Idul Fitri: Of being victorious and asking forgiveness

Idul Fitri, also called Lebaran in Indonesia, is about to come. People will observe local traditions such as visiting family and close relatives to strengthen relationships (silaturahim) — preceded by the annual mudik tradition, an exodus to people’s hometowns in the last week of Ramadhan, and going to cemeteries to pay homage to ancestors. There will be many Idul Fitri gatherings, known as halal bihalal, an Arabic phrase that, despite being lexically incorrect, refers to an event or ceremony in which people exchange apologies and forgiveness.

Indonesian popular greetings will include “Minal ‘aidin wal-faizin, mohon maaf lahir batin,” which is somehow unique to Indonesians and means “may we be among those returning [to the pure, natural state of humans] and coming out victorious [over ego, lust and other negative desires, through fasting]; forgive me physically and spiritually.”

Derived from the greeting, Idul Fitri is thus also referred to as the “day of victory”. Yet victories against anger and the temptation to spread slander have been questionable this year. 

Arguably it is during this year’s Ramadhan that the annual debate on whether restaurants or food stalls may operate during daylight hours of the fasting month has reached its most intense level, if not most annoying, in Indonesia’s history.

This is largely due to noisy and uncontrollable social media that reacted to the broadcast news on raided food stalls. And worse, some Muslim websites spread slander and hoax news related to the owners of the raided and forcefully closed food stalls.

In fact, this is a new concern in the development of Indonesian Islam: “Islamist” websites and social media accounts have ironically become funnels or broadcasters of slander (against respectable, moderate Muslim leaders) and hoax news (particularly related to political chaos in the Middle East or the crisis of Islamic identity). Among the probable explanations: They are dedicated to strengthening Muslims’ “victim mentality” or narratives of “Islam under siege”.

The fact that these things happened during Ramadhan elevates an irony related to what the fasting month is about — the uproar of support for the raids on food stalls reflects the fact that many Muslims were focused on whether other people’s stomachs were fasting, and forgot that their own mouths and judgement needed to fast too.

This irony recalls a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, as often recited by preachers: “Many of those who fast see their fasting bring them nothing except hunger and thirst”, i.e. being strict in formalities but ignorant of the relevant values.

So how can Muslims be victorious if during fasting their ego can’t even withstand open food stalls, and instead must show its arrogance and desire of dominance? It has been commonly known among Muslims that the greatest jihad (struggle) is that against one’s own ego.

As for asking forgiveness, we have seen in this digital age, with increasing social media platforms, a plethora of examples of artificial requests for forgiveness. 

People exchange apologies and forgiveness but don’t really mean it; they don’t consciously form a proper reason why they have to apologize; nor do they deliberately think about whom they must ask forgiveness from; and, more importantly, nor do they explicitly acknowledge the wrongdoings for which they’re asking forgiveness.

This is partly because asking forgiveness has become small talk, a formality, especially so on social media or messaging services where people do not meet face-to-face and shake hands.

Real forgiveness requires a confession by the wrongdoer about their misbehavior, spoken to their victims, as well as introspection, repentance and, if necessary, redemption. In the framed scene where you do not really mean whom you apologize to and you do not even know the reason why you must ask forgiveness, of course you will be forgiven, because in this particular context it is easy to forgive. 

In fact, there is nothing to lose; and nothing different will happen either. Simply speaking, asking forgiveness and forgiving have both lose sacredness.

Ideally, exchanging apologies and forgiveness should happen between, for instance, managers and their workers regarding inadequate wages; between governments and their citizens for unjust policies; between perpetrators and their victims for violence; and between murderers and their victims’ families.

Indeed, these last things are difficult to happen — remember the reconciliation process of the 1965 tragedy. However, it is from these contexts where forgiveness gets its profound meaning. In fact, it’s in these conditions that forgiveness is really needed the most.

In his 1997 essay, On Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida has a famous line: “Forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable.” Ironic but true is that the things that really crave forgiveness are crimes that are too cruel and monstrous to just be forgiven. One is not really apologizing if what they apologize for is something easily forgiven.

In line with this understanding, a quote from Tyrion Lannister of the Game of Thrones TV series is worth citing: “We only make peace with our enemies, not our friends.” To borrow and rephrase: We only ask forgiveness from those whom we must ask for forgiveness, not those to whom we did nothing wrong or those we do not even know.

— This article was first published in the Jakarta Post, 1 July 2016

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