I have seen spray paint swastikas on ethnic businesses in Epping. White power salutes directed at African drivers on pedestrian crossings in Newcastle. White supremacist club-houses in Ashfield and Tempe that have operated for at least a year.
The current political environment has empowered and emboldened violent, white-supremacist racists and our government continues to drag its feet on direct action. Peter Dutton links Lebanese-Australian communities to terrorism, Pauline Hanson wears a Burqa in Parliament, Scott Morrison sees Islamophobia as a way to secure votes. Anyone who was surprised by the Christchurch Massacre on March 15th, in which a white supremacist murdered 51 Muslims praying inside a Mosque, I urge you to pay more attention.
As a mixed-race Australian Indonesian from Tamworth, institutionalised prejudices are not new to me. Growing up, I experienced an extremely particular kind of racial discrimination as a ‘nearly white’ inhabitant of a white majority, conservatively-thinking community. I even participated in racial discrimination myself. I enjoyed white-passing privilege, socioeconomic stability and a name that didn’t raise white eyebrows on a resume. Simultaneously, I was subjected to model minority frameworks, it was taken for granted that I conformed to society, behaved myself and succeeded in academia. I was perceived as a ‘good’ Asian.
In the early 2000s, a Muslim family from Bangladesh came to live in our quiet country town. The family had two sons. Their dark skin was the same nutmeg brown as my Indonesian mother’s. One of the boys was my age and we became acquainted on the cricket field. While I was visiting his house, I noticed a weird locked room that prohibited shoes. I snuck in and found an empty room with a double-bladed sword pinned on the wall. I know now that was the Zulfiqar in the family’s Musollah. I had never met Muslims besides my relatives from Indonesia so this South-Asian variety of Islam looked unrecognisably different to my naïve westernized gaze. Alongside the white people in Tamworth, I would ignorantly mock the Bangladesh Muslim family’s accents and avoid them because I thought ‘they stank’. The family left Tamworth soon after.
After moving to the city for university, I was ecstatic to be percieved as ‘some Indo-halfie’ instead of ‘some Asian’. Western Sydney showed me the true face of humanity in all its staggering diversity. I began the process of unlearning my reductive perception of others, which consequently enriched my understanding of being Indonesian. It also made me question the atheist ideology I had decided on as a teenager. I currently identify as agnostic.
After the Christchurch Massacre I wanted to call my Indonesian family, but my sympathy towards the victims felt hypocritical and hollow. I felt so confronted by my familiarity with the white perpetrator that I was ashamed of the fairness of my own skin. Three days later I called my aunty in Java on Instagram. She practices Muhammadiyah Islam, a modernist and reformist movement of Islam established by Indonesians in 1912. Indonesian Muslims may be santri—devoted Muslims who might choose to live in pesantren religious boarding houses—or abangan—moderate Muslims who hold on to their cultural and ethnic ties to Hindu, Buddhist or Indigenous animist beliefs. Muhammadiyah worship is based on the Qu’ran and Sunnah texts with an emphasis on good deeds (Amar Ma'ruf Nahi Munkar). This emphasis means promoting Islam through education, health and social services. They also affiliate with Aisyiyah, a women’s organisation created in 1917 to elevate the status of women in Indonesia.
When I asked my aunty how she felt about Christchurch she quoted the Prophet Muhammad: 'The Muslim Ummah [nation] is like one body. If the eye is in pain then the whole body is in pain, and if the head is in pain then the whole body is in pain.' I noticed the same idea shared by Prime Minister Jacinda Adern with thousands of mourners during the Muslim Friday prayers in Hagley Park.
My aunty lives in Yogyakarta City, my mum’s home before she met my Australian dad, got married and eventually settled down in country NSW. On one side of the city stands the world’s largest Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. On the other side stands Prambanan temple complex which was built in the period dominated by Hinduism. This multi-religious history is the product of syncretism: as new religions arrive, the old ones are not thrown out, instead they are allowed to grow over each other like layers in the Earth’s crust. Since the 15th century, the majority of the Malay archipelago’s inhabitants have identified themselves as Muslims.
Indonesia has been constitutionally secular since independence in 1949 and formally recognises six separate religions. When I think about Christchurch, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Indonesian 1965-66 anti-leftist massacre in which half a million Indonesian alleged communists were killed and another million were indefinitely detained. This was the harrowing end to the tumultuous post-independence period of first president, Sukarno’s leadership. Local militias were already trained from years of anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle. Violent extremist anti-left groups and right-wing members of the military were covertly armed and supported by the United States and other western powers, whose interest was in eliminating communism in South-East Asia.
Both the Christchurch Massacre and the Indonesian '65-'66 Massacres demonstrate ideological violence encouraged by politicians who twist fear into hatred in a bid for power. Individuals are manipulated into valorised acts of violence and the fantasy of white supremacy is always lurking near by.
In 1997, students and community leaders petitioned, rallied and eventually succeeded in toppling the Suharto regime in Indonesia. My aunty was one of them. She once told me about the fear of police and military batons and bullets. How citizens would come out of their houses with damp cloths to aid tear-gassed activists. How her fellow students would ‘disappear in the night’ for being too vocal, and her disappointment that the resistance leaders she followed suddenly changed their ideas and behaviour after the reformation of a newly democratic government.
The historical lessons of Indonesia’s nationhood are highly relevant to today’s Australia. They demonstrate the pitfalls and speed bumps that lay on the path to the multicultural society that Australia claims to be. However, the two countries’ icy, business-first bilateral relations have created an inability for us to learn from each other. The fruits of cultural exchange have been othered to death and Australia has become unable and unwilling to understand its place in its region, the world and, consequently, to understand itself.
Adam Phillip Anderson is mixed-race Australian Indonesian writer and activist. He grew up on Gomeroi Land in Tamworth, New South Wales and is currently based out of Narwee, Dharawal land, in Sydney's south-west. His work has been published in Big Black Thing: Chapter 2.