Indigenous-Belief Society’s Dilemma in Indonesia
Despite the Indonesian Government's official recognition towards the religious rights of indigenous religious societies, they are still facing some possibilities of discrimination and marginalization in their daily life. This article reveals the societies' experiences of unfair treatments both from education authorities and public in Indonesia
Story by Fanny Syariful Alam and Nanda Shelly Susanti . Edited by Izzy Bauman
Published on January 29, 2023. Reading time: 6 minutes
I used to see indigenous belief society as a mystical group. I saw their rituals of using flowers and incense and reciting mantras as a form of witchcraft. They commemorated important days with traditional dances and performances, leading me to think that they were not a part of religion, but instead, purely an Indonesian cultural tradition that would be passed onto future generations.
My journey with interfaith communities started in 2013, when I was participating in BALAD (Bandung Lautan Damai), an open-space event on the street promoting tolerance. I started talking not only to the officially-recognized religious communities in Indonesia but also to the people representing the indigenous-belief society group named ‘Perjalanan’ (The Journey).
I developed my knowledge and experience about indigenous belief society when my friends and I organized the Bandung School of Peace Indonesia, a youth community with a series of regular classes on religions, gender and sexuality, and politics and democracy. In 2019, I invited members of the Perjalanan community to our class to discuss their experiences and explain various misunderstandings about local beliefs. Their practice is supported by long-standing traditions and sacred scriptures used in religious worship.
Although sessions such as this one expanded our understanding of their religion, I worry that widespread misconceptions about indigenous beliefs societies, including my previous one, might lead to worse discrimination than they already face. Such discrimination even comes from the government. For example, since 1965 the Indonesian government settled the Law named PNPS 1/1965, enlisting the State officially-recognized religions in Indonesia, such as Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Indigenous beliefs or later called Indonesian indigenous religions were not accommodated in this law since they were not categorized as a religion due to not having a holy book, formal followers/congregations, and a prophet, according to what the Ministry of Religions Affairs had established in 1962. This law made people with indigenous beliefs unable to be officially recognized with government documentation. The registration of ID cards, schools, and other civilian documents in Indonesia requires writing the registrants’ religious identities, so they had to convert to one of the official religions to be accommodated by the government.
The story of someone with indigenous belief
I felt relieved when, in 2017, the Constitutional Court eventually determined that indigenous religious people could be recognized officially on their ID cards. However, this does not mean that the public will change their perception about these communities. My friend, Nanda Shelly Susanti, a member of our youth community who is also part of the indigenous-belief society based on the teaching of Mama Mei Kartawinata, noted that her religious identity on her ID card was still marked ‘-‘ since it was printed before the local authorities recognized indigenous belief as an official religion. In high school, her teacher of religion forced her to choose to study an officially-recognized religion since the subject of indigenous religions was not listed in the curriculum. Due to her unfamiliarity with a new religion, she was given lower grades on her tests. She added that many highly educated authorities in her school labeled her a heretic, making her feel hurt and embarrassed. She was also sure that many local belief societies in Indonesia have had similar experiences. In her mind, schools should create safe spaces for students from different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, including religion and belief. Her perspective opened my eyes to the unfair treatment of indigenous religious students in schools, and I hope that her vision of a safe space in education will one day be realized.
What comes after the State’s official recognition?
Despite the State’s official recognition of the indigenous belief society’s religious rights in 2017, Nanda expects that open discrimination will still occur. However, she has been able to transform her bad experience into a lesson – it made her stronger and encouraged her to share her perspective with her peers and the public. She feels it is her responsibility to reduce the existing stigma towards local belief society.
Indonesia’s constitution UUD 1945, and Law 12/2005 ratify International Civil and Political Rights. Both ensure that the State secures Indonesians’ religious rights without any violations under any circumstances. My indigenous-belief friend, Kang Bonie, who is a part of the civil servants in the Agency of Social Protection, is insistent that public officials’ impartiality is important to maintain interfaith tolerance and harmony, even if it relates to the protection of religious minorities. He added that they should act as a role model to practice tolerance and harmony in order to eliminate stigma and discrimination of indigenous-belief societies.
If I had never met Nanda, and Kang Bonie, I would have maintained the perception that indigenous beliefs are heretical, as so many others do. We are different in terms of religions and beliefs, yet, we are all Indonesians with the same religious and beliefs rights under the law. I am proud of working with them – every day I am reminded that Indonesia is a country filled with diversity. Despite ongoing conflict, I still believe in a brighter future for indigenous-belief societies, and thoroughly support their mission to achieve harmonious conditions based on justice and equality for all religious people in Indonesia.
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