In a theatre in the central Javanese city of Solo, a troupe of performers are acting out a fight scene from Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The god Gatutkaca is dispatching some long-haired bad guys to the delight of the audience.
Solo is testament to the religious tolerance of Indonesians. Its citizens are mostly Muslim, its culture mostly Hindu, and Solo’s mayor Catholic. Underpinning all this is the continued strength of animism – the belief in ghosts and spirits that has survived successive waves of Hindu, Islamic and Christian missionaries over the centuries and still overrides their dogmas.
The irony is that Indonesia does not officially recognise animism. Last week, its parliament in Jakarta rejected an amendment to expand the list of sanctioned religions beyond Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, even though one local NGO counts 245 non-denominational faith organisations across the country. Rising intolerance – including the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists and the jailing of an atheist councillor – have undermined the country’s motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). “In recent years, these discriminatory practices have moved up a notch to outright persecution against many religious minorities,” wrote Endy Bayuni in The Jakarta Post. Those who put “Other” on their ID cards have trouble getting jobs or accessing public services such as registering marriage or inheritance, he added.
In Solo, where locals still worship the local sultan for his magic powers, such policies seem all the more ridiculous.