Love is in the air across the Western world this Valentine’s Day – but the custom has few fans among conservatives in Indonesia, with a local district warning youngsters against celebrating the holiday.
Ade Yasin, the chief of Bogor district near Jakarta, said local youths should not follow their counterparts in the West, the news website Metropolitan.id reported on Thursday.
“Valentine’s Day celebrations are not part of our culture, so I call on the public not get involved in any activities related to Valentine’s Day,” Ade was quoted as saying.
The head of the Bogor Council of Muslim Scholars, Mukri Aji, said Valentine’s Day celebrations often promote promiscuity.
“What is wrong with it is pre-marital sex, prostitution and rampant LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] behaviour, which are violations of Islamic tenets,” he said.
He warned promiscuity could lead to diseases such as HIV/AIDS or unwanted pregnancies.
Sex out of marriage is seen as unacceptable by many in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Valentine’s Day celebrations were banned in several Indonesian cities last year.
But for Huzaemah Yanggo, the head of the fatwa division at the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars, Muslims are allowed to celebrate Valentine’s Day, as long as they do not engage in illicit behaviour.
“We as Muslims must show love and we don’t need Valentine’s Day to express our love, for example to our parents,” she said.
“But as long as it doesn’t violate religious teachings, it should be no problem to celebrate it,” she said.
Tech-conscious Indonesian pilgrims this year can count on their smartphones to make the pilgrimage easier by using the updated Smart Hajj application launched by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Available only to Android smartphone users since 2016, the app is available on Google Play Store and has been updated from its earlier version with more features on its menu.
“We have added more detailed information about the pilgrimage,” ministry spokesman Mastuki said.
Pilgrims can get information about their hotels, modes of transport, and a menu of the food they will eat throughout the journey by logging in the app, he added.
By entering the code of their flight group, pilgrims can find out which hotel they will stay at in Makkah and Madinah, along with the map and online directions to get to the hotel and information on the facilities the hotel provides.
The pilgrims can also get information on the kind of food on the menu prepared for them on a specific day during their stay. Mastuki said this is an updated feature which previously only showed an example of a menu for the pilgrims.
The app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times and has received mixed reviews from 395 users, of which 240 gave the app five stars. Some complaints in the reviews said the screen sometimes goes black and white and that it was still “too buggy.”
“Pilgrims can also submit complaints on problems they found during this year’s pilgrimage by logging in to the feature using their passport numbers,” said Sri Ilham Lubis, the ministry’s director for Hajj services, during the app launch on July 15.
According to data from the ministry, 81,618 Indonesian pilgrims had already arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
Up to 221,000 pilgrims are expected to depart from Indonesia this year and the last Hajj departure will be on Aug. 14.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has revamped its supervision of Umrah tour operators and imposed a moratorium on issuing licenses to new ones as of April.
The moratorium was imposed as a major Umrah scam case, which cost 58,682 aspiring Umrah pilgrims a combined loss of 848.70 billion rupiah ($60 million), was being heard at a court near Jakarta.
On May 30, the Depok district court on the outskirts of Jakarta handed down respectively 20- and 18-year prison terms to the husband and wife team Andika Surachman and Anniesa Hasibuan, a fashion designer who made a name for herself after her modest fashion collection was debuted internationally in London and showcased at New York Fashion Week in Sep 2016, during which “her works received eminent applause,” according to the fashion week’s website.
“We are reviewing the 906 Umrah tour operators currently listed in the ministry. We have also revoked licenses of four operators so far this year,” ministry spokesman Mastuki said.
“The minister of religious affairs has also issued a ministerial regulation which details new rules for Umrah tour operators to abide by, such as the price reference should be at least 20 million rupiah ($1,428) and customers should be able to go to Makkah no longer than six months since they made their first payments,” Mastuki added.
Sobandi, the presiding judge, also gave Anniesa and her husband Andika a 10-billion-rupiah fine each on fraud, embezzlement and money laundering charges.
Mastuki said the verdicts are proper punishments that everyone has to accept.
“Justice has been served, despite the consequences and losses that their customers suffered,” he said.
Through a Jakarta-based travel agency, which they had established in 2009, First Travel, Anniesa and Andika used to offer a cheap Umrah package, which cost about 14.3 million rupiah ($1,000) and was $300 cheaper than a normal package would cost.
“The defendants had known from the start that the 14.3-million-rupiah package per person would not be enough to send a customer to perform Umrah,” Yulinda Trimurti, a member of the panel of judges, said during the hearing.
The pair, whose lavish lifestyle was on full display on their social media accounts, had promised customers who paid in full that they could go to Makkah for Umrah in a year.
But customers’ complaints began to arise and were made public after a group of would-be pilgrims failed to depart to Makkah in March 2017 and the travel agent could not give an estimated schedule of when they could eventually go.
From December 2016 to May 2017, there were 72,682 Umrah hopefuls signed up for the cheap package that First Travel offered, but the company was only able to send 14,000 customers to Saudi Arabia.
The pair also owed 24 billion rupiah ($1.7 million) to three hotels in Makkah and Madinah.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs revoked First Travel’s license as an Umrah operator in early August last year and later in the month, the police named the pair and Anniesa’s younger sister Siti Nuraidah Hasibuan as suspects and charged them with fraud and money laundering. Siti Nuraidah, also known as Kiki, was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the same court.
Anniesa had been listed among Forbes Indonesia’s 2017 Inspiring Women earlier last year before the fraud case became public. But later in August, the magazine announced on its official Facebook page that it has removed her from the list.
“Forbes Indonesia endorses ethical business practices and wish to inspire others to achieve their success through ethical means of doing business,” the magazine said.
The police are now investigating a similar case involving a Makassar-based Umrah tour operator Abu Tour. Mastuki said Abu Tour’s case was similar to First Travel, which gained customers through Ponzi-scheme promotions and cheap packages.
“Initially there were about 80,000 prospective pilgrims who couldn’t go, but some have been remedied and sent on Umrah trips through other operators,” he added.
The long waiting list for Indonesians to go on Hajj, which could extend for more than two decades, has created a lucrative market for Umrah tour operators in the world’s largest Muslim population country to send pilgrim hopefuls to Makkah.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
Performing in the scorching sun wearing long-sleeved shirts and Muslim headscarves, members of the all-female Indonesian alternative metal band Voice of Baceprot were unfazed by the stifling heat.
“Are you ready? You guys are looking good!” band frontwoman Firdda Kurnia shouted to a crowd of mostly teenagers gathered in front of a shopping mall in Garut district, West Java province, before launching into her opening guitar riff.
Guitarist and singer Firdda, drummer Euis Siti Aisyah and bassist Widi Rahmawati – fresh-faced high school girls who make up the Voice of Baceprot, or VoB – say they want to inspire fellow teenagers and smash stereotypes held by many in the West about covered Muslim women.
“We want to show that girls who wear hijab aren’t oppressed,” 17-year-old Firdda said after the band finished playing.
“We want to show that even though we play metal, we are not abandoning our identity and obligations as Muslims,” said Firdda.
All-female bands are nothing new in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but they usually dress like their Western counterparts.
Dara Puspita, a pioneering three-piece all-female rock band in the 1960s, was under pressure from then-president Sukarno, who saw Western music as a bad influence.
Indonesia has always been home to a thriving metal subculture, said cultural observer Hikmat Darmawan, noting that President Joko Widodo is an avid heavy metal fan.
“Rock music was an outlet for young Indonesians’ rebellion against the country’s past autocratic regimes,” he said, referring to the rules of former presidents Sukarno and Suharto.
Born to devout Muslim families and growing up poor in Garut, a small town in largely conservative West Java province about a four-hour drive from Jakarta, the VoB girls never dreamed of becoming musicians and did not learn to play musical instruments until they were teenagers.
They were introduced to the guitar and drums a few years ago as part of an extracurricular programme while they were attending an Islamic junior high school, or madrassa.
“We started out playing an acoustic guitar and broken drums from the school’s marching band,” said Euis, the drummer.
“There were no electronic instruments,” she added. “The school then bought a set of drums but I cried because I couldn’t use it.”
There was initial resistance to their choice of musical genre from family, teachers and neighbours, whose conservative views associated rock music with moral decadence, drugs and promiscuity.
“They would say that that metal is not for Muslim girls and that it’s Satanic music,” Firdda said.
“Our neighbours frowned when they saw us carrying the guitars. But that didn’t bother us because we enjoy what we do,” she said.
But attitudes are changing, with their parents no longer opposed to their career choice.
“They are now saying they are proud of us,” Firdda said.
The band, whose name means “noisy,” sings about social and environmental issues, such as in their single “The Enemy of the Earth is You,” and refrains from peppering their songs with religious messages.
“We are a band whose members are Muslims, but we are not an Islamic metal band,” Firdda said.
Firdda described the band’s genre as “nu metal” and said that its music is influenced by an eclectic mix of artists including Dream Theater, Lamb of God, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem.
The band has been invited to play on local television and is attracting a legion of fans in Indonesia and beyond, Firdda said.
After the band’s recent performance in Garut, local fans mobbed the girls behind the stage and asked to take selfies with them.
“We have fans in places across the country and overseas, including in Israel,” said Firdda, with a laugh.
The trio has won praise not only for breaking the mould of a typical metal band but also for their musical prowess.
“They have good skills and the fact that they wear hijab is a plus,” said Ade Nasruddin, a metal fan who attended the band’s live performance in Garut.
“The bass player is especially very good,” he said.
The band has also won plaudits from overseas viewers.
“There is nothing as truly cool, punk rock and rebellious, as a girl in a hijab with a guitar and microphone challenging the authority. Deep respect from a thinking American,” a YouTube user named Patrick Hayes wrote on one of the band’s videos.
The band is set to release an independent album later this year, to be distributed online. Some of the songs will be in English.
“We want people outside Indonesia to listen to our music. We have never been abroad but maybe someday we can perform overseas,” Firdda said.
Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, began observing the fasting month of Ramadan on Saturday.
President Joko Widodo welcomed the occasion with a message calling for unity amid concerns about rising religious intolerance.
“I hope that during this holy month, we will increase our devotion, our brotherhood and unity as a nation,” Joko said.
The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was jailed for two years earlier this month for blasphemy, following protests by conservative Muslims angered by remarks he made about the Koran.
Ramadan, a month-long period where healthy Muslims must abstain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk, is a time for increased charity and heightened religious fervour for the faithful around the world.
In Indonesia, TV programmes, including soap operas, are dominated by religious themes. Comedy shows featuring famous Indonesian celebrities accompany millions of Indonesians who eat the sahur, the daily pre-dawn meal before the start of fasting.
Ramadan also means a crackdown on vice. Authorities in the capital Jakarta have banned nightspots from operating during Ramadan.
Places such as discos, massage parlours and saunas have been ordered to shut from one day before Ramadan until one day after Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of the holy month.
This year Eid al-Fitr runs from June 25-26.
Exceptions are to be made for establishments located in hotels and specially-designated entertainment centres. Similar rules also are in place in other cities in Indonesia.
Many in Jakarta welcomed Ramadan with a sense of gloom however.
“We are supposed to welcome Ramadan with joy, but those terrorists spoiled it,” said Triyoga Wahyu, a Jakarta resident, referring to a suicide bomb attack in eastern Jakarta on Wednesday which killed three policemen and wounded 10 others.
Those looking to have fun in the Indonesian capital during Ramadan should go elsewhere.
The Jakarta administration has banned nightspots from operating during Ramadan, which is set to begin Saturday, ostensibly to respect those who observe the Muslim fasting month.
Places such as discotheques, massage parlours and saunas have been ordered to shut from one day before Ramadan until one day after Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of the holy month, said Catur Laswanto, head of the city’s tourism agency.
Eid al-Fitr is from June 25 to 26.
Exceptions are to be made for establishments located in hotels and specially-designated entertainment centres, he said.
“The rules are in place so that Muslims can observe the holy month solemnly,” he said.
Similar rules also are in place in other cities in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
In the past, the Muslim vigilante group Islamic Defenders’ Front sometimes raided nightspots that remained open during Ramadan, accusing those places of harbouring prostitutes and drug addicts.
But such raids have been rare in recent years after the government cracked down on violators of Ramadan hours and the sale of alcohol.
Mahdi Ba’bud, a local head of the Islamic Defenders’ Front in Jakarta, said his group would not conduct any raids this Ramadan.
“The police will take action,” he said. “We are just watching.”
The gay community in Indonesia was dealt another blow after a court in the sharia-ruled province of Aceh sentenced a gay couple to 85 strokes of the cane, in the first such case in the country.
Sexual minorities in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country are already on the defensive following last year’s barrage of anti-gay rhetoric and actions by officials.
“This is a sad day for the LGBT community,” said Yuli Rustinawati, spokeswoman for Arus Pelangi, a group that advocates for the country’s lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT).
“It is ironic because today we are celebrating International Day Against Homophobia,” she said.
Sexual minorities and rights activists feared the worst after Aceh’s parliament issued a new set of Islamic laws, known as qanun jinayat, regulating private morality in 2014. The laws took effect in October 2015.
Under the law, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by 100 lashes of the cane, or 100 months in prison.
The previous laws banned gambling, alcohol and being alone with someone of the opposite sex while unmarried, but did not specifically regulate sexual acts.
“Qanun jinayat that is used to convict [the gay couple] is discriminatory and the punishment meted out is especially harsh,” said Adreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“Their rigths were also violated because they were mistreated during their arrest,” he said.
Local vigilantes barged into the couple’s rented room in the city of Banda Aceh and handed them over to sharia police.
A video posted on YouTube showed a visibly distressed naked man surrounded by angry locals.
Many homosexuals have left Aceh since the introduction of the laws, Harsono said.
Transgender people in Aceh had very few job opportunities, forcing many of them to resort to working as hairdressers at salons.
But even as hairdressers, they are banned from serving female customers.
The once-rebellious Aceh has long been known as a staunchly Muslim
region and is nicknamed “The Veranda of Mecca.”
The central government granted Aceh special autonomy in 2002 to
mollify desires for independence, allowing the province to impose its version of sharia laws.
Jakarta and separatist rebels signed a peace pact in 2005, ending
decades of conflict that killed 15,000 people, mostly civilians. The deal was spurred by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year earlier that killed more than 170,000 people in Aceh.
The mayor of provincial capital Banda Aceh, Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, has referred to the growing visibility of gays and lesbians as a “moral tsunami.”
She said her government has formed a special team to provide counselling for homosexual people.
In the rest of Indonesia, consensual sex between people of the same sex is not a crime, but hostility toward homosexuals has been growing.
Early last year, Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir warned of pro-LGBT activities on university campuses and banned such groups.
Last month, police in Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya raided hotel rooms and detained eight men for participating in a “gay sex party.”
The government has sought to block gay-friendly mobile apps that it says promote “sexual deviance” and has also asked social networking services to remove emoticons from the Indonesian market which depict same-sex couples.
Arus Pelangi, the LGBT group, said it recorded more than 150 incidents of discrimination, harassment and attacks against LGBT people last year.
The government has also blocked international funding for organizations working to help sexual minorities, said Harsono of Human Rights Watch.
The Constitutional Court is considering a case filed by a group of conservative academics that seeks to criminalize consensual gay sex among adults, with proposed penalties of up to five years in prison. No verdict on the petition had been passed.
“Things are getting worse and worse for LGBT people,” said Harsono.