Category: Religion

A Muslim man on a quest to introduce Hebrew in anti-Israel Indonesia

Hebrew is unlikely to be among the most preferred list of foreign languages to learn in Indonesia. Not just because it is the language of Israel, the country that most Indonesians have a hostile view to, but also because there was not a place that offered the courses.

But a Muslim man who studied at an Islamic boarding school in East Java and earned his degree in Arabic literature from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Sapri Sale, saw this as an opportunity to introduce the language in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Sapri said there is nothing political or ideological in his mission to teach Hebrew in a country where solidarity with Palestine is a strong issue and Israel is regarded as the enemy. He also said despite the religious and political contexts, he just wanted to introduce Hebrew as a language worth learning for Indonesians just like any other foreign language.

“We lack information about Israel because we don’t have access to their language,” he said on the sidelines of the course earlier this week, which is held every Monday and Wednesday at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’, by learning their language so we can understand them better,” he added.

Sapri Sale showed his students how to write in Hebrew during a session at the office of Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) in Central Jakarta. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The course at ICRP is the first one that has been open to the public, but Sapri has taught private courses for groups in several places in Jakarta since August 2017. Now that he’s open with his activities, he said that various groups in other parts of the country have asked him to teach them.

According to Sapri, unlike in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where Indonesian as a language is learned out of necessity because of the significant presence of Indonesian migrant workers there, Indonesian is introduced in Israel through cultural studies program in university.

Sapri became interested in learning Hebrew during his student days in Egypt in the early 1990s and noted that Egyptians in general see Israel as an enemy.

“It triggered my curiosity, so I decided to learn Hebrew to be able to know more about it,” he said, adding that he self-taught himself the language for two years and at the beginning he used second-hand text books from Cairo University’s Jewish literature studies. He then took a Hebrew course at the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.

Sapri, who also teaches Arabic, is aware that his positive intention to promote the language would result in a backlash against him and he has found himself the target of verbal intimidation from those who find his activities unacceptable.

“People have even called me ‘Sapri Jewish’, in a sarcastic way,” he said.

Sapri also wrote the first-ever Indonesian-Hebrew dictionary which he worked on for 10 years. The dictionary is divided into three parts, dictionaries for Indonesian-Hebrew and Hebrew-Indonesian as well as a glossary and was launched in late February.

Sapri said he was not surprised that he could not find a publisher that wanted to publish a book potential to trigger controversy, so he foot the bill to have the dictionary with 35,000 vocabularies published. As expected, major bookstore chains would not display it on their shelves, but Sapri said he could still make a sale through small, independent bookstores and online marketplaces.

The dictionary is acknowledged in the “Israel Berbahasa Indonesia” or Israel Speaks Indonesian official fan page on Facebook, which identifies its administrator as a government organization in Jerusalem and lists the Israeli foreign ministry’s web address in its profile.

His students come from different background, such as Alz Danny Wowor, a computer science lecturer at a university in Central Java and cryptography enthusiast. He signed up last month and since then, he has been commuting eight hours by train from Semarang in Central Java to Jakarta to learn the language in a 1.5-hour afternoon session. He takes the night train back to Semarang when the session is over.

“I have a keen interest in cryptography, and Israel is well-known for its sophisticated cryptography. I am learning the language so I can understand it better, such as the Atbash cypher,” Wowor said, adding that he hopes to study cryptography in Israel someday and learning Hebrew is part of his preparations.

Sapri said most of his students are Christians who want to improve their understanding of the Bible through its original language. They make up 70 percent of his students, with  the remaining 30 percent being Muslims.

“The 30 percent can learn Hebrew faster because as Muslims, we are usually taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic, so it makes them easier to understand Hebrew because of the similarities in the two languages,” he said.


Sapri said that geopolitical issues aside, he hopes Indonesians would not be “allergic” to learn Hebrew just because it is associated with Israel.

Musdah Mulia, the chairwoman of ICRP said the institution was willing to provide the space for the course because they share the same vision in developing better
understanding between faiths and cultures, though she is aware of the possible repercussion against the institution.

“Language is neutral. We can learn about another culture and history through language and Hebrew is a language,” she said.

This story has been expanded from its original version in Arab News


Indonesian parliament speaker urges law against “LGBT excesses”

Indonesia’s parliament speaker has called for legislation to curb “homosexual excesses,” as lawmakers and the government debate a revised criminal code that could make gay sex and sex outside marriage illegal.

In an opinion piece published in the Koran Sindo newspaper, House of Representatives speaker Bambang Soesatyo wrote that gay lifestyles have spawned “horrifying” excesses such as murders, HIV/AIDS and paedophilia.

“It is clear that legislation that focuses on curbing the lifestyles of the LGBT community is long overdue,” said Soesatyo, using the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Soesatyo then listed several murder cases, including two serial killing cases, involving homosexuals in Indonesia in recent years.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but Soesatyo is a politician from the secular and nationalist Golkar Party.

Homosexuality is not a crime in Indonesia, but members of the LGBT community have been under pressure following remarks and action by authorities targeting them.

Since last year, police have raided places frequented by gay people and briefly detained scores of them on suspicion of prostitution and pornographic acts.

In the opinion piece, Soesatyo also wrote that gay people often resorted to paedophilia “because of difficulty in finding partners,” citing recent cases of child rape.

“Their penetration into the lives of teenagers and children has been made possible by online social networks,” he said.

Soesatyo also said, without citing sources, that the gay population was estimated to be about 3 per cent of the country’s population, or about 7 million people.

“If these people actively promote their lifestyles, it will be very worrying,” he said.

“We urge the state to take firm action,” he said, adding that the House of Representatives was seeking to add more provisions to the draft revised criminal code to include those on LGBT activities.

Under the draft revisions to the criminal code, a person engaging in “a lewd act” with another person of the same sex who is under 18 years old could face 12 years in prison.

If the act involves violence, the penalty is up to 15 years, according to the draft.

It stipulates that a lewd act committed in public between two people of the same sex is punishable up to 18 months in prison.

The draft also says that sex between a man and a woman who are unmarried to each other is punishable by up to five years.

But it also stipulates that police can only pursue charges if a relative, such as a wife, a husband, a parent or a sibling makes a police complaint.

Human rights groups warn that the new criminal code, if passed as it is, would be a threat to the privacy of citizens and violate human rights.

More than 50,000 people have signed an online petition against the proposal.

“We call on the House of Representatives to remove provisions which could penalize women, victims of rape, children, those who did not register their marriages and the public in general,” the petition read.

West Java family live with dead relatives for two years

A woman and her two children lived with the corpses of her husband and a third child for two years in Indonesia’s West Java province, local media reported.

The discovery was made when a health worker came to the family’s house in Cimahi district on Tuesday to check on the husband, who had not been seen for more than two years, reported.

“[The widow] explained that they did not bury them because she had received a revelation from God through an angel that they would return to life,” local police chief Sutarman was quoted as saying.

The family initially refused to open the front door, but relented when the worker returned with a soldier and local officials, the news portal said.

Inside, authorities found two skeletal bodies, covered in blankets.

The remains belonged to a 84-year-old man and his daughter, 50. They were believed to have died of illness in January and December 2016, respectively, local police said.

Neighbours said they had smelled the stench for two years but the family had never allowed them to enter the house, the reports said.

Sutarman said autopsies were not conducted because there were no signs that they were the victims of violence. The woman and her two children would undergo psychiatric examinations, police said.

Police release transgender women after re-education

Police in Indonesia’s sharia-ruled province of Aceh said Tuesday they had released 12 transgender women after they agreed to act and dress as men.  Continue reading “Police release transgender women after re-education”

Police round up transvestites in Aceh province

Police in Indonesia’s Aceh province, where Islamic law is enforced, rounded up 12 transvestites and made them wear male clothing, a news report said Monday.

The transvestites were arrested on Sunday in several beauty parlours where they were working in North Aceh district as part of a crackdown on what authorities call “social ills,” local police chief Untung Surianata told the state-run Antara news agency.

“These transvestites will be re-educated so they can be real men,” Surianata was quoted as saying.

The officer said they were shaved and told to wear male clothing.

“Officers also asked them to run briefly and scream from the top of their lungs so that their male voices came out,” he added.

Under a version of Islamic law in place in the semi-autonomous Aceh, men who dress as women are not allowed to serve female customers at beauty salons.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province allowed to impose sharia as part of the central government’s attempts to appease a drive for independence in the region.

But elsewhere in Indonesia, sexual minorities have also been subjected to discrimination.

Police in the country’s two largest cities have raided gay clubs and briefly detained dozens of people suspected of engaging in gay prostitution.

The government has also sought to block gay-friendly mobile apps that it says promote “sexual deviance.”

Repentant tattoo artist on crusade to remove ink

Sandi Widodo used to be a prolific tattoo artist with a self-described wayward lifestyle, until he decided that it was not the life he wanted and re-embraced religion.

Today, he runs a tattoo removal clinic near the Indonesian capital Jakarta for Muslims who have returned to Islam, charging little to nothing for the service.


Sandi Widodo, founder of Tattoo Hijrah Removal, sits at his clinic in Serpong

“I had an established tattoo studio when I began studying religion and realized that tattoos are haram (forbidden),” says the 31-year-old, himself sporting intricate tattoos all over his body, including one on his left temple and neck.

“I kept thinking about people I have made tattoos for,” he says. “So I made a resolution to remove them for those who have abandoned their old ways, which, like mine, often involved drugs and alcohol.”

In 2014, he sold his tattoo kits and studied in an Islamic boarding school before returning to his parents as a devout Muslim. After consulting a doctor, he started an online fundraising campaign in July to purchase laser tattoo removal machines, which cost about 3,000 dollars each.

The public’s response to the campaign was unexpectedly strong and in less than two weeks he managed to raise 90 million rupiah (6,300 dollars). He then converted his tattoo studio attached to his parents’ suburban house on the outskirts of Jakarta into an ink removal clinic, equipped with three laser machines.

So far, more than 200 people have come to his clinic to have their tattoos removed, Sandi explains. They include punk rockers, musicians and gang members.

“Some of my friends in the tattoo community have followed my steps, but there are also those who stayed away from me because they thought I had become weird,” he says.

Repentant Muslims who want their tattoos removed for free must memorize 50 verses from the Koran that focus on God’s attribute of mercy and grace. Many in the world’s largest Muslim nation consider permanent tattoos forbidden in Islam, arguing that the practice inflicts unnecessary pain and is a form of deception.

“People want to remove their tattoos for a lot of reasons, such as bad designs or inability to get jobs, but we only help people who have shown repentance,” he says.

With no money to have their tattoos removed safely, some people have gone as far as using a hot iron, injuring themselves badly in the process, he says.

Laser treatment to remove tattoos is considered safe, but it can leave superficial skin wounds.

Sandi says he himself has not been able to remove all of his tattoos and has only undergone two sessions of laser treatment. “It takes about two weeks for the blisters to heal from the last treatment,” he admits.

Azri Rachman, a former rock band vocalist with tattoos of his parents’ portraits on both arms among images of a skull and rose, has undergone two sessions at the clinic. The 30-year-old father of two has completely abandoned music and is now a businessman selling clothing printed with Islamic messages.

Wearing a beard, a pair of glasses, a white shirt emblazoned with the writing “I don’t follow trends” and pants ending above the ankles, he still looks more like a hipster than a born-again Muslim.

“It’s painful,” Azri says of the laser treatment. “But it shouldn’t discourage people who want to be closer to God.”

Azri says that, as a band member, he lived a lifestyle that he was “too ashamed to recall.”

“One day I got tired of it all and told my mother, who has stood by me even when I lost my way, that I would start praying again.”

Ahmad Zaki, a social worker who founded a charity group called Punk Muslims, runs a mobile clinic offering tattoo removal services to those who have found their way back to religion.

“A tattoo is a sin that is visible until you die, unless you remove it,” says Zaki, during a tattoo removal clinic at a mosque in Purwakarta, about 100 kilometres east of Jakarta.

“You don’t have to remove it if it’s already there, as God is all forgiving, but it’s better if you can,” he says.

Andini Erisa, who was among nine women who took part in the tattoo removal session in Purwakarta, says she wanted to do away with a star on her right arm and a ring around her ankle.

“I’m getting married next year,” the 22-year-old says. “A three-year-old girl once told me that she wanted to have a tattoo like mine because it was beautiful.”

“I don’t want my future children to do what I did.”

Indonesian Constitutional Court rejects bid to ban sex out of wedlock

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has rejected a petition to criminalize consensual sex outside of marriage.

The petition was filed by a group of conservative academics, who argued that provisions in the criminal code on adultery should extend to sex involving unmarried people.

The petitioners also wanted sex between people of the same sex to be outlawed.

Five judges of the nine-judge panel rejected the petition.

The judges who rejected the petition argued that it was not in line with civil liberties afforded by the constitution.

They also said the court had no jurisdiction to change the criminal code.

“The fact that the legal provisions are incomplete does not make it unconstitutional,” the judges said in their ruling, adding that the petitioners should instead propose changes to lawmakers.

Rights groups had voiced fears that a ruling in favour of the petition would threaten personal freedoms.

Pre-marital and homosexual sex is not illegal in Indonesia, except in autonomous Aceh province where a version of Islamic law, or sharia, is in force.

“The judicial review brought by the applicants is an attempt to undermine human rights protection in Indonesia,” said the Community Legal Aid Institute, a non-governmental organization, in a statement.

“We hope that in the future the Constitutional Court can maintain its role as a negative legislator and will not bow to pressure from various groups that act in the name of religious morality,” it said.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, where many see sex outside of marriage as taboo.