Religion – Diversity, Divisive

In a small house in Bajingan, a family sits on bamboo mats laid on the floor, eating lunch in a semicircle around the body of the old man who had died the day before. This is a part of the funeral ceremony of the Batak tribe of North Sumatra. The family will live in the room 24 hours a day, designated female members of the family weeping, others singing or dancing, until the body is laid to rest. That happens when the entire family has finally gathered – there are stories of two week gatherings as people waited for family members to return from overseas. A protestant nun enters the house to pay her respects and lead the family in a prayer – a majority of North Sumatrans have adopted Christianity, a result of European missionaries. One of the daughters of the dead man has converted to Islam through marriage, and she returns to the gathering after performing sholat, or prayers, at a nearby mosque. A Christmas tree still stands in corner, the holiday only recently passed.


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A ten hour bus ride to the West, through the mountains and jungles of Northern Sumatra, lies the city of Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, or Aceh. Residents there often claim that 99 percent of their province is Islamic, a dramatic change from the 90 percent Christian population of neighboring North Sumatra Province. The government of Aceh has adopted Islamic Sharia law, and is one of the only places in Indonesia that has done so. Normally prohibited by the Nation’s constitution, it is an exception made by the Federal government in Jakarta to end the 30 year war of Acehnese independence. That “Memorandum of Understanding” was only recently signed in August, 2005, after the devastating tsunami of 2004. It is the day after Christmas, but no trappings of the holiday can be found. The only church in Banda Aceh has a moderate banner above its door, “Selamat Natal dan Tahun Baru” – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. The frantic activity of most of the people is instead centered on preparing for the Islamic holiday of Idul Adha, when thousands of sheep and buffalo will be sacrificed by those with the means, the meat to be given to the poor. It is a part of the annual Islamic Haji, which culminates with the gathering of hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. On the morning of December 31, thousands gather in mosques around the world for mass Sholat, or prayers.


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Especially when speaking to foreigners, many residents of Medan are quick to express pride in the diversity of their city and its history of pluralism. Public etiquette is far more relaxed than in neighboring Aceh – women are relatively free to wear what they please, Christians, ethnic Chinese and foreigners frequently eat pork from the food stalls on the street, which are not separated from “Halal zones” like they might be in other places in Muslim dominated Indonesia. In Aceh, pork will not be found at all. There are many ethnic Indian and Chinese in Medan, and their presence is much more visually manifested than in Java, where there is a history of violence against the Chinese minority. Historical signs of its Dutch colonization are proudly preserved in Medan, and many talk about the relatively peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with Europe – they distinguish themselves from their fellow Indonesians outside of North Sumatra, such as the Acehnese who waged the longest and bloodiest war of resistance against the Dutch.


Despite the dramatic differences between the neighbors, there are still flows of population, trade and culture. Many residents of Banda Aceh are originally from Medan or other parts of North Sumatra, and many Acehnese have moved to its Eastern neighbor of North Sumatra, often to escape the conflict that disrupted daily life in Aceh for so long or as victims of the devastating tsunami in 2004. Speaking with some North Sumatrans now living in Aceh, it is apparent that they are very comfortable, even prefer the more laid back atmosphere in North Sumatra. In their homes, they may even manifest many behaviors that are not acceptable in public spaces in Aceh – women may not wear their Jilbab, or headscarf, Muslims may eat lunch during Ramadan, the month of mandatory fasting. Other immigrants to Aceh, however, are disturbed by the relative looseless of public life in Medan, and they seek the refuge of Aceh where their Islamic values are held high in the public sphere. Whatever the personal feelings or private behaviors of people living in Aceh, outside the privacy of their homes there is very little deviation from the etiquette as dictated by the very conservative Islamic Law.



The religious atmosphere in Medan is, again, certainly more diverse than that of Aceh. Catholic, Protestant and “Suku” or ethnic/ tribal churches, Chinese temples, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples are side by side in the bustling downtown. Religion, indeed, seems to play a role in nearly every situation. While it adds diversity, and certainly color, to the city, it does not necessarily guarantee the harmonious relations of the cities inhabitants.


In a country where an empowered, middle class has yet to develop on a large scale, political and social power come from the social-political affiliations that organize the populous. In Indonesia, these affiliations are more often then not drawn along religious lines. Religions are often pitted against each other not only ideologically but politically. One of the more sensitive situations a visitor can encounter is being put in the position to declare membership or allegiance to one fraction or another. The father of the family that I was staying with in Medan finally got down to asking me about my specific relationship with religion. The fact that I am not exactly in a position to elaborate on a specific doctrine put me in an awkward position. In a world where you are often either “with us or against us,” an independent can be seen as a rogue – an element that threatens the balance that creates the stability and safety of a possibly otherwise deeply chaotic world. Speaking on the virtues with which my host father and his Catholic community lived, avoiding specifics and trying to change the subject, I could tell that a certain degree of trust had been lost between us.

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