Her Muslim students sometimes complained when she wrote a “t” on the board. They told the American teaching them English that she was putting up a secret cross as part of a Christian plot to convert Muslims. “Acehnese Muslims are afraid of the Cross,” explained a young Muslim university lecturer. “Conspiracy theories about forced Christianization flourish” in Aceh, partly because so few of them know any Christians.
Mecca’s front porch
Writing in Commonweal, David Pinault describes life in Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia and the only one to impose Sharia law on everyone. It’s called “Mecca’s front porch.” The Muslim conquest of the East Indies began here in the 13th century and Muslims used to sail from the capital city Banda Aceh for their hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Pinault, who teaches at Santa Clara University, tells a fascinating story about a society very different from ours, and I commend the article. Several mosques in Banda Aceh offer what he calls “the most high-profile part” of the province’s practice of Sharia: “public canings after Friday prayers. The sentence is imposed on those found guilty of gambling, drinking, or sexual violations such as khalwat (‘inappropriate proximity,’ as when unmarried couples are caught holding hands).”
Muslims tell him the worst part of being caned is the public shame, with neighbors recording the beatings on their cell phones. (So maybe not so different. We can’t be too smug about this. America has its public sins and its ways of punishing public sinners, and the mob watches with the same glee.)
Faith, Pinault says, “has a way of slipping past government control.” Aceh’s Sharia-enforcing authorities seem to be encouraging “spiritual restlessness” among young Muslims and that apparently leads some to look at Christianity. Some even convert.
At no small cost, he explains. “Islamic vigilance is directed especially at anyone who might become a murtadd (an apostate or spiritual renegade).” Some young Muslims attracted to Christianity get sent to Islamic boarding schools to be “purified” and re-educated. Those who persist can lose their friends and jobs, get beaten up and threatened with death. Things are even worse in the rural areas. Some leave Aceh for more tolerant parts of the country, he says, while others hide their faith.
And Christianity’s front porch, too
Their knowledge of Christianity must be very partial and mostly intellectual. Pinault mentions young Muslims caught reading the Bible or searching the web for information. Christianity has no public presence they can engage.
They can’t safely walk into a church, for example. Aceh has its churches, including at least one Catholic church, but only immigrants, expats, and descendants of earlier immigrants worship there. They can attend illegal house churches, but not safely.
I wish I could see Christianity as they see it. As an American Catholic looking at that type of Islam, I think the Faith must appeal to them as a humanistic or a humane faith, as a generous and graceful one. It’s the outdoors when a man has lived all his life in a cramped cave, or cage. In a society of religious laws harshly imposed, surely the prospect of a personal friendship with the incarnate Son of God and his people must appeal. Christianity has its rules, too, but the rules become simply the ways you please your new friend and Savior.
But I’m only guessing. Christianity must be good news to them. That must be true. They risk too much to join for the thing they find not to be a great thing. I’d very much like to know what exactly is the good news is for them. I could be completely wrong, by thinking of them as if they were Americans. Maybe some other aspect of the Faith draws them, one I wouldn’t think of or even see. Ours is a rich religion. It has many sides, many faces, and the beauty of one face might draw me and others be drawn by a face I feel plain or homely.
Aceh’s spiritually restless, and also courageous, youth provide a Holy Week question. Not a lesson, exactly, but a question that might lead to a lesson.
At least it’s a question that I’ve kept thinking of since reading the article. What is it that drew us to the faith, speaking for the converts, or caught us when we were small, speaking for those who grew up Christian? What is it that held us — convert or cradle — through life’s troubles? What was the good news for us?
I’m not sure I can answer that, even after some days’ thought. I can give the theological answer, of course, but we experience that answer through more specific, more granular, faces of the Catholic Faith.
It’s not a hugely important question for anyone to answer. But it would be a source of deeper insight into ourselves and help us better explain to others why we do what we do. It would also give us yet more reason to thank God for his many blessings. Jesus tells us “I am the door.” He loves us so much that he comes to us as the door each of us wants.