Author seeks a lighter side of Islam
Around the time half a million Indonesian Muslims packed Jakarta’s national monument park in late 2016 to pray for the blasphemy conviction of the city’s Christian governor, Feby Indirani decided to test reaction to her new collection of religious parodies by publishing one online.
It’s fair to say the feedback to Baby Wants to Convert, in which a pig called Baby seeks permission to convert to Islam, was mixed.
There was anger, of course, given the rise of Islamic conservatism in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but also curiosity and even relief.
“Some people found it eyeopening,’’ says Indirani, a Jakarta journalist turned author who says she turned to fiction to have a conversation about religion that otherwise might not be tolerated. “Some people found it shocking. Some even felt sympathy for the pig.
“The beauty of fiction is it is really open to interpretation and people can be triggered without being offended. That’s important because right now (in Indonesia) one group is enforcing their religious interpretation on others.”
Her anthology of humorous short stories, Not Virgin Mary, includes one about a suicide bomber who discovers there are no virgins awaiting him in the afterlife; the nightshift worker who fantasises about killing the loud muezzin at the local mosque; and one in which the devil is sent back to Earth in the guise of an imam.
Indirani, from a traditional Muslim family, says she is not trying to poke the bear but to encourage people to wear their religion more lightly.
“These are things Indonesians talk about all the time”, the fact that hours-long sermons and call to prayers can be irritating, as can regularly clogged streets during Friday prayers.
“It’s just people are more anxious talking about them these days.
“Under Suharto, it was hard for Indonesians to express their opinions without fear. Now that regime has been replicated by the fundamentalist groups. Many people say they feel as though they have a censor in their heads — like Orwell’s 1984.”
Finding a publisher wasn’t easy. When she did (independent Prabikultur), Indirani decided the book should be launched as part of a broader counter-narrative she calls Relax, It’s Just Religion.
The 10-day event last July included an art exhibition, discussions, and workshops on how to practise religious relaxation, based on a manifesto she devised with her psychologist sister.
There was also a message board where people were encouraged to write questions about religion they were too afraid to ask.
Some wanted to know why God allowed people of different faiths to fall in love if inter-religious marriage was so wrong; were there pigs in heaven; would they go to hell if they voted for the Christian governor?
Indirani believes fundamentalism has crept up on traditionally tolerant Indonesians, citing growing pressure to wear the hijab and increasing use of the blasphemy laws, and that it is now up to mod- erate Muslims to champion a counter movement.
This week UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned of rising “strains of intolerance” and extremism in Indonesia as parliament considers banning sex outside of marriage.
He also took aim at Indonesia’s “ill-defined blasphemy laws”, used by Islamic vigilante groups against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, who is now in jail for blasphemy.
“The hardliners have always been there but moderates have always thought of them as a small fringe group,” says Indirani.
“I believed that, too, but in 2016 a group we thought was small became more influential and now they have momentum.”
Momentum behind Relax, It’s Just Religion is also building. Artists, writers, publishers and even Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister are lending support.
A religious relaxation roadshow is in the works, as is a proposal to adapt some of the short stories from Not Virgin Mary for film. An English translation of the book is out in May.
‘The beauty of fiction is it is really open to interpretation’: Feby Indirani in Jakarta