Sacha Stevenson: I speak about Islam because I studied it

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - These days, the YouTube blog of Sacha Stevenson, 32, appears to be somewhat dry. Besides her busy schedule shooting for a film, she has become more selective in what she uploads. Yet two years ago this Canadian wrote a weekly piece full of satirical humor on the ways of Indonesians, like the ubiquitous bureaucrat, the busker with his cellphone, or the way Indonesians use the toilet. All of them the fruits of Sacha's observations since she first came to Indonesia 14 years ago.

    In a video series titled 'How to Act Indonesian' Sacha is not only the director, she is also the actor. One day she is a subdistrict official wearing a hijab who's slow in doing her bureaucratic tasks. Another time, she's a kampung woman clad in a housedress terrified of a man wearing a white gown, threatening her.

    Sacha has developed a fan club. Her YouTubeSacha site once had more than 200,000 followers, although it plunged following last year's presidential election, when she uploaded a video which upset presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's followers.

    A few times Sacha produced video about Muslims in Indonesia, which promptly angered certain groups. Last year, in social media she was assailed as an orientalist who studied Islam just so she can insult that religion. She immediately apologized through her video blog and decided never again to upload video's whose content is linked to religion. She admitted to have been beaten.

    On Tuesday last week, Sacha was interviewed by Tempo reporters Isma Savitri and Firman Atmakusuma at her home in South Jakarta. Sacha speaks fluent Indonesian, claiming to have learnt it from reading children's books and listening to the songs of folk singer Iwan Fals. She is married to Bandung resident, Angga Prasetya, and was once fanatical about being a Muslim, having studied Islamic Studies at the American Open University and for two years tried to study Arabic at the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies. "I see so much hypocrisy here and there," she says. Excerpts of the interview:

    Your videos are critical but packaged with humor, incurring the ire of some people and attacking you in social media.

    There will always be people who don't like our thinking and our deeds. Whether one is critical or not, there will always be the haters. But life is too short to bother about it. If they like it, fine but if they hate it, well go ahead.

    Did those haters cause you to be more careful with your videos?

    I never want to do anything that has to do with religion, because this is a very sensitive subject and then there's the blasphemy law. Maybe there are people among them who will sue me. So I thought, it's just too dangerous. I'm actually a strange person, and that's why other people don't understand what I mean. I'm not sure whether they don't understand me or whether I'm not saying things clearly.

    Do you see such incidents as misunderstandings or what?

    Yes. Sometimes, waking up, I check people's comments on YouTube about my video. I think to myself, "Wow, their comments are deep (laughing)…" In the end, I decided to stay far away from religious issues.

    Do you feel disappointed at how your humor is taken?

    It's odd, given that I took Islamic studies at the American Open University, I feel close to and know about Islam compared to many people. I keep books on the hadis, the book by Shahih Bukhori and others on truly authentic Islam. I also studied Arabic for two years at LIPIA, the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences. So, I figure I have the right to speak about what I studied. I dare to speak out because I studied it and because I see hypocrisy around me.

    What kind of hypocrisy?

    There are those who say Allahu Akbar (God is Great) but in their drawers they secretly keep adult magazines.

    Because of your criticism of Islam, many compare you to Edward Said.

    Oh, that's too much! Orientalist! (Laughing.) My husband knows about it but he doesn't know what an orientalist is. But I know because I did study about Islam.

    Why did you take up Islam?

    In 2002 I went on a trip to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra with my then-boyfriend. He refused to share a bed with me and chose instead to sleep on the floor. We were unlikely to get another room because of our limited money. After that he become good about doing his prayers and that I, as his partner, felt upset about it. Strangely, some local person told my boyfriend, "Don't share a room with that bule or you'll go to hell…"

    Such men, all they do is sit around a mosque and preach. At times they would go for three days of a month on the tablig without leaving any money behind for their wives, who probably have five or six kids. They say, "Allah will give." Many of those wives come to me and beg for rice. So I asked myself: is this Islam?

    Did incidents like that make you doubt Islam?

    By chance, an Australian friend who converted had many books on Islam in English, including the book on Fikus Sunah. From those books I got the different perceptions on Islam. Clearly, Islam is not bad. I thought, perhaps I can make my own Islam. Perhaps Islam needs me and my open mind. Every time I read a book, I seem to be hearing dramatic music, like in the movies (laughing). (*)

    Read the full interview in this week's edition of  Tempo English Magazine