Life

A leap of faith: Taking
the plunge in interreligious
marriage

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

As the projector flickered, people in interfaith relationships told their stories.

Indah said she and her siblings were labeled illegitimate and mocked because their parents were of different religions.

A married couple claimed there was never a problem; the differences, in fact, helped their children become more tolerant.

Meanwhile, Hilmar told of being caught in the middle as both his parents and those of his girlfriend opposed their union.

""Both sides fear their future grandchildren will follow another religion than theirs. What's marriage for then, finding (religious) followers?"" the young man said in exasperation.

The documentary was part of the book launching and discussion for Tafsir Ulang Perkawinan Lintas Agama, Perspektif Perempuan dan Pluralisme (Reinterpretation of Interfaith Marriage Through the Perspective of Women and Plurality).

Published by Kapal Perempuan, a women's non-governmental organization, and the New Zealand Agency for International Development (NZAID), the book tells of both successful and failed interfaith marriages, the perspectives of religious leaders and scholars from different religions, as well as the legal viewpoint.

Interfaith marriage is still one of the most complicated and sensitive issues in Indonesian society, involving a potential tinder box of emotion-laden questions of religious right and wrong, the state and the individual's right to choose a partner.

Law No. 1/1974 on matrimony states a marriage is only legal when it is conducted according to one religion, which supports the stance of opponents of interfaith marriage.

Many couples circumvent the legal restriction by getting married under one religion, but then practicing their respective faiths. Others with more financial security opt to go abroad to wed.

In 2001, news circulated of a consortium -- with representatives from the government, non-governmental organizations and UNICEF -- that was working on a bill to legalize interfaith marriage for those wishing to retain their respective religions.

The plan has yet to be realized; even if it is, entrenched attitudes cannot be changed overnight.

Parents fear the assumption of others that they did not bring up their children ""properly"". Young people, knowing the ""rules, immediately dismiss the notion of dating someone of another faith.

The new book further illustrates how women, often oppressed in the domestic sphere, also face more societal pressure than their menfolk in interfaith marriages.

In Islam, for instance, women are considered to have committed adultery if they marry non-Muslim men, but it's not the same stigma for men, who are expected to be able to convert their wives to their faith.

""It forces women to obey all the rules aimed at them, which in turn will make them sacrifice their love,"" said Yanti Muchtar of Kapal Perempuan in the book's introduction.

Muslim scholar Siti Musdah Mulia cited research showing that in unions of Muslim men with non-Muslim women, 50 percent of the couples' children took their father's religion.

Conversely, when Muslim women married non-Muslim men, the percentage was 80 percent.

""It indicates that a mother's influence on the children's religion is greater than the father's. It means the perception that women are weak and easily converted to other religions is wrong,"" she said.

According to Musdah, there is also a misconception of musyrik, or those who worship others than God, whom Muslims are prohibited from marrying.

""The common perception of musyrik is a non Muslim, whereas worshiping others can mean worshiping money, wealth, anything,"" said Musdah, an expert staff at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the secretary-general at the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP).

She added that only three of the more than 6,000 verses in the Koran address interfaith marriage.

""I urge people to be more critical, don't take religion for granted.""

Musdah also considers the restriction on interfaith marriage as a political vehicle of the government to accommodate the demands of religious institutions.

""It's strange that for people who get married in other countries, their marriage is legal here although they are of different religions,"" said Musdah Mulia.

Stranger still, Musdah said, was that after the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) issued an edict in 1980 restricting all Muslims from marrying out of Islam, its Jakarta branch announced six years later that Muslim men could marry non-Muslim women.

""But in 1994, the (second) edict was withdrawn,"" Musdah said.

Meanwhile, another Muslim scholar, Hasanuddin, said that Islam's origins date back to a time of conflict, and that as a missionary religion it originally set out to gain more followers.

""It's a whole different situation nowadays. There would have to be empirical proof to show that interfaith marriage would make the Muslim population decline,"" said Hasanuddin, who teaches at the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN) Jakarta.

""If interfaith marriages are legalized, it won't necessarily lead to people of different religions marrying each other. Marriages between different ethnic groups are allowed, yet still many people don't favor it.""

Women's right activist and minister Ester Mariani Ga, meanwhile, said that interfaith marriage was a ""gift"" of a pluralistic society but ""... The state should accommodate every religion's view on the legal state of marriage, and religion should not become a means to control their citizens"".

Ultimately, marriage is about two people in love.

Audience member Yati, a Catholic whose husband is a Muslim, said she believed God only required people to behave properly.

""That's all that God's asking. So, we shouldn't be afraid of any restrictions because they are lower than God's.

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