The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, November 25, 2006


FIGHTING TO PRAY IN PEACE © Duncan Graham 2006

In 1517 in Europe, seven people were burned at the stake for teaching their children The Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.

In 2005 in East Java, Muslim preacher Yusman Roy was jailed for two years for leading Islamic prayers in Indonesian rather than Arabic.

After remissions for good behavior an unbowed Roy is now a free man. He’s back at the Islamic school he runs with his wife Supartini at Lawang in East Java, still determined to keep praying in Indonesian.

“The problem with many Muslims in Indonesia is that they don’t think for themselves,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They just follow whatever the leader says.

“They stand in the mosque and mumble, but they don’t understand what the clerics are saying because they don’t know Arabic. What’s the problem with using Indonesian? God understands everything we think and say whatever the language.”

There’s little doubt the feisty Roy had been trying to pick a scrap with Islamic traditionalists, particularly the Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council (MUI), for some time. Not content to lie low in Lawang where he’s left alone by the locals, he published and distributed a little book on his philosophy.

No takers. He then spent Rp 10 million (US $1,100) on promoting a public meeting in Surabaya’s State Islamic University to debate the issue of bilingual prayers.

Not surprisingly the fundamentalists turned up and gave him hell. For them God’s instructions to Mohammed in Arabic had to be forcefully defended. “Why can’t we discuss these issues?” Roy asked. “There’s no commandment to use Arabic. We should debate, not fight.”

Yet ironically fighting had long been Roy’s job. The only son of a Catholic Dutch woman and a Muslim Javanese father who fathered 11 kids with four wives, Roy seems to have had a rocky childhood. He lets his guard down on most personal matters – though not his upbringing and schooling in Surabaya.

His ethnicity was clearly an issue; his Indonesian nationality was constantly challenged and he tended to give knuckle answers.

“I was naughty,” he said. “But I could fight. I like to fight. From the age of 16 I earned money by boxing – Rp 5,000 (US $5.50) a round. I was fast on my feet, a 60 kilo lightweight.” Aged 25, battered and with a broken nose, the pugilist quit the ring.

He then became a debt collector and a thumping success. If you found this young preman (street thug – and his term) leaning on your architrave calmly lighting a Dji Sam Soe you’d be paying up pronto. The tattoo on his rippling forearm of a thoroughly aroused stallion would mightily assist discovery of the mislaid wallet.

But Roy’s soul was on the ropes. What he was doing wasn’t morally right. He knew there was something else – yet it remained elusive. He sought God, but didn’t know where He resided. A come-and-go Catholic Roy looked for help among priests and found some answers.

Though not enough. His friends were Muslim. Slowly he made the transition to Islam but was lax in maintaining his religious obligations.

“It took me about 15 years before I became fully Muslim,” he said. “I read widely and thought a lot. I saw contradictions between what was written in the Holy Book and what people were saying and doing.

“I couldn’t understand Arabic and neither could my friends. The clerics were saying it doesn’t matter what you pray as long as it’s in Arabic. That’s wrong. We have to know what’s being said when we talk to God. ”

Soon after the Surabaya meeting in April last year the police called at his home. Friendly fellows all they asked if he’d like a lift to nearby Malang for a chat. “It was a trick,” he said. “When I got there they arrested me.”

They may have saved his life. While he was in Malang three truckloads of allegedly aggrieved men from the Islamic Defenders’ Front arrived at his school intent on God knows what, but left when they found him absent.

While accepting the truth of this proposition, Roy doesn’t like it. If he’d been murdered his bid for bilingual prayer would have caught public attention and reform in Islam might have been hastened. From zealotry to martyrdom.

He faced two charges - deviating from Islam in his teachings, and inciting hatred by challenging the clerics in the MUI who’d prohibited him from using Indonesian in prayer. He got verbal support from former president Abdurrahman Wahid, legal aid and publicity in Indonesia and overseas. Not enough. He was only acquitted on the first count.

At first life in jail was tough with many wanting to test their skills against the 50-year old former prizefighter. But instead of flexing the foaming stallion he showed a new tattoo on his right arm. This had the words Patience, Prayer and Emotional Control.

“What I did was right - I don’t regret going to jail,” Roy said. “I could not have done this without Supartini’s help.” She said she was proud of her husband and backed his beliefs.

With Roy behind bars she had to run the free school - known as Pondok I’Tikaf, Arabic for meditation - and its 300 students alone. Where did the money come from? “God provided,” she said. “All the other men in jail were criminals. My husband was the only person there for religious reasons.”

Despite fears the self appointed warriors of Islam will return the couple seem unperturbed, putting their safety in the hands of the same Deity their attackers would invoke. The home and school are at the end of a downhill street, above a ravine. The police have cut their phone lines to stop verbal threats, but there’s no security and no easy escape route.

“Prisoners and warders kept away from me at first, but later joined me,” said Roy. “I never went to the mosque because that made me angry.

“I’m not afraid of being charged again, but don’t expect it. It’s the government’s job to protect all citizens whatever their views, and I demand that protection.

“The government should be allowing space for public dialogue and I want to encourage that. The people who attack me don’t know right from wrong – they don’t understand the prayers in Arabic so they don’t pray properly. Quality matters.

“These people are losers. There are many terrorists in Islam – they’ve lost their way. They’ve become criminals and anarchists. Prayer is the foundation of Islam. When that collapses everything else goes down.

“This is what I believe. There’s a group in Indonesia that wants to keep Islam backward. This is a political issue. I’m angry at what they’ve done to me, but I forgive them.

“Many say they support me, but don’t help. I’m fighting this cause as a pioneer with my soul and property. It’s difficult being alone, but I’m sure God will protect me.

“I want my good name restored. I’m an Indonesian Muslim, not an Arab Muslim! Why would anyone want to stop me?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 Nov 06)