“I’m American, and I’m sorry” is my usual way of introducing myself to people when they hear my accent and get puzzled by its New England droll with Southerner slang coming from an Asian face. This was how I have always introduced myself when living outside of America, albeit facetiously to Australian and Canadian expats and with deferring humility to natives typically unfamiliar with Americans, let alone American diversity. The actual response from locals is a lot more “Oh hey, that’s cool! America! What’s it like?” than “Burn in hell, you sacrilegious Satan!” Their typical doses of Americana is the occasional viewing on pirated VCDs the latest Hollywood films; they all have better things to think about besides hating Uncle Gringo 24/7. Usually, they think about working to make ends meet, impressing the hot girl at school, and trying to avoid traffic without bribing police officers as their real priorities. When Innocence of Muslims debuted, nothing much changed in Jakarta or anywhere else from western to eastern Indonesia.
I work in development, so I’m not living the high life with an American income in a Third World nation. I engage locals from remote villages in the dry lands that in pictures could resemble the Horn of Africa, to jungles near Sumatra where some consider orangutans pests, and I live that Rick Blaine Casablanca kind of life in Jakarta with the other foreign denizens while off-duty. Whenever we see CNN or Fox News we laugh because the way Indonesia is portrayed doesn’t look a damn thing like the country we live in. Yes, the American consulate has closed down because of riots that led to rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown. But truth be told, Indonesia has already had a lot of anger all over the place, and America is just one of many targets for the wrath of the demos. It’s like someone who is already having a bad day with his roommates, his boss, and his girlfriend whom you happen to spill your drink on unintentionally getting ready to bite everyone’s head off.
Notably, many of the angry people at the protests and those writing angry letters to The Jakarta Globe and The Jakarta Post actually haven’t even seen the video.
The worst thing you can be is caught in the tension between the Muslim liberals and borderline-fundamentalist conservatives, then with the Sunni and Shia divide. That’s the typical conflict: between Shias and Sunnis, and liberals and conservatives. Not everyone is serious about their religion in the world’s biggest Muslim country, it’s a habit and tradition at most for the average Indonesian, especially when seeing them walk in nonchalantly to pick up a Heineken or a Bintang at the pub (alcohol is forbidden in Islam).
My redneck colleagues out here don’t even bat an eye while walking around at night once they’re a reasonable distance away from the American consulate; they speak Bahasa Indonesian without any hesitation and are the first to condemn Sam Bacile [creator of Innocence of Muslims] as “a big fucking idiot” who should “have himself dangled by his testicles over a hotel balcony before being thrown to the mob” for ruining it for everyone (all people with western faces, not just Americans).
The interesting thing is, most people still look at foreigners with admiration and curiosity than resentment. A typical experience with my Texan friend in Central Java is that people are more interested in taking pictures of him than Mount Merapi or the Borobodur and Prambanan temples–United Nations World Heritage sites. “Sir! Photo, photo!” and “I Black Berry messenger; you give me too?” [sic]. Of course, I with my Chinese-Filipino face, I stroll unfazed and unmolested past some angry extremists–all Asians don’t look the same, but in a pinch, nobody is paying close attention.
The most dangerous place this past weekend was actually a 7-11. Why was 7-11 a lot more dangerous? Because the conservative-borderline-fundamentalists in the words of my lax, Sunni neighbors, “aren’t anti-American, they’re just anti-fun.” Oh, and the one in the news? That’s just outside my apartment. But unfortunately for my adoring critics, I’m unscathed and slept peacefully. Over here, 7-11 is a hangout, with tables and chairs to shoot the breeze (or eat the wind as they say here): enjoy a Slurpee and a corn dog with a date or a few friends, as the street rats larger than cats scuttle in and out of the open sewers and geckos eat the swarm of mosquitoes in the night.
The No Fun Allowed Club and its various chapters is hardly taken seriously by the average Indonesian, but the police and government keep a close eye on them because liberal or fundamentalist, Sunni or Shia, Muslim or Christian, local or foreigner, if things get out of hand, the people look to the ineptitude of the government and the malignant tumor of corruption devouring it within as the problem for being unable to keep order. So it’s on the agenda to keep the peace in order to hang onto their jobs, because corruption or not, if the mob is mobilized, anything can happen, and 350 extremists and violent lunatics like Bashir who urge “Libya to be imitated” are easier to contain than 220 million disgruntled citizens fed up with incompetent governance.
In the same time span that Indonesian President Yudhoyono cautioned everyone to exercise restraint while condemning the violence and ordering a ban on the film (meaning nobody here can watch it on YouTube), he’s also attacked by critics for being “the worst performer in human rights”. Not that he’s a heinous violator like supreme jerk-off Suharto, he just hasn’t been seen as doing much to address the (many) problems Indonesia faces. So the biggest losers here aren’t Americans and America’s government–that’s giving too much credit to Joe; there’s already enough anger between religious groups, the people and the Indonesian government, and a focus on living day to day. If anything, I’m more anti-American than the embassy protesters, who will likely be in the same place next month that they were last month: lining up to get visas.