I first jotted these notes nearly two years ago, after witnessing the morning prayer at 4am at a mosque in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
- The first part of this essay is a short literary account of this experience. (In the next story you’ll find photos and a video).
- In the second and third part I try understand the reasons for feeling a certain discomfort, and come to grips with their true nature.
- In the fourth and fifth parts I try to give some perspective to these feelings, knowing full well they are misdirected, and to better understand which forces are the real culprits. And finally I condemn all people who fall prey to such misdirected logic.
I’ve wondered whether to publish these notes, whose arguments I don’t consider altogether tightly wound or finalized. Perhaps it is irresponsible to publish them in such state as this is a difficult and sensitive subject matter, which in some readers may cause a visceral response. I am simply seeking a better understanding, and, if anything, I am trying to fight both difference and intolerance. Not the opposite.
Since these ideas were first put into words, there have been many other events that have further swayed public opinion in the direction of intolerance, including the attacks in France, Denmark, or ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Nowadays I am even more shocked to see that Islamophobia (as well as its opposite) is discussed even more openly, one may say even shamelessly.
Far from negating the raison d’être for this essay, I believe these developments only bolster its necessity.
4am at the Mosque
The night was still, and dark the air, and a slow wind crept namelessly through the streets. The dew – or was it rainfall – shimmered, reflecting the halo of a forgotten lamppost.
I was drawn into the night by the spell of the chant, its lingering vowels. Soon I saw I was not alone.
Listless legions lined through the street, without a word: ghost-like ladies in hijab, men with linen shirts, wheel-chaired grandmothers all in white being rolled forward on the slippery pavement.
An orange lamppost ceded to the green fluorescence of the courtyard, draped over by the rising, iambic voice, uneven with feeling, both sad and captivating, strong yet vulnerable. A thousand empty slippers waited patiently beneath the step, just feet away from the green tiles of piety.
It was 4am at the Mosque.
The ghosts of women knelt in the back of the temple. A wall with open doors led to the inner sanctum, where standing and seated men mouthed the confused words, separated from their wives and daughters.
The imam at his microphone, a man reciting the morning prayer, a simple voice among others, were it not for the overhead speakers spreading its summons through the rooftops of the neighborhood, down and into the open windows of people’s bedrooms, claiming the dominion of the mosque.
The Nameless Fear That Creeps in Us
Despite one’s best efforts to combat it, the world is prey to a rampant grain of difference, murmured but not spoken, and for that reason the more terrifying.
I had a camera, as is most customary, but felt uneasy about filming the scene and taking pictures of the worshippers.
I wish the motives for this were born only out of some form respect: respect of people as they engage in an activity of worship, closest to their intimacy and hearts, respect for the belief of people in Islam which, from what I’ve gathered after a variety of encounters, theoretically prohibits followers from having their picture taken and thus reproduced, for they are no different from their Prophet.
But though these motives held some truth, their grip alone sufficed not to explain my constraint: have I not countless times stolen the picture of people without their previous knowledge or consent? Have I not attempted on more than one occasion to pry that instant of devout worship and engrave its light onto a sensor?
Yes, and yes, such that I knew there must be another, more subversive fear at play.
Naming the nameless: Islamophobia, a Fear of the Other
Fear of what then? Dare I name it? I feared a nameless, for unknown and of our own making, and thus irrational, specter, and this despite the fact that Muslims in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, are / seem to be, among the religion’s most tolerant practitioners (well, save for some punctual events such as the Bali bombings), and while maintaining a fair amount of orthodoxy at that.
And yet the fear crept in the darkness. Now I name it: Islamophobia.
Since September 11, 2001, inhabitants of the Western World (or other practitioners or people influenced by that big, globulously indistinct sphere, that is to say, all of us) have been bombarded with negative depictions, whether direct or indirect, explicit or connotative, of Islam and its followers.
And though the politically correct are quick to rectify, “But we talk of the fanatic fundamentalists only, not the majority of Muslims,” this precaution alone is insufficient to prevent the tainting of our judgment, as does the red garment onto the whites when carelessly thrown into the same wash.
At times I too have succumbed to irrational fears: who is that bearded man boarding the same plane as I? (But worry not about the bearded man who boards the plane of others). Have you never had such a thought?
Granted, in our defense, (who is us, you ask?) a lot of what we may hear in the mediatic air purports to the most gruesome acts of terrorism and gratuitous violence, paining us viscerally and thoughtlessly – and more often than not these stories link the actions to Islamist fundamentalist groups, none of which will ever be known first-hand to the viewer.
It is of no surprise then that fear meets preconception, and feeds xenophobia, slowly but surely fueling hatred of the Other.
I refuse to succumb to those fears, and urge you to do the same.
A Very Brief History of War and Hate in the Name of God
It is thus the more important to give some historical perspective, for faiths of all kinds have killed at all times and epochs regardless of leader and tribe, with equal savagery.
When I say faith, I refer not only to the belief in God, but more generally to any blind faith in a set of ideas and ideals. So to name but a few of the inhumane atrocities that have been committed with such false pretense throughout History:
- In Antiquity, pagans were captured and enslaved by polytheistic Romans and Greeks.
- Christian Crusaders left their homes and families to wage war against Muslim barbarians.
- Warriors of the Ottoman Empire applied the same effort to combat the Infidels.
- Nazis believed they purged the world of scourge by annihilating a great number of people, including Gypsies and Semites.
- The ravages of the Khmer of Cambodia, the war in Kosovo and other genocides were rooted in both religion and pseudo-intellectual misgivings.
There are countless other examples which I will leave to the reader’s imagination to conjure.
One dizzies at the thought of the number of acts of violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of God, and most usually a loving God.
But even worse: how many have been killed in the name of so-called Love?
Have more people been killed in the forsaken name of God than in the forsaken name of Love? I think not.
And, when looked at closely, how dare we name such hatred Love? It is only love of oneself, of one’s own belief and ideas, above all else, which can lead to such folly. And that is no love at all.
Damned by the Gods
So let us not fall prey to the confusion between the actions of misinformed believers with the adored deities and ideals which are so poorly embodied in the perpetration of those heinous acts!
Aren’t we all, whether God-loving, God-fearing (not the same things), godless or God-like, at least at some level – and however little clairvoyant – simply seeking peace?
So that to to those who in the name of God or whichever faith or false ideal of love they aspire to
– and though I fear to speak with anger and hatred, the very destructors which I condemn here –
to those I declare my spite and contempt, again and again, and to those who brandish the pretense of love to justify their wager of violence, war and hate, may they be damned by the Gods they adore and so disrespect!
Very appropriate to the controversy today; beautifully photographed and written. Islam clearly part of the rich fabric of history and culture of Indonesia; what a fascinating place and you do it justice.
Hi Marion, thanks for your comment and stopping by. Hope you’re well and to see you soon!
Excellent photos and reflection.