It’s Ramadan! It’s the fasting month! The month when you can see dehydrated Muslims walking with empty stomachs, but with contentment in their faces. One month of ‘jihad’, of Muslims struggling to be closer to God by refraining from drinking, eating, having sexual intercourse and negative feelings such as anger, greed, and envy from dawn to dusk. In the end, the promise is to be clean from all sins, as pure as a new born baby.
As I’ve strayed from my childhood religion to agnosticism, I’ve lost the excitement of looking forward to fasting month. There used to be anticipation, a little bit of apprehension, and joy as the month approached. The joyful feeling was not so much from the opportunity to be more spiritual and to cleanse my ‘sins’ as from the knowledge of doing something communal.
Despite its ascetic aspect of Ramadan, the air is filled with festivity and it was a nice feeling to be part of the celebration.
But now my excitement over Ramadan has evaporated. It has been replaced with contradicting feelings — of nostalgia and resistance.
It would be nice for me to fast, to join the festivities, as a ‘cultural’ thing. My agnostic Indonesian friend in the U.S. still does the Friday prayers because that’s the time he can meet up with friends from home. He also fasts because he says he misses the sound of the dusk prayer calls that mark the breaking of the fast.
I love the togetherness of Ramadan meals. I like how my house-friends and I will wake each other up before dawn and while half awake eat our pathetic instant noodles with poached eggs in silence. Sometimes, when we feel like it, we’ll turn the TV on and watch slapstick comedies on television. When I go to my hometown, I love the pumpkin kolak my mom makes for breaking the fast. At work, at the sound of the dusk prayer calling, people stop what they are doing and enjoy sweet snacks and sips of teh botol, given out free from our office.
But in spite of my nostalgia, I can’t bring myself to fast. There’s some kind of resistance in me that stops me from wanting to be ‘culturally’ part of the fasting community.
As I search within my self the source of my resistance, I realize that this is my act of rebellion as someone who decided to pretend to be religious in the face of her family after being made to participate in a weird ‘spiritual’ training.
See, I was guilt-ridden for lying to my family and pretending that I’m religious. So, one day I told them about my doubts. And even though my family is not fundamentalist, they were still devastated.
My family was not hostile. Instead, it was a heartbreaking scene of tears, sleepless nights, and physical drawback. They begged me to be religious. By then, I turned from feeling guilty for hiding the fact from them to feeling guilty for disappointing them.
To cut the story short, to appease them, I told them that I would be open to the teachings of Islam and even agreed to sign up to a spiritual training session, which had a swanky name ESQ165 (ESQ stands for Emotional Spiritual Quotient).
ESQ as its name suggest is supposedly a training to help people be more in tune with their emotional and spiritual sides. It’s extremely popular with 500,000 alumni and counting since its introduction in 2001. Among the prominent alumni are ministers in the current cabinet and religious leaders. Its goal is Golden Indonesia 2020, with alumni working for a moral Indonesia upholding 7 values of honesty, discipline, responsibility, vision, cooperation, fairness and caring.
Well, despite so many proponents of the training, for me it was a weird, hellish experience. It was more like a new type of Islamic preaching that uses dramatic brain-washing methods. The mixing of Islamic teaching and Indonesia’s philosophy of Pancasila, made ESQ into something like a more dramatic, Islamised version of Suharto-era indoctrination.
“Don’t ask questions, until I finish what I have to say”, was what the trainer who refused to be called preacher said during introductions. Isolated, in a dark room, with huge screens and blaring sound system, the trainers gave the participants the ‘spiritual’ experience by inciting guilt and fear.
“Allah has given you so much. Why haven’t you surrendered to Allah? Answer me!!,” barked the trainer, back-dropped by blaring music and hell-like visuals — a sea of people being cooked in a sea of fire — on the huge screens. Some 150 participants were crying and sobbing and wailing and were kneeling with their heads on the floor in the dark room.
“Forgive me Allah, I have sinned,” the voice of a participant echoed in the room, while trainers placed the microphone under his mouth. At the sight of someone hysterically wailing, some trainer or assistant will place the microphone under his or her mouth, adding a dramatic atmosphere to the room.
I was in the middle of it thinking that I should have been spending my time doing something rather than watching people being emotionally manipulated.
Coming out of the training session, I was shocked and annoyed. Two girls were not as lucky, as they fainted in one of those terror sessions. (And to think that they have trainings for kids as well –- imagine how many children having nightmares afterwards).
The training sessions, which were held 2 days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., did little in turning me into a religious person. Instead, I was disturbed with their brainwashing like methods. Their idea of getting Indonesia out of crisis is to make people more nationalistic and God-fearing.
Anyway, after finishing the disturbing training session, I decided one thing. To act in front of my family — in my weekly or biweekly visit to my parents — in a way they wanted me to be: a believer and a practicing Muslim.
I will not try to justify my decision of betraying my family’s trust by lying to them. Let’s just say that the current condition allows my family and I to function well.
And now, it’s Ramadan again. I guess the all the hiding and pretending have sucked the excitement out of me.