Justice means different things in different cultures. The idea of what a wrongful act is, and how to respond to it, varies. But everywhere justice entails the punishment of wrongdoers. A good example of this is the killing of alleged sorcerers in Banyuwangi, the easternmost district of Java.
In 1998, about a hundred alleged sorcerers were killed and many more injured or banished, in Banyuwangi. Reporters and scholars explained that a conspiracy was behind the outbreak. Different sources pointed to the involvement of local shadowy agents, provocateurs, brigades of ninja, communist sympathisers, the armed forces and so on.
After I lived with and interviewed killers, victims’ families and others, a different explanation became apparent. Violent actions against sorcerers have been occurring for at least the past half-century. Local residents undertake this violence when they believe that a fellow resident has been using magic to murder people.
Banyuwangi and sorcery
Belief in black magic (sorcery) and white magic is widespread in the villages of Banyuwangi. These beliefs are reconciled with Islam, the predominant religion: in the same way that Allah allows a person to shoot someone, He allows a sorcerer to cast a spell.
Generally, ‘sorcerers’ do not publicly profess their craft. Most claim innocence. Rather, other people, usually neighbours, family and friends secretly accuse them. The following case is typical of those I researched.
Rumours in one village had it that Ruslan argued with his neighbour. The neighbour subsequently became sick. A practitioner of white magic, a dukun, told the neighbour that the illness came from a neighbouring house. As it happened, Ruslan lived in a neighbouring house! Some of Ruslan’s other neighbours and his brother-in-law also became ill. Indeed, one of the victims suffered an enlarged stomach, which is considered a typical symptom of sorcery. As these stories circulated, Ruslan’s friends, neighbours, family and eventually the local community became convinced that he was a sorcerer.
Where I undertook fieldwork, about one in 500 people are said to be sorcerers. The majority are older males, although older females are not uncommon. The young are above suspicion because the power of sorcery requires maturity.
As local residents see it, sorcerers aren’t born that way; they have just dedicated themselves to learning sorcery. Unused, their sorcery will attack the sorcerers themselves – so they are compelled to practise it.
The fear of sorcerers – the insidious harm that can strike among those closest to you, the threat to the community, their pathological compulsion – is not unlike the fear of the paedophile/sexual predator in western cultures. Nor is the community’s response to alleged sorcerers all that different. Groups of local residents might attempt to banish sorcerers from their community.
Additionally, in Banyuwangi local residents may throw stones on alleged sorcerers’ roofs, and less commonly, force them to undertake the shrouded oath. In this ritual, the ‘sorcerer’ promises not to commit sorcery again on pain of divine retribution. However, most believe that the only truly effective measure is to kill the sorcerer.
I interviewed families of alleged sorcerers who had been slain. In some cases, family members were loyal to the accused sorcerer. However, most feared the sorcerer and sympathised with the killers. Some relatives even took part in the killing.
1998 saw a large number of such killings. Local residents undertook the actions without outside instigation. Three factors in particular inspired their actions.
First, the regent of Banyuwangi attempted to save sorcerers by identifying them and assisting them to migrate within Indonesia. However, local residents interpreted this listing and processing as a sign that the state apparatus was getting tough on sorcerers.
Second was the reformasi movement. Local residents interpreted the political demonstrations and violence that occurred in the cities in early 1998 as indicating the weakening of the police and army. They also felt that the police and army would be afraid to act against them for fear of being accused of human rights transgressions.
Third, local residents believed that the authorities reacted slowly to killings and that several suspected killers of sorcerers were released after fellow villagers demonstrated against their arrests. This ‘indicated’ police would be unwilling or unable to respond to more killings.
Local residents (mis)construed these factors as an opportunity to get away with killing sorcerers. Thus there were many more killings in 1998 than usual.
But how do we explain the ‘usual’ killings in the first place? A number of explanations are possible.
Criminality, vigilantism, state failure?
Perhaps the killing of sorcerers is simple criminality. The killers have committed an illegal act according to the Indonesian criminal code. However, local residents consider the killers’ actions to be respectable, courageous, and praiseworthy.
Maybe it is vigilantism. But to say that the killers are lynch mobs or vigilantes who take the law into their own hands implies that the responsibility for justice lies in the state’s hands alone. Local residents don’t see it that way.
Alternatively, it might be argued that local residents have assumed duties of justice because state law has failed them. Granted, in local residents’ eyes, the authorities are inefficient, corrupt, and do not take sufficient action against sorcerers. However, this does not explain why residents kill sorcerers because local communities have never, apparently, given up the ‘right’ and ‘responsibility’ to handle justice issues. While the Indonesian state might assert the ultimate sovereignty of its legal system, in some places it has failed to replace or subsume other justice systems.
Syariah or adat?
Two such justice systems that operate in Indonesian societies are syariah and adat; maybe the killings of sorcerers can be understood as an expression of these.
Syariah, generally, refers to God’s will or law, which many see as ultimately unknowable. I questioned several Islamic scholars (kiai) in the villages about syariah and the killings of sorcerers. They condemn sorcery as idolatry, and think that killing is an appropriate punishment for the murder committed by sorcerers.
Surprisingly though, the killers of sorcerers do not seem to have been influenced by this. They believe that Islam incorporates all that is good, and that sorcery is evil. However none made reference to the opinions of kiai or to syariah.
Were the killings, then, an instance of adat?
Adat usually refers to customary practices which include ritualistic, artistic, as well as legal elements. These vary across Indonesia’s cultural groups. Adat is usually transmitted orally or by example. Nevertheless, legal elements of some cultures’ adat have been written down. This process began when interested Dutch colonial jurists recorded what they called adatrecht (adat law) and continues with anthropologists today. This adat law record has formal procedures established by the community (with ‘statutes’, ‘courthouses’, ‘judges’ and so on.). It also shows that some cultural groups unambiguously call for the killing of sorcerers.
What about adat in Banyuwangi? Adat law was recorded in Banyuwangi both in the 1920s and the 1950s. These two records focus mostly on disputes between two parties, rather than offences against the community (which sorcery is considered to be). Also, compared to adat law, the gossip and the ad hoc formation of groups that condemn the sorcerer are spontaneous and informal in Banyuwangi. Furthermore, local residents do not acknowledge the current existence of adat or anything like it in their own villages.
Therefore, unless the usual definition of adat can be broadened to incorporate something informal and not widely recognised as adat, then the killings are neither criminality, vigilantism in response to a failed state, formal syariah, nor adat. So what then, are the killings of sorcerers?
The killings of sorcerers are community justice. The people of Banyuwangi attack and kill sorcerers as punishment for the alleged sorcerers’ wrongdoing.
This punishment seems to be partly intended to restrict the sorcerers, as killing is thought to stop sorcerers from murdering again. It also seems partly vengeful as people related to the ‘victims’ of the ‘sorcerer’ often take part in the killing. It is also partly a deterrent (or warning) to other sorcerers, because dead sorcerers are frequently strung up in prominent places.
Not only sorcerers, but also alleged wife-beaters, thieves, rapists, etc are often violently targeted by local residents.
Throughout Java not only sorcerers, but also alleged wife-beaters, thieves, rapists, and so on are often violently targeted by local residents. Neighbours, family, and friends form groups to punish the accused. This can be a spontaneous reaction to an incident, but equally the measure may be planned. The violence is specifically targeted against the accused. Even if the spouse and children support or protect the accused, they are often left untouched. The punishment is summary and violent, with the corpse often being defiled. The authorities often sympathise and turn a blind eye to the punishment.
Community justice is taken for granted. Aside from pointing to the alleged wrongdoing, the participants barely articulate, rationalise, or systematically explain their actions. Yet this ad hoc, sometimes spontaneous, and frequently violent form of justice is pervasive and entrenched. No account of justice in Indonesia would be complete without analysing it. ii
Nick Herriman (firstname.lastname@example.org) conducted fieldwork in East Java in 2000–2002 as a PhD student at the University of Western Australia.