It's Hindu New Year, the thrid of five New Year celebrations in Indonesia, and Bali is shutting down tomorrow for the Day of Silence. All electricity is shut off, no one leaves the house, there are ogoh-ogoh everywhere and fruit offerings in front of houses to placate the jin. The airport stops operating this evening and basically the entire island slips back a few centuries for 24 hours. Roads were being shut down for cleansing/blessing ceremonies as we left the hotel en route to the airport. Even the TeeVee networks interrupted their schedules to broadcast Hindu prayers at noon.
If I take anything away from this trip to Bali and the Disney-fication of Southeast Asia, it is the stark lines of demarcation of religion in Indonesia. It is a rather interesting case, perhaps somewhat analogous to the Bible Belt in the US, where joyless Baptists hold sway over social and political life.
The oldest known treaty between a European power and people in the archipelago is signified by a carved stone now residing in a museum in the Old Town of Jakarta. On it, the king of Sunda granted Portugal free harbor at Tanjung Pluit in exchange for protection against the Muslim hordes attacking from central Java. Thus, the name Jakarta - or Jaya Karta - which means "Free City".
Of course, now about 80% of the population in Indonesia profess to be Muslim, including the Sunda, but there are pockets on various islands where other religions hold sway. There is also the Indonesian Constitution, which grants full legal status to five religions - Islam, Hindu, Catholic, Christian, and Buddhism.
Despite the pretense to religious tolerance and moderation, there is even at this moment violent protests about an hour outside of Jakarta in a tow called Bekasi, where Muslims are being tear gassed as they protest the building of a new Catholic church.
In fact, the country is starkly divided by religion. The northern Sumateran region of Aceh is under strict Muslim law (Shari'a) and people are beaten severely when unmarried men and women get too close to each other.
Bali is the last remaining predominantly Hindu region, which used to cover Java and southern Sumatera, as well. Muslim animosity towards Hinduism is a very ancient problem, with millions of Hindu being murdered over the centuries for their beliefs, and ultimately leading to the separation of India and Pakistan, and the on-going tensions in the Punjab and Kush regions.
East Timor is predominantly Catholic, which led to its secession from Indonesia and the violent attempt to crush the half-island. Well over 200,000 people were slaughtered by Muslim forces under Soeharto in the 1970s.
Northern Sulawesi is also predominantly Catholic, as is Papua and nearby neighbor the Philippines. Papua has famously had secessionist movements flare up over the years, as they fight perceived oppression and impoverishment by a Muslim-dominated central government.
Here in Jakarta, an historic event took place several years ago when an ethnic Chinese Christian commonly called "Ahok" became governor of the DKI Jakarta province. Not only is it historic because of his ethnicity - ethnic Chinese are generally reviled in Indonesia - but also because he is Christian. It is a well-known fact that non-Muslims will not rise to political power, nor even leadership positions in the various state-owned companies (persero). Ahok has been under near-constant attack for the past few months, trying to unseat him in the upcoming election.
Not only has the attack on Ahok been entirely fabricated, the attempt to unseat him is almost entirely based on religious bias and fabricated evidence, and certainly not on the efficacy of his administration, which has overseen a vast reduction in corruption and a general clean-up of the city.
Although quieter, there are long-standing resentments that have simmered across the country. There are dozens of indigenous religions that predate any of the five recognized and "protected" imports. These religions have no protection, no status and no support from any faction. When found, these ancient religions are persecuted with impunity, since they have no legal recognition nor protection. They occasionally attempt to get status, but at the best and most benign level, are simply ignored.
Finally, there are the various factions of Islam in Indonesia that are constantly bickering and occasionally violent. Indonesia is predominantly Shafi'i Sunni, Most of the Shia live in and around Jakarta, and there are some small pockets of Ahmadi Muslims in Java and other islands.
The Ahmadi are the most persecuted, with incidences of persecution that go as far as murder, while being displaced is not unusual, either.
The fact of the matter is that most Indonesians are peaceful, tolerant people who could care less what anyone else does, as long as they don't impinge on the languid life in the tropics. Unfortunately, as in many countries (including the US), it is the noisy intolerant folks that take over the podium. The most annoying incident of this intolerance is the month of Ramadhan, when everyone is expected to respect Muslim religious observances.
This forced respect is limited only to the Muslims. Neither the Christians nor Catholics force anyone to defer to their Lenten practices. The Hindu of Bali require everyone to adhere to the Day of Silence, but it is blissfully limited to a single day of the year and incidents of violence against non-participants are rare. In fact, a certain latitude is granted to hotels and other places where tourists stay.
The point of all this is that the mix of religion with politics, even in a nominally secular country, is particularly volatile. At some point or another, all religions have been guilty of violent purges of competing views and ideas. The very nature of religion is to spread itself in order to justify its intolerance. After all, if a religion were to be the last one standing, it would perforce claim that its methods were correct by virtue of the outcome.
Religion is infectious. It has pathological effects on reason and tolerance. It is the concept of religion itself, more than any particular incarnation of it that causes so much damage. What's worse is that all religion claims to have the only means to achieve eternal afterlife - a claim which can never be proven or disproven, and therefore can never be guaranteed by or to anyone.
The right of folks to believe anything they want is absolute, provided they extend the same courtesy to everyone else. Muslims are only the latest in a long line of folks to steal the podium. It is time for more rational minds to take the lead amongst the faithful. Everyone should be free to believe (or not believe) whatever they wish. If a religion wants converts, it should be able to find them by providing an example of its beliefs, not by forcing others to profess membership.
A religion, or any other system of belief, does not win when folks are forced to follow. People will say almost anything to avoid violence, and thus professing belief out of fear is not belief at all.