Why religious dialogue is so vital
Every Ramadan there is always one issue circulating here in Indonesia: whether or not food stalls are allowed to be opened during this Islamic fasting month.
Those who support a ban will back their argument on respect for Muslims, while the opposite will argue that non-Muslim people also have the right to eat.
Only recently, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said food stalls and restaurants could remain open in daylight during Ramadan.
The question may arise: What kind of respect should non-Muslims give to those who fast?
Is it true that by closing food stalls and using curtains to hide food and people who eat that it contributes significantly to the level of respect?
I remember when in Ramadan 2010, I and my friends traveled to Jakarta from Bandung on bicycle.
It was a tough journey but sadly no food stalls were opened along our way. We finally dared to knock on a closed food stall.
After looking carefully around, the food stall owner asked us to come in and to hide our bicycles so that no one would be aware of our presence.
Initially we only asked her to cook instant noodles because it was the fastest thing to make, but beyond our expectation, she prepared everything really well and cooked really delicious and nutritious meals for us. She also provided us with vegetables.
“This area is very well known as kota santri (city of pious Muslims). My food stall can be raided if they know it is open,” the woman said as she was patiently waiting for us to finish our meals. As a Muslim she was fasting. When we arrived in Bogor in the afternoon it was not difficult for us to find food as many people were outside looking for something to eat when they break their fast.
As we decided to buy jackfruit and eat it near a park, a government official approached us.
“Go inside that curtain if you want to eat. Do not eat in this open space. Please respect people who are fasting.”
The two contrasting experiences lead me to think about respect.
On one hand, there was a woman who risked herself to help us since we badly needed food.
She did not ask us for respect although she was fasting. However, she really deserves our full respect because of her courage.
On the other hand, there was also a case when respect was asked from us who are not fasting.
The quest for respect can take various forms, the most extreme being raids by hard-line groups on food stalls or night clubs because their operation is deemed as dis- rupting the solemnity of Ramadan.
Those only lead me to the discourse about faith.
By welcoming and serving us well the food stall owner only showed us her really strong and invulnerable faith.
She did not feel offended because we asked for food.
It seemed to me that she was a devout Muslim whose faith would not be swayed only because she watched someone eat right in front of her.
On the other hand, a weak faith may easily unfold in people who incessantly beg for respect as if they lack a strong foundation to support their belief.
That they insist on closure of food stalls during Ramadan only indicates their vulnerable faith because it can be easily distracted just because of seeing food.
Surprisingly, this apparent deficit occurs among hard-line Islamic groups who always claim to defend the religion and refuse to tolerate pluralism existing in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.
How can religion defenders have a weak faith and what kind of faith
just is it that they are promoting?
John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher, once spoke about the importance of maintaining liberty and open discussion even though each of us believes that our religion is the most truthful faith.
By having a discussion with others, we can exchange ideas and then explore our faith deeper.
By exposing our faith to many challenges, our faith will grow even stronger.
Only by showing that our faith is unshaken we can gain respect, even without our request.
We can never earn respect by begging for it from others, or by use of force.
In a plural society like Indonesia, I believe the presence of others should be a cause for great momentum to show how strong our faith is.
The stronger our faith is the more respect we can receive from others. The author, a chemical engineer, won the Ahmad Wahib Award in its annual interfaith writing contest in 2012.