Corruption and religious symbols
Fugitive corruption suspect Neneng Sri Wahyuni, the wife of graft convict Muhammad Nazaruddin, was finally detained last Wednesday at her home in Pejaten, South Jakarta.
She is accused of corruption in a graft-ridden solar energy procurement project involving Anugerah Nusantara, a subsidiary of the Permai Group, owned by her husband. She was the finance director of Anugerah Nusantara at the time of the alleged graft.
Concerning her alleged corruption, the striking thing about the arrest was the strong religious symbolism of Neneng wearing a head scarf.
This is not unique in that she is not the first graft suspect to wear the hijab or other religious clothing after getting caught by the anticorruption body or police.
Other graft suspects such as Malinda Dee and Nunun Nurbaeti suddenly began to wear the hijab when they were in court. Countless graft suspects across the country are often seen wearing haj caps or Muslim shirts during their trials.
Going a bit deeper, I am of the opinion that the graft suspects deliberately capitalizing on religious symbols — hijab, haj cap, or Muslim shirts — tell us three things.
First, the religious symbols have been misused as a defense mechanism. By the graft suspects putting on Islamic clothing during their trial, for example, they appear as if they would like to cover up their mistakes, suggesting they are simply victims and not leading actors in the graft scandals.
Unfortunately, they send out a wrong message. By clinging to religious symbols, the graft suspects expect to undo the previous action — corruption — and to counteract the damage from corruption, hoping each will balance the other out.
Such defense mechanisms are totally misleading since people easily view it as deceptive.
Counterbalancing perceived mistakes — acts of corruption — by emphasizing “strength” in another arena — a desire to return to God – is more of an over-compensation. Instead of helping reinforce their self-esteem and self-image, it incites even stronger public anger.
This anger makes sense because people are fed up with the graft suspects’ frequent multiple personalities.
Putting on a hijab during a trial or when arrested by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) or the police, gives the impression that the graft suspects have a disconnected view of themselves in the
teeth of severe punishment and public wrath.
Second, the religious symbols have been misused as an escape mechanism. Considering the strong effect of religious symbols on people in this country, many people
unequivocally regard people with an adherence to religious symbols as representing their true piety and devoutness.
Indeed, Islam considers and treats symbols as important and crucial as substance in religious expression.
Yet too much emphasis on symbols produces judgmental people with black and white mindsets who are susceptible to exploitation.
The graft suspects undermine the Islamic clothing with the hope that they can get relief from public pressure.
Adopting the concept of Erich Fromm’s escape mechanism, the abuse of religious symbols by the graft suspects or criminals is called “automaton conformity”.
Here, the graft suspects deceive and invert public logic by changing themselves to conform to a perception of society’s preferred type of personality, that is, repentant sinners.
The approach is definitely intolerable since it omits the qualities of care and responsibility from most human relationships.
Furthermore, the abuse of religious symbols reduces the power of liberating religion from mere religious ornament far removed from justice and advocacy.
It indicates that one approaches God in times of difficulty only and leaves Him behind while back in the comfort zone.
The repentance and return to God simply appears on the symbolic surface of religiosity.
Third, the abuse of religious symbols portrays an artificial religious expression. The use of religious symbols while being detained in jail or in court is an improper and ostensible coping measure.
People doubt that head scarves worn by Neneng, Nunung, or Melinda indicate their spiritual embodiment after having engaged in alleged corruption.
Though spiritual awakening is very much personal and may come from repentant sinners, this sort of awakening cannot take place due to the sudden use of religious symbolism.
Rather than covering up their heads with veils, those graft suspects would be better off admitting their mistakes, apologizing to the public and returning any money that may have been taken. The community does not like those who are toying with counterfeit religious expression in an attempt to gain public sympathy.
Being ourselves and being honest is more conducive for public acceptability and forgiveness.
The excessive use of religious symbols adds to the suspects’ extreme loss of credibility in the eye of the public.
The writer teaches at the School of Cultural Sciences at Andalas University, Padang.
Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.