Is This Man the Leader Of One Of Indonesia's Most-Misunderstood People?
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Is This Man the Leader Of One Of Indonesia's Most-Misunderstood People?

Why have the Bayan people been branded "primitive," and "deviant"? VICE investigates.
03 August 2017, 12:03pm

Junan started shouting for me to wake up as the volcano came into view. We left Mataram, the provincial capital of Lombok hours ago, setting out on a trip to the island's northern coast. The view outside the window was a stark contrast from the low-rise urban sprawl of Mataram. Lombok's northern coast is ruggedly beautiful, a place of rice paddies, scrubby palm trees, and black sand beaches.

In the distance, Mount Rinjani rose above the paddies and humble tin-roofed homes that lined the coastal road. The mountain, a still-active volcano, is the second-highest peak in Indonesia. It's a magical place still used by the local Sasak people for religious ceremonies. And there, in the shadow of Rinjani live the Bayan people, the practitioners of one of the most-misunderstood traditions in Indonesia: Wetu Telu.

Wetu Telu is a source of curiosity among Indonesian Muslims. Most people split the island of Lombok into two groups, the "normal" Sunni Muslims and the "primitive" and "deviant" Wetu Telu. Outsiders say it's a syncretic version of Islam that incorporates Hindu and animist beliefs into the faith. This alone isn't terribly uncommon in Indonesia. The Javanese Kejawen and Sundanese Wiwitan also fold indigenous beliefs on magic and spiritualism into Sunni Islam. So what makes Wetu Telu so different?

"I heard the Bayan people only pray three times a day," Junan announced as we drove past a mosque. "I also heard that they only fast for one day, not 30, during Ramadan... Well, you know, it's just what I heard."

This, more than anything, is what makes a lot Indonesian Muslims think differently about the Bayan people. It all comes to down to how often Muslims pray in Wetu Telu. The idea that the Bayan people practice the "wrong version" of Islam has been popularized by books like Islam Sasak: Wetu Telu vs. Waktu Lima that present the two versions of Islam as diametrically opposed. On one side there's the version of Sunni Islam practiced by nearly 88 percent of the country—the Waktu Lima Islam, or literally "five-times Islam." On the other side is Wetu Telu Islam, a sect seen as deviant and backwards.

But even that book's author told me the reality is a lot more complex.

"The book was originally titled Religion of The Sasak, An Ethnographic Study of the Impact of Islamization on the Wetu Telu of Lombok," Erni Budiwanti, an anthropologist, told me. "I wasn't the one who came up with the title, the publisher did. They wanted it to be 'marketable,' so they chose a sensational title. I didn't like it one bit, because it's as if we put the two in opposition. I regret the title, because, in the end, I was the one getting attacked."

It's this, the "three-times" controversy, that pulled me from my home in the Indonesian capital. We're living in a time when many fear a rising tide of religious fundamentalism. Indonesia, experts warn, has gotten more intolerant, not less, since the fall of Gen. Suharto's New Order regime. And it's the country's religious minorities who are feeling the effects. The foreign press and human rights groups use the blasphemy case against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama as a litmus test of Indonesia's tolerance. But it's the treatment of smaller religious groups, the kind of abuses that happen behind the scenes, that really shows the true picture.

While the former-governor's arrest, and church burnings in Aceh, get the most headlines, the kinds of smaller injustices dealt to Indonesia's Ahmadiyah and Shia Muslim minorities presents an ever-present threat to followers of these so-called deviant sects. It's a threat the Bayan people know all too well. Before they were "backwards" and "primitive," they were seen as something far worse in Indonesia: communists.

I wanted to meet with someone who witnessed the anti-communist killings of 1965 first-hand to see if the scars of the past can tell us anything about the future of the Bayan people. But first, I had to meet my guide, a man named Raden Sutra Kusumah, who offers his home to visiting researchers and journalists. He was quick to dispel some of the myths circulating about his community.

"Like many Sunni Muslims in Indonesia, we practice the pillars of Islam," Sutra told me. "People outside this tribe often think that our version of Islam is 'deviant' or that we've been 'misled' because of our strong relationship with our customs. The fact is, we practice both religion and customs, and we practice them separately."

Sutra offered to show me around. His home and small library sat directly in front of a rice paddy. But it was only a short walk into the Adat Mandala Forest, a lush outcrop of trees and vegetation that is the community's main source of clean water. We wandered through the cool, humid forest until we came upon a gang of little naked kids splashing in a pool. The scene was surreal. Who would've expected to find a pool in the middle of the jungle?

The local government donated the pool, Sutra explained. It was a gift, but it was one of the few signs of development inside the forest.

"It's the Bayan custom to take care of the forest," Sutra said. "There shouldn't be a single tree taken away even when they're knocked down. We should just let it rot on its own."

I was dressed for a hike, but Sutra, perhaps accustomed to this walk, was wearing flip-flops, khakis, and a formal batik shirt. He would've looked right at home in an office in Jakarta. But out here, in the forest, he looked a bit out of place.

We left the forest to find the home of Amaq Riajim, the leader of the Bayan people, and an important source of information on Wetu Telu. He lived with his family in an official residence built out of traditional materials by the Bayan people. His house was a made of river stones and thatched bamboo. He looked surprising young for a 74-year-old man, and he was eager to set some of the misconceptions about his people straight.

"Who said we only fast for one day during Ramadan?" he said. "And that the leader can pray for the whole tribe? And that we only pray three times a day? How do people come up with this stuff? Show me who told you this. I would like to clarify some things."

Yeah, the term " waktu telu," or three times, exists, but it has nothing to do with how many times the Bayan people pray, Amaq said. Waktu Telu, he said, is a reference to humanity's place in the three realms, 1) inside the womb, 2) our life on Earth, and 3) the afterlife. Wetu Telu is the philosophy that all life was put on Earth for three principle goals: to grow, lay eggs, and breed.

"The traditional rituals made people think we are the Wetu Telu people who only pray three times a day," Amaq said.

I asked Amaq why his people were so stigmatized in Indonesia. It's an old story, he said, and not one he was eager to repeat. But the Bayan people have been treated with prejudice since the Dutch colonial years by people who saw them as different, as the other. Then later, during the end of the Soekarno years, that the Bayan people were branded communists.

It's a story I've heard time and time again in Indonesia. When I was in South Sulawesi, with the Bissu people, they told me that they were once feared as communists. When I was in Banyumas, working on a VICE documentary about the Lengger Lanang, the history was the same. Indonesia is a country of indigenous people, but it's also a place that, sadly, still views the old ways with an air of suspicion. And it's these people, the ones who try to maintain a connection to the old ways, who end up being called the "communists."

Sutra could see the dissatisfaction in my face as I tried, and failed, to probe Amaq to find the roots of this distrust. Don't worry, Sutra said, there was another man I could speak with, someone who witnessed the anti-communist hysteria first-hand.

Raden Gedarif was one the most-respected people in Bayan. The 70-year-old was shirtless when we first met, but after introducing himself, he dashed off to change into a purple shirt and a sarong. I asked Gedarif what it was like back in the early days of the New Order.

"Back then we were called this because the military were suspicious of us," he said. "They didn't want to see this culture develop."

It was a time when being different made people wonder whether you were a communist. The military would come into the villages of Bayan and arrest those they suspected of harboring "deviant" beliefs, Gedarif told me.

"Not all people of the Bayan were members of the Indonesian Communist Party [PKI]," he said. "But even those who were members, they were still pious Muslims. It's because we saw the party, the religion, and the customs are three separate entities. But then they put all three inside a single box so it would be the end of this tribe."

One day, spies living in the community set fire to the Bayan people's ancient mosque, he said. Today, it's a local government office. The authorities built them a new, more mainstream mosque nearby. Soon, the Bayan people's version of Islam started to look more and more like the rest of the nation's, Gedarif said. But they held onto the old ways, Gedarif explained.

"The people of Bayan are the minority and they've been re-Islamized," Erni, the anthropologist, explained. "Now they pray five-times a day. But it doesn't mean they no longer practice their old customs. But it doesn't mean they aren't also members of the NU."

The Bayan people have recently begun an outreach campaign to try to correct some of the misconceptions about their beliefs. Raden Sawinggih, a young member of the community, went to Jakarta to advocate for the official recognition of indigenous religions at the Constitutional Court. When he got to the capital, someone at the court told him that Wetu Telu and the Bayan people weren't Muslims.

"We learned at the court that the Bayan are not considered part of the Islam religion," he told me. "In the end, we clarified that Wetu Telu is not a religion. It's a philosophy. The values of Wetu Telu are also the values of Islam. But we understand them traditionally. Wetu Telu is closer to a consciousness, while we understand Islam as a universal value, as rahmatan lil alamin, or the blessing for the whole universe."

The efforts of young leaders like Sawinggih are a start. But judging by the idea most people still hold of the Bayan people, they still have a long way to go before they can find the acceptance and understanding they're looking for.