Saudi King, Abdullah, Dies at 90: A Critical Juncture in Saudi Politics?

In very recent news, the Saudi king, Abdullah, dies at 90. The nation will surely mourn Saudi’s “reformist”. But, the king could not have died a wronger time.

King Abdullah’s death came at a problematic time in international politics. Oil prices are plummeting and Islamist violence is witnessing a rise since Al-Qaeda. Also, the Saudi government has been the forefront of a U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) AND a major ally of Yemen, which is dealing with rebels and the IS. It truly is a critical and problematic time in the Middle East.

International politics aside, there is also a possibility of a period of turbulence within domestic Saudi politics. Though Abdullah’s successor has been appointed, the 79-year-old Salman is in poor health. The successor’s poor health would certainly result in a rather short regime, meaning that there is a possibility of a power vacuum in Saudi domestic politics. In a worst case scenario, the power vacuum could be used by hardline radicals, backed by conservative politicians, to secure power. If that happens, the U.S. will surely lose a valuable ally in the Middle East. Furthermore, it would impact Saudi foreign policy as a whole, starting from oil exports to international conduct as a whole. On a domestic level, the rise of conservatives to the throne could entail the undoing of Abdullah’s reforms. If conservatives rule, there is a possibility for more fundamentalists laws to be enacted, which will effectively halt progress on the reforms Abdullah did during his rule. On another note, a power vacuum also holds the potential for the dissent in the royal family as candidates bicker over who has the right to the throne. All together, these would cause a degree of uncertainty in Saudi’s domestic and foreign policy.

Saudi is certainly facing a critical juncture in its politics. What will happen in Saudi post-Abdullah could determine whether the Saudi dynasty would continue to reform or succumb to radicals. Only time will tell.

Peddling Heaven

I’ve had the idea to write this post a couple of months ago, but the idea mysteriously vanished. Now, it came back to me while I was reading old comic books while taking my morning shit. Of course, you wouldn’t be interested in how my morning shit went.

On the streets, I often see posters and banners promoting religious events. They make miraculous claims such as “Get cured by the Holy Spirit”, “How to get to heaven easily”; as if God would willingly intervene in human life just because someone asked. These events are often organized en masse, in glamorous halls or in prayer halls of mosques or churches. People willingly pay a hefty sum of money for these kind of things.

I’m here to talk about the essence of these events. These events are, in essence, subtle ripoffs. It’s “subtle” because you’re not forced to attend it. Yet even if you do attend them, you get nothing in return. Except perhaps feeling elated from the idea that you’ve been awash of sin and ready to be welcomed at the pearly gates of Heaven. Let’s also not forget that feeling when your wallet weighs less than when you came in. But hey, if you were seeking that feeling to begin with, by all means, carry on.

I call these guys, the guys that appear as hosts to these events as “heaven peddlers”. They’re no different than homeopathic remedy sellers; they sell shit that doesn’t work.

The idea that someone else can miraculously whitewash all of your wrongdoings and promise you a seat in a place that may or may not exist is ridiculous. For the sake of argument, let’s assume God exists and has the power to clean a person’s slate. The first thing that I would like to ask of Him is, “Why would you assign a certain person and not do it yourself?” If God were omnipotent, why would He even bother assigning a person, a human, to do his divine duty? Could He not just flick His almighty fingers and be done with it? *flick* Instant sin removal. That’s a much simpler way than to appoint these special “heaven peddlers” to do the job. It takes too long and is just plain ridiculous.

Also, having someone else wash you of all sin is degrading. Humans are in essence their own sovereign. Naturally, there is no hierarchy among humans; all humans are equal. Being equal implies that no one human can judge one another because if a sovereign can be judged, then the sovereign is not the highest power in the room. The only reason why we have government is because of a common agreement or as Rousseau and Hobbes would put it, a social contract. Now, let’s take the role of the heaven peddler. Again, for the sake of argument, God exists. If a heaven peddler was truly appointed by God Himself, that would imply a heaven peddler having a higher degree than other humans. His legitimacy comes from this idea that God bestowed powers upon him, making him “more equal” than his peers. Using this legitimacy, the heaven peddler judges all his subjects as sinful and in need of instant purification. However, to exert his power, he requires monetary reimbursement. Then, we throw ourselves at the mercy of the heaven peddler, hoping to claim a seat in a place that may or may not exist. Now, take a moment and rethink that. Can you not see how degrading it is? To be judged by a fellow human being who should be equal in all terms. If everyone is their own sovereign, then who are they to judge us? A sovereign cannot judge another sovereign; it throws the entire meaning of “sovereign” out the window.

In the end, you do not need to resort to heaven peddlers to get a reservation in heaven. Not only are heaven peddlers ridiculous, their practices are degrading. You do not need someone else to cleanse you of sin; you can do that by yourself. Besides, we’re all going to Hell anyway, so why bother?

Periodic Fodder #24

If God is Almighty, why would God need lowly humans to defend Him?

The typical, militant, religious man declares “If you insult our faith, be prepared for our revenge,”. I can imagine God on His almighty knees, laughing at the audacity of this man. “Dude chill the fuck down; I’m frickin’ God. I don’t need protection from you. What can you possibly do for me that I can’t do for myself?”

Blind devotion towards an entity that might or might not exist is dangerous.

Blind devotion towards an entity that might or might not exist just because you were told by someone else that you have to do such is stupidity.

And killing a person just because they don’t believe in your God or they discredit your God is ridiculous.

#JeSuisCharlie

Masking the Truth: Euphemism

If you have been following the news, the Balinese people are currently divided on a particular issue: the reclamation of the Benoa Bay. Coming home after a few years outside the island, I have only got the chance to see for myself what the fuss was all about.

I got the chance to see firsthand what was happening at Benoa Bay when I was scattering the ashes of my late grandma at Benoa. For those who do not know what Benoa Bay is, it is a rather busy seaport and coastal area with mangrove forests that serve as the first line of defense against abrasion. It’s also where Bali’s only toll road starts. For the specifics of the reclamation project, here’s a news article by the Jakarta Post. At the site, I saw mountains of dirt. Yeah, just mounds of earth left unattended, the reason being the project has not been fully approved.

I then got in touch with a trusted friend and we ended up talking at length about the reclamation project. He told me that one of the stakeholders in the project included a certain Universal Studios and that there were plans to construct Bali’s own Universal Studios. Of course, I have yet to verify his claim. But assuming it is true, then it would seem that Bali’s future might as well belong in the pockets of greedy capitalist pigs. We also talked about the potential environmental effects, one of them including the elimination of mangrove forests. I know a bit about how bad abrasion in Bali is, considering my dad is a coastal engineer, and I was afraid that no mangroves would only serve to hasten coastline recession.

Anyway, this post will not argue for or against the project. No, I will point out the deceiving political maneuver the project employs: the use of euphemism. To get us started, I now ask you to direct your attention to this 9-minute video explaining euphemisms in politics by George Carlin,

George explains perfectly how euphemisms are used to bullshit people. In the realm of political communication, euphemisms are often employed as a means to “beat around the bush” or “mention the unmentionable”. Euphemisms also direct our thoughts in such a way using sophisticated language so that we can face the brutal truth or accept a certain way of thinking. Simply put, euphemisms are used to sugarcoat stuff so that they don’t sound horrible, such as “prisons” becoming “correctional facilities” and “waterboarding” becoming “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

In the case of Benoa Bay, the term “reclamation” was changed to “revitalization”, supposedly to mask the real truth and increase public opinion.

“Oh we’re not reclaiming land; we’re just revitalizing the place to make it better for tourism,” says the pretentious politician.

Yep, that sounds much better when said on a public stage. But, as George says, just because we change the words doesn’t mean we’re changing the condition. The conditions stays the same; tons of earth will be dumped into the Bay, mangrove forests decline, coastal abrasion increases and the multiplier effect economy won’t happen.

Euphemisms fucking suck.

A Sliver of Hope for Religious Tolerance

On the 4th of January, I attended my grandma’s funeral. I’ve attended many funerals before, but this funeral was quite memorable. Aside from it being my grandma’s, it was an event where I found a sliver of hope for religious tolerance in Indonesia.

As a Balinese Hindu, my grandma was sent off with traditional Hindu death rituals, mixed with a modern touch. Traditionally, deceased Balinese Hindus have to undergo a process called ngaben, in which the body is burnt to ashes and the ashes are then scattered into the ocean. It is a ritual that symbolizes the returning of the physical body back to the Earth, allowing the soul to progress to the afterlife where it awaits reincarnation. The usual ngaben ceremony takes up a lot of time, effort, and money because it prides itself in its tedious rituals and grandiose attributes. Usually, the wealthier the family, the more grandiose the ceremony gets. Below is a picture of a ngaben ceremony conducted by a possibly wealthy family:

ngaben_ubud

 

The cow is a symbol for Shiva’s steed, the vehicle the deceased uses to reach Shiva. Despite taking a lot of effort and money to make, it has to be burnt.

Time is not a commodity most of us have in abundance. As modern life demands more and more of our time, there is little time for making such constructs. Instead, our family opted for a more efficient option. No grand caskets and no messy burning shit up. We preferred to send grandma away at a crematorium.

The crematorium, located at Mumbul, Nusa Dua, is integrated with a Christian cemetery. However, it has grown to accommodate those of other beliefs. The cemetery provides facilities for Hindus (the crematorium and facilities for conducting rituals), Christians, and Buddhists (that place where you store the ashes). When I first entered, there were Christian graves everywhere. At the back, about a five minute walk, was the crematorium alongside a Hindu temple. Beside the Hindu temple was a Buddhist shrine, complete with Buddha statue alongside a Hindu statue. Simply beautiful.

Anyway, when I had to take a piss, I noticed this particular sign on the exterior bathroom wall:

DSC_0708The sign above translates roughly to “For All Classes and Religions”.

Now, I’m curious of the sign’s backstory. Something major must have happened to warrant a sign. Perhaps it was something trivial but got out of hand. Or maybe they misplaced the sign; instead of a bathroom wall, maybe it should’ve been placed somewhere else? Who knows.

Anyway, the cemetery was a perfect example of how people from different belief systems, both dead and alive, can coexist together peacefully without being afraid of one dominating the other. It is truly a sliver of hope for religious tolerance in a country that has been sorely lacking it.

Now if the dead can get along, why can’t the living?

On Commercializing Grief

First and foremost, my condolences to the families and the victims of AirAsia QZ8501. May your souls reincarnate into better beings.

2014 ended with a third critical hit to the credibility of Southeast Asian aviation. After MH370 disappeared a while back, AirAsia QZ8501 was the third flight to go off radar — and eventually end up under the sea. The tragic incident was also one of the first real emergencies newly-elected President, Joko Widodo, had to face. And I would say that he has performed marvelously so far by quickly assembling SAR troops for recovery and evacuation efforts. More importantly, Jokowi also sought the help of Chinese, American, and Japanese navies for SAR missions. Truly a commendable show of diplomacy.

But I am not here to commend our President’s efforts; I am here to discuss another grim side to this episode: media exposure.

While media exposure is common especially in light of disasters (hence the proverb “good news is bad news”), it would seem that the Indonesian media should cut back on the exposure and give everyone some breathing room .Of course, media exposure is important for the families of the victims who need information conveyed in real-time, but the media should know when to stop milking the press cow, especially considering cases where families came to great shock when witnessing dead bodies on the screen.

Hence, we arrive at the commercialization of grief, a phenomenon in which news media exploits the sadness of victims in order to sell a story. And mind you, it is not pretty.

Over the past three days, almost all news portals that I access such as Al-Jazeera, CNN, and Channel News Asia (internet and cable TV) are saturated with minute-to-minute updates of flight QZ8501. Then, I move on to the local news stations. TVOne and MetroTV, used as campaign machines during the presidential elections, provide almost 24-hour coverage of the tragedy. However, these two stations report in different manners.

First, let’s look at MetroTV. I once held MetroTV in high regard due to its news having actually some substance. But that respect has long evaporated ever since the presidential elections. Anyway, in reporting the disaster, MetroTV actually does provide some substance to the issue. The reports showcased experts invited to convey their opinions on the what, why, and how the flying fuck could a plane just vanish. I actually enjoyed listening to these experts because they provided some understanding on the technical aspects of aviation safety and how we could prevent future incidents from happening.

Now, let’s go to TVOne. Again, TVOne was another news station which I respected due to its breadth. But it suffered the same fate as MetroTV during the presidential elections; my respect for it dropped. And it would seem that my respect would drop even further after reading what they did to a grieving family. In short, what TVOne did was: it showed live footage of what was later confirmed as indeed a corpse, floating. The shocking footage caused several families, anxiously waiting for good news, faint. An apology was later issued, but not enough apologies can repair what has already been broken.

Now that’s two sides of broadcasting. Although, I would have to give a certain amount of credit to TVOne for covering the accident non-stop. Anyway, back to commercialization of grief.

A common trend among news stations is portraying grieving victims at their emotional nadir. Say, for instance, an anguishing mother, crying her eyes out, wailing in despair because she lost her only daughter who was on the flight. She is emotionally devastated and helpless. And this is what the media sells as a story. As if an agonizing human is something rare, something exotic, something worthy of showcasing at a circus. No, I would have to agree with Peter Kinderman here that grief should not be commercialized as a spectator sport. Let’s leave that to soccer. As Mr. Kinderman has elaborated, that grief is human emotion in its rawest form — and should be considered normal. What those people really need is the support of the people around them so that they can cope with their losses.

Instead the news media does otherwise; they “sell” these people’s grief as stories.

But why is this a bad thing? Is it not the media’s job to report what is happening as-is?

Applying the moral standards of Kant, let us first assume that in such a world, your saddest moments are filmed for the consumption of others. Now ask yourself, would you prefer to live in such a universe? If the answer is no, then the deed is morally wrong.

Position yourself in the victim’s shoes. You have just experienced the loss of a loved one, possibly your son/daughter. During your denial stage, would you like it if people consistently filmed you and asked you stupid questions like “How was the victim’s relationship with their neighbors?” or “Was he a good person at home or work?”. Of course you would feel pissed; unless you’re an attention whore like those celebrities on TV. You would demand some time alone so that you can handle your grief. You want everything to stop, just for a moment, so that you at least understand what is going on.

Instead, you get hammered by stupid questions here and there, asked by stupid journalists who don’t understand the difference between good journalism and being a nosy nuisance.

For the media, don’t show me grief as something that is bizarre. It is raw human emotion. For when we are unable to shed tears should we question our humanity. To end this post, I’ll quote Peter Kinderman: “Grief should not be a spectator sport.”

Thanks for reading.

Indonesia, a Far Cry from Religious Tolerance

Religion is like a penis. It’s fine to have one, but when you take it out and shove into other people’s faces, then that becomes a problem.

We close the year 2014 with a joint celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (which was the celebration of the pagan sun god) and the eve of the imminent 2015. In Indonesia, sadly, several have been denied their freedom to conduct the former. Christmas day, a supposedly joyous day of celebrating the birth of the Messiah, was marred by incidents of blatant religious intolerance. In Bogor and Bekasi, two churches were banned from conducting Christmas services, supposedly due to collaboration from the local Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) and intolerant pressure groups.

Still regarding Christmas, earlier this month, the annual debate was once again refueled. The motion: are Muslims allowed to say “Merry Christmas” to fellow Christians. The outcome? A flurry of intense, social media-generated arguments showing how marvelously Indonesians excel in bigotry. Social media figures, such as the recently infamous Jonru and Felix Siauw, and the notorious pressure group, Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), have urged their followers not to even think of saying “Merry Christmas” as it would mean acknowledging the birth of Christ, which is akin to blasphemy. Of course, this debate has been going on for the last 6 years without any sign of coming to a halt, despite more tolerant and educated religious figures, such as Prof. Quraish Shihab and even the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), asserting that it is quite fine to say “Merry Christmas”.

In a country where former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was awarded for religious tolerance, the facts on the field are contradictory. Religious intolerance is rising dangerously, and we have ourselves as a nation to blame. My discussion will focus on two aspects: the government-level and the individual-level.

First, let us blame the first party people love to blame when shit hits the fan: the government.

First, there exists a law, a piece of paper from 1965 known as the Blasphemy Law. This law basically makes it criminal to conduct actions that can possibly violate the sanctity of a religion. The only thing is: it is very vaguely worded. It works both ways however. If used ideally, the law is a perfect mixture of state and faith in a Rousseau-ian sense. The state guarantees followers of a religion that they will be safe from external influences that could possibly endanger the existence of their religion. A Jew is safe to practice their own religion as so far that it does not infringe on a Muslim’s rights to practice their own. Also, given the anti-defamation element, it protects the Jews from facing denouncement from the Muslims. A perfect blend of Rousseau’s first and second types of religion.

Sadly, it remains an ideal.

The law can also work for a majority religion seeking to withhold power. Since the law is vaguely worded, it can be interpreted to criminalize almost anything that goes against an established religion. Below is Article 1 of Presidential Act no. 1/1965 quoted verbatim:

Setiap orang dilarang dengan sengaja di muka umum menceritakan, menganjurkan atau mengusahakan dukungan umum, untuk melakukan penafsiran tentang sesuatu agama yang dianut di Indonesia atau melakukan kegiatan-kegiatan keagamaan yang menyerupai kegiatan-kegiatan keagamaan dari agama itu, penafsiran dan kegiatan mana menyimpang dari pokok-pokok ajaran agama itu.

 

Of course, I do not have the authority to translate the document, as a slight change in wording could have disastrous ramifications. Note that a “religiously deviant act” (in bold) is not well defined in the law. This could lead to an avalanche of interpretations, especially from the majority religion, which is Islam. Hindu rituals not in accordance with sharia? They have defiled Islamic beliefs and can be criminalized. At the far end of the extreme spectrum, one could imagine living in a dystopic Indonesia with ruthless Islamic rulers. All because of one piece of legal product that is not well-defined and clear enough.

Second, the government has failed in curbing the causes of religious intolerance: mass organizations that advocate bigotry and violent shows of force using religion as a facade. The FPI has been around for quite a while now, and still, the government has failed to take action against these club-wielding barbarians. They are no different than zealous Crusaders invoking the name of God to justify mass violence. Year after year, the news reports violent actions and controversial statements coming from this particular mass organization. In 2014 alone, the FPI has had their episodes. They have repeatedly denounced the Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama (colloquially known as “Ahok”) and have gone at lengths to elect an “opposition governor” from their ranks as they do not want Jakarta, an Islam majority-city, being led by a Christian. Their notoriety is most prevalent nearing Ramadhan, or the fasting month. Under the facade of “respecting Muslims”, they often conduct brutish raids in broad daylight on small food stores and kiosks. And yet, despite the annual orgy of evidence, the government has spent countless hours debating on a legal justification to disband the mass organization.

As a fledgling democracy, Indonesian politics have yet to develop a mechanism that can effectively separate faith with state. Case in point, the existence of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. While the state was intended to be secular, as Sukarno had wished in the Five Principles, the Communist purges in the 1960s turned the entire secular idea on its head. Atheism was attributed to Communism, coming from Marx’s controversial quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Islam, the majority religion, made its way to the top. History lesson aside, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is infamously known for (ironically) corruption scandals involving scripture distribution activities, is not supposed to exist as it would imply a degree of state control over religious matters, which are supposed to be in the private realm. Religion is not a matter of the state; what I believe in should not be the state’s business. I do not want the government declaring that my worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Illuminated Goddess of Madoka is illegal just because a bunch of old clergymen in the Ministry of Religious Affairs say it’s heresy.

Moving on to the social aspects. I see that there are at least two issues here: the rise of hardliners and a sort of laziness in thinking. I’ll elaborate.

First, the rise of hardliners. Of course, this is a well-established fact. With the recent presidential elections, Muslim hardliners have enjoyed more media exposure than ever. Unfortunately, the voices of more moderate Muslims are being drowned by the raucous hardliners. These hardliners are motivated by a myopic understanding of the holy books and fueled by leaders bordering on militant in their goal to dominate aspects of social life under the banner of their religion. While on the other hand, educated Muslims moderates are faced with the fear of being branded heretics by these hardliners. The more tolerant voices are drowned in the cacophony of hardliner propaganda, which often resort to countering moderates with their own baseless accusations of heresy.

Second, laziness in thinking. A majority of Indonesians only have the equivalent of a grade-school diploma and even fewer have tasted tertiary education due to restrictive financial situations. As such, religion is often peddled to these unlucky people with promises of instant salvation in an afterlife. Hardliners attract the poor with dreams of paradise while indoctrinating them at the same time. Part of the indoctrination process encourages ignorance and rockheadedness, while another breeds contempt for those of other faiths. They are taught to blindly hold on to what their doctrines say, even if they are wrong morally and ethically. Anything that harms their beliefs, or perhaps just questions, is automatically viewed with contempt. When their beliefs are challenged, they resort to either slander or violence, showing incapability of engaging differences in a civilized manner.

In sum, Indonesia is mostly a religiously intolerant country. But it would be a great injustice if I really meant that statement. No, the people are tolerant. These mass organizations that spread religion-based hate are not. The government also holds part of the blame for not being able to quickly respond to these violent elements of society. Yes, in democracy, everyone has the right to organize. But it should be done responsibly within the corridors of accepted laws. As for the people, laziness in thinking can only be countered by individual education. We could come full circle again and blame the government for being unable to pay attention to poverty and education, but that conversation has been overused.