The end of the fasting month and with it Idul Fitri is the time for Muslims to ask for forgiveness from family, friends, colleagues, bosses and even complete strangers. Meeting and greeting each other, they say “Mohon maaf lahir batin” (I beg forgiveness from the depths of my heart and soul, or something like that).
These days those words of asking for forgiveness are also conveyed via technology, through broadcast messages and electronic spam, including from people you barely know but your contact information just happens to be in their smartphone or mailing list.
Some of the more elaborate versions of the greeting are accompanied by Arabic words and poetic verses designed to tug at the heart strings and move you to tears. They wax lyrical about how after a month of struggle, restraining one’s hunger, thirst, passions and emotions, one emerges triumphant and victorious, back to a state of grace and purity, with all sins wiped clean and forgiven.
I personally feel uncomfortable with these messages, greetings and wishes. I think there is a hazard in this use and abuse of the idea of forgiveness. It is easy to forgive those whose wrongs we can’t really recall, but for those whom we harbor genuine ill-feeling and grievances, a few lines of copy-pasted text sent en masse or as an e-mail attachment will hardly mend matters.
Perhaps the words have become mere platitudes through overuse, as meaningless as saying “good morning” when there’s a torrential downpour or “have a nice day” when you don’t care a jot about the person. This is a pity, as to ask and give forgiveness is something not to be trifled with. If to err is human, as they say, to forgive is our attempt to be divine, and this cannot be achieved by reducing the significance of the word to the level of the trite, the banal and the cliche.
Also hazardous is the sense of righteousness and virtue that being forgiven and cleansed of your sins affords, as it makes you morally lax and irresponsible for the long-term consequence of your actions. You needs only go through the annual ritual of the fasting month, pay the obligatory alms and shake hands with a bunch of people at family gatherings and open houses to feel that your sins are thoroughly cleansed and your slate wiped clean, ready for more humanly errs.
How easy life is, and how convenient. Here is a formula to indulge in your human deficiencies and still have instant access to that most comforting of all feelings — that of self-righteousness and of being on the right path. Is it any wonder we cannot get rid of the corruption and moral ineptitude when forgiveness is a passport to moral licentiousness?
In jail for corruption? Start reading the Koran, don a headscarf, be more diligent in your prayers. Soon you will feel absolved of all shame and guilt, because forgiveness is always there for you at the asking to make you feel better and to relieve you of your responsibility.
I am wary of anything that smacks of freebies and hyperbolic promises. Giving somebody my forgiveness and asking for theirs in return just because the season calls for it is ridiculous. As for exchanging messages of congratulations for having triumphed over evil and regained a state of childlike purity and innocence, sounds a lot like wishful thinking. I don’t think you can become a better person just by reciting more prayers and watching religious TV programs for a month. At least not if it only leads to self-righteousness and not self-knowledge.
The knowledge of our weaknesses and imperfections should make us stronger in our resolve to be good, kind and honest, and stronger in our ability to restrain our greed, egos and selfishness. It should not just be an annual ritual for a limited time only, after which life continues as usual, except with increased complacency, greater unscrupulousness and more unfettered greed, as we are freed from our sense of guilt, shame and wrongdoing, having been so expressly forgiven and thoroughly purified.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net.