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Ramadhan: Allah's Forgiveness and Jokowi's 'Revenge'

By Julia Suryakusuma

June 8 2016

Yes, praise Allah indeed, as Ramadhan is considered the holiest and most awaited month in Islam: 30 days of daylight abstention from food, drink and sex, and a focus on religious devotion and spiritual reflection.

Often people send text messages or cards before the beginning of Ramadhan to greet each other and remind people what it’s all about. One card I came across read: “Ramadhan is a month of Allah/Whose beginning is Mercy/Whose middle is Forgiveness/Whose end is freedom from Fire.”

Does this also mean the firing squad? I ask, because I have been reading in the media that precisely at the end of Ramadhan, a third round of executions are to be carried out.

Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo stated that “Conducting executions during the holy month will not sound right.” Oh I see it’s about sounding and appearing right, is it?

Appearances — just like so many things during Ramadhan! Like Christmas, Idul Fitri has become so commercialized and “on display”. During this holy month, people put on a big show of “piousness” — by wearing fancy Islamic ( read: Arabic ) style clothes, performing Taraweeh ( evening prayers ) and attending Quranic recitals and lectures and Iftar ( breaking of the fast ) events.

Then at the end, on Idul Fitri, we put on a big show of celebrations and Bermaaf-Maafan (grant each other forgiveness) — often superficial and perfunctory.

After that, it’s business as usual, including murdering people. Because that’s what the death penalty is actually: premeditated, unconstitutional, but legalized murder. Otherwise, it’s totally acceptable. Certainly the Indonesian government and the majority of Indonesians think so.

According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, as of Dec. 31 ( based on data from Amnesty International ), 102 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, six for ordinary crimes only ( i.e. outside of crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances ), 32 are abolitionists in practice, while retentionist countries number 58. So the total number of abolitionists in law or practice is 140, which is 70 percent of countries in the world — and counting.

Not long after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo assumed the presidency in October 2014, there have been two rounds of executions: six in January 2015 and eight more in April, the majority related to drug-trafficking and the rest for premeditated murder (sic!).

Observers of human rights and democracy in Indonesia saw these executions as a setback. Strong comments came from the international community (especially since many of the executed were foreigners), including from Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN. Social media was on fire, also domestically, from prominent local human rights NGOs.

This only made Jokowi stand his ground even more, citing that the death penalty is an effective crime deterrent ( it isn’t — see “Death penalty has no deterrent effect: Activists”, The Jakarta Post, May 12 ), and that Indonesia is in a Darurat Narkoba ( drug-abuse state of emergency ) situation, citing figures that many question as doubtful.

Of course, it has to do with the politics of the death penalty, which a recent book, Politik Hukuman Mati di Indonesia (The Politics of the Death Penalty in Indonesia — Marjin Kiri 2016), launched on June 1 at the Constitutional Court in Jakarta, addresses comprehensively. In Jokowi’s case, it had to do with his desire to show that he was a firm and strong president, also by pulling out the oh-so-cliched “national sovereignty” card.

But what I’m interested to know is why Indonesia as a Muslim-majority country is so gung-ho about the death penalty. As the Ramadhan card says, Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace, mercy and forgiveness, isn’t it?

So why are practices like caning, stoning, beheading, cutting off the hands of thieves so much a part of Islam?

Aha, we have to distinguish between Islamic values, which indeed are grounded on mercy and forgiveness, and Islamic culture that often stems from Arabic culture. Arabic law, for example, is based on revenge. But then revenge is a universal phenomenon, so I’m not picking on the Arabs.

Revenge — often defined as a harmful action — can nevertheless be considered a form of justice, carried out in the absence of formal law. Sometimes we call it retaliation, retribution, or vengeance, and it is used to right a wrong outside the law.

We all know that forgiveness is so much more a higher, spiritual, Godly quality — but boy, it’s so satisfying to get revenge! I’m sure many of us have had that feeling, right?

Despite the fact that we call ourselves Negara Hukum (a state based on law ), in fact most of us know that legal certainly is far from being a reality — especially for those far from the centre of power. The legal system in Indonesia is one of the most corrupt institutions in the nation, but at least they implement the death penalty! It’s sort of extrajudicial, but what the heck, we’re still a nation of premans (thugs).

Since the majority of Indonesians agree with this form of “justice”, it gives us a feeling of satisfaction that at least on this issue, the legal system is doing something right.

This is making me reflect, what are we as Indonesian citizens and as Muslims? I have to conclude, it seems that as citizens we are schizoid ( “laws” versus Constitution ), and as Muslims we’re more than a little hypocritical ( Islamic values of forgiveness versus “Arabic” culture of revenge ). Oh dearie me!

Before we do anything — eat, embark on a journey, etc. — we Muslims are taught to say the blessing Bismillah-ir-Rahmani R-Rahim (in the name of God the merciful and compassionate).

I wonder if Jokowi has a different “blessing”. Maybe his is “in the name of God, the angry, intolerant, unforgiving one” — at least in relation to the executions.

It’s the month of Ramadhan — may God’s peace be upon us and Jokowi’s forgiveness be upon those of you on death row. Don’t bother to hold your breaths though — it’ll simply be taken away from you by the firing squad.