This week in Jakarta: The politics of Ramadan

imageIndonesia is the country with the greatest number of Muslims in the world, but it is not an Islamic state. Nor is it strictly secular – the first principle of the state ideology is the belief in God.

Defining the boundaries between religion and politics has been a constant theme throughout the history of Indonesia as an independent state, and at no time is this debate more prominent than during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Jakarta, along with the rest of Indonesia, entered the fasting month on Thursday this week. This in itself was a feat of state politics, as the new Religious Affairs Minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, made a concerted effort to reach consensus between religious groups on when to begin fasting.

The starting date of the fast tends to be announced only a few days in advance and can differ among the major religious organisations, since Islamic scholars differ on how to calculate the precise starting date of Ramadan. Some calculations are based on the sighting of the crescent moon rather than astronomical observations.

This year, the minister arranged to announce a single starting date agreed on by the government and Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama.

Observant Muslims will spend the next month fasting during daylight hours, aiming to control their urges and emotions, performing prayer rituals, donating to charity and celebrating the holy month in other ways with family and friends.

Unique local foods are prepared for breaking the fast, such as kolak, a warm drink made of coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar and fragrant pandan leaves, with the nourishing addition of stewed bananas, sweet potatoes and chunks of jackfruit. Fasting and eating together become rituals of solidarity and gratitude, while also developing empathy for those who go hungry on a regular basis.

There is no legal obligation for Indonesian Muslims to observe Ramadan. However, there are laws obliging certain businesses and entertainment venues to respect those who do. In Jakarta, nightclubs and men’s massage parlours must close for the full month, while karaoke bars, billiard halls and live music venues face restricted opening hours.



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