Indonesian Indigenous Studies

Re-examining the Indigenous Religion of Betawi

Astrid Syifa Salsabila

Growing up in Jakarta made me perceive that I had little opportunity to encounter indigenous people (masyarakat adat). My perception about them at that time was that those people lived far from urban areas, and still lived without any sophisticated technology. Whenever I heard about indigenous people, Baduy tribe in Banten or Papuan tribes with their spears popped up in my mind immediately. I lived with Betawi people, the native people of Jakarta and its surroundings, yet I did not categorize them as indigenous people.

At the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) Universitas Gadjah Mada, I as a student developed a hypothesis that Betawi people may have a kind of indigenous religion. To pursue my hypothesis, I decided to enroll in the indigenous religion paradigm course. I expected that this course would give me more insights into indigenous religions. I even planned to focus my work on the subject by examining Betawi’s indigenous religion. I gathered relevant literature before the session began, and expected that Betawi had its own indigenous religion before world religions reached them.

My plan did not work as I expected. When I visited both the Setu Babakan Museum and the Special Capital Region of Jakarta in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII), I could not find what I may refer to as the indigenous religion of the Betawi. The museum officers there could give me nothing but expressions of confusion and suggested I look for something else in other places. The internet, the best locus to find anything, also did not provide me with satisfactory information. When I typed “agama asli Betawi“, most pages referred me to the history of either Muslim Betawi or Christian Betawi, even before the Dutch colonial era. If I insisted on a plan, I would probably just disappoint myself. I then tried another way of asking questions: “why do native people, like the Batawi, have no own religion, and is there a different way to identify the indigenous religion of the Betawi?”. This essay elaborates on the question using the indigenous religion paradigm.

Colonial Policies Based on Discriminatory Politics of Religion

Indigenous religions were under the project of abolishment by the Indonesian government soon the Department of Religious Affairs was established in 1946, now the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The ministry started with the politics of religion, and the politics of “official” religions to justify the limited number of religions to be recognized. It defined religion as requiring “a faith with guidelines for its members, belief in one supreme deity, a holy book, and a prophet.” The definition was never officially documented but effectively used up to now. This definition not only overlooked many other religions beyond the six religions (currently) but also abolished indigenous religions.

The use of the definition of religion is continually upheld by the Indonesian government, and is hegemonic in public discourse, and even in academia, to the present time. It has misrepresented indigenous religions and violated the constitutional religious rights of those followers as Indonesian citizens. The definition has also impacted the definition of “masyarakat adat as “community groups that have a history of origin and have occupied customary territories for generations”. Masyarakat adat has sovereignty over land and natural resources; a socio-cultural life that is regulated by customary law. Based on the definition, people are considered indigenous only if they have customary lands, customary systems, and communities. In relation to the definition of religion, (indigenous) religions of these people do not matter for identity. 

In Shifting Waters in the Politics of Religion and Its Impacts on Indonesian Indigenous Communities, Samsul Maarif observed that indigenous religious practices were frequently claimed to be primitive, magical, customary, cultural practices, and other misrepresented pejorative terms, both in public discourse and literature. He examined the historical dynamics of separation between the official religions and indigenous religions since the Dutch colonial era. The Dutch issued policies that separated religion (Islam) from adat (perceived to be identical to religion by the people) as one of the strategies to impair uprisings by the militant Muslims and ally with adat people against militant Muslims. The post-independent regimes have reproduced and continued strengthening the policies, the basis for the politics of (“official”) religions. The policies remain influential, hegemonic, and discriminatively impactful against the religious rights of indigenous people. 

Among the reproduction of the colonial policies was that the Indonesian government forced citizens to embrace one of the six official religions until 2017. Since 2017, based on the Constitutional Court Decision 97/2016, the government offers two choices: religion or kepercayaan (indigenous religions) that citizens must choose for their legal status. For the government, religions must be purely and distinctively embraced. For such discriminatory policies, many indigenous people have to embrace one of the official religions while preserving their indigenous religions by claiming them as cultural. Although such preservation is politically acceptable, but discursively problematic because it is wrongly misunderstood as syncretic, contaminating religions. In such a context, Betawi and other native people have to profess to be purely Muslim or Christian, and if they preserve indigenous religions, they have to call them cultural, not religious. They may remain to be native and live with their customary systems, but again they are just cultural, as opposed to religious. 

Re-examining the Religious through the Indigenous Religion Paradigm

The Indigenous religion paradigm as explored in the course at CRCS went beyond identifying what constitutes groups of religious followers such as Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucianist, Baha’i, Sikh, indigenous people, kepercayaan, and so on. It focuses on the “religious” or being religious. Rather than exploring the divine, human, and nature in hierarchical order as the world religion paradigm does, the indigenous religion paradigm emphasizes the intersubjective relationship among living beings. Its epistemology is relational in the sense that we seek knowledge or know something through relationships. The focal point is not on what people believe based on established doctrines, but on how they establish and maintain their relationship with their surroundings.

Based on the paradigm, the indigenous methodology is also relational. In contrast to rational methodology, the Western biased research, indigenous (religion) methodology positions researchers and the researched as relational in the sense that both are subjects (of knowledge seekers, producers, and so beneficiaries). Indigenous (religion) methodology is an alternative to western biased research that position researchers as subjects observing, knowing, and so controlling the researched as objects. Any knowledge produced from research by indigenous religion methodology is reciprocal, and so should be shared responsibly and ethically. Such knowledge belongs to both researchers and the researched. The goal of indigenous religion research is not to discover new but to recover (or recontextualize) knowledge together through intersubjective relationships.

Then, Do Betawi Still Have Indigenous Religion?

Conducting research with the indigenous religion paradigm is not about separating one thing from another, or distinguishing Muslims from Christians or Betawi for instance. It is to observe a “religious” practice(s) followed even by multiple religious groups. For that point, Betawi’s “things” which are commonly categorized as “cultural” may be of indigenous religion. According to the indigenous religion paradigm, the main principles of being religious (constituting relationality) are responsible, ethical, and reciprocal. Such principles are prevalent in indigenous traditions, including in Betawi’s, observably expressed in rituals (expected to) shaping everyday life. Through indigenous paradigms and methodologies, I could still identify the “indigenous religion” of Betawi by attending and interacting with the congregational prayer or salat berjamaah.

Astrid Syifa Salsabila is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada

Artikel Terkait

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button