Mar 21, 2018 Last Updated 7:10 AM, Mar 17, 2018

Legislating against the supernatural

Sorcery and black magic remain serious concerns for many Indonesians  AyAres151 at

Nicholas Herriman

Sorcery and black magic remain serious concerns for many Indonesians   AyAres151 at

Sorcery and witchcraft are part of everyday life for millions of Indonesians. Beliefs and practices that might be labelled ‘magical’ can be found throughout the archipelago – not least in the East Javanese district of Banyuwangi, sometimes referred to as the ‘Warehouse of Sorcery’. There, everybody is thought to be able to do a little magic. It could be as simple as securing good luck in a trip to the market by saying ‘In the name of Allah’. However, some people are thought to have acquired higher forms of knowledge and power. These are dukun – men and women who can provide supernatural assistance in everything from curing a sore neck to finding a love mate or ensuring business fortune. They usually do this for a small fee, but some can become quite wealthy and even famous. Muslim scholars, who are exclusively male, called kyai, can usually provide similar services, although they make more of a point of insisting it all comes down to God’s will.

Belief in the existence of witches and sorcerers is also widespread. Personal ‘misfortunes’ (illness, loss of livestock, death of family member) are often attributed to perpetrators of black magic. Often the witch or sorcerer is believed to be someone close by. It could be a neighbour, family member or friend. Sorcerers are most commonly believed to be men. Neighbours, families, and friends sometimes suspect that the sorcerer’s motive is envy, jealousy, greed, and so on. Having lived in an East Javanese village for a year, I found that some of these traits could be found in everyone, and certainly the alleged sorcerers I knew did not stand out in this regard. I could only discern that disagreements and arguments often occurred amongst neighbours and relatives. If such altercations were frequently followed by misfortunes of other parties, an accusation of sorcery might result.

Local residents target ‘witches’ and ‘sorcerers’ with various forms of retribution, including ostracism, destruction of property, violence and even murder. Periodic outbreaks of sorcerer killings have occurred in many regions of Indonesia, including East Java in the mid-1960s and early 1980s, and North Sumatra in 1987-88. More outbreaks occurred following President Suharto’s downfall. In 1998, local residents killed around 100 ‘sorcerers’ in Banyuwangi and up to 150 more were killed in West Java in 1999. Subsequently, nine ‘sorcerers’ were killed by the residents of Malang, also in East Java, between 1999 and 2000. The killings may have subsided since the turbulent years of the early post-Suharto period, but they have by no means stopped altogether. In 2012, a man in East Java and an elderly couple were killed in Aceh under suspicion of practising black magic. Such reports are not uncommon.

From a ‘rationalist’ perspective, those accused of being witches and sorcerers constitute a vulnerable population, in need of state protection. And, to some extent, they get it. After all, those who kill sorcerers or witches are sometimes charged with murder. But this appears problematic to many Indonesians. Fearing witches and sorcerers, they wish to be legally protected from supernatural attacks. To address this problem, law-makers have introduced a draft penal code that will outlaw the practice of black magic. However, this is not as easy as it might sound. People in Banyuwangi say sorcery is mostly imperceptible – but courts tend to demand tangible evidence of criminal activity. So how are law-makers going about making sorcery illegal?

Legislating against sorcery

Notwithstanding the many major new laws and regulations that have been promulgated since independence, Indonesia’s penal code still closely resembles that of the Dutch colonial era. Periodically, one can find evidence in newspaper articles that at least some Indonesians would like to replace the Dutch laws with ones more modern and ‘Indonesian’ in spirit, and a new penal code has been on the agenda since at least 1981. Over the subsequent decades, various drafts, containing hundreds of provisions against a range of crimes, have been prepared. Each draft penal code has contained anti-sorcery provisions.

The most recent draft penal code has been drafted according to the usual process. The nationally elected People’s Representative Council (DPR) is divided into eleven cross-party commissions. Commission III, which has a brief that incorporates judicial matters, was responsible for preparing the draft. As the document has not been formally released to the public, the specific details are not available. However, we know from formal announcements that, aside from making adultery and premarital cohabitation illegal, it also contains provisions outlawing the practice of magic. According to press reports Article 293 holds that ‘any person declaring possession of magical powers, informing or encouraging others to believe that by their actions they can cause mental or physical suffering of another person, or offering or providing such services to another person, will be sentenced to a maximum of five years imprisonment or fined at most, category IV (Rp.300, 000,000 or A$29,230).’ These provisions were circulated to parliamentarians for discussion and to propose any changes on 6 March 2013. The major parties have indicated their willingness to complete this process before 2015.

Given the wording, this law may be informed by the so-called ‘pious turn’ in Indonesian Islam, which argues that any attention to what we might call ‘supernatural’ powers outside those of Allah is blasphemous, violating the belief that God is One and unique. However, it is also motivated by a genuine desire to eradicate sorcery, at least in some quarters. Commission III members have stressed to the media that sorcerers ‘should not be allowed to take the law into their own hands’, and senior Islamic clerics commenting on the law have typically agreed that ‘sorcery can be real’.

As it stands, the proposed law poses a serious threat to Indonesia’s commercial sorcerers: men and women who sell black magic to clients, often for hefty prices. In regions such as Banyuwangi, however, the provisions are likely to prove ineffective. There, alleged ‘sorcerers’ will most often vehemently deny such an insinuation. In other words, most sorcerers do not publicly self-identify. Building a case against a sorcery suspect will also be difficult. Many Indonesians might be loath to bear witness against a putative sorcerer for fear of supernatural revenge. For example, in one case where I do fieldwork, a local resident informally reported the activities of a ‘sorcerer’ to the village head, but was unwilling to go to the police as the village head suggested. She was apparently afraid that the sorcerer would use his magical powers against her. Although the police, usually not averse to beating out a confession, might be able ensure a successful prosecution, a further problem lies in the wording of the draft penal code. The provisions do not specifically address supernatural phenomena – they focus on what is said rather than what is done. In cases of sorcery and witchcraft, however, it is what one does that is the primary source of complaint.

If we doubt the reality of magic, it could appear hidden agendas lie behind legislative attacks on witches and sorcerers. The provisions could be perceived as an exercise of power, or as the actions of weak policy makers trying to shore up support. However, research by Wessing and others indicates the existence of a sincere belief in witchcraft and sorcery amongst educated elites. Parliamentarians are probably sincere in their desire to outlaw black magic, but given the difficulties of producing evidence of magic that would meet the high standards of evidence in a court, the proposed sorcery provisions represent their best option for modernising and ‘Indonesian-ising’ the legal system.

Paradox of the laws

The provisions highlight some fascinating contradictions. The banning of false superstitions seems to fit perfectly well with a modernist-rationalist agenda. Yet what the parliamentarians are trying to get at is not just false superstitions, but also supernatural acts that cause harm. To the extent this is true, the provisions outlawing magic seem paradoxical: an attempt to modernise the legal system is resulting in laws against magic. Moreover, if passed, the anti-witchcraft legislation may initially bolster confidence in institutions such as parliament, the police and the courts. So, apparently ‘illiberal’ legislation (because it encourages persecution) might strengthen the very institutions which are associated with ‘liberal’ ideas of governance. Indeed, in the villages of Banyuwangi prosecuting witches or sorcerers could be seen as a democratic measure, protecting the majority, who believe they have been, or might be, affected by black magic.

On the other hand, however, the provisions could create more violence. Granted, violence often results under current conditions and, in the short term, anti-witchcraft legislation could reduce violence. However, in the long term, the experience of other countries that have outlawed black magic, such as Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu, suggests that such provisions are ineffective or counterproductive. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, a law failed to stop outbreaks of killings and led to the persecution of women: the law is being now considered for repeal. Similar problems may beset Indonesia if the provisions outlawing magic come into force.

In the meantime, the debate stirred up by the provisions has apparently caused some consternation among parliamentarians. One of the Commission III members told journalists they should ‘make no mistake, sorcery is part of black magic. In the days of the prophets it was already around in other nations. It requires regulation.’ In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, members of Commission III announced they will be visiting Russia, England, France, and Holland in April 2013 to enquire further into these matters. One commentator on the Kompas webpage announcing this ‘study trip’ was not impressed. ‘Hehe,’ she wrote, ‘if they want to study sorcery why go to Europe? It should be to African countries where there is Voodoo… Who knows? Maybe they’ll all become victims.’

In spite of the junkets and the posturing, a serious problem of perceived black magic and recriminations against those accused of practising it persists. In Banyuwangi, local residents continue to perceive certain ‘misfortunes’ to be a consequence of sorcery, and demand laws that address such practices. This is nowhere clearer than in the reflections of a local man called Abdul, who had killed a ‘sorcerer’ named Dillah in the period following Suharto’s downfall. ‘At the time I did it to Dillah,’ he told me. ‘It was like there were no rules from the rulers.’ Then Abdul gestured in the direction of the house of a neighbouring alleged sorcerer and said ‘he is my number two’, implying he was ready to move onto his next target. The ultimate fate of Abdul’s neighbour, and many other alleged sorcerers and witches in Indonesia, may well reside in the fortunes of the revised penal code.

Nicholas Herriman ( lectures in anthropology at La Trobe University.

Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013


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