Chinese Preachers Bridge Indonesia’s Ethnic Gap

Anton Medan, an ethnic Chinese preacher, in front of a fusion Chinese-Islamic style Mosque in Cibinong West Java.

CIBUBUR, INDONESIA – In Indonesia’s crowded world of celebrity Muslim preachers, it often pays to have a trademark. For Koko Liem, his ever-present Chinese-style outfits – garish satin tunics paired with matching skullcaps – play the role.

Whether in television appearances or Koran recitals, the approach of Mr. Liem, a 31-year-old convert to Islam from Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority, is undeniably kitschy. In multihued permutations of his signature garb, he mixes preaching with guest appearances on dating and talk shows and promotes a religiously themed text-messaging service through his Web site.

Mr. Liem is one of a small but significant group of ethnic Chinese preachers to emerge over the past decade with a simple message: that being a member of Indonesia’s dominant majority – Muslims – and its historically most maligned minority – Chinese – need not be mutually exclusive.

“Clerics don’t only have to wear turbans. I’m a Chinese cleric. This is how I am,” Mr. Liem said at his home outside Jakarta, bouncing around boyishly on the couch in a crimson version of what he calls the “Koko Liem Costume.”

To outsiders, that assertion may seem unremarkable, even banal. But in Indonesia, it represents a powerful break with the past.

Pogroms and prejudice against Chinese have been a constant theme in Indonesian history. Discrimination peaked under the three-decade rule of the dictator Suharto, who banned the public expression of Chinese culture, language and religion. Despite being widely despised for holding a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth, Chinese were also, somewhat paradoxically, treated as potential sympathizers of the China-linked Indonesian Communist Party, which was wiped out in the 1965-66 purge that left more than half a million people dead.

In the economic chaos that led up to Suharto’s fall in 1998, riots and mass rapes drove many Chinese into exile abroad. There are no solid figures for how many Chinese live in Indonesia today, but they are generally believed to make up 2 to 3 percent of the 235 million people in Indonesia. Most Chinese here are Christians, Buddhists or followers of traditional beliefs; very few are Muslim.

In contemporary democratic Indonesia, official discrimination is gone, and Chinese culture has dramatically emerged from the shadows – although disparaging remarks are still heard about the Chinese, who are often stereotyped as greedy and deceitful. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president, made Chinese New Year an official holiday in 2002, and since then, it has been granted perhaps the highest honor possible in this country’s shopping mall-dominated, traffic-clogged capital: holiday sales and ubiquitous themed advertising.

“You see now on TV shows, there are many Chinese presenters, Chinese singers, also in the movies,” said Benny Setiono, the head of the Chinese Indonesian Association. “Before there were no Chinese in all this. Now they’re everywhere.”

Koko Liem, a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim preacher, at a service in Bogor, West Java.

Mr. Liem – who converted from Buddhism as a teenager in northern Sumatra and took shelter in his Islamic boarding school outside Jakarta as anti-Chinese mobs raged in 1998 – said his role was to teach the universality of Islam. “If a Chinese person becomes a Muslim, and he understands the religion, even to the point of being a cleric like me,” Mr. Liem said, “people are more awed and moved: ‘He’s just a Chinese, who wasn’t a Muslim before. Now he is one, and his religion is greater than ours. He can lecture on religion, he can memorize the Koran, what can we do?”’

Mr. Liem is a relative minnow in Indonesia’s booming world of celebrity preachers. Like their Christian counterparts in the West, these men and women often use their personal biographies and charisma, rather than traditional religious knowledge, to win adherents through television appearances and packed tour schedules.

Their popularity, says Noorhaidi Hasan, a lecturer on Islam and politics at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, owes much to their ability to satisfy a need among urban, middle-class Muslims to appear spiritually connected despite living lives in which obtaining, and displaying, wealth is an overriding preoccupation. They give their followers, he said, “moral legitimacy” for a life of consumerism.

No longer restrained by the discrimination of the former regime, small numbers of Chinese Muslims like Mr. Liem – and even female preachers like Tan Mei Hwa and Irene Handono – have carved out a niche by tying their ethnicity to tales of spiritual renewal.

“After Suharto, Chinese had the opportunity to demonstrate their own identity as Chinese. Not just ethnically as Chinese but also part of the Muslim ummah,” Mr. Hasan said, using the Arabic term for the community of believers.

Not all of the Chinese preachers in Indonesia present a sunny, television-friendly face, however. Perhaps the best known of the bunch is Anton Medan, a former gangster from the Suharto era who sports the deep scars of previous fights and says he has half a dozen bullets lodged in his body.

Born a Buddhist and drawn into petty street crime as a child, Mr. Medan spent a total of nearly 19 years in prison for robbery and murder before his spiritual awakening.

“I ruled Jakarta – I was running gambling, everything, until ’91, ’92, when I became a Muslim, and it was all finished. It was a total change,” Mr. Medan said, smoking a clove cigarette while self-consciously covering a gouge in his right forearm.

Mr. Medan is a controversial figure in some circles, having been accused of helping orchestrate the chaos of 1998 – a charge he flatly denies. He eschews much of the more entertainment-focused end of the missionary business, concentrating instead on preaching tours, local politics and nonreligious business ventures that range from garment manufacturing to indoor soccer. He has built an Islamic boarding school outside Jakarta and three multilevel, Chinese palace-style mosques in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Mr. Medan said he had encountered some anti-Chinese sentiment from small, marginal Islamist groups. While his gangster-to-God transformation forms the core of his story, he peppers his teachings with exhortations to Muslims to adopt what he calls the “Chinese mind” – meaning, a bit of business acumen.

He frequently reminds the faithful of the contributions of Chinese missionaries in bringing Islam to the Indonesian archipelago, including the famed voyages of the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He, a Muslim. But he is dismissive of other preachers, like Koko Liem, whom he sees as “tacky.”

“Muslims in Indonesia are stupid. They choose speakers and preachers that are famous from TV, not because of their struggles,” he said, bitterly.

“The difference between Koko Liem and me is like earth and sky.”

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