If followers and the faithless allow space for one another freedom of religion can flourish
This is a short story about the journey of a discreetly irreligious person in the world of religious people.
I was working on a report, making sure all the numbers I had typed matched the source data. Then came the sound of azan, calling Muslims to prayer. It started faintly, then gradually grew more apparent. Some near my desk stopped what they were doing and got ready to pray. They were about to go to the mosque just outside our office building, still in the complex. My colleague three cubicles away went out of his way to say to the others, ‘let's pray,’ even though they were already on their way. They did not fail to make sure I had heard the invitation. They used to invite me directly. I never complied, because I was discreetly no longer a Muslim. Since then the way they invited me changed.
Back when I still held my belief, I would nonchalantly welcome the invitation to pray. I did not realise how much freedom I had in expressing my belief. Fast forward to the time when I no longer believed, and now I do not even have the freedom not to pray.
I was born in a Muslim family, and grew up learning how to be a Muslim. Until nine years ago, when I decided to stop believing, Islam was not just a belief, it was a huge part of my identity. I prayed quite regularly. I always completed the fast in the holy month of Ramadan. I was taught to read Al Quran in Arabic as a kid, and I read it from time to time, often with the translation. I not only acted like other Muslims, I felt what I think other Muslims feel. I felt happy whenever there was news about people converting to Islam. I found good news from Muslim countries comforting. I experienced justification whenever I heard stories disproving other religions, or read about theories confirming my belief.
In retrospect, there was never anything special about how I came from my Islamic background to who I am now. Up until a certain point in my life, no thought of leaving the religion ever entered my mind. Occasionally, little inner voices would ask: What if Islam is not the true religion? But the questions were never serious; they were intrusive thoughts without an intention. It was my reading that started it all. I have always been curious about the world. I was familiar with events and stories not only from Indonesia, but from other countries. That might have opened the first window toward being faithless. I was not open to just anything, but I did find acceptable some things that Islam did not. At first, I managed to find explanations for the inconsistencies. These allowed me to maintain my beliefs. But as I learnt more, I found some Islamic teachings harder to defend. I began to feel I could relate more to perspectives from the other side of religion, though I acknowledged that religious answers did not necessarily lie. Possibly, I thought, the world does not have the answers. At some point, finally, the epiphany came and I decided to be irreligious.
Authority over my own life
It was not an easy decision. I have mentioned those intrusive thoughts in my head from time to time about religion and God. After having those thoughts I often felt scared. What if God considered them already categorically blasphemous, despite there being no particular intention behind them? I constantly felt alternately grateful and scared. Grateful for being born in a Muslim family and scared to think, ‘What if I had been born into a non-Muslim family?’ I continually thought about heaven and hell. Muslims are taught that the world is temporary, while the afterlife is eternal. The possibility of suffering punishment for an eternity was always at the back of my mind. In view of the consequences, the decision to leave what I used to believe deeply could only come after careful consideration. I emphasise this to clarify a misconception common among devout Muslims, namely that non-believers are immoral or too lazy to practice their religion. It was never about me becoming immoral or lazy. With all due respect to religious people, I like to think that I learned about religion properly, just as they did. I have done my research. I simply came to a different conclusion.
Externally, there are no major differences between the Muslim version of me and the current me. I still live in the same home, I still have the same family, my educational background remains what it was. I still work for the same office, with its predominantly Muslim employees. However, becoming faithless has opened a lot of new perspectives. The same residence, family, and workplace started to feel like a different world. I felt I had more authority over my own life. As I unlearned some things I had been taught, and gained more understanding, I started to see the world with much clearer perspectives. I think I have gone a step further into freedom of thought.
After confirming to myself I had become faithless, coming out at work soon after was never the plan. Working in a Muslim-majority office, I believe being open about my lack of faith is not an option. It was only when I stopped believing that I realised how much freedom I had had in exercising my belief. One of the most important obligations for Muslims is praying. Muslims should do it at least five times a day. There was never a situation in which I could not pray. When I was in the middle of a dispute with friends, I could go to pray. When my superior was counting on me to meet an important deadline, it was still acceptable for me to prioritise time to pray. Even when there was no dedicated space to pray, I could make space. As a Muslim, I could pray whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted, and however I wanted.
I had it easy during the fasting month too. Fasting is another obligation. Muslims are told to control their desires, notably by, but not limited to, not eating and drinking. The obligation starts very early every day, with breakfast before dawn and sahur prayers. Normally I would not wake up at that hour, but during the fasting month it was easy. Usually groups of people go around to people’s houses shouting that it is time for sahur. Local mosques remind people through their loudspeakers. Work hours are adjusted – we can expect to go home earlier, to break the fast after sunset. It is acceptable at the office to be not as productive as in a normal month. Many regions prohibit restaurants from opening during fasting hours. It felt like the whole month was tailored to help people fast.
Discussing my unbelief in public is also not on the agenda. As a believer, I could offer my interpretation of religious values, I could ask questions, I could even have disagreements about it in public. I had all the time and space to express and practice my belief in the way I felt was right. But now that I am faithless, I have very limited space to be open about my convictions. My co-workers see their insistence on inviting me to pray as something benevolent. Meanwhile, the fact that I continuously ignore their invitation can be seen as asocial and even immoral. My work colleagues keep sharing preaching videos in a work messenger group, about the danger of charging interest on money or on items lent out (riba). If I were to offer a balancing opinion, it would offend them. Some men at work like to promote the practice of polygamy. I once offered the idea that it was not fair to the women, but this angered them. It is inconvenient to have lunch during the fasting month, since eating in sight of those fasting is seen as disrespectful. All discussion of religion tends to be one-way. After becoming faithless, I have experienced a lot of forced silence. I need to suppress my thoughts in the office.
I wish things could be different. Coming from an Islamic background myself, it is not like I forget how good it feels to remind other Muslims to stay in Islam's path. Islam obliges its followers to remind other believers to carry out its obligations and avoid its prohibitions. What my colleagues did probably arose from their kindness in wanting to make me live better and more in accordance with their beliefs, and also from their fear of neglecting the obligation to remind others. It is not enough for Muslims to practice religion by themselves; they must also make sure others know they have to follow the obligations too. But I do sometimes wonder how far this practice of reminding others should go.
Having been faithless for a while now, I still consider Islam to be a part of myself. After all, it was something I grew up with. The experience has formed who I am today and I am glad that I can understand my co-workers better as a result. I truly consider that understanding to be my strength. Consequently, I hope someday the religious people around me can also get benefit from understanding all the people around them, not only those who hold the same views. Irreligious people understand religious people, people with religion understand those without: together we can create mutual understanding.
Freedom of religion is an important part of that. Such freedom belongs to everyone. It includes the freedom not to practice religion. My personal conviction is that, every time we restrict people's freedom of religion, we make ourselves a prisoner of our own actions, because we deny ourselves the opportunity to understand others better. The existence of people who do not practice religion does not diminish the freedom of people who do. Religious freedom is not a zero-sum game. Everybody actually can have the same degree of freedom. There is enough space for everybody to be true to their conviction, as long as it does not harm others. Mutual understanding spreads – it can lead to even more understanding. The implication of compounding our mutual understanding can be huge. This can start from a place as simple as the office.
Budi Hartono is a pseudonym.