“The Muslim World” and an “American film”

by Tabitha Kidwell

When I first came to Indonesia last year and was placed at a Muslim university, I wondered what it would be like to teach and work with Muslims. After getting used to dressing appropriately and learning to love the mobs of giggling, hijab-ed girls on campus, it was essentially a non-issue. Granted, Salatiga is a very open-minded town, is almost 50% Christian, and is accustomed to foreigners thanks to the many missionaries who come through here to study language. But I think most of my friends placed at Muslim institutions would agree with me – life among Indonesian Muslims is just not all that different from life among American Christians.

In the last two weeks, the issue of Christian/Muslim differences has been brought to light by the many protests around the “Muslim world” over the film Innocence of Muslims. This term “Muslim world” is fairly imprecise – wouldn’t you be offended to be lumped into the “Christian World” with no regard for your nationality, gender, age, or individuality? Muslims in Indonesia, Morocco, Bosnia, and Nigeria are a fairly disparate group, to say nothing of the 2.6 million Muslims who actually live in the United States. Reuters estimates are that less than .001% of muslims worldwide are protesting – out of Indonesia’s 200,000+ million Muslims, several hundred seem to have turned up. The protests aren’t even top priority for newspapers here, losing out to upcoming elections, forest fires, and the iPhone 5.

When I talked to my mom a few days ago, she said many people had asked if I am safe here. The answer: yes! I’ve never felt unsafe in Salatiga, and I don’t now. I am, however, more wary. I’ve received more text message alerts from the Embassy warden system in the last week than in the entire last year. The last one read:

US Emb Jakarta, US ConsGen Surabaya, APP Medan, US Cons Ag Bali, US Mission ASEAN closed 21Sep. Possible focus on US brand businesses 21Sep.

Now, I have never heard of an embassy and US mission closing it’s doors (albeit temporarily) in any country I have ever been to. But the murder of a US ambassador is also something that has never happened in my lifetime. Though I’m technically self-employed, I am here under the umbrella of the US embassy, and violence directly aimed at the US mission abroad is a scary prospect. So is random violence towards American corporations and towards anyone who seems to be American, like this Australian journalist describes. The uproar over Inocence of Muslims is a different phenomenon from anything I, the US State Department, and the global media has ever encountered before. The world will be a little bit different after this dies down; exactly how so remains to be seen.

I watched as much of the 14-minute trailer as I could stomach, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was absolutely right to call it “disgusting and reprehensible.” The pedophilia, graphic sex, and senseless violence would have been horribly offensive even if it had been about some random guy off the street. Given that it is about the most revered prophet of 1.5 billion people, the making of such a film is inexcusable. But a violent response towards the entire American populace because of the repugnant actions of one individual is equally inexcusable. The people who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi are individual actors who do not represent their society anymore than the man who made this hateful, insulting, and fallacy-filled film. Both acts amount to terrorism – violence (whether of thought or action) by radicals directed towards innocents and fueled by ignorance.

Which, I suppose, is where I come in. My main goal may be to improve English teaching and learning in my region, but an important side-product is the reduction of ignorance about other cultures. I meet many Indonesians who have never spoken to a foreigner before, and, hopefully, they come to realize that we are not all that different. I have a good relationship with my students and colleagues; I think I have shown them that many Americans strive to be respectful towards other religions, and that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula does not represent the typical American opinion. This morning, a colleague and I went to visit local officials to get support for several teacher training groups we are starting. I cringed inwardly every time she said “Miss Tabitha is from the U.S. Embassy,” but the response was unfailingly positive. The recipients of access micro-scholarships, the students of Fulbright English teaching assistants, and the host families of peace corps volunteers are not the people who are out in the street protesting. The “soft-diplomacy” efforts of the State Department – the people-to-people meetings and exchanging of ideas – are more important now than ever. I feel really proud to be here in the world’s most populous Muslim country, doing the job I am doing. And if I can teach a little English on the side, that’s a bonus!

Though it’s always over on the side of this page, I want to especially emphasize now that this website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellow’s own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program, Georgetown University, or the U.S. Department of State.

5 Responses to ““The Muslim World” and an “American film””

  1. Darling Tabbie–we love you with all our hearts and you have been on our minds. You are such a loving smart brave young woman. Please stay safe and keep believing in the power of education. You are a beacon of light. Big kisses from all the Varys


  2. Thank you for your clear, sane explanation of your experiences during this turbulent week.

  3. Excellent piece, Tabitha. Thanks for spreading the word back home.


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