Today I realized that Abdul is one of the main reasons I moved to Indonesia. ”Abdul” is not his real name, but lets call him that. Revealing his real identity would be unethical.
Sure, there was several theoretical reasons to come here. The country is very interesting in many ways. The thing with having six state religions and the thing with having both democracy and a Muslim majority population, just to name two important examples. While the first one is very relevant for my struggle to understand the intersection between worldview and identity, the second one is important for the future of the world.
Mankind needs democracy for all of mankind. It is not enough for a group of people to be free, we all need everybody to be free. In this globalized world, all repression is everyone’s responsibility, and also a threat to everyone. Countries with Islamic cultural background needs to become democratic, and fast. Truly democratic, with a strong civil society. Checks and balances, rule of law, a society where the humans are free and their human rights respected. A few more decades of the current levels of oppression and misery would be horrible in itself, and it would without any doubt also lead to suicide bombers using nuclear bombs.
I fight against categorism, that’s what I do. Right now, categorism against Muslims is spreading like a cancer in the western countries. The rightwing extremists have replaced their antisemitism with antimuslimism, and this make a lot of people who ought to know better think that the bigotry is suddenly okay. It is really the same old hatred, they just switched target a little bit. The switch is as small as it can be – the target is still people who believe in a monotheist religion other than Christianity. These antimuslimists actually have a lot in common with the worst of the Islamists, as I will return to in a later post. But enough about the theoretical and political stuff for now, there’s another reason as well.
I came here to make new circles of friends. Get to know people here. And this I have done. I have a great social life here, and the people I’m getting to know are really great people. Many of them are Muslims or Atheists. In some cases they are both, identifying as a cultural muslim while not having any faith in a higher power.
Today I talked with one of my Jakartan friends, a woman who happens to be a Buddhist. During the conversation, as I told her about Abdul, I realized how much I had needed to get to know some really good individuals who are Muslims.
For many years I have worked with helping convicted criminals reintegrate into society. The office has five departments. One of these is for men convicted of sexual crimes or domestic abuse. Over the years, most of my clients has been from this particular department. These clients has come from many different kinds of backgrounds. Regarding faith, most of them has been either Christian or Atheist/Agnostic/Unaligned. Only two of my clients were Muslims. Lets call them Omar and Abdul.
In my personal life, I had met many Christians. I had also met many Atheists, Agnostics, Unaligned and so on. Thus, a Christian client or Atheist client did not really contribute to my personal experience of Christians or Atheists. However, at that time I had not yet met many Muslims. Not really met, as in talking about life and values and getting to know each other. Thus, for a while these two men became a very large part of my personal experience with Muslims.
The case of Omar came with a counter-example included in the case itself. There was a man who saved the victim from Omar, and later testified against him in court. This heroic man was named Muhammed. He was a practicing Muslim, and he came from the same country as Omar and Abdul. However, I never got to meet this Muhammed, this black Muslim guy who saved a white Swedish girl from a rapist. As a parole officer, I only meet the convicted criminals. Never the people who were not accused of any wrongdoing.
On a general level, I think this problem is huge. I call it the professional bias. I’m sure there is already a lot of research on this subject, and a better word established for it. I haven’t bothered to check yet. I’ll look around a bit while I’m writing my master thesis.
Anyway, the Professional Bias is a combination of two things.
1. When you belong to the majority population, there are a lot of marginalized minorities who you don’t have much contact with in your personal life. You may meet them briefly, but without truly meeting them in any deeper sense of the word. As a secular person or an adherant of whatever religion is mainstream in your country, you are unlikely to meet many from minority religions. As a cis-gender person, you are unlikely to meet many who are trans-gender. As a vanilla heterosexual, you are unlikely to meet many homosexuals or sadomasochists. As a person who don’t buy or sell sexual services, you will not meet many people who you know to be sex-workers. As a white person in Europe or an Asian person in Indonesia, you are unlikely to meet many darkskinned persons of African origin. Or many Asians/Europeans either, for that matter. And so on.
2. However. If you are a professional such as a social worker, a police officer, a parole officer, a psychologist or a priest, you will meet people from all these minorities. truly meet them. Get to know them and their lives. But there’s another ”however”! The individuals you meet will not represent their category as such. Instead, they will represent a very special sub-set of the category. The most broken and damaged sub-set.
These two factors make a very unhealthy and dangerous combination. It teaches prejudice to the professionals.
In my work for an NGO, I have met a woman who happens to have black skin. In my Human Rights Studies, I have met a woman who happens to be a Muslim. They are both great people, and I have talked with them a lot. They are great not because of belonging to the category and not despite belonging to it. They are great regardless of it.
However, for the last decade of my private life, I have not talked a lot to any man who is black or who I know for certain to be a Muslim.
The wast majority of my sex-offender clients have been white and either secular or Christian. Some of them had racist and/or misogynistic beliefs, others did not. The big difference is that I meet a lot of white men all the time. I meet a lot of secular men all the time. I meet a lot of Christian men all the time. When I meet a white guy who is a bigot, my head is already full of counterimages about how a white man can be. Not only counter-images I have read about or seen on television – that I already had about black men and Muslim men as well. No, I’m talking about personal counter-images from my own life. That is so much stronger.
When a minority person reinforces a stereotype in the eyes of an observer, this is really about the observer not having enough counter-images. Muhammed is a great guy, and it’s not anyone’s fault that I never met him.
Some of my clients defend their crimes, using horrible misogynistic arguments about why they feel that women deserves to get raped. A few of them try to use theology to defend their position, arguing that God hates women. Abdul was such a client, Omar was not. When a Christian makes that kind of arguments, everyone will dismiss him as a throwback who should go back to a previous millennium where he belongs. When a Muslim in Europe does the same thing, however, antimuslimists (and in some cases a few extremist Islamists) will hail him as the true spokesperson for how Muslims ”really” think and feel.
Again, intellectually this is easy to understand. I have never believed that Abdul represent all Muslim men. However. Fighting the antimuslimists gets so much harder when my personal experience actually agree with the bullshit they are saying. For my own peace of mind, and for my own emotional strength in the struggle against antimuslimism, I really needed to get to know some good Muslims.
Here in Jakarta I have met many Muslim men who have good values. Men who fight for Human Rights and improved democracy. They are also men who are the mainstream, the socially advantaged position – being men and being Muslims, in a society which is quite patriarchal and in which Islam is the majority religion. Here the struggle is between Muslims who want to tolerate others and Muslims who do not. So different from Europe, where Muslims are marginalized and often the ones trying to be tolerated. This make it much easier to talk with Muslims here, one of the main differences being that the ones in Europe tend to be much more defensive.
As I described the marginalization and prejudice against Muslims in Europe, my Buddhist friend of Chinese origin said that it is the other way around here. Here muslims are the majority (the norm, I might add), while Buddhists and Chinese are met with hostility and prejudice. She is right, of course. Then again, there is really no ”other way around” about it. It’s the same categorism. The same basic prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. The excuses are different, there is a difference in what categories and categorizations are targeted. But this diffrence is really a minor detail.
I have always known this. In theory. But now I also know it from personal experience.