Endangered Indonesia: Can this unique Islamic culture survive an era of absolutism?

My host paused with his hand on the lid as we stood before the long wooden box. “Are you ready,” he asked, “to see the ‘shawl’ of Mbah Jarik?” What awaited me in that container was a glimpse of Indonesia’s ancient Muslim traditions—traditions that are syncretistic, animist-tinged, tolerant of other faiths and very much under attack today by puritanically minded Islamists.

Mbah Jarik (the name means “Grandma Sarong” in Javanese) is the penunggu (literally the “watchman” or, more generally, the “resident guardian spirit”) of a neighborhood called Kampong Candi Badut in the east Javanese city of Malang. The “shawl,” I knew, was an animal that had been captured in the woods on the edge of the kampong: an area known for its freshwater spring, steep forested ravine, thick bamboo groves and numerous snakes that emerge at night to hunt for prey.

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I nodded in response to my host’s invitation, and he removed the box’s lid. Coiled inside lay a 10-foot-long python. My guide expressed enthusiasm over its color, rippling waves of white, black and chocolate brown. “Like the patterns on a shawl,” he explained.

As we spoke, the snake suddenly opened its eyes. This was one garment that was very much alive.

Ular ini, I was told, adalah hewan peliharaan Mbah Jarik: This snake is Mbah Jarik’s pet. Villagers bring this python offerings of fresh flowers and chickens—the flowers to honor the roh or resident spirit with which the animal is associated (the spirits are nourished as they inhale the flowers’ pleasing fragrance), the meat to satisfy the snake’s more substantive appetites.

Several villagers told me of dreams in which they saw Mbah Jarik “wearing her shawl,” appearing to the dreamer with a python draped about her neck. They explained to me that penunggu-penunggu (guardian spirits) like Mbah Jarik typically take up residence in local trees (often banyans) and will protect the locality’s human community as long as humans show her honor by doing no unnecessary violence to the kampong’s river, vegetation or wildlife. (When I asked about the propriety of caging a snake, I was told Mbah Jarik would cause it to escape back into the jungle if it were not treated respectfully.)

Pak Warto, the python’s keeper, is also the orang ketua or headman of Kampong Candi Badut. The neighborhood’s population is almost entirely Muslim; but the locality’s most famous monument, Candi Badut, is an eighth-century Hindu temple. Still visible as one tours the site are the remains of statuary, like a multi-armed figure of the warrior goddess Durga.

What I found especially intriguing about this site is that it is still very much in use by the Muslims of the local kampong. Pak Warto, the village headman, python-minder and intermediary between the communities of humans and nature-spirits, visits this temple to make offerings whenever a moment of crisis arises in the kampong. As a local Javanese Catholic priest explained to me when we toured the site together, “These villagers know that over a thousand years ago, holy people lived and prayed here and left a lingering influence that makes this a special, sacred place.”

Islamic Defenders

To this day, pre-Islamic temples and sacred forests throughout east Java attract worshippers of many faiths. At such sites I have met Javanese Catholics, Hindus and Muslims. Villagers pray before certain trees, where indwelling spirits expedite their petitions to God.

But folk customs like these have drawn the anger of the Front Pembela Islam, the Islamic Defenders Front, also known by its Indonesian acronym F.P.I. Militants affiliated with the Defenders Front have launched campaigns of intimidation—raiding villages at night, cutting down trees associated with penunggu veneration and denouncing worshippers as kafir (infidels) and musyrik (polytheists).

These tactics are characteristic of the F.P.I., which began in 1998, as President Suharto’s dictatorial regime disintegrated and Indonesia’s emergent democracy opened up space for long-suppressed Islamist movements. The F.P.I.’s website announces the group’s purpose: Pelayan ummat dan pembela agama—“service to the community of believers and defense of the faith.” A flashing headline reads, “Allah is our goal; Muhammad is our model; the Quran is our guiding text”—echoing Article 5 of the Covenant of Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian group that grew out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The F.P.I.’s mission statement concludes, “Jihad is our path of struggle; a martyr’s death is our hope.”

For the Islamic Defenders Front, jihad entails a campaign to Islamicize Indonesian society. The group first gained national attention for its vigilante attacks on nightclub customers, prostitutes and bancis (transgender people). It won further notoriety by protesting a concert by Lady Gaga. Indonesian fans had purchased over 50,000 advance tickets for a performance in Jakarta scheduled for June 2012, but threats of violence by F.P.I. leaders led her to cancel the show. F.P.I. members thronged the capital’s streets with signs reading, “Allah, protect me from the temptation of Satan Gaga, the accursed!”

The F.P.I. casts a wide net. Its members also engage in violence against adherents of the Ahmadiyah, a sect widely loathed in Muslim countries for its belief that prophecy did not end with the death of Muhammad. F.P.I. militants frequently target Christian churches (sometimes setting them afire) and warn of the nation’s imminent “Christianization.” In 2011 F.P.I. members were sentenced to jail terms of only a few months after being convicted of stabbing a pastor of the Batak Protestant Church and assaulting worshippers at an outdoor prayer service in West Java.

But the F.P.I. is not the only Islamist organization active in Indonesia.

On a recent visit I stopped by the Javanese village of Tenggulun and the grave of Amrozi Nurhasyim. A member of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, Amrozi (along with his brother Ali Gufron) was executed for his role in the nightclub bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 tourists and Indonesians. Friends had told me Amrozi’s grave has become a pilgrimage site for Islamists; and in fact a number of young Muslim men thronged the burial ground when I was there.

Free From ‘Foreign’ Influence

One of the young men proved to be Amrozi’s nephew. Conversation with him led to an invitation to visit his family’s home. There I met two of the Bali bombers’ older brothers, Ja‘far al-Shadiq and Hajji Muhammad Chozin. The two brothers are influential in Tenggulun and the surrounding region: besides being Hajj-guides (who lead groups of Indonesian pilgrims annually to Mecca), they also are senior instructors at a local pesantren (Islamic boarding school).

I spoke for hours with Hajji Muhammad during a hot, waterless afternoon during Ramadan. He identified himself explicitly as a Wahhabi, claiming proudly that Wahhabism is the only form of Islam that is “free of any influence from culture” and that comes directly from the seventh-century prophet of Islam himself. (He did not mention that Wahhabism has its own cultural context and historical moment of origin, a moment that came well after the time of the prophet Muhammad: the mid-18th century, when the reformer Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab began preaching in central Arabia.)

Hajji Muhammad Chozin condemned the folk Islam I had been investigating (with its tree-spirits and sacred snakes) because of what he called its “contamination” by Javanese culture—by pre-Islamic Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. Contamination like this, he complained, taints all too many Muslim practices in Java.

Unsure of what kind of response I would get, I asked his opinion of the Bali bombing, for which his two younger brothers had been executed. He not only admitted their responsibility and leadership roles in this act of terrorism, but expressed pride in their actions.

Asked how, as an Islamic scholar and educator, he could justify such violence, he cited the Quranic phrase al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa-al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (“the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice,” a phrase that is also used in Pakistan and Afghanistan by Taliban apologists). The phrase recurs frequently in Islamic scripture, sometimes in the context of God’s granting believers permission to engage in combat after they have experienced persecution and the rejection of their message.

Hajji Muhammad emphasized that the “prevention of vice” should be accomplished peacefully, if at all possible; violence is only a last resort, in the case of repeated rejections of Allah’s message, which led him to the 2002 Bali bombings engineered by his younger brothers. The nightclubs targeted in these blasts were sinkholes of vice, and their proprietors had disregarded all warnings, all preachings.

And what precisely, I asked, had the disco-dancers been guilty of?

Mereka berpesta, he replied promptly: “They were partying.” Such actions, he explained, violated Shariah law and Islamic scripture, which explicitly condemn frivolous behavior.

Accompanying me on this visit was a good friend, a young Javanese Muslim who managed to maintain his courtesy and deference to Hajji Muhammad throughout our interview. But as soon as we left, my friend voiced his bitterness at how this Islamist ideology threatens to destroy the traditional Java he loves.

Overshadowing Indonesia’s Islamist politics in recent months has been the violent success of the Islamic State. In August 2014 members of Jakarta’s National Counterterrorism Agency met to discuss what local Indonesian news sources described as “the growing domestic support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Fighting for the Islamic State

Dozens of young Indonesian Muslims already have gone to Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. In July, as reported by The Jakarta Post, some 500 adherents of a Javanese group called Ansharul Khilafah (“those who help bring about the caliphate’s victory”) gathered in Malang to pledge their bay‘at (oath of allegiance) to the self-proclaimed the Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Mainstream Islamic organizations in Indonesia have condemned the Islamic State. But the response by the Islamic Defenders Front—whose members I encountered in east Java—has been more ambivalent.

In August 2014 its Indonesian-language website issued a “proclamation concerning ISIS.” Without ever explicitly criticizing the Islamic State, the F.P.I. deplored “all forms of sectarian warfare and violence among fellow Muslims caused by differences in denominational identity” as well as “the killing or oppression of non-combatant civilians”—atrocities for which the Islamic State has become notorious.

But the difference between the Islamic State and Indonesia’s F.P.I. seems tactical rather than ideological. In a “me too” tone that suggests anxiety about losing popularity to a fellow Islamist group, the Islamic Defenders’ website reminds readers that “the F.P.I. remains committed to the struggle to establish Islamic Shariah law in the most comprehensive way in Indonesia” and that it also “remains committed to encouraging all Islamic jihad movements throughout the world in resisting all forms of tyranny imposed by the Global Hegemony/New Imperialism, in order to form a worldwide Islamic caliphate in accordance with the exemplary lifestyle of the Prophet” Muhammad.

The website’s final suggestion is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State troops join with Aiman al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda militants in order to “become united and act as brothers, in concert with all Muslim holy warriors throughout the world.” The F.P.I.’s activities to date—burning churches, stabbing pastors, persecuting minorities, imposing a Shariah-minded notion of public morals—offer a taste of what caliphate life would be like in Indonesia.

Given this situation, Indonesia is fortunate in having elected as its new president Joko Widodo, a man who already has demonstrated a commitment to religious pluralism and communal harmony. He will have his work cut out for him.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
michael baland
3 years 2 months ago
Indeed he does have his work cut out for him. During the month preceding his inauguration, laws were passed ensuring that never again will a mayor or governor be chosen through direct elections. Widodo is the first President of Indonesia to come from a peasant background and not from the military or the social elite. These new laws are to ensure he is also the last.

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