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Tolerance and Other Fantasies

Today is Nyepi, a Hindu holiday in Indonesia, where Hindus are not allowed to work, leave their house, use machines or electricity, cook, etc. In Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, life effectively ceases. The rest of the country gets the day off.

So, why do I mention this? Well, it has to do with religious tolerance. In Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, almost every religion gets at least one national holiday. Compare that to the US where only Christian holidays are allowed. If someone were to suggest giving the country a day off for, say, Buddha's birthday, Idul Fitri, Hannuka, or a Rasta bake-off, there would be howls of protest.

"This here is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. By God, we can't let the heathens get a holiday in THIS country! They can go back to whar they come from!"

Yeah, I've heard it said time and time again. Change Christian to Islamic and I hear the exact same thing here.

So is Indonesia, and by extension, Islam, more tolerant? Not really. For one, Indonesians will take any excuse to not work. For another, the minority religions tend to cluster on certain islands (Hindus on Bali, Christians on Sulawesi, Buddhists in Sumatra). This means that there are strong power blocks that could use intolerance as an excuse to pull out of the Repulic (not unlike East Timur).

In the States, religious minorities are liberally sprinkled within the general population and don't represent strong political blocks. Therefore, Washington sees no expedient reason to kowtow to them. Furthermore, the US is a contiguous landmass and so is much easier to dominate.

Indonesia is a collective of roughly 20,000 islands, all with competing needs and agendas. If more than one region becomes unstable, it represents a major effort to extend force. In the States, one can literally march an army into a State and subdue it. In Indonesia, it requires the mobilization of the Navy and Air Force as well. So best to keep the natives happy.

Generally, minority religions are just barely tolerated. The mosques broadcast their tri-hourly prayers at ear-splitting volume all day, every day. Every public school, airport, mall, and public space has a musholla (Islamic prayer room) where non-Muslims are forbidden. The schools take breaks for prayer time, even splitting classes in two for it. Public life here revolves around Islam. There are allowances for non-religious Christmas displays. Buddha's birthday has fireworks and public ceremonies. There are three New Year holidays (Islam, Gregorian and Chinese). But you never forget that this is predominantly a Muslim country.

The chances of a non-Muslim getting elected president are virtually nil. The only non-Muslims in national office are from areas where minority religions are dominant. Muslim politicians who are haji (have completed the 3rd pillar of faith by pilgrimage to Mecca) always wear their black fez to let you know it. There is a government office which regulates Islamic holidays and censors films. During Ramadan, restaurants shutter the windows during the day. Out of habit, everyone, no matter what religion, says, "Al-salam mulaikum," when formally greeting someone. That's Arabic for "peace be with you."

On a broader note, the 1998 riots here were, in effect, Indonesia's Kristal Nacht. Here, the Chinese function in the same role as Jews in the West. They own the media, the banks and most of the prime real estate. The Chinese (even those who have been here for generations) don't fully integrate into the society, much like Jews (especially the one who maintain dual nationality). They tend to look down on the "lokal" people. For this reason, exactly like the situation in Germany in the late 1930s, the "lokal" blamed the Chinese for the economic woes of the country and mobs formed to harass, destroy and even kill. A comparative study of that history and Germany's show striking similarities.

In some ways, Indonesia is far more tolerant than the States. Americans notoriously are xenophobic and paranoid, which is why we have planted Hard Rock, Hyatt and McDonald's everywhere, so even when we travel we don't have to mix with the natives. We couldn't stand having aboriginal peoples squatting on our land, so we committed genocide, even using bio-weapons (small pox). We make the world learn English so we don't have to use their dirty languages. We just don't want strange people around us.

On the other hand, Indonesia is strung together from about 300 distinct tribes and peoples, with an equivalent number of languages. It is an amalgam of cultures and traditions that makes the States look positively homogeneous. In fact, a Cajun has more in common with a New York yankee than most groups here have with each other.

Indonesia has been colonized and exploited for over a millennium, starting with the Chinese and finishing with the Dutch about 65 years ago. It's revolution is still in living memory. The islands had to bond together to gain independence and provide for common defense. Therefore, Indonesia must be more tolerant. It is not perfect by any means, and Islam is the law of the land.

Concessions must be made in order to maintain the Republic. If not, it would fly apart almost overnight. There are rivalries and hatreds, even some ancient blood feuds. Most islands resent Java because the power, money and resources are disproportionally concentrated here. Java has the best roads and most stable power supplies. But throw 'em a national holiday or two, and they mostly keep quiet.

Not unlike America's pork politics.

The Javanese (central Java) were the first to convert to Islam, back around the 1500s. The Sundanese (west Java) made Indonesia's first treaty with the West (Portugal) in order to secure an ally in fighting the Islamic onslaught. Islam won and Indonesia became a European toy for 500 years because of that. Such is the stuff of history.

America's lip service to tolerance is a joke. America is one of the most intolerant places I have ever been. Heck, even the "tolerance movement" won't tolerate intolerance. In fact, tolerance is a pipe dream. All people bear prejudices, whether from experience or ignorance. You cannot force oil and water to live together without a homogenizer to keep them mixed. For people, that homogenizer is mutual interest. Just forcing people to love each other will never work. One must find a common interest to bring disparate groups together. In Indonesia, that common interest was getting rid of centuries of colonization and exploitation. It is fed with concessions to religious tolerance.

Imagine North America's indigenous people banding together and throwing the bastards out. What you'd have left is Indonesia without the water.

By the way, Islam means "the rule," and muslim is "one who follows." So now you know.

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