On the Scrapheap of History

Feb 20th, 2006, in Opinion, by

The Arab-Muslim culture that has been brought to Indonesia is doomed.

When foreigners look at the behaviour of conservative Muslims in Indonesia there is sometimes a tendency, when faced with their archaic, paranoid, or irrational attitudes, to pour scorn and ridicule. Perhaps it is better though to go beyond this, to attempt to empathise with such people, and in doing so gain a glimpse into their world, see what fears they have, and maybe see that many of those fears are in fact very real, very here and now, and then we may gain some understanding of the position of traditionalist Muslims in the modern world, and their strange, sometimes violent, behaviour, will not be so hard to fathom.

As news outlets never, ever, tire of saying, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation on earth with about 80% of its 220 million people being classified as Muslim, although probably only about half of these are actually practising Muslims. With such numerical strength how can such people feel so insecure, so threatened, so fearful of the future, how can some among them even resort to the most appalling acts of terror in a desperate defence of their way of life and history?

The traditional culture of Java, its language, customs, and religion are on a proto scrapheap, destined to be swallowed up by the tide of globalisation and American cultural power. This is what motivates the fear and loathing of the west and America in the minds of conservative Islamic figures in Indonesia.

Whether we approve or disapprove of the process of globalization is irrelevant, it is, short of the intercession of some catastrophe, unstoppable, and this of course intensifies the fear of it among its victims. What we are now seeing is a mass extinction of languages, cultures, peoples, tribes, and old ways of life on an unprecedented scale, and at a furious pace.

Some cultures, like the Chinese, are remarkably adaptive and able to assimilate these external influences and run with them. Hindu Indian civilisation may also prove to be one of the survivors. But the Arab and Islamic civilisation, which Indonesia has had the terrible misfortune to have been saddled with, only in part to be true, but a growing-in-power part, is proving to be profoundly troubled by the assault of globalisation and fears for its survival.

And in many ways a typical devout Muslim in Indonesia feels to be in alien territory whereever he turns. There are women in clicking high-heeled shoes and short skirts, garish advertisements for this and that employing western (low) standards in advertising, wide access to that most corrosive of tradition-destroying agents, explicit pornography, the law of his country is not that of the law of Islam, those who have the real wealth of the country are not Muslims but pork-eating Chinamen, and so on.

What would you do in this situation? Fight back, make a desperate last stand, turn back to the 7th century, wage jihad. Or be more moderate, renounce violence and make fuddy-duddy statements about the corruption of youth by Playboy, attempt to win a few token victories for a lost cause. Or yield, accept the process, commit suicide. The choices are not attractive because the process of the destruction of traditional cultures does not allow for much room to manoeuvre.


8 Comments on “On the Scrapheap of History”

  1. avatar Felis says:

    Patung,

    The choices are not attractive because the process of the destruction of traditional cultures does not allow for much room to manoeuvre.

    But, Islam as an uniform culture (imitating Arabic) destroys the local, original flavours as well.
    And so one way or another the real “ethinc” cultures fade away into oblivion or rather transform itself into new forms.
    Of course from their (Islamic elites) point of view it is to lose the current control and influence over masses of people – and that means death and starvation.
    No choice at all.

  2. avatar Laura says:

    Good article. Very thoughtful.
    I used to think that as gloBalization took more and more power, Moslems would join Christians to fight against the immorality etc that both religions find appalling. Wishful thinking. Christians are the first ones to be tormented and killed.

  3. avatar Paul Dale says:

    Sad of you to fall back on the “west is bad” and people have no choice to fight back argument – you justify the violence, intolerance, bigotry. Java was a fairly violent place, unfriendly to outsiders well before any white man set foot here (as in many parts of the world). More importantly you don’t criticise the inherent intolerance, etc. of Islam?!?

    Islam has been “anti-western” for 1300 years. Focus just on the last couple hundred years – the conflicts, language used in this period are as modern sounding as anything taking place today. What is happening today is just a continuation of history – sadly most people today are completely ill-educated in this regard.

  4. avatar Felis says:

    Paul,
    This is a great insight into the Muslim mind.
    There are actual motives behind the Islamists movements, not just “irrational” evil.

  5. avatar Gian Andrea says:

    Hi, I am Gian Andrea from Italy and just found out your website some days ago. It’s quite interesting and I agree with some of the points you bring in your article. Their viewpoint is understandable (and of course I do see the difference between understanding / justifying).

    But, contrary to you, I don’t see their ideology or society as defeated. I think we are not seeing the “last throes”, on the other hand, they are… quite on the rise: think about the change in Arab societies (where this all started) from the ’70s till now. Or Pakistan. And, I think… well, I hope and believe Indonesia does still have some “antibodies” against those kind of changes, yet, there is undeniably the same direction.

  6. avatar Bogalakon says:

    With such numerical strength how can such people feel so insecure, so threatened, so fearful of the future, how can some among them even resort to the most appalling acts of terror in a desperate defence of their way of life and history?

    No. they are not fearful or insecure, they know they have strength and they do what they think they’re supposed to do. “Remember, with great power, comes great responsibility” said uncle Ben. 🙂

  7. avatar Shloka says:

    So well written Patung. I agree with your analysis of Chinese culture. I’m an Indian and my country has\had border disputes with both China and Pakistan, and so isn’t very friendly with either. However, I’ve been to China for a month as an exchange student in eighth grade, and they’re pretty nice, friendly people. I’ve travelled to a few Muslim nations too as well as interacted with Muslims in my country. who are just as nice and friendly, if not more. However, the Islamic culture and Islamic lifestyle are never far from their minds.

    They’ll tell you how nothing, absolutely nothing in the Shariah is wrong, how most rapes in the world supposedly happen in U.S.A. and least in Saudi Arabia, how French Muslim women are oppressed and not allowed to wear the hijab etc.

    The Chinese never complain about how their Confucian values are the best on earth and how wicked America is hellbent on destroying those. Indians too manage quite well to wear both their traditional clothes like saris (you’ll be amazed at how many Indian women wear saris, even very modern young women, even though the Government mandates no such thing) as well as Western stuff, learn science and modern values while simultaneously managing to hold on to their cultures.

    There’s an innate skill of assimilation which enabled China and India to be called the “cradles of civilization” along with the Egyptians and Mesopotemians, why they were contributing to science and technology with the ancient Greeks and building huge empires rivalling in size and influence the Roman Empire. There was a tremendous potential in them which enabled China to survive the crushing Mongol invasion and Indian Hindu cililization to survive Islam when the Koran is almost as biased to idolatry as the Mein Kampf is to Semitism.

    Chinese and Indian cultures were very resistant to centuries of imperialism, Japanese invasions and the American cultural hegemony. Thats’ why neither Indians nor Chinese hate Hollywood’s licentiousness, although we too live in traditional cultures. We’re confident those cultures will blend seamlessly with ours and we won’t lose the essence of our cultures. There’s a reason why the West isn’t perturbed by Chinese\Indian terrorists and we don’t go out of our way to avoid Western influences.

    Although China is India’s biggest rival today and it pains me to think so, I’m forced to concede Chinese are a trifle better at it than Indians after all! 😉

  8. avatar Sook says:

    “With such numerical strength how can such people feel so insecure, so threatened, so fearful of the future, how can some among them even resort to the most appalling acts of terror in a desperate defence of their way of life and history?”

    Sounds like a very extreme inversion of Christian political groups in the United States. While our religious right hasn’t killed anybody (thank God) there’s the same attitude of “Oh my God, our culture’s going down the drain and we need to stand and fight for it!” As a result, these Christian groups set up a counter-culture with different record labels, music festivals, homeschooling associations, professional groups, and political lobbying groups.

    There isn’t any “inevitability” to the demise of Muslim culture in Indonesia, or Christian culture in the US. There could be a terrible backlash if everybody’s not careful.

    Cultures can adapt given time. Even terrorists are using cell phones. A couple of generations and a couple people in the right places (as journalists, writers, editors celebrities) and things might change, and Islam can sit peacefully in the West.

    Islam as “anti-Western” isn’t native to Indonesia. Sure, Islam provided anti-colonial impetus, but as nihilistic and anti-world, that’s entirely from the Wahhabis and Salafis in the Gulf. Indonesians can fight that.

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