Sunday, March 01, 2009


We were into 1993 and the Moslem month of fasting, Ramadan, had come round again. I was seated with Carmen, my small, bubbly, middle-aged colleague, in the front room of my Moslem neighbour, Mr Samsu. A kindly, white haired, little polar-bear of a man, Samsu had not long retired from teaching science at a local university. His modest bungalow was full of books, many of them in English and many of them about Islam. Carmen and I liked to call in on Samsu because we could have a serious conversation with a Moslem who was traditional rather than orthodox. Traditional Moslems, the majority in Indonesia, tend to be more liberal than orthodox Moslems.

"Ramadan," said Carmen, beaming, "is a difficult time of year for me. My maid’s going off to East Java, to Surabaya, for the ten day Idul Fitri holiday. How am I going to survive? I’ve almost forgotten how to do housework."

"We have a maid," said Samsu, in a gentle voice, "but my wife has always got involved with the housework."

I looked at the spotless floor and at the cobwebs on the ceiling. In Indonesia, floors always seemed to have a higher priority than ceilings.

"Ramadan is supposed to remind Moslems what it feels like to be one of the poor," said Carmen, with a friendly giggle, "what it feels like to be hungry."

"Exactly," said Samsu, who was looking slightly grey, either because of the fasting or because of the room’s dull lighting. "As it says in Islam, unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you are not a faithful believer."

"How many Moslems and Christians remember that?" said Carmen, with a guffaw. "Think of all the religious leaders who have wanted to stone people to death. Would they have wanted themselves to be stoned to death?"

Samsu chose to ignore the remark. "Here’s another quote from Islam," said Samsu, gravely. "‘The man who goes to bed with his stomach full, while his neighbour is starving, is not a believer.’ Now think how many hungry people live around here, and think how many full-bellied Moslems and Christians there are in the rich neighbourhood of Pondok Indah."

"I heard of someone in the Ministry of Religious Affairs," said Carmen, "who allegedly owns four large houses and three large cars. Shouldn’t he be giving extra money to his maids?"

"What I’m worried about," I said, "is that my maid wants extra money, not because she’s hungry, but because she wants to buy posh clothes for the Idul Fitri holiday, and buy expensive travel tickets. I gather that ticket scalpers see this time of year as a chance to put up the price of bus tickets by three hundred per cent."

"It’s like Christmas," said Samsu, eyes twinkling. "Some people forget what Christmas is supposed to be about."

"More stories in the papers about Moslems and Christians in Bosnia," said Carmen, stirring things up. "Two years ago it was Iraq and the Gulf War."

"Always lots of problems," said Samsu.

"I saw some graffiti on a wall," continued Carmen. "It was graffiti supporting Saddam Hussein."

I decided to sit back and just listen to the two of them. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"Ignorant youth," said Samsu, grinning and shaking his head. "I don’t mean you. I mean the graffiti artist. Moslems are meant to support love, not war. ‘God does not love aggressors.’ That’s Chapter two, verse one hundred and ninety, from the Koran."

"So, is Saddam an aggressor?" asked Carmen.

"I was thinking the graffiti was perhaps aggressive," said Samsu, with a diplomat’s smile. "As for Saddam, let us consider some History. When the Turkish Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the British created Iraq out of the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basrah. Kuwait was part of Basrah, but the British decided to keep Kuwait for themselves. Some people might say that Saddam was taking back land that should rightly be part of Iraq."

"Why is Saddam popular with some Indonesians?" continued Carmen.

"Because another neighbour’s land has been invaded, and that invasion has been supported by the United States," said Samsu, looking hard at Carmen to see her reaction.

"Another invasion?" asked Carmen.

"Israel has taken lots of Arab land," said Samsu, without any trace of aggression, "and Saddam is seen as someone who can stand up to Israel. Don’t forget that the Americans created the Saddam problem. Saddam was almost certainly put into power by the CIA."

"You think it’s like the mid-1960s," said Carmen.

"The mid-1960s," said Samsu. "That was when the CIA put the military into power in Greece."

"I was thinking of a different military," said Carmen.

"Think of 1963," said Samsu. "The Iraqi Prime Minister, Qasim, was not doing what the Americans wanted. Saddam was one of the people who helped to topple Qasim in 1963. Saddam was useful to the Americans, just as the Ayatollahs in Iran were useful to the Americans. Saddam killed off left-wingers. The Ayatollahs killed off left-wingers. America probably helped to topple the Shah of Iran when he became too powerful and independent. Of course the Americas did not want either the Ayatollahs or Saddam to become too powerful, so they encouraged Iraq and Iran to go to war in 1980. The CIA gave help to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war. In 1990, the Americans achieved their aim of getting military bases in Saudi Arabia, thanks to Saddam’s adventure in Kuwait."

"The Americans are responsible for a lot of the world’s problems," said Carmen. "For a supposedly Christian-led nation, they can be very aggressive."

"Moslems are only allowed to fight back after there’s been continued injustice and oppression," said Samsu, smiling happily. "You remember when the Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099? They killed every man, woman and child in the city. Saladin was merciful by comparison."

"I also saw some graffiti attacking Jesus," said Carmen.

I was definitely going to stay right out of this. Did Carmen want a war?

"Well that’s silly," said Samsu. "The graffiti, I mean. In the Koran, Jesus is described as a great prophet who cures people of sickness. Let me look it up in this book. Yes. ‘Jesus, son of Mary, highly distinguished in this world and in the next world, and one of those who is near to God. He is one of the righteous.’ That’s Chapter three, from verses forty five and forty six."

"But Moslems don’t see Jesus in quite the same way as Christians?" said Carmen.

"Moslems worry about Jesus being seen as identical with God," explained Samsu. "To Moslems, Jesus and God are not exactly the same."

"But not all Christians see God and Jesus as identical in every way," said Carmen, a woman with a logical mind. "Jesus is a man who claims to have a special relationship with God. Jesus talks to God as his father. He’s presumably not talking to himself. He talks of himself as the Vine and his father as the Vinedresser, two separate things."

"John’s Gospel," said Samsu, knowledgeably.

"And Jesus is tempted in the wilderness," continued Carmen. "Surely God couldn’t be tempted?"

"You’d think not," said Samsu.

"I think," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change, "Jesus meant that in doing God’s will, in renouncing self, he is in some way linked up with God. Jesus talks about men becoming one with God."

"I see what you mean," said Samsu. "It’s about doing what God wants us to do."

"So there’s only one God," continued Carmen. "But Jesus, and all the rest of us, can become one with God if we give up being selfish individuals and follow God’s will."

"The problem is with words trying to describe something spiritual," said Samsu. "You know the Koran suggests that we Moslems should respect Jews and Christians, the People of the Book. Let me see. Chapter two, verse sixty two, of the Koran. ‘Jews and Christians, whoever believes in God and behaves well, there will be no fear among them.’"

"What part does forgiveness play in Islam?" Carmen asked, provocatively. "You hear of people in some countries getting their hands cut off for stealing."

Samsu was too clever for Carmen. "St. Matthew’s Gospel. ‘If your hand or foot leads you into evil, cut it off.’"

"I take that," said Carmen, "as Jesus’s colourful way of saying that we should each cut the bad things out of our own lives. Our own lives, not others’ lives."

Now I had a question for Samsu. "What about the Christian idea of ‘turning the other cheek’? Would you agree with that?"

"Those who repent," said Samsu, "God will forgive them. God is Forgiving, Merciful."

"But what about turning the other cheek?" I insisted.

"In the Koran," said Samsu, "We have the story of Adam’s sons, Kane and Abel. Chapter five, verse twenty eight. Abel says to Kane, ‘Even if you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch out my hand to kill you.’"

"But what about murder?" said Carmen. "Aren’t the punishments in some Islamic countries extremely strict?"

"America, China and Singapore carry out the great majority of the executions in this world," said Samsu. "It’s the non-Moslem countries that carry out the most executions. Remember that in the great majority of Moslem countries there is no Sharia law. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan are the countries with extreme punishments, but I would suggest that if the Americans stopped interfering in these three countries, then life might become more liberal. Let me tell you a story. In a country with fundamentalist law, a man called Ali murders a man called Amin. Now, Ali will be hanged, if that is what Amin’s family want. But if Amin’s family is forgiving, Ali will not be hanged. Well, Ali begs for forgiveness. Amin’s family forgive Ali and Ali’s life is spared. That is what God would have wanted, I’m sure."

"I agree," said Carmen.

"I like the words from Jesus," said Samsu, "‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive each person who sins against us.’ In other words, if Amin’s family are not forgiving, then their own sins will not be forgiven by God."

"Let him who is without sin throw the first stone," I added, trying to keep up with my intellectual companions.

"My own view," said Samsu sinking into his armchair, "is that seeking revenge, and killing people, is always wrong."

"Right," said Carmen.

"As it says in Islam," said Samsu, "Unless you want for your neighbour what you want for yourself, you don’t have faith.’"

"It’s a pity the Crusaders didn’t think about that," said Carmen.

Samsu had the last word. "Remember that not all Christians are fanatical fundamentalists who want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

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