It’s a funny part of life that you never really know the place you come from until you leave it. Before I left my suburb to go around Australia I thought pretty much everyone was white and catholic. It was only after leaving Australia I realized that I grew up on an isolated island at the bottom of Asia, and the world, which had for reasons of colonization, space, greed and power, tried to shape itself on a small island at the top of the world. And how my world view had been shaped, not by our Asian neighbours, but by Australia’s political alliances; we were the “West” and we had friends in high places in America and England – even if we were shining their shoes, or kissing their asses, we were still friends, right?
With this kind of upbringing, no matter how great my education or my understanding of how the media is used as a progopanda tool rather than a propagator of truth, I still remember when I was in my early 20s on my first overseas trip with my girlfriends to Bali, when we were parting ways and I was going back to Australia and they were continuing their travels to god help me, Jakarta, I remember having this image of a city full of people in head scarves carrying knives, you know, full of Muslims, those really, really scary people who want to take over the world. When I think of it, I don’t know where I got those ideas from because we never learned about Islam at school, we were too busy learning about the great Australian explorers and the gold rush. We never sat around our dinner table discussing religion and politics. I had no religious belief at all except the belief that going to church was really boring. I had never met a Muslim person that I knew of, but somehow I had imbibed the fear of Islam.
It is only through chance and good fortune in my life that I was able to question these unconscious feelings through my love of travelling to new places. When I went to India for the first time, I was afraid, and people in Australia were afraid for me; “watch out for those Indians, they will rob you, it is a dirty place, the people aren’t good, there are lots of Muslims there”; all viewpoints they had learned through their lense of nationality – where Australia was good, the West was good, and all the other countries in the world were dangerous. Coming from a country like Australia in which national identity had been shaped on the fear of Asians taking over, to decide to travel to these places was a great risk to my personal safety. Apparently.
But to my utter surprise, when the fear of being in an unknown country wore off, I found myself in a place that was a like a dream; where the hospitality moved me to tears, where I felt free and alive and my eyes were opened to the beauty of difference, where those who had the least offered the best hospitality, where Muslims lived, shopped, raised their families, went to school, went on holiday, invited me into their homes – my god, they were just like normal people. I couldn’t see any knives or guns anywhere in their houses.
It was after this experience, that my blinkers came off – people were just people everywhere. People had beliefs, people had wants and needs and dreams, people were trying to survive. So when I went back to Australia and watched the news through my new eyes and saw politicians and the media trying to shape a national identity on what we are not, “hey look at those refugees trying to sneak into our free country, they don’t love their children as much as we do”, “hey look at those crazy Muslim people, blowing each other up, trying to take our freedom”, “Hey look at those dark skinned people in some undisclosed nation killing each other, aren’t you glad we have democracy?”, I realized how insecure people and the politicians who “lead” them, attempt to define the world according to what they need in order to maintain power and to keep their friends. They can define what is good and what is evil, what is black and what is white, and once their definitions have taken hold, they can do what they want.
When I told people in Australia that I was coming to live in Jakarta, they were really scared for me. Someone even told me to pack a gun to protect myself from the Muslim terrorists. People now are more afraid than ever of the Muslim other – the news is filled with stories of suicide bombers, muslims in some country or another killing each other (the West coming in to intervene).
Luckily for me, I didn’t take heed of their warnings.
Now as I work in a place where 99% of the staff are Muslims, it makes me laugh so much to think of the stereotypes of Muslim people. I mean, of course it would be funnier if the stereotypes didn’t lead to so much violence. But the idea that Muslim people are scary is just so totally absurd. All I hear all day is the sound of laughter.
When I think of my 22 year old self in Bali, scared for my friend going to Jakarta, I feel a bit sad for her, but lucky that she had the opportunity to shake off that fear. Now I live in Jakarta. I am surrounded by Muslims. I work with Muslims. I eat with Muslims. I am friends with Muslims. I even love a Muslim. God help me. What will my government think of me? Have I abdicated to the other side? Will they take away my citizenship? The lessons of my life and my travels have become so clear to me after spending a year in Jakarta; people are just people. The women talk about men and sex and fashion and football, the men talk about women, money, food and traffic. And vice versa. Ah it’s just the same. Here of course their eyes are focused on Indonesia; most people in the country can’t afford to travel and see different places; leaving Indonesia, let alone Jakarta is something of a pipe dream.
Anyway, my point is the great joy of being able to refocus your eyes to believe what you see before you, rather than what you have been taught. In Australia, I don’t have any religious friends and if someone brought their born again Christian boyfriend to the party, we would probably steer clear of him and wonder if our friend was in trouble. Here, every friend I have either goes to church or fasts during Ramadhan. None of them are terrorists. All of them love their country. None of them want to blow me up. All of them have welcomed me with open arms into their country. I wasn’t afraid of Islam when I came; I just had that guilty feeling like I had when I was working with Aboriginal people; for a people who had everything taken away from them by the colonialists – my ancestors – and I was scared of being disliked because of it. But Indonesians have better things to worry about. Are their families safe? What should they eat? How will they get from South Jakarta to North Jakarta in traffic?