By Suci Haryati
Many people would argue that football is as much a spiritual experience as it is a physical activity. As the World Cup and other regional league and club games have shown, it has the ability to move people – both in positive and negative ways. It can be seen as positive in that it brings people of various backgrounds together through a shared activity, negative in that fanaticism among its followers can lead to outbursts of violence. One may even claim in jest that football is a religion.
The Muslim world has a huge football fan base. The sport has permeated local cultures, academic inquiries, art forms, politics and even religion itself. Indonesia is one example of the latter.
Arguably the most extreme example of the mixing of football and religion in Indonesia is the fireball game. The game involves using a coconut shell, which is set ablaze and used as the football. It is played in the Yogyakarta, Bogor, Tasikmalaya and Papua regions of Indonesia, usually to celebrate the coming month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast. The pre-game rituals are just as important for the players as the game itself. Players follow special rituals that supposedly make them impervious to fire, including daytime fasting for 21 days before the match, reciting special prayers, avoiding foods cooked with fire and those containing elements of life (eggs and meat) and fasting for 24 hours without sleep.
Given its importance in the country, football has the potential to demonstrate to Muslims in Indonesia – a country currently troubled by religious radicalism and extremism – that working together to achieve common goals is better than resorting to violence. Challenging radical and extreme ideologies is important, especially in the places where they are most likely to generate and spread.
One place where football is bringing people together and challenging extremism is in Indonesian prisons – one of the ideological battlegrounds in Indonesia where convicted terrorists are actively spreading their ideology. Indonesian authorities readily admit that they are having difficulties stopping radical teachings from spreading in prisons. Generally, prison inmates already embrace opposition-based, rather than collaborative, solutions to conflicts caused by differences – making them vulnerable to ideologies that legitimise and encourage radicalism.
For these reasons, the international conflict transformation organisation Search for Common Ground (SFCG), in consultation with the Indonesian Corrections Department, is producing a television mini-series called Tim Bui (The Prison Team), which is set in a fictional Indonesian prison and encourages viewers to consider new ways of resolving conflict in their daily lives.
Tim Bui tells a story about life in prison. The main plot of each episode revolves around two prison guards who have different approaches to various conflicts, including ethnic and religious ones. These problems exist in daily life because of misunderstandings, existing stereotypes and misinformation between people of different backgrounds. The hero of the show, one of the prison guards, adopts football to demonstrate a new model of cooperative behaviour. The show also tackles issues like institutional reform, corruption and gender equality.
The director of the series, Sugeng Wahyudi, from SFCG’s local production partner, SET, said “Football is a medium to achieve a purpose, a common goal and unity. Football is one-third luck, one-third skill and one-third friendship.” Executive Producer Garin Nugroho said that “A drama series set in a prison is interesting, considering prisons are generally considered a melting pot of various undemocratic values. This series presents values that are important to viewers, especially those in conflict areas, [and] particularly emotions tied to group identity, how to channel aggression, etc.”
Tim Bui is part of SFCG’s multi-nation, award-winning, episodic drama The Team, which has merged the global appeal of football with soap opera to help transform social attitudes and diminish violent behaviour in countries grappling with deep-rooted conflict. Each production follows characters on a football team who must overcome their differences – be they cultural, ethnic, religious, tribal, racial or socioeconomic – in order to work together to win the game. The latest countries where The Team has been produced are Angola, Nepal, Pakistan (where the sport depicted is cricket), Zimbabwe and soon Indonesia.
The preliminary feedback from prison authorities who were consulted in the production of Tim Bui was generally positive. If this series is as successful as its counterparts in other countries, then Tim Bui will become another positive force to be reckoned with – and one that challenges the purveyors of radical ideologies.
Suci Haryati is a senior program officer with the international conflict-transformation organisation Search for Common Ground’s Indonesia programme.