Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Hidden in plain sight

Published: May 12, 2020
Indonesia’s atheist minority gets swept under the rug but there is hope in perseverance

Wira Dillon

Indonesia touts itself as a tolerant nation. Yet a heavy air hangs over some topics. Discussing them is discouraged, or even outright banned. This insistence on preserving a facade of ‘polite society’ may have its roots in the pervasive Javanese influence on Indonesian society. Nevertheless, the way the New Order ruled also affects the situation. The New Order came to power through disinformation campaigns copied straight from the anti-communist playbook of American senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. These helped cement its stranglehold on society. The tactics were successful. They bred a culture of self-censorship, for fear of backlash and retribution, that lingers until today. Serious discussion of faith remains taboo. Wily politicians still regularly reignite the red scare (which the masses have been taught is synonymous with anti-religious sentiments) in order to further their own agenda.

Most people may not even notice this aversion to openness. Nevertheless, the system makes some feel like the nail that sticks out, and they definitely do feel like it. Apparently, the inconvenience I have caused Indonesia started before I was even six. My parents were actually quite supportive of freedom of religion. However, when I was to be enrolled at elementary school, they said they had to register me as a Sikh like my father. Strangely enough, this was in a Catholic school, which makes you sign a waiver acknowledging that you will be taught Catholicism regardless of your faith. Yet the school apparently still needed a ‘visible’ designation of every pupil´s religion for their report cards. What is the purpose of such distinctions? Who would ever know if it was not written on the registration form? Would the child themself even be able to give a straight answer if asked what their religion was?

My father had warned us about the dangers of being a minority, but he also showed us it was a cause worth fighting for. He would probably have become the Secretary of Agriculture in the 1990s if it wasn’t for his turban. However, as a man of principle he would never sell his faith for any position. Later, in 2012, he became the Presidential Special Envoy for the Alleviation of Poverty. To family and friends, he lamented the fact that the best he could get on his national ID card was the designation Hindu–Sikh. Hinduism has nothing to do with Sikhism. But it is an officially acknowledged religion, whereas Sikhism is not. He disliked the miscategorisation so much, he said he would rather just have it empty. He did become more devout over the last two decades, after his heart attack, but he always acknowledged our different views regarding faith. He always wanted us to choose for ourselves. He always pushed us to read more widely. He told us children he just had to put Sikh when we were younger because of Indonesia’s systems. Perhaps he thought that being registered as believing in something would be safer for us than to have nothing at all – lest we risk becoming easy targets for red scare demagogues.

Be that as it may, I have to admit that my Catholic schooling actually made me love Jesus quite a bit. I still think his example of standing up for the poor and downtrodden is heartening. Sadly, it also came with a lot of Catholic history and orthodoxy, which left me disinterested in the faith. I did not like how we were obliged to attend mass and do the stations of the cross. I will admit there were times I was tempted to line up for communion.

However, life has a way of proving just how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It remains unclear to this day how the other kids found out about the boy with the weird religion who had enrolled in their school. Someone with access to my file must have thought it was a funny thing to talk about. The gossip spread like wildfire. Basic privacy is a little understood principle in Indonesia. It was my fellow pupils – even more than the teachers – who always reminded me that I was an outsider. The most memorable was being called ‘sick’ as a play on the word Sikh. Even though I did not directly identify as a Sikh, I understood the joke was at my expense. I was part of the proceedings but never really accepted. I was just told to sit quietly and keep my mouth shut about having differing views.

I had realised quite early on that a person´s religious identity was more of a social facade. Nevertheless, this did not mean I did not feel the itch to talk about things more openly. This itch actually pricked me more than the jeering. I was forced to keep it all inside and bear the burden on my own. My parents always allowed me to explore whatever thoughts I had about religion, humanity, morals, and ethics. However, all that mattered little to those around me. I would forever be the ‘sick’ Indian kid.

Nevertheless, the Catholic school Tarakanita was more decent and accepting of diversity than society in general. I was lucky my parents could afford to send me there for my elementary and junior high years. Once I graduated to a national high school, I experienced much more alienation and bullying. If I had had all my schooling there I might well have endured so much more ostracism. I fear others out there have had it much worse than I, partly also as my mixed genes had blessed me with a somewhat bulkier frame. Nevertheless this period was when I learned how often young people can find a way to be mean about things they find weird.

About that time I watched a movie on LaserDisc called The Scarlet Letter. A young woman named Hester Prynne disregards social convention when she has a baby out of wedlock. The nineteenth century American townsfolk find out, and stigmatise her. They force her to wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ for adultery, and exclude her. I don’t think I totally understood how she must have felt, but I identified with the feeling of how the world treats its outliers. This overbearing aura persisted throughout high school, college, and even adult life.


The Scarlet Letter

Going to a public high school means you have to get your grades in Religion on your own. The Islamic students had their Religion lessons in class during regular school hours. This meant I got some free class time. Nevertheless, the school did not want students roaming around during school hours. I had to stay in one section of the school, quiet and unseen. Out of sight, out of mind.

When I turned 17, I had to get the national identification card. The student cards until then had accepted just about any designation assigned by a student’s guardian. However, now I had to adhere to the government ruling that only one of the five major religions are acceptable on the national ID card – Islamic, Christian, Catholic, Hindu, or Buddhist. When my turn came, I went to the local administration office that handles citizenship affairs and filled in the form. I summarily emptied the row for religion. Lo and behold, after two weeks my ID card came back with ‘Islam’ printed on it. I went back to the office and had a heated argument with the clerk, saying I wanted it empty. After quite a few minutes of unproductive debate, the clerk relented and said, ‘okay, but it’s going to take a while’. I was in no rush to get an ID, so I said thank you and bid my farewell. It took a few extra weeks, but I finally got my national ID card, with the religion section blank.

This was the first of many encounters, where I had to endure questions about my religion when it had nothing to do with the task at hand. Every time I open a bank account the officer will ask about the empty religion entry, and I have to explain it to them at length. Why would the bank need to know about someone’s religion? Seems to me that society will always try to preserve its established ways of being. Those odd individuals who refuse to bow down have to pay for their independence with extra time and effort. Even the form for the national college entrance exams asked my religion. I found this infuriating and disheartening, but also potentially discriminatory since we do not know what the state will do with this data. I believe the national civil service entrance exam also collects religious data. Peer pressure regarding religiosity is pervasive in the work place, be it private or government. Most Indonesians never think about these things, and I understand that categorisations can be useful, but nevertheless, my father’s case should be enough to show just how the odds are stacked against a social outlier.

At times one does need to stand up for one’s self. Even if it means standing in the middle of a huge field in the midday sun. This actually happened to me during my induction to university. All the incoming students were sent to various spots around the field based on their religion, to meet their mentors. Naturally, the campus only split us into the five major religions. Perhaps I should have just kept my head down and gone with the Buddhists. However, this time I decided to just stand in the middle of the field once everyone left. It was hot, and I could see people whispering and pointing. I guess even I was at a loss on what to do. Luckily, one person was kind enough to approach me and ask. When I explained, he took me with him to sing and play guitar, while over 2000 other students were elsewhere, praying. It just goes to show, there are still some good eggs out there, some who still dare to question society’s structures. These systematic categorisations are pernicious exactly because they are invisible to the majority. They work so well in concealing the existence of minority individuals. They hide people in plain sight. Societies can kill the individual by making them question and self-censor themselves in order to avoid unwanted awkwardness that would stick out like a loose nail from the well-polished surface.

Like many other societies, Indonesia tends to sweep such things under the rug and not talk about them, hoping they will go away. Nevertheless, I still believe there are many good people out there who understand that humanity is more important than religiosity. People who fight for the marginalised, who will march for equality and defend minorities even at the cost of their own lives. People like Munir, Marsinah, Widji Thukul, and so many others who have lost their lives trying to realise an Indonesia that lives up to its founding principles. I consider myself lucky to have met so many humanists and champions of equality in Indonesia. They are the reason I believe there are times when we have to stand our ground even at personal cost. For Indonesia is not just about one individual’s personal freedom. It is about ending discrimination and subjugation for all.

My father was right when he said that meaningful change needs pressure from without as well as capacity from within. I hope this little snippet of my life will resonate; that it might start a tiny ripple of change within the heart of someone who reads it; embolden those already fighting the good fight; be a small stone in the foundation of a better future.


Wira Dillon (mahawirasd@yahoo.com) is a a board game maker who also works as a researcher promoting energy transition from fossil fuels towards renewables and lives in South Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 140: Apr-Jun 2020

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