The handful of you who might be regular readers of Recording Editorial History should be aware that I have a problem with organized religion. Often I have made exaggerated claims, or argued a hard-line atheistic stance without truly believing what I had to say. Occasionally a fictional character best gets to the root of an issue, looking outside of yourself in an effort to capture the deepest feelings of those you are trying to understand. Occasionally I write little works of fiction on here–American Fairy Tales–a project I have been working on-and-off for the past thirty years, going back into my late youth. In those stories I take on an issue and usually present an absolutist either for or against whatever the social topic happens to be. They experience an odyssey, usually some sort of personal apocalypse, and we try to understand different sides of an issue that many refuse to acknowledge. As harsh as much of my writing sometimes is, there is a shadowy hope buried deep inside of these narratives, seeking a middle ground, a place where we can understand each other no matter how much we disagree.
So why did I pick Indonesia as the nation to discuss this subject? Let’s see:
I am talking about this place, an example of great historical and cultural beauty. But Indonesia is also this place:
So how did such a land of contradictions come to be (and for that matter, being a land of contradictions, like everywhere else in the world, can Indonesia help us to understand our own problems?) I do not wish to bash Indonesia, as I have said early on in a number of these pieces. Certainly it is a land of wonderful people, sincere caring and yet another bastion of true love, but that never seems to be what interests me. So let’s go back in time.
We can certainly go much further back than this ancient scrawl across a cave wall, dating from 40,000 years ago. There have been fossils uncovered of Homo Erectus going back a million years. But that is all prehistory and left open to imagination. I think we should start more recently:
Religion goes back a very long way in this nation. There are stone idols of gods and kings scattered all throughout the more than 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Some of these islands, still to this day, are uninhabited, although it would be naive to claim that they have never been visited by man.
We could go back to times of Buddhism and Hinduism, but let’s look just a little before prior to getting into another rant on religion. Over 70,000 years ago a curious species of man emerged in Indonesia that scientists have since named “Flores Man” (named for the island on which these fossils were discovered.)
This image shows a contrast between the size of skulls between Flores man and modern man. Flores man comes from a line of evolutionary shrinkage, a process known today as “island dwarfism.” They stood around three feet tall and ruled part of the jungle for thousands of years. The direct ancestors of Flores man, really just an off-shoot of homo erectus, is believed to have developed the first technology in the world enabling man to develop sea-faring vessels, which were used to tour and populate many of the islands.
Of course, people being what they are, once the homo sapiens rose, Flores man was rapidly wiped out, going extinct around 12,000 years ago. Many of the bones recovered of these industrious island dwarfs have been discovered with teeth marks.
Modern man in Indonesia appeared about 2,000 BC, arriving from Taiwan. The culture that developed on the new land eventually came to be known as Austronesian, spread throughout much of the region, from Madagascar and Micronesia all the way into southern China.
What allowed the Austronesian people to thrive was a myth-shattering cultural development. Unlike the stories of a Tower of Babel, a language developed between many separate cultures, some of whom would never meet, spread throughout the 735,000 square miles of land. And while today there are more than 700 languages spoken throughout the region, all come from the same root (except Arabic, but that is a more recent religious import). In ancient times the people were able to communicate with one another and often developed peace between the tribes, living in general harmony while worshiping their different gods.
The Austronesians still exist today, in fact accounting for the majority ethnic population in all Indonesia
Of course these costumes are used in celebration of cultural identity on specific holidays, and most members of these ancient people have modernized and adapted quite efficiently into the modern world:
There is a great deal to say about the agricultural innovations that have since helped to feed the world that come from Indonesia. They mastered the technique of wet field rice cultivation as far back as the 8th century BC
And yet for all this ancient glory (and I could go on and on about their cultural genius, painting a far better picture of the people than I am about to) there is a darkness that has come, having more to do with religion than nearly any other place in the world.
It was once Hinduism that controlled the land. Going back to the 2nd century BC, around the time the great Hindu epic Ramayana was composed in India (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780140187007&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), the ruler of southern India at the time, Rama, sent his army out in search of paradise and wonderlands, seeing the world as a truly magical place with all the treasures of his imagination available nearby. When these things were not found, the lands were simply conquered and the natives subjugated to outside rule and imposed faith, which has always been the balm and salvation of oppressed people.
Over the next 800 years the Hindu kings kept changing the faith until the people were getting fed up with an idea they found increasingly false. The kings shifted their own religious alliances, denouncing certain gods and ultimately replacing others with themselves. There was not much change to the lifestyle of the people over this vast stretch of time, other than the occasional war, and outbreaks of pandemic slaughter.
It was not until the 9th century AD that civil and holy wars became widespread throughout the island chain. The Medang Empire, the period from which most of the remarkable temples and structures above were built, was an indigenous yet thoroughly Indianized powerhouse that took over the lands, and imposed harsh sanctions on non-believers of the king’s divinity. This empire came to rule over what is now modern Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Bali, as well as smaller divided cities scattered throughout the islands.
The harshness of the Medang kingdom ultimately led to the first in a seemingly endless series of holy wars between the people–Hinduism versus Buddhism. Like every civil war, the empire was divided into two separate regions, one run by the Shivaist Dynasty of Medang and the other the Buddhist realm of Srivijaya, centered in Sumatra.
The civil war went back and forth, one side sacking and claiming one city while the other did the same thing in return. The end result, finally, was simply increased development of more modern boats and weapons, death coming easier to the enemy and religious animus reaching an all-time high. There would be Hindus and Buddhists killed in the streets simply for wearing the robes of their faith. Children were killed. Ethnic slurs flourished. There was genuine hatred all over Indonesia in this era, and nobody seemed safe.
After several hundreds of years of righteous warfare on the side of each opposing faith, a new twist entered the fray. In the 13th century, mostly in the Buddhist region around Sumatra, Islam made its presence known. This religion was at first imported through friendly Muslim traders, offering a variety of spices that no one in Indonesia had ever tasted before or smelt. Things like nutmeg and cloves were added to dishes, and a whole new style of food became the norm. This hypnotic charm allowed the faith of Muhammad to claim hold on many people, seeing these new flavors as a sign from a god unlike any of the petty tyrants constantly at war with each other. In this new faith there was only one grand Lord, who controlled everything. With such a faith there could never be any more war, right? Islam was adopted almost completely by the 16th century, although competitive Christian missionaries also dumped their influence to the north, creating yet another religious divide within the islands. More holy war became inevitable.
By the 1600s, as with everywhere else in the world at that time, both the Dutch and later the British East India Company arrived, spreading their own Catholic faith, along with vicious demands and racial violence. The Portuguese made claims on some of the land and the people and Indonesia descended into a slave state. The Dutch and Portuguese went to war on Indonesia for control, forcing many of the men of their regions into battle, creating, finally, both Christian and Muslim hatred, as well as angry divisions between both faiths, which separated themselves into deeper and smaller opposing religious sects.
By the early 1800s both the French and British had conquered the world, and each easily tossed both the Dutch and Portuguese out, claiming the land for their own barbaric greed. Each empire ran around the land like small children in toy stores, screaming “Mine mine mine!” about everything they saw, including the people. Archaeological digs were undertaken, sometimes destroying the ancient temples. The growing mosques were disregarded and sometimes even removed in order to place administrative buildings in their place. The whole land was being dug up and polluted. The people of Indonesia grew angrier and angrier.
It was in 1908 that most of the people had finally had enough of being ruled, and a nationalist movement was started called Budi Utomo. This movement began as a call from the intellectuals of the society for better education for the young, and it eventually led to an outright revolution.
The founder of the movement was Dr. Wahidin Soedirohoesodo
who left the movement only months after its founding, ceding control to the angrier, younger generation. By 1912 a larger nationalist mass movement was formed: Sarekat Islam
Throughout World War I this movement agitated regularly, reclaiming much of the land and converting more and more to their faith. By the end of the war the Dutch (looking to regain some lost footing) condemned the faith and began arresting the leaders, including the future first President of Indonesia Kusno Sukarno
But the Sarekat movement adapted, taking on many of the Soviet revolutionary tactics, creating a hell for both the colonial governments and the people living under them. These agitations eventually took on their own form, inspired, certainly, by the anarchy of Russia, but transformed by the deeply conservative outlook of fundamentalist Islam.
In the years leading up to World War II Indonesia was forced to deal with the acquisitory radicalism of the Japanese Empire. Japan, strategically defending the independence of Indonesia, more interested in removing the last vestiges of the Dutch before the Nazis conquered the Netherlands, was also interested in establishing another home base to launch attacks from.
Sukaro and future vice-president Mohammad Hatta, were elevated by the Japanese on the promise of their support in the war effort. The two of them were celebrated and came to model their subsequent government on the Japanese empire’s harsh rule. There are stories that during the occupation the Japanese claimed women and children randomly and sold them into sex slavery, while others were forced to play cruel games in gambling parlors, including Russian roulette and testing how much pain a person could take before screaming.
By the end of the war, with the collapse of Japan, the young Islamic radicals began making demands. Within two days of the Japanese surrender Sukaro declared independence and was officially elevated to President. Things went downhill from there.
Within months the Dutch attempted to resume their rule of Indonesia, now backed by the British. A bloody war erupted over the next three years, ending, finally, with the recognition by the United Nations of Indonesia as an independent nation. By 1950 every island in the chain was declared unified under Sukaro’s rule, and a harsh new order of Islamic fundamentalism swept the nation.
Sukaro, however, realized that fundamentalism was tearing the nation apart and by 1956 he attempted to impose Democratic reforms. When this did not work out, the normal contagions of a new Democracy within a divided society infecting every movement, every speech, every idea of the many-sided radicals attempting to invade the highest posts in the nation, Sukaro decided to amend the constitution instead, removing every member of the elected Parliament and replacing them with hand-picked lackeys who would serve his increasingly paranoid will.
Now far more interested in modeling himself after Mao Tse-Tung, Sukaro initiated several arms deals with both China and the Soviet Union, alerting the United States to another potential popular front in their war against Communism. The US immediately cut off aid to Indonesia and had the CIA begin plotting the overthrow of the government, as they had done so many times before, mostly with great success. The Vietnam War intervened and nothing ever came of these plans.
By 1965 Sukaro, now known as the great “delang” (puppet master), had become a stooge of both China and the Soviet Union. The Communist party drastically expanded throughout the nation, becoming the largest party in Indonesia.
There was the inevitable attempted coup to topple Sukaro in September of 1965, with six former generals being rapidly executed. This entire episode is shrouded in mystery as documents were destroyed and opposing, increasingly conspiratorial stories emerged, undermining the ability to get at the truth behind this final episode in Sukaro’s long career, and emphasizing the moment when he took complete and absolute control of Indonesia. He blamed the Communist Party for the attempted coup (likely at least partially true), and this led to the destruction of their influence, which also led to the collapse into severe poverty for the nation.
In 1967 Sukaro was finally toppled, living the remainder of his days under house arrest, removed from office in a nearly bloodless coup (this time) by General Suharto (his family name does not have an English translation.) Suharto quickly became known as a dictator, another one of those post war strongmen who emerged as cold-hearted rulers, demanding absolute obedience from the nation to his every passing whim.
Suharto was vehemently anti-Communist, which brought him much support in the west, despite the increasing militarization of the government. New laws were passed, new restrictions imposed. The Muslim majority of the nation grew increasingly scandalized by their new President’s behavior and let it be known in the streets.
By the 1980s Suharto began sending the army out to kill “suspected criminals” and arrested hard line conservative Muslim leaders. It is suspected that more than 10,000 people were killed in Jakarta over two years.
Eventually the new, younger military leaders began denouncing Suharto, leading to increased pressure and paranoia on his part. He desperately attempted to divide the military, somewhat successfully, and yet another civil war broke out, with most Muslims now sitting on the sidelines watching their civilization collapse and praying for the coming of the Mahdi.
In 1998 Suharto was finally pushed out of office and indicted on massive corruption charges. He eventually came to top the list of Transparency International’s most corrupt leaders in the world, having stolen at least fifteen billion dollars from the nation’s economy (and as much as fifty billion), and being directly responsible for driving so many people into desperate poverty. Suharto died in 2008 of a variety of heart and kidney failures.
It was also in 1998 that riots broke out all over the nation.
These riots led to even more military crackdowns on the population, which led to more riots and revolutionary movements. Islam, now by far the dominant religion of the nation, took things to the extreme as they are so often prone to do. While the dictators maintained their authoritarian rule, groups like Jemaah Islamiyah emerged.
Initially linked with Al Qaeda, and later the Islamic State, this terrorist organization began a series of bombings throughout Bali and Jakarta during these military dictatorships. They became increasingly radical, increasingly violent and increasingly apocalyptic. The mostly moderate Islamic population of more than two hundred fifty million people did not know what to think. Sure, they were scared, but they also understood the reasons behind the attacks, regardless of how many people died in them. The government was crooked and they did not care about the people. They were being run by godless criminals, regardless of whichever faith they claimed to be following. All they were following was money. They hated the people. They hated God.
A contested election further complicated things in 2014. When the first non-military president was elected under the banner of peace, Joko Widodo was elevated far beyond his working class roots.
Widodo won the election, officially, by more than eight million votes, but his opponent, former military general and multi-millionaire Prabowo Subianto
insisted that the election was a fraud, mostly because the ballot stuffing campaign his staff undertook did not work out in his favor. He was outraged and dropped out of the election before the votes were counted.
When the election of 2019 was decided once more in Widodo’s favor, Subianto, leader of a large Muslim opposition party, declared that the recent spate of terrorist attacks were actually caused by non-Muslims disguised as Muslims. He began stating similar conspiracy theories about terrorists all around the world, including the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C. back in 2001. He declared the world was at war with Islam.
Other nations were to blame of course, and the popularity of these theories–in this world now dominated by opposing conspiratorial ideas–has led to a deeper and more thorough radicalization of Islamic movements not just in Indonesia, but everywhere, all over the world. And for a nation such as this, one with more than a thousand years of experience in holy war, the seething underbelly of moderation is rapidly being stripped away, leading this tightly overpopulated place of great poverty into the strange world of hope residing only in some vague afterlife.
And it causes one to wonder, in this nation forever torn by oppression and war, whose once advanced civilization has been stunted and crushed by dictatorships and religious fundamentalism, I wonder: Is Indonesia the most dangerous place in the world?
©2019 Lance Polin