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On Religion

Don’t worry, I’m not about to write a treatise. But after over six months in Indonesia, with plenty of reading and editing, I think it’s time I write about some serious topics. Over a week ago I finally visited Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. It is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and can hold over 100,000 people.

When we entered the mosque complex we were directed to room where we were given robes to wear and where we left our shoes. Our guide wasn’t very excited to show us around and the free tour (donations encouraged at the end) was not very long. Istiqlal was built to commemorate Indonesia’s independence from Dutch rule and Wikipedia tells me that Istiqlal means independence in Arabic. I found it fascinating that a mosque was built to commemorate a political event. Religion and politics mix and mingle in a fascinating way in Indonesia. The Indonesian state is built on Pancasila, the state philosophy, which says that there must be belief in one god, and one god only. And this is where things begin to get complicated. Although the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the state only recognizes six religions: Islam (Indonesia is about 90 percent Islamic, making it the world’s largest Muslim populated country), Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism.

I am much more conscious of religion than I have ever been before and this is because of everyday facts: the call to prayer and seeing women wearing jilbabs. Before moving here I was conscious of bringing clothing that was more modest, skirts going to my knees, cardigans to cover my elbows. I wanted to be respectful, but the fact of the matter is that Jakarta is a huge metropolis, so there are plenty of people who wear whatever they want. The photo below shows the doom in Istiqlal that measures 45 meters in diameter, signifying the year Indonesia proclaimed its independence, you guessed it: 1945.

So in a country that politically stresses understanding between religions, it seems only perfect that right across from Istiqlal mosque stands St. Mary’s Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was built in 1901 and when I stepped inside everything felt familiar.

Working as an editor means I read a lot and there are a lot of things that come across the desk that paint a not-so-positive picture of relations between religious groups in Indonesia. Religious minority groups have suffered in recent months. The Ahmadiyah sect has been threatened, read here. In Bogor, a city close to Jakarta, the mayor has refused to follow the Indonesian Supreme Court’s order to allow a church to function in the location where it has been for sometime now. The mayor even made a statement saying churches shouldn’t be built on streets with Islamic names, read here and here. And this is where I am always left wondering why the president doesn’t step in and put his foot down and demand local authorities do what has been ordered. But more on him and his musical abilities another time.

Historically, it hasn’t been all rosy between religious groups in Indonesia. Clashes between Muslims and Christians continue to this day, read here. To say religion in Indonesia is complex is putting it lightly. So I continue to read and try and make some sense of it all.

At least it’s nice to know that commercialism is more than happy to treat religions equally: malls get decked out for any holiday they can find and Christmas may be the most intense one I have seen to date.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. cool, lydia! my friend and i entered a mosque in paris a couple months ago…we weren’t too sure about etiquette (was spontaneous decision to explore) but ensured that our attire was respectful… i was wondering about the pics you took inside, though..oens posted on this entry… was that kosher, for lack of better word? i wanted to take pics in paris but wasn’t sure…

    keep having awesome adventures!

    December 19, 2011
  2. Lydia #

    I initially didn’t have my camera out during the tour until we paused to look at the doom and the political symbolism was explained. Then our tour guide said it was OK to take photos. He even took some group photos of us. I don’t know if this is acceptable in all mosques. After Obama visited Istiqlal, I think more foreign tourists have been stopping by. If we are talking about the same mosque in Paris,, I photographed the gardens and had some tea at the restaurant, but never entered the prayer area. I don’t know if that’s a helpful answer! I’ll ask some Indonesian Muslim friends and see if there is a definitive answer.

    December 19, 2011
  3. Only a few people know that the mosque was designed by a Christian Batak architect. Deliberately hidden or not, this kind of information can actually put the nation closer regardless of difference in faith.

    September 17, 2012

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