Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: drink - the agent of progress

If you are planning a trip to Indonesia, it might be time to reconsider. According to the BBC the country is being afflicted by serious shortages of booze.

On the shiny tables of the capital's five star hotels, little cards have appeared next to the silver dishes of peanuts, delicately warning guests of an embarrassing lack of alcohol.

Menus at some of the best-known cocktail bars on the tourist island of Bali have shrunk to a single page. And the country's top Japanese restaurants are reported to have run out of sake.

Indonesia is facing a nationwide alcohol shortage. As the bar manager of one international hotel put it: "We'll be dry by the weekend."

It seems there is something of a culture war going on here, albeit under the guise of a crackdown on the black market. "Government officials admit they want to discourage consumption; that they are worried about Indonesians drinking more; that it needs strict regulation." It's the dream of our own domestic "puritans"; but the context is considerably more baleful in Indonesia as it is being driven by genuine religious extremism.

I should stress that I do not regard drink itself as the sole mark of civilisation (unless you mean in the historic sense of stopping hunter gathering to spend time brewing and wine making); I do not think not drinking is itself barbaric and most especially do not think that Muslims who choose not to drink are backward and uncivilised.

However, my caveats do not apply to those with strong religious views who seek to impose them on others. In this instance foreign visitors to Indonesia, bars in Bali (a primarily Hindu island) and businesses may suffer if the zealots have their way. But the BBC piece focuses on one Indonesian Muslim woman, Miranti, as the symbolic heart of the struggle.

She is 34, single, an architect. Like her friends, she knows how to run a business, deal with jet-lag, and how to mix a margarita.

What she does not know is that she is at the heart of a battle being fought here in Jakarta - over alcohol.

Does it seem such an outrageous leap in logic to suggest that a large number of people who object to the consumption of alcohol in Indonesia also object to the existence of educated women, who run their own businesses and remaining unmarried and childless into their thirties? I suspect not and get the strong sense here that allowing the fundamentalists a victory in this little cultural battle will set up more profound conflicts in years to come. Should the more open-minded, urbane variety of Islam, one that permits Miranti and her friends to continue doing what they're doing, win out, it will be better all round.

Personally the only thing I can see to object to about Miranti and her friends is their fondness for chocolate martinis (what an abomination) and the overly close embrace of the glossy, aspirational TV shows about incredibly annoying American women lifestyle. The point is that my trivial objections should carry no more weight than those of the average religious fundamentalist.

Incidentally, if you were planning a trip to Indonesia and this piece has put you off, then you might want to visit southern Sudan instead. They're opening a brewery there; needless to say it is a symbol of freedom from an especially vicious fundamentalist regime.

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