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Following the media reports about the deadly attack against Shia followers in Sampang, East Java, Muhammad (not his real name), a 37-year-old Shiite from Garut, West Java, said he is prepared if his two children ask him difficult questions.
“My children have yet to ask me about the news. However, I have prepared myself to explain to them what we can do to avoid similar things happening to us,” he said at his home in Tarogong district, Garut, last week.
“Alhamdulillah [Praise the Lord], so far, my children have never been harassed by their friends at school. But basically, no matter how small the differences you have with others, when you are in the minority, they can lead to conflict,” he added.
Muhammad said the two main things he would tell his children in order that they avoid harassment or alienation would be to keep their heads down and never flaunt their differences to others.
He mentioned how a Shiite neighbor of his never participated in social activities. On one occasion, his neighbor refused to participate in the neighborhood night-watch patrol.
“His decision triggered talk behind his back, not only about his attitude but also about his Shia religion. That is why we must be very, very careful,” he said.
Muhammad, who is a civil servant, married his wife Khadijah (also not her real name), a 28-year-old Sunni in 2008. The couple has two children from Muhammad’s previous marriage.
Initially, their different beliefs stirred disagreements, particularly among Khadijah’s family, who were mostly members of United Islam (Persis), a conservative Muslim group.
“My mother had heard some outrageous rumors about marriages between Sunnis and Shiites. One of them was that Sunni women who married Shiites would gradually alienate themselves from their families,” said Khadijah.
Muhammad, knowing that it was impossible to debate with his in-laws, chose to approach them gently instead. Gradually, most of Khadijah’s family members blessed the couple’s union, including her mother, according to Khadijah.
“Of course, people still talk about us sometimes but that’s ok” she added with a smile.
In addition, both Muhammad and Khadijah try to involve themselves in as many social activities as possible, such as visiting orphanages every Friday, joining monthly gatherings and helping to organize mass circumcision events.
“After the Sampang tragedy, we must show people that we just want to do good here and that we’re not here as part of an exclusive group,” said Muhammad.
One difference between Sunnis and Shiites is the way in which they conduct daily prayers. Sunnis generally fold their hands across their chest during the standing position of the prayers, while Shiites usually leave their hands hanging down either side of their bodies.
In Muhammad and Khadijah’s case, they have found a compromise that works for them.
“Because my wife is from a Sunni family, I let her follow her family’s custom whenever we pray together,” said Muhammad.
Muhammad added that it was not a problem for him that his wife continued to follow the Sunni interpretations as long as she followed the general principles of Islam, such as wearing a headscarf for women, which were the same for both Sunnis and Shiites.
As Khadijah put it, “It takes more heart than rules to be sure that God will hear your prayers.”
“We all learn. As a Sunni myself, there are still a lot of things I have to learn,” she said, adding that the children were “free to decide their own paths in the future”.
— JP/ Amahl Azwar