but they seem to feel safe from any threat of religious zealots hunting them down or publicity flogging them. And on that subject, there are public floggings in some parts of the country, but in a country of 200 million people, that doesn’t represent the norm, although it is a disturbing trend.

When it comes down to it, commercialism is still winning over religion. There were radical groups in Surabaya, the nations second largest city, intimidating businesses where employees wore Santa hats during Christmas 2016. But I stayed in an upscale hotel in Surabaya that same Christmas, and employees there wore Santa hats without any problem. Why? Because money talks in Indonesia, and talks much louder than religion. A bribe to the cops will buy protection from Islamist thugs. When it comes to providing for their families, the cops will choose cash.

Of course, the authorities have this week revoked the business licence of Jakarta’s Alexis Hotel – a massive, multi-plex pleasure house where hundreds of sex workers bathe, swim in swimming pools and provide numerous sexual services to hotel guests. The place was a sight to behold. Walking in the doors, there were hundreds of women that male visitors could choose from, as well as a large swimming pool to relax with a service provider before retiring to a private room (of the guest’s hotel room) for sex.

After the place closed, workers there were urged by the mayor to get jobs at Sharia hotels. But at the same time, such establishments would be illegal in, say, the United States, where religion does not dictate any facet of life. And at the same time, many people who aren’t particularly religious would object to such an establishment operating so boldly out in the open.

On the other hand, there are still several similar establishments operating in Jakarta and Surabaya (I’m not naming any here so as not to cause them any harm, as most who work there have no other job skills to provide for their impoverished families). The Alexis Hotel got too big and attracted too much attention, and was a great political target for politicians trying to gain favor moralists. But other hotels, which are more low key, are still thriving, although they are lower key. That includes hotels with so-called “spas” that are just brothels, where customers can simply walk in, pay at the front desk, and choose from several dozen Indonesian women in cocktail dresses, most of whom are in their early 20s. It’s likely that these places stay open by paying protection money to cops. When it comes to a choice between religion and feeding their families, the nation’s underpaid cops are, seemingly, choosing cash.

All this is not to excuse the medieval thinking of radical thugs. It’s just to say that while the headlines about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia are not exactly false, the place is also not on the verge of turning into Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the rise of radicalism is indeed a disturbing trend, and many educated Muslims I know — many of whom wear the hijab — are concerned about what’s going on, and do not want Islam to encroach on freedom.

While there may be a slow trend toward more control by radicals, the place is still much more normal than global news media portrays it to be.
But for now, go ahead and book that trip to Indonesia. You’ll meet some of the world’s warmest, most genuine people there.

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