A Triptych on religio-political Identity in Indonesia

Led by Sarah Anaïs Andrieu (Centre Asie du Sud-Est, Paris)

Political and social involvement are diffracted in a wide series of various activities and ideologies. These start from pre-established schemes such as interfaces between government and people governed through classical institutions (elections, administration, media, etc.) or less classical ones (social networks), up to strongly localized, community or individual processes, such as rituals, traditional performances or religious practices. However, the more and more widespread world experience of relentless neoliberalism, characteristic to this stage of globalization as well as, more recently, the facing of COVID-19 pandemics, concerning humanity as a whole, seem to have two complementary effects. On the one hand, the tendency to homogenization, on the other hand, the strengthening of particularism (national, cultural, ethnic, religious). So that groups, to position themselves on the political scale, call to affinities that are at the same time endogenous (local particularisms) and exogenous (information and data sharing, religious or cause solidarities, international acknowledgments). In doing so, they mean to perform better or, on the contrary, to distinguish themselves and to propose alternatives to common models. In Indonesia, as in other places, and even if they are not always voicing particular revendications,  these alternative strategies often position themselves in the margin and sometimes (not always) in conflict with the mainstream, the right-thinking, and social and political conventions.

Among these elements, I will explore three “alternative” processes: the first one is rooted in West Java and considers the mobilization, by few communities, of the reference to Sundanese cultural heritage and history. These communities are based in urban centers or, on the contrary, in isolated rural regions of West Java. They propose a “Sundanity” (Kasundaan) movement and mean to address the world according to their cultural roots. These communities are linked and organized, either within or totally in the margin of, the national Indonesian discourse through the reference and re-invention of traditions, objects-symbols, ritual and religious practices, the investment of sites of memory, and the polarisation on an original society ideally represented by the Baduy community (Banten province).

The second process addresses New Age movements, with more or less sparse followers, mainly from the Indonesian urban medium class, that come together according to a mystic and esoteric solidarity, nurtured by social media, without necessarily defining official structures or places. These people claim a path oriented toward personal development but with the aim to create and to participate in a better world. New Age in Indonesia proves highly eclectic and mixes elements from monotheism and local mystic references into a holistic spirituality. However, this process is not new and is embedded in history with theosophy and cultural and mystical associations in the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies at the beginning of the 20th century. Besides, the latter became partially, at that time, linked to the nationalist struggle. In 2020, in times of pandemics, more people seem to have become receptive to this kind of discourse, pervasive on social media. New Age also challenges religious categories in Indonesia, which have become rigidified and ubiquitous since the end of the New Order dictatorship (1966-1998).

Finally, the third axis addresses atheism. Atheism is not criminalized in Indonesia but is usually charged as blasphemy (imprisonment) when expressed in public and the Government Regulation in Lieu of Acts (Perpu) No. 2/2017 about Civil organizations (Ormas) banned organizations with atheist perspectives as threats to the national doctrine of Pancasila. Yet, an increasing number of people decide to move away from the six official monotheisms of Indonesia (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), particularly in the urban context. As 99% of Indonesians claim that religion is important, it is essential to address the meaning given to this process and this identity by different agents involved. It is clearly not time to discuss atheism in public in Indonesia, as it still refers to one of the most painful and violent events in Indonesian history, the mass extermination of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members in 1965-1966. In 2020, if atheism seems to be a claim of religious alterity (again in reaction to rigidified religious categories), it often clearly positions itself as an alternative space for political engagement.

This three-part approach will have for main fieldwork the Western part of Java, but these dynamics will also necessarily be questioned in their relation to the Indonesian State and the world processes and discourses (such as neoliberal economy, tourism flows, indigenous rights, pandemic, etc.). Another horizontal perspective must also be studied that addresses common ideals and networks of solidarities between communities.