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Asia Sentinel

by Jennie S. Bev

Indonesians have been flocking to a wildly popular novel by a young Indonesian named Habiburrahman El-Shiraz, and now an equally popular new movie, Ayat-Ayat Cinta, (translated as Love Verses). At first blush the work sounds hopelessly and religiously romantic, just like Kahlil Gibran’s poems to his mysterious lover whom, in the end, he never even met.

But don’t be fooled. Love Verses is far from a story of innocent platonic love between pen friends. It is about romanticizing polygamy and re-packaging fundamentalism in a modern Hollywood way. Both the book and the film have been embraced by Indonesian Islamists, who may see it as a chance to embed Islamist ideology into the wider moderate majority. Parliament chairman Hidayat Nur Wahid, who represents the Islamist-oriented Prosperous Justice Party, reportedly met with the cast of the film and praised the story because it was written by an author who had attended Islamic boarding schools and could popularize Islamic teaching.

Habiburrahman begins the story with Fahri bin Abdullah Shiddiq, a hardworking, honest, smart, pious, handsome college student at Al-Azhar University in Egypt. There he encounters four gorgeous young women of various backgrounds, of which three are Muslim and one is a Coptic Christian. Two are Indonesian, the other two are not. Inexplicably, the Christian converts to Islam at the end of the film. Fahri chooses to marry one of the three but his weeping wife insists that out of mercy he take another as his second wife. Ultimately Fahri falls for the richest of the four and they no doubt live happily ever after.

Since it is a dakwah or “preaching” story, the author seeks to convert one of his fictional women, as otherwise she would not have been able to enter heaven as a non-Muslim. In the eyes of common people who don’t think critically about the message and how religions have evolved to what they are today, such plots are easy to digest and, unfortunately, to emulate.

Other than the typical good-man-receives-good-rewards plot, this story is sprinkled with fundamentalist messages. Of course, such messages can be found in all religions and are not limited to Islam. For instance, fundamentalist Christians believe that Christ was sent by God to herald the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Some literalist Christians even praise warfare and conflict as signaling the so-called end times in which Jesus will supposedly walk the earth again. American fundamentalists have long used books like Tim LaHaye’s popular fantasies about the Book of Revelations to popularize their ideas.

In Love Verses, Islam is the religion of choice. There are at least five prevalent messages in the story that must be greeted critically. First, a hardworking, pious and handsome man has no problem finding multiple women to fall madly in love with him. Second, a man can have more than one woman willing to marry him. Third, a woman who loves a man dearly might be willing to have her man take another woman as a second wife. Fourth, a person must be a Muslim to enter Heaven. Fifth, a man might eventually choose a rich and attractive woman as his wife.

Indonesians, provided they wish to have a heterogenous pluralistic country based on Pancasila, or The Five Principles, must be careful in digesting all kinds of propaganda, including that packaged in a pop culture coating. And some of the most effective soft-power vehicles known to date are the visual media and print and online publications.

Despite this portrayal of Islam, my respect for it as a religion of peace, and that the moderate majority are peace-loving and tolerant people, has not diminished. The thing is, Indonesia as the most populous country with Muslim followers, should set an example for being modern and open-minded like Turkey.

Islamic scholars in Turkey are currently working on modernizing Islam through re-evaluating and re-interpreting Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Many of these scholars say parts of the Hadith have been falsely attributed to Muhammad and while they might have been applicable in the early Islamic period, they no longer apply today. The sayings include, but are not limited to, those regarding women’s role in society and Islam’s relationship with other religions.

According to Ismail Hakki Unal, head of the Hadith department at Ankara University's divinity school, many recorded sayings are in conflict with the Koran. Thus, since the Koran is the basic guide, anything contradictory should be re-evaluated, re-interpreted, and eventually, eliminated.

Love Verses might be a reflection of many Indonesian Muslims’ mentality, as it portrays an overly romanticized vision of spiritual suffering and romance. And apparently and unfortunately, fundamentalist messages can be appealing on the silver screen.

The world does not need any kind of fundamentalism, not Islamic, not Christian, not Hindu, Buddhist or atheist, because polarization breeds opposing polarities, which do not make the world a safer place to live. At last, can’t we simply make movies conveying messages of neutral and unbiased humanitarian values? Remember when Chow Yun-Fat said to Jodie Foster in Anna and the King: “I finally realize that one woman is enough.” That is a true happy ending.[] 

Asia Sentinel (China), March 20, 2008

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