Can't Handle the Truth

Sorry, Gadjah Mada Wasn't Muslim: Internet Hoaxers Try to Rewrite History

Welcome to another installment of "Can't Handle the Truth."

by Ardyan M. Erlangga
18 June 2017, 8:30am

Illustration by Ilham Kurniawan

Welcome to Can't Handle the Truth , VICE Indonesia's summary of the most popular and most talked about hoaxes and fake news circulating this week.

Good news! This week there weren't as many hoaxes in my Facebook feed or WhatsApp groups. Does this mean that people are on their best behavior during the holy month of Ramadan?

Usually, this column starts with five to six of the most popular hoaxes in Indonesia. Then I narrow it down to three or so and wrap the whole thing up. But this week, I almost had to publish an apology because there just weren't that many hoaxes. Turns out I was too quick to give up.

Habib Rizieq Shihab's escape to Saudi Arabia more than a month ago has been fertile grounds for fake news stories. But, honestly, I'm getting a bit tired of this story. If you want to go a bit insane just type "chat mesum hoax" into Google and try not to fall down the "this is a hoax, that is a hoax," rabbit hole. Both Rizieq's supporters and his haters are equally prone to falling for fake stories, and neither side seems willing to back down. It's just hoax vs hoax vs hoax. What happened to the truth?

I guess I should thank Rizieq for the never-ending inspiration here. Last week, I asked him to just come home already. But since that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon, I guess staying abroad is just as good. At least it keeps me busy.

But anyway, this week's two top hoaxes have nothing to do with sex scandals, Saudi Arabia, or Rizieq. So here we go:

The government wants to take religion out of schools

Well, this isn't exactly a hoax. The idea was taken from a statement released by Culture and Education Minister Muhadjir Effendi after a meeting with the House of Representatives' education commission last week. The minister was explaining the concept of a five-day school week, since, you know, Indonesian kinds need to go to class on Saturdays too. Sucks right?

The minister wanted to limit school hours to working hours to make life easier for parents. But doing that isn't without consequence. The school said that in order to ensure the children receive proper a religious education as well, teachers will need to take students to houses of worship or bring religious experts into the school.

So if students get their religious education outside of school, it's very likely they won't need to also take religion class in school. But "very likely" and "completely erasing" are totally different things. Not that domestic media cares. So in a matter of hours, the minister went from saying "students could receive religious educations outside the school too" to "the government is going to erase Islamic classes!"

The internet quickly went nuts. "If the government wants to erase Islamic class, then I support the military (TNI) taking over the government," one guy wrote on Twitter. That's a bit extreme. "Might as well delete the first line of the Pancasila," another wrote.

The ministry released a clarification, "there are no attempts to erase religious eduction in the ministry's agenda," ministry spokesman Arie Santoso told VICE Indonesia in a written statement. Instead, the ministry was proposing an intensification of religious studies, with national schools following the example set in Siak, a district where students study until noon and then read the Quran with a local ustaz while eating lunch provided by the state.

"It's the opposite," the spokesman said. "We feel so far that religious education is not sufficient. So we'll intensify it with extracurricular activities."

So to our secular readers, take this as a lesson not to get your hopes up.

Gadjah Mada was a Muslim

Oh God, where do I even begin? I guess just type "Gaj Ahmada" into Google and take a quick look at the most amusing hoax of the week. So here is how this historical hoax goes: Gadjah Mada, the most-trusted person in King Majapahit's Hindu-Buddhist empire and an important figure in Indonesian history, was Muslim. And his real name was Gaj Ahmada, not Gadjah Mada. Ugh, who writes this bullshit?

Word on the street, or the internet I guess, points to some articles published on dodgy blogs that mentions the Institute of Wisdom and Public Policy of the Muhammadiyah's Yogyakarta chapter as the source.

Thankfully, the Nahdlatul Ulama's Muslim Artists Group (Lesbumi) was kind enough to find the real source of this hoax: Herman Sinung Janutama, an "expert" in Javanese culture.

I, personally, like people like Herman and other experts on Javanese culture. But this Gaj Ahmada hoax is nothing new. It's been around since at least 2010 as part of a long list of pseudoscience and conspiracies about Javanese history that were making the rounds. There are a million of these things. That Java is actually the lost city of Atlantis. Or that Borobudur was actually built by King Solomon. That Sleman was actually named after Sulaiman.

Maybe this pseudoscience madness (we call it cocoklogi) is a way to over-compensate for our insecurity about Indonesia's standing in the world. A friend of mine was once asked while studying in the US what, exactly, Southeast Asia contributed to the rest of the world. It's questions like that that often leave us searching for some sort of proof of the worth of the Javanese people. (Sorry to the rest of the nation, for some reason these conspiracy theorists don't care as much about your old kingdoms).

They ask, "why did Java peak so long ago?" Maybe it had something to do with the Dutch? But instead of just moving on, these so-called scholars dismiss entire libraries of archeological and historical research and just rewrite history to their own liking.

But Lesbumi had a pretty smart rebuttal. If you're all doing this to make Java seem more important than they think it is, then why do these stories undermine the achievements of your own people?

"If the Borobudur was made by Sulaiman and Majapahit was built by Arabs of the same lineage as the Prophet Muhammad, we could conclude that Indonesian pribumi were primitive people who were not civilized and cultured," Lesbumi said in a Facebook post. "How could we say that Indonesia is a great nation when they couldn't build their own temples and had to wait for the Bani Israels?"

Personally, I think it's a waste of time to get mad at these conspiracy theorists. Instead, I am pissed at the mainstream media here who thinks nothing of spreading this bullshit without a second glance. These fake experts run their mouths and these ideas are reprinted in newspapers with no criticism whatsoever. And they write books that are just published and sold at book stores throughout the nation. Doesn't anyone else see how dangerous this all is?

It's like someone asked, what's the point of reading or having a fast internet connection? "To read fake history on the Majapahit and spread fake news around, of course!"

fake news