Posted by: mel | November 20, 2009

Expressing ‘Chinese Islam’

Jakarta Post | Choirul Mahfud ,  Jakarta | Opinion | 20 November 2009  

In the post-Soeharto era, Chinese Indonesians are enjoying new freedom to express their culture. Before, Chinese Indonesians experienced discrimination under the New Order regime, and their culture was oppressed.

From the 1960s, the regime implemented assimilationist policies to deal with what it saw as “the Chinese problem”. Under these policies, the use of Chinese characters in publications and advertisements was banned. The one exception was the newspaper Harian Indonesia, which was published in Mandarin and Indonesian, but it was kept under government control.

Moreover, Chinese language schools were closed. Chinese sociopolitical organizations and public Chinese cultural events, such as Chinese New Year celebrations, were banned. The government also encouraged the Chinese to change their names to sound more Indonesian.

In the reform movement era, Chinese culture is in revival and the Chinese are forging new identities. Nowadays, there is no longer an official “Chinese problem”, and much of the legislated discrimination against ethnic Chinese has been removed.

President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid who ruled this country from October 1999 to July 2001 permitted public celebrations of Chinese New Year and the use of Chinese characters and allowed many schools to teach Mandarin. Wahid even claimed to have some Chinese ancestry himself.

His successor, President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared Chinese New Year to be a public holiday from 2003. The Barongsai (Lion Dance) has become symbolic of the newfound freedom for Chinese cultural expression.

There is also a Chinese-Islamic phenomenon and the role of the Chinese Muslim Association of Indonesia (Persatuan Islam Tionghoa Indonesia-PITI) is crucial to this new role.

In Surabaya, the PITI is making the most of the newfound freedom to express Chinese culture in the reform movement era. Like other Chinese, PITI members are adopting the new tactic of “ethnic promotion”, through the work of their organization.

The PITI’s position is unique. It promotes the message that “Chineseness” is compatible with Islam. The organization believes it is important for all to hear this message in order to break down the barriers between Chinese Muslims and other Muslims in Indonesia, and to make the Muslim faith more accessible to non-Muslim Chinese.

The PITI uses the resurgence of Chinese culture to its advantage in its outreach activities among Chinese Indonesians. It endeavors to maintain good relationships with the rest of Indonesian society, including fellow Muslims and fellow Chinese. In fact, fostering these relationships is a central part of the PITI’s aim to function as a bridge between Muslims and Chinese in Indonesia.

One way the PITI in Surabaya expresses “Islamic Chineseness” is through its mosque, the first mosque in Indonesia with Chinese architecture. The Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque is a clear statement that Islam and Chineseness are compatible. Since its dedication in 2003, the mosque has become a tourist attraction. The mosque is well setup to receive visitors and “to share information about the history of Admiral Cheng Hoo, the mosque’s architecture and the development of syiar at the Cheng Hoo Mosque”.

A handbook about the mosque is available in four languages, Indonesian, English, Mandarin and Arabic. According to the handbook, the mosque’s architecture, resembling a Chinese temple, is intended to display the Chinese Muslim identity and to commemorate the Chinese people’s ancestors, the majority of whom were Buddhist.

The handbook tells the story of the mosque’s origins, emphasizing Cheng Ho’s good character and how he respected followers of other religions, lived peacefully with others and helped the poor. Cheng Ho is portrayed as a role model.

Until now, the Indonesian Chinese Muslim community is actively negotiating a place for itself in Indonesia’s multiethnic, multi-religious society.

It is also fostering its relationships with fellow Chinese and fellow Muslims and enhancing its role as a bridge between communities.

The Chinese Muslim community is also making the most of the new climate of openness and the public re-emergence of Chinese culture to present Islam as peaceful, tolerant and compatible with “Chineseness”.

The writer is a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya, currently researching Indonesian Chinese.

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