The village of Oelua proves that Indonesians can live with difference.
Many Muslims in Oelua are small traders.
Serious outbreaks of violence between different ethnic and religious groups in Indonesia have attracted a lot of attention. Many of the people displaced through the conflict of recent years are long-term spontaneous migrants – most of them small-scale traders – whose success makes them a target. In Eastern Indonesia, the Bugis, Butonese and Makassarese, who began migrating from their homelands in Sulawesi in the pre-colonial period, are among the most successful migrant traders. This success has led to a perception that they dominate the economies of other areas of Eastern Indonesia at the cost of opportunities for local people.
In the current climate, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that conflict and violence affect only a very small proportion of Indonesia’s population. Many more Indonesians from different places, ethnic backgrounds and religions live together peacefully in urban and rural communities. The question is, then, how do these mixed communities go about living together? The answer lies in places like Oelua village, where migrants and non-migrants have learned to negotiate and manage their differences across livelihood orientation, ethnicity, and religion.
The village of Oelua is located on the northwest coast of Rote in East Nusa Tenggara. Most of its population of approximately 2000 are indigenous Rotinese. The rest are descended from migrants, predominantly from Southern Sulawesi. The Rotinese are almost all Protestants, while the migrants are mostly Muslim. Muslim Rotinese are mostly involved in inter-island sailing and trading activities, while most Christian Rotinese harvest lontar palm and seaweed, cultivate dry field crops and unirrigated rice fields, and raise livestock.
Migrants began to settle in Oelaba (one of Oelua’s five hamlets) in small numbers perhaps as early as the late nineteenth century. Contact first occurred between the two groups through trade relationships. One of the main products traded is lontar syrup, produced from the juice of the lontar palm which grows abundantly on Rote. For decades Muslim sailor-traders have transported surplus lontar syrup to other islands in southeastern Indonesia, bringing back betel nut in exchange. Eventually, migrants began to settle on the island. Today, many of the descendants of those migrants have a mixed background of Rotinese and Bugis, Butonese, Makassarese, and Bajau.
The migrant and non-migrant groups in Oelua live together more or less peacefully. This is possible because they have established ‘mechanisms of agreement across difference’. These mechanisms, which characterise inter-community relationships in the village, deal with land, technology and labour transfers, social mixing and interpersonal relations, and local custom and tradition.
Land, technology and labour transfers
For decades, Muslim migrants and their descendants were allowed to settle in Oelaba under an informal agreement with the rajas of the former political domain of Dengka. Eventually the last two rajas began to transfer first the trees, and then land title, to the descendants of the original migrants. This occurred in three successive stages early in the post-independence period. Since then, the land and trees have remained common property, owned by people of Islamic faith and protected by Ministry of Religion decrees.
After settling in Oelaba, Muslim migrants and their descendants transferred their sailing and trading knowledge and skills to the indigenous Christian Rotinese. As a result, many Christian Rotinese men gave up farming and lontar tapping and adopted sailing and trading livelihoods. These indigenous Rotinese sailors recognise that their sailing skills originated from the Muslim migrant seafarers of earlier generations in Oelaba. So when the Muslim households of Oelaba contribute a share of their annual profits from marine products to the village mosque, some Christian boat owners do the same. In doing so, they acknowledge their historical livelihood ties and ongoing relationships of mutual assistance, for instance when they are repairing their boats and need to call upon extra labour.
Social mixing and interpersonal relations
Up to five generations of Muslim migrants and their descendants have married indigenous Rotinese Christian women from Oelua and other villages. Many of these women converted to Islam upon marriage. As a result, many migrant families in Oelaba have indigenous Rotinese maternal heritage. Muslim Rotinese and Christian Rotinese respect each other’s religious beliefs and practices. In some cases taboos are relaxed in favour of creating good social relations. For example, the Muslims of Oelaba allow pigs owned by their Christian neighbours to roam freely through the hamlet.
Both Christian and Muslim Rotinese enact their kin relationships at life cycle events such as death or marriage. These life cycle events bring the entire extended kin network together and always involve food and drink. Like Muslim communities elsewhere, Oelaba Muslims do not eat pork. So Christian hosts prepare halal food for their Muslim relatives and neighbours when they gather at a Christian household to feast. This local custom signifies symmetrical power relations around giving and receiving between the two religious groups. Without this custom, the Muslim Rotinese would become permanent hosts, which would mean that they had to give without being able to receive. Such a situation would violate the reciprocity principles of Rotinese society and cause tension in the community.
Customs and laws
Tradition remains important for indigenous residents
In rural Rotinese villages, local custom and tradition (adat) remains an important institution. Adat regulates societal and cultural norms and behaviours through the clan groups, where clan leaders play a key role in ensuring the wellbeing of clan members according to adat protocols. Muslim Rotinese of mixed heritage are not obligated to their Rotinese clan and hence to Rotinese adat in the same ways that indigenous Rotinese are (whether Christian or Muslim). But Muslim Rotinese of mixed heritage may choose to identify with a clan defined by their maternal lines of descent. It is up to each Muslim Rotinese family of mixed heritage whether they engage in adat matters of their Rotinese clan or not.
Muslim Rotinese deal with many matters using Islamic cultural norms and standards adapted to local interpretations and conditions. If Muslim elders cannot resolve matters themselves, they ask the state to intervene rather than defaulting to Rotinese adat legal processes. But there are two common adat rules that indigenous Rotinese apply to all non-indigenous Rotinese. Rotinese adat must be practised for everyday affairs that concern both Muslim Rotinese and Rotinese Christians, and common adat rules and protocols are used to resolve misunderstandings, disputes and disagreements between village residents regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Adat also matters when non-indigenous men wish to marry indigenous Christian Rotinese women.
For men and their families the negotiation of a marriage proposal is a long, drawn-out affair because they have to agree with the bride’s family on bridewealth. In order to do this, the families of both the bride and groom must use a spokesperson who understands adat laws and customs for marriage and who can negotiate with clan leaders using ritual language. Many non-indigenous Muslim Rotinese have had to come up with alternative strategies because they can’t speak the ritual language properly. When Muslim men of mixed Rotinese heritage wish to marry indigenous Christian Rotinese women, they call on respected indigenous Rotinese converts to Islam to negotiate on their behalf. These elders are important mediators in these situations because they understand both adat and the Christian and Islamic faiths.
Lessons learned from Oelua
Indonesia’s first two post-independence leaders, in particular President Suharto, did what is typical of leaders of modern states. While recognising Indonesia’s diversity, they sought to deny difference and assimilate people of different ethnic backgrounds into a single national identity. But as Oelua demonstrates, people’s lived reality under the New Order often did not reflect the assimilationist ideology of the state.
In Oelua, low-conflict social relations have evolved and been sustained precisely because of a local ‘politics of recognition’. Indigenous Christian Rotinese have not assumed that they can treat Muslim migrants and their descendants according to the same principles, rules and standards that they treat other Rotinese. Meanwhile, Muslim migrants and their descendants understand that their own rules and standards are not universal, and have managed to maintain their differences without dominating the host society. In other words, Rotinese Christians and Rotinese Muslims recognise and respect their differences, rather than repressing them.
In the era of regional autonomy, Indonesia’s government must find new ways of working with mixed communities of migrants and non-migrants to avoid further outbreaks of conflict. Mixed communities which foster local mechanisms of agreement across difference are more likely to build sustainable, peaceful relations. As the Muslims and Christians of Oelua show us, this has to begin by recognising difference rather than pretending that everyone is the same. ii
Michelle Carnegie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is completing a PhD at the Australian National University.