Religious Freedom, tourism, and the right to cultural identity

The Ngajayak: carrying padi and other offerings to the ritual place. Photo: KS.

In the gloom of the Dapur Ageung, a fireplace in the shape of a naga breathed out tendrils of light that made the small group of worshippers visible. Clothed in a sarong at the request of my hosts before I could enter this sacred space in Paseban Tri Panca Tunggal complex, I joined in a meditation to prepare for the observance of the Seren Taun, an annual ritual and tourism event hosted by the Sunda Wiwitan community of Cigugur in Kuningan, West Java.

The young girl beside me watched her mother gravely, peeking around the room to observe and imitate her elders as they knelt in contemplation of the burning bamboo or awit which gives the Sunda Wiwitan community their name. Although the Seren Taun follows the standard format of a tourism event to display regional culture, for the Sunda Wiwitan community it is a chance to engage in a ritual as a religious community, with the hope that the next generation will be free to carry on their traditions if they choose.

The Seren Taun celebrates the beliefs and practices associated with agricultural cycle of the Sunda Wiwitan, who are part of a growing movement for the recognition of agama leluhur or indigenous religion. They feel that their practices and beliefs should be granted a status equal to that of the six world religions officially recognized by the Indonesian state. This year’s Seren Taun celebration was promoted as both a ritual and a tourist attraction by the local government. It was also an opportunity for a declaration of existence and equality by members of the Masyarakat Adat Karuhun Urang (AKUR), a group advocating for the rights of Sunda Wiwitan practitioners to be recognized as religious adherents.

Meditation with fire at the Dapur Ageung. Photo: GV.

The Seren Taun event can be analyzed as a case demonstrating how religious freedom is linked to the struggles of cultural communities to exist and to be protected in Indonesia. It also demonstrates the role that tourism plays in providing a form for displaying and contesting normative understandings of the relationship between the religion and culture, functioning as an arena where representatives of government institutions interact with cultural communities who seek the right to self definition and cultural autonomy.

In the view of Indonesia’s state institutions, culture should be a domain separate and distinguishable from religion. Yet many groups across the country refer to an all-encompassing moral system that animates their cultural community and serves as a guide for their everyday practices and ethical orientations. These cosmologies include beliefs about the origins of the world and the nature of the universe, the role of human beings, precepts for behavior, systems of resource management, ideas about agency, as well as concepts of the afterlife.

The state’s de facto definition of religion, however, finds only six global theological systems as appropriate to be designated as religion. Any spiritual practices that fall outside of these six officially recognized religions are automatically relegated to the realm of culture. This means that cultural communities are under constant pressure to delineate cultural practices from religious ones, and face severe consequences if they insist on the right to continue to follow the principles of their indigenous cosmologies as a religious practice.

While the relationship between the categories of religion and culture are nationally articulated and publicly enacted as conceptually distinct, in practical and historical terms they are not. This tendency to insist that religion can be purified of cultural influence has become one of the most serious challenges facing those indigenous communities across Indonesia who seek the right to self-identification.

Belonging to a recognized religion is essential for the fulfillment of a majority of rights, as bureaucratic processes of the state require that an individual list their religious affiliation on most essential documents. If unable or unwilling to list one of the state sanctioned religions, individuals and communities run the risk of discrimination or the outright denial of their citizens’ rights. This leaves limited options for communities who seek the autonomy to worship according to their traditional systems. They can declare a world religion and engage with their cosmological principles as traditions devoid of religious meaning, policing the line between religion and culture. Yet many communities find this process of ontologically cordoning off spiritual beliefs from other aspects of everyday life to be destructive to the coherence and continuation of their cultural identities and communities.

Another option is to advocate for freedom to worship according to one’s cultural cosmology under the right to religious freedom as guaranteed in the Indonesian Constitution. Not only is this connected to the ability to self-identify, but indigenous groups and adat communities are essentially asking the government to reassess the state’s functioning definition of religion. The option to leave the religion column on the national identity card blank that was introduced in 2013 is one step that has been taken to address these claims. Yet challenges still remain in combatting the discrimination that is a legacy of the historical processes of defining and legislating religion in a narrow sense as a domain separate from the variety of cultural systems practiced by communities across the country as an essential part of their everyday existence.

The National Alliance of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (ANBTI), an advocacy group for the rights of followers of indigenous religions, has equated discriminatory policies towards cultural communities to genocide, stating that “culture” refers to an identity composed of spiritual values that give life to a community. ANTBI characterizes the mobilization and public pressure mobilized against indigenous religious practitioners under the name of majority religions as a force that is eliminating cultural identities.

The Sunda Wiwitan community in Kuningan is pursuing recognition of their cosmological system as a religious practice. The community has a long history of negotiating their position in relation to government policies on religion. Shifting political attitudes and prevailing government policies on the boundary between religion and culture can be read through the community’s protracted efforts to practice their rituals openly and be recognized as an autonomous religious community.

Emerging publicly in the 1920s under the name Agama Djawa Sunda (ADS), the group dissolved under pressure related to the 1964 government declaration (Surat Keputusan No.01/SKPTS/BK.PAKEM/K.p./VI/64) that their practices were only recognized as adat (not religion) and that marriages conducted according to ADS ritual standards would not be recognized by the state. In the late 1980s, former followers of ADS reemerged under the organization Paguyuban Adat Cara Karuhun Urang (PACKU) and sought to have their practices recognized as a religion. The organization was declared illegal in 1982 by the regional  courts (Kejaksaan Tinggi Jawa Barat SK No. 42) and the Seren Taun ritual was forbidden.

It was only in 1999 during Gus Dur’s  presidency that “local government officials Kuningan finally considered the adat and religious activities in Cigugur to represent a cultural asset which could be developed and most importantly, marketed to tourists” (Wiardi 2007:176). The touristic potential of the rituals was essential to providing a forum for reemerging ADS members, who began to refer to themselves as practitioners of Sunda Wiwitan, to publicly declare their identity. Currently, the members of AKUR are protesting the seizure of land that they identify as part of the communal adat landholdings linked to their cosmological system. Local activists involved in the case have complained that the legal proceedings connected to dispute have been characterized by discrimination based on their religious orientation. This conflict is another forum where questions of religious recognition overlap with government policies on culture and tourism, as the legal case addresses the conflict as a dispute over the boundaries of land designated as a cultural heritage site (cagar budaya) under the government’s program of heritage management. 

Tari Buyung, a traditional Sundanese dance. Photo: KS.

Cultural events like the Seren Taun celebration, especially those open to tourists, can serve as a field of negotiation between government institutions and members of non-official religious practices. Inclusive of a number of communities that practice their own variations of indigenous religion and see themselves as culturally distinct, the spiritual and spectacle are mingled as rituals are performed not just for the community, but for an audience. At the evening ceremony in the Paseban Tri Panca Tunggal, a building that like many rumah adat is a physical manifestation of the cosmological system of the Sunda Wiwitan followers, leaders from official religions were invited to pray according to their community’s theological style. In a break from the standard format of hosting prayers from recognized religious communities at formal events, Sunda Wiwitan practitioners and members of several cultural communities who attended the event with ANTBI were also invited to lead the audience in prayer. Sitting in the front of the room, representatives of Naulu Seram, Kaharingan Dayak, Siwa Buddha and Marupu communities were treated as religious leaders with equal standing to the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist clergy who attended.

Even as it followed the familiar format of official tourism activities, the Seren Taun celebration was a moment for cultural communities to display their solidarity, a statement that the challenges to Sunda Wiwitan practitioner’s right to practice their religion represents a threat to all cultural communities in Indonesia. Referring to the prayers as representing the varieties of agama nusantara, the organizers made a clear statement that positioned these groups, as well as Sunda Wiwitan, as equal communities under an expanded concept of religion that encompasses the broad array of practices indigenous to the archipelago. 

In a press conference for the event, the link between religious freedom and the rights to cultural identity were discussed more explicitly, as indigenous community leaders described the various forms of discrimination that they had experienced as a direct result of their religious identities. Despite their different aspirations for how the government should recognize and act to protect them, in attending this event, they were presenting a united cause for the recognition of practices and identifications that fall outside of the state’s rigid definition of what constitutes a religion.

What debates over the right to freedom of religion and the definition of religion actually address is the state’s ability to ensure equality and equal treatment for the nation’s diverse cultural communities. These issues are therefore essential to the emerging field of indigenous politics that advocate for the rights of cultural communities.

The Seren Taun event, as a public celebration of a community ritual that doubles as regional tourism attraction, was aimed at drawing attention from a wider audience. These types of events not only seek capture the tourist’s gaze, but also the attention of government institutions. The display of a culture that can potentially be marketed as a regional attraction is also an expression of existence, and provides access to a significant amount of financial resources for the development of cultural activities and infrastructure.

Tourism is a state-endorsed form of expression, and serves as an arena for both the construction and contestation of identity. Marketing significant rituals as tourist attractions can provide a modicum of protection to communities who are seeking recognition as religious practitioners, as it expresses local or ethnic identity through the acceptable framework of cultural particularity in an objectified form (dances, rituals, performances, costumes).

Displays for tourists may include religious elements or reference religious beliefs, but by necessity they must be inclusive of a wide audience that doesn’t share the religious background of the practitioners. Cultural tourism is never presented in an explicitly religious environment, allowing the contested boundaries between what counts as religious practice versus cultural tradition to be more openly apparent and negotiable. This is significant in that it allows cultural communities a space of interaction with government officials and institutional bodies where they are recognized as distinct entities in need of support, recognition, and in some cases, protection. These events can sidestep potential controversy; where politicians and government officials might be hesitant to be associated with events for non-state sanctioned religious due to the increasing politicization of religious issues, attending a regional tourism event mitigates the ‘danger’ of associating with non-normative religious practices.

Tourism events and sites are an important arena for the expression of identity in Indonesia, allowing cultural communities a space to declare their existence and agitate for rights and recognition. Community festivals that mark the observance of significant rituals and practices tend to be inclusive and open forums for both the expression and contestation of normative values and ideals, as well as for the processes of mobilization and self-definition undertaken by cultural communities themselves.

Given the importance of tourism as mode of expressing identity, tourism activities also have a significant play role to play in the contestation surrounding the definition of religion in Indonesia. The contemporary politics of the ‘purification’ of religion also have the potential to be embodied in Indonesian tourism practices. For example, a subsidiary industry that promotes visits to sites on the basis of tourists’ religious identity has gained increasing popularity in the domestic tourism industry. Focused on marketing that explicitly targets religious practitioners, these tours and sites distinguish themselves from cultural tourism by using the terms agama or religi in their marketing materials. The increase in this type of specialty tourism has culminated in the creation of a national program of shariah tourism (wisata shariah) aimed at Muslim consumers.

On a recent trip to the tomb of Sunan Pandanaran in Bayat, Central Java with students from the CRCS Religion and Tourism class, I was refused entrance to the inner sanctum of the tomb as a non-Muslim by a tour guide visiting the site with a religious tour agency. Although Sunan Pandanaran’s tomb is historically recognized as a pilgrimage site, it hasn’t always been considered a space exclusive to Muslims, as it hosts non-Muslim visitors and is a significant place for followers of the Javanese system of Kejawen. This trend towards the increasing politicization of religious activity at pilgrimage sites, as George Quinn discusses, highlights the potential for tourism to foster exclusivist interpretations of religious practice that can have consequences for the management of cultural and sacred sites, and more broadly for relations between and within religious communities.

The contemporary debate over the definition of religion in Indonesia is an ever present if sometimes unspoken frame for the display and discussion of cultural identity across various types of events and sites connected with the tourism industry. This underscores the need for these spaces to be protected as one avenue indigenous religious communities have to participate in the public discourse on the evolving definition of religion, as well as the importance of sustainable tourism management that positions local communities as central stakeholders in the development of regional tourism industries. The right to cultural autonomy and its link to guarantees of religious freedom are displayed and tested in the public forum that tourist events provide for the expression of community identity.



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