Communities that practice indigenous religion in Indonesia face discrimination – branded as ‘heretics’ or ‘misguided cults’ or accused of wrongdoing. This stigmatisation is exacerbated by their depiction and representation, or lack thereof, in mainstream media and online narratives.
In this two-part series, Pretty Good Podcast tackles how and why these mainstream narratives perpetuate discrimination against marginalised religious communities, and what can be done to address the issue. Dr. Samsul Maarif, head of the graduate school program at Universitas Gadjah Mada’s Center for Religion and Cross-cultural Studies, expounds on the politics of religion that fuels the stigma against indigenous religions. Devina Heriyanto, a former Jakarta Post journalist and now Membership Manager of Project Multatuli, explains how news outlets’ online business models shape and propagate harmful and oversimplified narratives.
The episode is part of the Association for Progressive Communications’ (APC) Challenge project with the aim of “Challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in Asia”.
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- Dr. Samsul Maarif is a lecturer and the head of the graduate school program at the University of Gadjah Mada’s Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies. His research focuses on indigenous religion, ‘Animistic Islam’, and land rights. He is also the coordinator of “Rumah Bersama”, a coalition of 10 institutions working on indigenous people issues. Some of his research works include:
- ‘Being a Muslim in Animistic Ways’, which examines the religious practices of the Ammatoan indigenous community in the eastern part of Indonesia
- ‘Indigenous Religion Paradigm: Re-interpreting Religious Practices of Indigenous People’
- ‘The Tides of Recognition: Indigenous Religions in the Politics of Religion in Indonesia’ (Pasang Surut Rekognisi Agama Leluhur)
- Devina Heriyanto is a former Jakarta Post journalist in charge of developing the paper’s social media presence and curating reader submissions for the paper’s ‘community’ channel. Heriyanto is currently the membership manager of Project Multatuli, a public journalism initiative that highlights underreported stories. She was a recipient of the International News Media Association’s 30 Under 30 Awards 2022. Read her published work here.
- According to Heriyanto, ethnoreligious minorities are often perceived as ‘deviants’ in mainstream discourse because they don’t fall under the ambit of formalised organised religions. Indonesia recognises only six official religions, and only recently were ethnoreligious groups allowed to put their indigenous beliefs in the religion column of the ID card.
- Mainstream media exacerbates these misconceptions. With the fast-paced nature of the online news cycle, reporters lack the time and resources to add nuance and depth to their stories. Some reporters also lack proper training on religious issues. A study by Remotivi found that most news coverage tends to cite sources that harbour negative views or misconceptions instead of talking directly to marginalised religious communities.
- Heriyanto added that the online business model of news outlets contributes to the problem, as the focus on engagement and advertisements results in sensationalised and clickbait-type articles.
- Mainstream media tends to amplify narratives heavily skewed towards the perspectives of those living in urban areas. In discussions related to agrarian conflict, for instance, Heriyanto pointed out that prevailing narratives tend to portray indigenous people as primitive ‘squatters’ engaged in farming with no land certificates – a narrative that disregards the nuances of their culture. In contrast to the dominant capitalist discourse that treats land as a commodity to be consumed, indigenous communities have a more personal and respectful relationship with land.
- Read about an example of indigenous communities under pressure from the government in this report from Project Multatuli.
- According to Maarif, ‘animism’ or the belief in spirit is considered heretical because it is understood to be ‘worship of the forest’, which goes against the teachings of more popular religions.
- These views of ‘animism’, Maarif explains, are predominantly a European concept used in the 19th century to justify colonialism by claiming that indigenous communities are primitive as they do not adhere to European beliefs and ways of living.
- For indigenous communities, ‘animism’ does not strictly mean worship of the forest but seeing the trees as ‘persons’ in the forest and having a close relationship with the land. They consider the forest an integral part of their identity as a community. However, the dominant online discourse still adheres to this misconception, contributing to the oppression against them.
- EngageMedia has researched freedom of religion and expression online and the difficulties faced by religious minorities as part of the Challenge project.
- The article titled ‘Beyond memes and social media campaigns: How do we talk about religion and human rights?’ discusses the difficulties in discussing divergent views with those already harbouring prejudice against marginalised communities.
- In June 2022, EngageMedia published a research report on the challenges of advancing religious freedom in Indonesia’s digital spaces.
- In partnership with production house WatchDoc, EngageMedia produced the documentary Lara Beragama Di Mayantara (The Hurtful Religious Cyberspace), which scrutinises the religious-based discrimination faced by adherents of indigenous religions.
- Imam Ardhianto, lecturer and chair of the University of Indonesia’s Media, Culture, and Research Center for Anthropological Studies, briefly discusses the exoticisation of indigenous religion in Pretty Good Podcast Episode 22: Narrating Conservative Islam in Indonesian Trolling Culture.