Buffalo (kerbau) meat is still somewhat of a culinary novelty in Indonesia. However, for adventurous palates curious to taste the best of this delicacy, you need look no further than a small town tucked away about 70 kilometers east of the provincial capital of Central Java. Stroll through any main street or obscure corner of Kudus regency, and chances are you’ll stumble upon multiple food stalls offering myriad variations of buffalo-based treats: barbequed on skewers (sate kerbau), stewed with rice on melinjo leaves (pindang kerbau), boiled in fragrant broth (soto kerbau), or even fried into crunchy rind crackers (krupuk rambak) – and all for less than the price of a glass of iced tea in Jakarta.
My interest in Kudus’s buffalo-dominated gastronomic landscape is ironic, considering I’m a pescatarian. But ever since my first visit to Kudus two years ago for my work in the education development space, and in all the recurring visits since, I’ve continued to be captivated by the story behind Kudus’s preferred choice of bovine cuisine and what it teaches us about Indonesian multiculturalism.
You see, besides cheap culinary treats, this small town I’ve come to know as a second home boasts a strong legacy of Islamic tolerance. A landmark Islamic pilgrimage site since the sixteenth century, Kudus’s name originates from the Arabic word “al-Quds” (Jerusalem) and translates to “holy” in the Indonesian language. (You can imagine the endless variations of puns at the disposal of Kudus natives, orang Kudus.) Yet, when Kudus was founded in 1549 by Sunan Kudus – one of nine Muslim saints renowned for their influential role in the spread of moderate Islam throughout Indonesia – many Kudus natives were still practicing the Hindu faith. In order to respect these Hindu residents who considered cows sacred, Sunan Kudus forbade his followers from slaughtering cattle for meat and encouraged the consumption of buffalo meat instead. Today, buffalo meat remains a staple of local Kudus residents’ diets and a daily reminder of the standing tradition of religious tolerance and Archipelago Islam in this city.
Recently, Indonesians and international audiences alike are voicing concerns that Indonesian pluralism has lost its way. News headlines such as the jailing of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese, Christian ex-governor for alleged blasphemy, the three-fold series of church bombings in Surabaya this year, and a recent study finding nearly 60 percent of Indonesian Muslim teachers to hold intolerant views, all seem to confirm that Indonesia has veered far from the original vision of democratic, multicultural coexistence formulated by the nation’s founders. Even in historically peaceful, moderate environments like Kudus, radicalized teachings are finding their way into schools and universities. A study conducted by the foundation I work for found that roughly 60 percent of religion teachers in state primary schools backed the cause of a radicalist Islamist group (HTI) banned by the Indonesian government for suspected ties to ISIS. The nation’s climate has become rife with growing distrust and divisiveness, and generations who lived through the ’98 ethnic and religious riots wonder if history is bound to repeat itself.
Yet, in my two years journeying across Indonesia and interacting on a day-to-day basis with Indonesians of various faiths and cultural identities, from teachers in Kudus to farmers in Southeast Sulawesi to Go-Car drivers in Jakarta, I’ve encountered numerous counternarratives of faith-based reconciliation and care for neighbor across ethnic, racial, religious and socioeconomic boundaries that give me hope for a better Indonesia. I’ve seen how faith can be a force for good, a fundamental part of one’s identity and calling to love God and thus love neighbor. Some stories are relatively well-known and documented, like the history behind Kudus’s love of buffalo-meat-based cuisine, or the peace-building movement led by the fourth Indonesian president Gus Dur and continued by his descendants today. Many others remain to be discovered and told.
In light of all this, I have decided to begin a personal quest to search for, document, and share more of these counternarratives of hope for a multicultural, democratic Indonesia in which faith can still play an integral and positive role. As part of this quest, I will learn and write about the stories of everyday Indonesians – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, teachers, farmers, businesspeople, politicians, development workers – their life backgrounds, how they understand and interpret faith in context of their other identities and callings, what loving God and loving neighbor means to them, and how they engage in peace-building within their own circles of influence. Some of my sources will be primary (from personal interactions and interviews), while others will be secondary or tertiary (from my ventures into historical documents and books to see what we can learn there). I will start with various relationships I already have, in the hope that I will not only gain understanding but also deeper friendships. Throughout this process, I commit to a posture of learning and seeking truth in love (please keep me accountable!).
I do not pretend to be an expert on interfaith and intercultural issues, nor a neutral observer and narrator. I am an ethnically Chinese, foreign-educated, a Singapore citizen with Indonesian-born parents, a woman, and a practicing Christian. I acknowledge that each of these identities and especially my Christian worldview will certainly color and shape my observations, conclusions, and even actions in the journey of interfaith reconciliation. Yes, I may be biased as a Christ-follower, but it is a bias toward hope and redemption: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, ESV).
Friends, in the face of complex, heated, emotion-rife issues like religious intolerance and radicalism, often the temptation is to fight or flight. To vilify the perceived enemy or other and bemoan their wrongs; or to withdraw altogether and resign ourselves to whatever fate may come. However, I invite you to join me in choosing a third option: to recognize with humility that we are part of the problem even as we try to be part of the solution, and thus by God’s grace commit to learning, listening, and persevering in the work of reconciliation.
My prayer is that this generation of Indonesians can be one that writes fresh stories of multicultural tolerance and interfaith reconciliation, continuing in the spirit of historical figures like Sunan Kudus, Soekarno and Gus Dur, and forging a fresh legacy for our modern times. Who knows? Perhaps some of these stories will continue to be told to locals and tourists generations down the line, roaming the street food stalls of Jakarta and Kudus and other Indonesian cities, captivated by the delicious foods, beautiful peoples and rich multicultural legacy of this nation we call home.
Felicia Hanitio, Jakarta Cohort 2018