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Chinese Muslims' life in Indonesia: family fights, head shaving and rejection by their own community

South China Morning Post - February 4, 2020

Ade Mardiyati – One afternoon in May 1998, Eddy Tjondronimpuno Tambuang was at work when he heard that riots were erupting across Jakarta.

According to news reports, the situation was out of control. Shops were being broken into and looted, cars were being set on fire and ethnic Chinese residents, also known as Tionghoa in Indonesia, were being targeted by rioters who roamed the streets looking for victims.

Triggered by the financial crisis that hit Asia in the late 1990s, the riots tapped into a deep well of bigotry. Anti-Chinese sentiment, fuelled by the envy of successful Chinese entrepreneurs and shopkeepers, exploded across a number of large cities in Indonesia, particularly in the capital.

Although he was panicking, Tambuang says he wanted to leave the shelter of the factory in greater Jakarta's Tangerang district when he finished work to get back home. As he stepped outside, he saw the big supermarket across the street was on fire.

"I saw people pushing supermarket trolleys filled with stuff that looked like it was taken from the shop," the 55-year-old recalls. "It was dreadful."

He tried to hail a motorcycle taxi but none of the riders would pick him up. "They said, 'You're Chinese.' They were scared of being targeted by rioters."

Finally, one motorcycle taxi rider was willing to take him home. As they were riding through the busy city streets, an appalled Tambuang witnessed a brutal form of discrimination he had never seen before.

"When I was very young, I got called 'Cina' by the other kids and, as an adult, there were some moments of rejection. It wasn't right but I was OK with that," he says, referring to a pronunciation of "China" in Indonesian that is deemed offensive.

"But what I saw that day really terrified me. People were walking around with wooden sticks. They told anyone wearing a helmet to take it off so they could see his or her face. When they found out the person was a Tionghoa, they beat him up with the stick. It was savagely cruel."

Tambuang believes the rioters missed him partly because his skin was darker than most ethnic Chinese. "And I kept on shouting 'Allahu akbar' [God is great] from the back of the motorbike," he adds. Although this may have saved him, he was not merely pretending to be a Muslim.

"I had converted to Islam long before the riots took place," says Tambuang, who became a Muslim in 1992. "I had been mesmerised by the religion since I was in high school. I used to sit down during recess and listen to the Koran recital from a nearby mosque. It was very soothing."

Born Tjong Hok Tjwan, Tambuang is the grandson of a Chinese migrant who fled war-torn China in 1923. Leading a group of fellow citizens, his grandfather, Tjong Ting Siang, travelled to Indonesia and settled in Magelang, Central Java, where Tambuang and his family still live.

Tambuang's decision to convert to Islam angered some of his relatives. His parents had always encouraged him and his siblings to mingle with "indigenous" Indonesians. Unlike many other Tionghoa people, they did not want to appear "exclusive".

Under President Suharto, who was in office from 1967 to 1998, all Chinese names had to be changed to Indonesian-sounding ones, and displays of Chinese culture was banned – forcing further integration. But Tambuang's decision to convert to Islam was a different matter.

"One of my younger sisters was furious," he says. "She sent me a letter written in red ink, used really harsh words and called me stuff. I tried to stay calm and not be affected by it. I believed I had made the right decision for myself."

Being of Chinese descent in Indonesia and converting to Islam has put Tambuang in a double-minority group, he adds.

"Obviously, being an ethnic Chinese makes you part of a minority in this country. But then when you are also a minority within that small percentage of people, that's when things get more uncomfortable."

When Tambuang and his long-time girlfriend, Aida Hidajati, a Javanese Muslim, decided to get married, both their families heartily disapproved.

"Our journey was long and winding, and there were tears," Hidajati says. "There were times when I felt like giving up because they made it difficult for us just because he is Chinese and I am an indigenous Indonesian."

Against all the odds, the couple got married and had two children, now aged 16 and eight. "Things started to get better when our first child was born," says Hidajati, 51. "We now have very good relationships with our [immediate] families."

Yet problems still sometimes arise within their extended family.

"I had to exit from the family WhatsApp group a while ago because they frequently made offensive remarks about Islam," Tambuang says. "I had tried to clarify things before but then I had enough. I realised I am a minority among these people and I accepted that. I still do."

Tambuang and Hidajati began to explain their family background to their children when they were still very young. "I told them about their lineage and why some people think we are different," Tambuang says. "But I always remind them that we are Indonesians, regardless.

"[My youngest child] Billy once told us that his friends at school used to call him 'Cina! Cina!' Fortunately, he wasn't affected by it and simply ignored it. And those kids eventually stopped mocking him."

According to the independent international organisation the World Economic Forum, in 2016 Indonesia had the world's largest population of ethnic Chinese outside China, totalling 7.6 million.

Fathoni Hakim, a researcher at the Centre for Indonesia-China Studies at Sunan Ampel State Islamic University in Surabaya, East Java, estimates that 1.9 million ethnic Tionghoa in Indonesia are Muslims.

"There are no official statistics regarding this," he says. "A lot of Tionghoa Muslims hide their identity from their family or community. They are scared of what could happen if their family finds out."

Hakim adds that in many cases they are cast out of the family or community after converting to Islam because some Tionghoa people have certain ill-informed perceptions about Muslims in Indonesia.

Some are considered "not well-educated, financially disadvantaged, and they frequently beg for donations, sometimes forcefully", he says.

"A Tionghoa converting to Islam will be harshly criticised and pressured by their family and community," Hakim adds. "This hinders the census process of the population."

Mahdi, the head of the Indonesian Chinese Muslim Association (Piti) for Magelang, says too many Chinese-Indonesians regard converting to Islam as shameful.

"I am convinced there are still many who have not come out yet, and hence are unregistered," the 50-year-old says. "They are still afraid to open up, especially to their parents."

He converted to Islam when he was in the fourth grade, and says his family might have accepted his conversion to another religion, such as Christianity. "But converting to Islam was a disgrace."

Born Kwee Giok Yong, Mahdi – who like many Indonesians only uses one name – says newly converted Tionghoa are often afraid of being in the minority in their own community. Many have experienced mistreatment, including bullying, he adds.

"Some have been expelled from the family, crossed off the list of inheritance recipients, mocked, had their heads forcibly shaven, and so on," he says. "And this is when support from other fellow Muslims is much needed."

Crucial support, Mahdi says, includes providing help to update converts' legal documents, such as national identity and family cards, which both contain data on the cardholder's religion.

"Updating the religion is very important as this is their new identity," Mahdi says, adding that neglecting to update official data can lead to confusion and family misunderstandings.

As for Tambuang, having seen and experienced a lot through the eyes of a minority within a minority, he says he never stops dreaming of a "more tolerant Indonesia".

"Whatever happened in the past is behind us now," he says. "We all should just leave it there."

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/lifestyle/family-relationships/article/3048378/chinese-muslims-life-indonesia-family-fights-head