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No concessions for minorities in Indonesia

By Duncan Graham - posted Friday, 29 July 2011

On 1 August around 200 million people in Indonesia will start fasting. Ramadan transforms the nation, impacting almost every aspect of society – but I won’t be there. People who choose to live in another country have to make concessions and change behaviour – or go lunar. Particularly when that nation is Islamic.

Australians abroad must adapt, just like foreigners going to secular Sydney and wishing to slaughter goats in the backyard, take on extra wives or circumcise their daughters.

I enjoy Indonesian Anker stout, which is much under-valued – the taste, not the price. However that’s off the shelves. I should have stocked up before the town council ordered all shops to remove grog during the month before the holy month lest the sight of a shelf of grog inflame devout shoppers.


I could also have done a bulk-buy of bacon though the quality is poor and use-by dates suspect. This I know for certain because my sister-in-law used to be employed re-dating expired goods, like dairy products.

Putting up with grumpiness, road rage and slack workers as the majority adjust to forced fasting isn’t pleasant, but can be forgiven. People behave in much the same way during a long Australian heatwave.

The appallingly congested roads as millions head out of the cities for mudik (reconnecting with their families and village roots) is bedlam – but so are Australian highways at Easter. The drivers are seldom drunk, but they are grossly fatigued and overloaded, which is almost as dangerous. Best to stay inside for a few days.

Those living a reasonable distance from a mosque eventually find the amplified five daily calls to prayer become part of the soundscape, along with the cries of kaki lima, the pushcart vendors of every food you might need, cooked or fresh – provided its halal.

There are many positive sides to the national fast. It brings people together. Hardship bonds. Every evening famished crowds gather round food stalls waiting for the magic hour, chatting about their fasting problems, sharing experiences of hunger.

The media promotes this togetherness with stories and adverts highlighting Ramadan.  Breakfast times are prominently displayed and announced. Like Christmas in the West it’s a time of gift-giving and inflated prices.


The health benefits are questionable.  Many report weight gain because they binge when allowed to eat. The negative is that non-Muslims, who lunch in restaurants behind closed curtains specially erected during Ramadan, feel excluded from this ritual, as though they are not proper Indonesians. 

What I can’t tolerate are the loud-speaker vans cruising the suburbs telling people to pray and breakfast at 3.30 am. Nor can I stand the indiscriminate use of fireworks during the fasting month. This is supposed to be illegal but close-quarter bangs like gunshots at all hours is too much for anyone conscious that crazed fundamentalists are still cruising the nation’s streets, as the travel warnings remind.

Thugs take on the role of religious police, ‘sweeping’ entertainment areas in search of alcohol, prostitutes and gamblers while the police look the other way. Under the Constitution there’s freedom of worship.  But not freedom from worship.

So farewell to the Republic for a while. Sadly because we’ll miss 17 August National Day celebrations, which are usually a lot of fun, but this year coincide with Ramadan.

We could shift to Christian North Sulawesi where we have relatives, but even in that thinly populated province there’s little peace and quiet. Many churches have followed Islamic practices and installed loudspeakers to remind people of their Sunday obligations.

When confronted by such problems the usual advice is this: If you can’t beat them, join them. I can’t do the former and I won’t do the latter. Islam can do without this soul so we’re heading south to where the laws on noise pollution are policed and minorities’ views given some consideration, however scant. 

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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