June 20th 2015

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COVER STORY Is 'same-sex marriage' a square peg in a round hole?

CANBERRA OBSERVED Rudd, Gillard squabble over slim enough legacy

HUMAN RIGHTS Conscience may be free, but its exercise ... ?

SOCIETY Children of same-sex households have a say

EDITORIAL No need for alarm over new anti-terror laws

CHILD SEX ABUSE Cardinal Pell: the bishop the media love to hate

HISTORY The diverse character of Indonesian religion

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Greece and EU stare into abyss of debt, austerity

HISTORY World War II and the origins of American unease

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Joan Kirner's legacy: VCE, Emily's List and abortion

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China's sandcastles give its neighbours the jitters

PUBLIC HEALTH Case for legalising cannabis up in smoke

CINEMA Dystopia gives way to a little hope: Tomorrowland

BOOK REVIEW Rumours of peace

BOOK REVIEW The banality of Eichmann

PAPAL ENCYCLICAL Pope Francis reminds us to care for our common home

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The diverse character of Indonesian religion

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, June 20, 2015

Indonesia is a nation of remarkable religious diversity, yet the constitution declares that everyone must worship one god. And everyone must belong to one of the six official religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. One cannot be an atheist or an agnostic or any other religion, though it is possible to leave the “religion” section on one’s identity card blank.

Two characters from the

wayang kulit, or shadow play.

Belief in one god is the first tenet of Pancasila, the document on which Indonesia governance is based. But whatever the constitution may require, Indonesians believe in hundreds of religions.

Behind the numbers

It is often said that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world. According to the 2010 census,
87 per cent of Indonesians are Muslims, from a total population of 255 million. This is not strictly correct. One cannot be a declared atheist or agnostic. And most are nominal Muslims, who attend prayers at the mosque rarely, if at all.

When speaking of Indonesia, we must establish one fact first. The population of Indonesia is 255 million, making it the world’s fourth most populous nation. But within Indonesia, the island of Java accounts for 58 per cent of Indonesia’s total population, making it the most populous island in the world. The Javanese, properly so called, rule Indonesia. The policy of transmigrasi (internal migration), introduced by the Dutch, has spread people from Java throughout the Indonesian Archipelago.

The idea is to spread people from overpopulated areas to areas that are less crowded. The government of the Republic of Indonesia continued the policy. One can thus encounter people from Java with Javanese beliefs all over Indonesia’s outer islands.

So, when we look at the role of religion in Indonesia, we must look at the role of religion in Java first.

Islam in Indonesia is different to Islam elsewhere, especially the Middle East, because of the manner in which Islam came to Indonesia. Islam was established not by conquest but by missionaries and traders from Gujarat, on India’s west coast near Mumbai.

The founders of Islam in Indonesia are recognised as the Wali Songo (the “Nine Saints”.) Islam adapted easily to Indo­nesian culture by using such things as the wayang kulit (shadow play) to proselytise. This process of adaptation, known as syncretism (the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs, while melding practices of various schools of thought), is characteristic of Indonesian, particularly Javanese, culture and religion. Shrines to the Wali Songo can be found in Kudus and Demak on the north coast of Java.

Most so-called Indonesian “Muslims”, particularly in Central and Eastern Java, could be described as nominal Muslims. They are believers in the kebatinan, the “inner light”. The kebatinan is a traditional Javanese belief system based on an amalgam of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Traditional Javanese art forms, such as the wayang kulit mentioned above (shadow play), the wayang wong (stage play) and the wayang golek (marionettes) are not only a form of entertainment but also a means of spreading news, ideas and of making political commentary.

The puppeteer in the wayang kulit is known as the dalang. The word kulit is derived from the Javanese word for “skin” because the puppets are made from buffalo skin. As the dalang flashes the puppets across the screen, it gives the impression of spirits coming and going. The dalang goes into a trance and the performance can last all night. (By the way, a kulit putih is a white-skinned person, or European.)

The majority of Javanese are abangan – the “red ones”. They believe in the traditional mix of religions charac­teristic of rural Java. American anthropo­logist Clifford Geertz divided the population of Java into the abangan, the priyayi (the native nobles) and the santri (the strictest Muslims). These are not strict divisions. For example, I was once out in the middle of a jati (teak) forest. It came time for prayers. My Indonesian host said: “Everyone is praying now.” My companion, who was from Sydney, said: “That man is riding a bicycle. Is he praying?” My Indonesian host said: “Yes, he is praying in his head.”

The religion of Java evolved from the rice culture described in Geertz’s influential book, Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (University of California Press, Oakland, 1963). The wayang is associated with the cycle of the agricultural year. Harvest time, for example, is a favourite time for performances of the wayang kulit. If the wayang kulit goes all night, one can sleep next day. The wayang is often given for a special occasion, such as a wedding.

The public sphere

President Suharto was known in some political circles as the dalang (puppet master). From the time he took power in 1966 until the collapse of the New Order over 30 years later in 1998, he skilfully manipulated Indonesian politics. Suharto was profoundly influenced by a dukun, with whom he studied. A dukun is akin to a shaman and is a faith healer and master of the mystical arts. While he was widely regarded as a follower of the kebatinan, he and his wife, known as Bu Tien, undertook the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca in 1991. All Muslims must make the Hajj to Mecca if it is within their means to do so. Suharto did not usually use the title “Haji” as do most believers who have made the Hajj and Haji was not part of his official name.

Suharto was from Central Java, near Jogjakarta, the heartland of Javanese culture. He rose through the ranks of the Diponegoro Division of the army, which is raised in Central Java.

The importance of religion in Indonesian life was demonstrated in the coup of 1965. Sparked by the massacre of the generals in the notorious Crocodile Hole, the savage reaction to the coup consumed some 500,000 souls. Suharto, the survivor, rallied the army. The PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) was wiped out. Scholars have interpreted the purge of the PKI as part of a reaction against the abangan. The tripod supporting Sukarno were the army, the PKI and the Muslims. The coup sounded the death knell of the Sukarno regime and made way for the establishment of Suharto’s New Order.

Many tales are told of the wayang kulit puppets being torched then screaming and jumping into the air.

Suharto was known to be a follower of the mystical elements of Javanese culture, but he became wary of any organised form of adat, or traditional beliefs, following the elimination of the PKI.

At that time, Chinese practice of religion was repressed. Confucianism, after all, is not strictly a religion. Even so, temples such as that in Semarang, the main port on the north coast of central Java, remained places of devotion for the Chinese. Many Chinese embraced Christianity, but the Chinese have always been very adaptable when it comes to religion.

Suharto had a simple deal with the Chinese: you run the economy, but stay out of politics. This meant that the Chinese, who compose no more than 3 per cent of the population of Indonesia, controlled the economy for as long as Suharto allowed them to.

Catholicism and Protestantism have been prominent in Indonesia for many years. The Dutch East India Company (VOC), which governed Indonesia for centuries, did not encourage missionaries because the VOC thought missionaries would cause trouble. After the VOC became defunct on December 31, 1799, Catholic missionaries became active. They were building on the mission of St Francis Xavier to the Molucca Islands from 1534–37, when he baptised thousands of converts. Dutch missionaries of Calvinist and Lutheran persuasion also became active then.

Newly elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, was formerly Mayor of Surakarta, better known as Solo. While Mayor, Jokowi made many reforms, including establishing Solo as the “Spirit of Java”. Solo is a traditional city, famous for its batik. The annual Solo Batik Carnival is held in June.

Solo has also become the hub for Muslim radicalism in recent years. In September 2011, a suicide bomber attacked an evangelical Christian church in Solo, killing one congregant and wounding 27 others. This blatant terrorism, which aimed to maim rather than kill, shocked the nation.

Other incidents have occurred on islands where long-standing religious differences exist, such as Ambon. Around half the people of Ambon are Christian. The men of Ambon were mercenaries for the Dutch, filling a role similar to the Ghurkas for the British.

Islam is politically influential, but it tends towards moderate policies. The two mass Muslim parties, both moderate in their politics, are Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. This not to say all Muslims are moderate. Radical preachers are gaining in influence. While Indonesian religions tend towards syncretism, they are not always tolerant. In recent years, however, terrorist incidents have been rare. Policies to ban alcohol and make it equivalent to potent drugs are rarely taken seriously.

Indonesians will readily tell you that most Javanese Muslims are Muslim statistik – in other words, statistical Muslims. Indonesian Christians are genuinely shocked to learn that most Australians are similarly Kristen statistik.

Indonesia is a huge country in both population and extent, and the practice of religion is diverse, too. Assuming that Indonesia is like, say, Saudi Arabia is very wrong. Most Indonesia people are very interested in other peoples and their religions. If you start talking to someone in a bus, for example, about the weather, they are likely to be puzzled; but if you begin talking about religion, they would be interested in carrying on a conversation.

The tolerance of the Indonesians extends a long way. The fact that And­rew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran sought spiritual guidance and comfort from a Catholic priest before their executions was natural and commendable to the Indonesians. Indeed, it would have been regarded as strange if they had sought no comfort at all.

In recent years, some inflexibility has grown, but Indonesian religions still reflect Indonesia’s national motto: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

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Last Modified:
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