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The Jakarta Post
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Violence against indigenous religions

  • Izak Lattu

Berkeley | Tue, January 3 2012 | 08:00 am

When human spiritual experience becomes real, the multiplicities of religious practice become naked. It is clear that human beings may encounter varieties of religious understanding toward the Ultimate Reality of the authentic realm of religious experience.

Here, Sunda Wiwitan and other Indonesian indigenous religions have also been facilitating peoples’ beliefs in the Ultimate Concern, God. The indigenous religion, which is rooted in a local belief system, had been in existence in Indonesia long before the Indonesian state had come into being.

Although indigenous faiths such as Sunda Wiwitan, Kejawen and other forms of traditional beliefs represent local ways of addressing the Ultimate Reality, they nonetheless encounter discrimination on a political basis.

As soon as the religion disappeared from the national identification card, Sunda Wiwitan believers cried out against the discrimination.

Having been suppressed, the Sunda Wiwitan community is now longing for freedom of religious expression. Unfortunately, neither the national government nor the local government of Bandung have dealt seriously with the problem.

The removal of Sunda Wiwitan from the national identity form is a mockery of religious diversity in Indonesia, especially given that this nation was founded on the words “unity in diversity”.

This removal is a satire to Indonesian religious life. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has spoken of the use of a nonviolent approach in addressing religious differences.

He said “the diversity of our nation is a wealth that we should be grateful for” (The Jakarta Post, Dec. 9, 2011). The presidential statement on religious diversity and violence is totally different from the public policy practiced on a daily basis.

Yudhoyono’s statement is pivotal in dealing with Indonesia’s diversity of religious beliefs.

For unity in a diverse state like Indonesia, people need the government’s will to manage plurality in a proper way. Supposing the government doesn’t deal with the Sunda Wiwitan problem, it will commit systemic or structural violence against the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Consequently, the government’s inability to provide Sunda Wiwitan with freedom of religious expression represents structural violence against an indigenous religion.

This type of violence takes place when social structures prevent people from meeting their basic needs. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated freedom of religion as a fundamental right. It says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

In a democracy, government is a tool for people to secure their basic needs. Slavoj Zizek has identified that preventing people from meeting their fundamental needs represents systemic violence.

It reveals the hypocrisy of those who, while fighting individual violence, are instead involved in fostering violence on a systemic level (Zizek, 2009: 174). The elimination of indigenous religions from the national identity mirrors systemic violence against the indigenous community. This is another signal of how religious lenience is undermined in Indonesia.

Furthermore, one may argue that indigenous religions, including Sunda Wiwitan, are not really religions. Yet, who dares to define a religion? In the field of religious studies, one might find thousands of arguments on what religion is
all about.

To sum them up, I would like to argue that religion is simply a belief system. Since Sunda Wiwitan believes in the Sang Hyang Kersa, the Ultimate Reality, the indigenous faith is undoubtedly a religion.

God, or the Ultimate Reality, are both infinite, while the human being is finite. For this reason, how can the finite properly understand the mystery of God? Provided one declares that one religion is the only way God reveals faith, then he or she will have already categorized God as the finite.

As Ibn Arabi points out, “it is possible that a single word is a revelation for one person and not a revelation for another person?” (Tavassoli, 2011: 157).

To make it clear, Sunda Wiwitan adherents argue that what they believe is a way to address belief itself. Theirs is a religion for the community.

Simultaneously, time and narrative as well as collective memory leads to different understandings of religious experience.

People who practice world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have a dissimilar perspective of religion than those who practice indigenous religions.

As a result, a grand narrative of world religions has triggered the officer who works at the government office to put indigenous religions such as Sunda Wiwitan into the collective paradigm of world religions.

Accordingly, structural violence against indigenous religion is taking place due to a phobia over indigenous religion. The irrational fear is the result of superiority of world religions.

At this point, the government has been trapped in their pre-eminence. Those who neglect the existence of indigenous religions in the realm of real religion need to overcome the phobia of the religious other.

The Yudhoyono presidency should say “never again” to any form of violence against indigenous religion.

That the President points to the diversity of our nation as our wealth, and says that we should be grateful for this, is excellent.

Yet, Indonesia is still waiting for a concrete policy to fully respect this diversity through bold political action that formally acknowledges the likes of Sunda Wiwitan and other indigenous religions. I do hope that we, as Indonesians, overcome this problem.

The writer is a Fulbright PhD student of Interdisciplinary Studies on Religion, Oral History, and Interfaith Dialogue at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, US.


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