Why are Indonesians choosing Arabic robe over sarong?

A burqa-clad Indonesian woman and an Indonesian man in turban shopping at a minimart in Depok, outside Jakarta. -- PHOTO: TEMPO/Hidayat SG
A burqa-clad Indonesian woman and an Indonesian man in turban shopping at a minimart in Depok, outside Jakarta. -- PHOTO: TEMPO/Hidayat SG

More Indonesians have taken to wearing Arabic clothing, although most won’t be able to speak a word of Arabic.

It is not uncommon these days to see a small-built man who is decidedly Indonesian wearing a turban and a flowing robe.

It does make others wonder why he doesn’t wear a peci – or songkok as it is known in Malaysia and Singapore – and the traditional sarong instead?

Similarly, an Indonesian woman clad in a loose, long garment called the burqa and whose face is hidden is clearly dressed for the hot desert conditions in the Middle East rather than the humid weather in Indonesia. 

Though the wearing of Arabic robes is not uncommon in countries with Muslim populations, discussions about why this is so has never ceased, including in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s remarks on this recently are noteworthy. 

Addressing a forum of rectors from state Islamic institutions of higher learning on July 23,  Dr Yudhoyono recounted an exchange between an Arab leader visiting Indonesia and then Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni.

The leader told Mr Basyuni he was shocked when he saw TV footage showing a group clad in Arabic garb committing vandalism and violence in Indonesia.

The minister explained that the men were radical elements, but the leader remarked that their actions tarnished not only the image of Islam but also that of Arabs, “because they wear Arabic clothes”, Dr Yudhyono recalled.

His mention of the issue came after members of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) raided a Central Java brothel that had upset residents. The incident, in which a pregnant woman died after she was run over by an FPI vehicle, triggered hundreds of tweets and online blog posts demanding that the government disband the group.

The FPI, known for taking the law into its own hands, often attacked massage parlours and illicit gaming centres in the name of fighting prostitution, gambling and pornography.

Formed on Aug 17, 1998, the FPI network has since expanded to several cities outside Jakarta and its members are known to step up raids during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They are hard to miss because of their distinctive garb and the noise they make during an attack.

However, FPI members make up only a section of those who sport Arabic clothing.

Some Indonesians say they try to be more like Arabs and adopt their garments in order to feel more Islamic and also superior to other Muslims.

What kind of thinking is that? As Indonesians, we should be grateful for who we are and not try to pretend to be someone we are not.

Thankfully, many prominent religious leaders, including the leaders of major Muslim organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and members of the conservative Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), are showing the way by sticking to traditional Indonesian Muslim attire.

A good way for Muslims here to express their gratitude to God is to show how happy we are to be Indonesians. It would be un-Islamic to be ungrateful for what we have been given.

As mainstream clerics like to teach Muslims: The more grateful you are, the more blessed you will be – and the more prosperous you will become.