Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Bali standing strong

Published: Jul 14, 2007

Elizabeth Rhoads

Walking the streets of Denpasar, you will probably notice small food stalls and carts bearing red and white banners that read ‘Bakso Krama Bali’ (BKB), meaning bakso (meatball soup) sold for and by Balinese. Previously, bakso was most commonly made from chicken and sold from carts by Javanese migrants. The new BKB often uses pork, thus violating halal (Islamic dietary) requirements, meaning not only that Muslims can’t eat BKB, but also that they can’t sell it. Non-Muslim Balinese therefore have a monopoly on the market.

BKB arose in an attempt to take back control over the Balinese economy from the perceived economic threat of Javanese transmigrants. Even non-BKB food stalls and carts will often paint ‘Bakso Ajeg Bali’ (literally, ‘Bakso Strengthening Bali’) on their signs, or advertise that they use pork, in order to benefit from the rising popularity of BKB. BKB is a reflection of what could be interpreted as the rise of Balinese nationalist or Hindu fundamentalist sentiment in Bali.

Post-Suharto, as elsewhere in Indonesia, Balinese are attempting to redefine their regional and cultural identity. In Bali this trend is exemplified by ajeg Bali, a discourse on strengthening Balinese identity through promoting and protecting Balinese Hinduism, language and adat (custom and customary law).

Response to 2002 Bali bombing

Ajeg Bali became a household term after the 2002 Bali bombing with the help of local media such as the Bali Post and Bali TV. While ajeg literally can be defined as erect, stable or strong, an ajeg Bali is a Bali standing strong, but also one that is more closed to outside dangers and influences, especially those from within Indonesia. Left open to interpretation, ‘ajeg Bali’ is quickly used by both proponents and opponents of the discourse as an excuse or justification for almost anything. Shortly after the 2002 bombing, notions of a strong Bali and how to create it grew from strengthening Balinese cultural and religious confidence to include safeguarding the economy and the island of Bali itself. Thus ajeg Bali was reinterpreted to include increased village security, special taxes for ‘outsiders’, identity card raids on migrants and other police work as part of the process of ‘strengthening Balinese culture’.

Those looking for a response to terrorism, rising Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia and the encroachment of their island by Javanese and other Indonesian ‘outsiders,’ found it in ajeg Bali. Safeguarding Bali means protecting the island from the influences and dangers of ‘outsiders’ — both foreign tourists and non-Balinese Indonesians. However, this protection is selective: while notions of Western modernity are an acceptable import, poor Indonesian migrants looking for work are not. The categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ have led to an increased anti-Muslim/Javanese sentiment and signs of a growing push for a renewed sense of a homogenous Balinese Hindu identity.

While Hindus are the majority on the island of Bali, Balinese Hindus see themselves as a threatened minority, since they are a religious and ethnic minority within Indonesia. This minority status has allowed for many Balinese post-Suharto and especially post-bomb regulations to focus on strengthening the status of the ‘insider,’ or the Balinese Hindu majority, and targeting the ‘outsiders,’ especially Javanese Muslims, with special taxes, identity cards and papers. To many, terrorists destroyed the peaceful, safe image of Bali, thus severely harming the tourism-based economy. These terrorists happened to be Javanese Muslims, as are many Javanese transmigrants who have been steadily migrating to Bali from overpopulated Java since the 1980s to take advantage of Bali’s then booming economy. This ‘direct’ link from the terrorist attacks of 2002 and 2005 to the lower class informal sector Javanese workers and other Indonesians living in Bali became the excuse for the midnight raids and heavy taxes — in addition to rent — imposed on the Javanese in many areas of Bali, especially in Denpasar.

Ajeg Bali has also been interpreted as aspiring to return to a ‘true’ Bali, a Bali of the past, or at least a Bali less under threat from the outside. However, this ‘Bali of the past’ is based on an image of a Bali as a homogenous, closed community, which belies the fact that Bali has long been involved in global networks of changes, invasions, trading and sharing of ideas. This began with the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism in the eighth and ninth centuries. It continued with the spice trade that linked Bali to both Europe and Asia, the intermarriage between Balinese and Javanese Hindu nobility and the later conquest of Bali by the Javanese Hindu Majapahit kingdom in 1343. This was followed by Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation, and finally the rise of mass tourism and globalisation. Yet, some proponents of the ajeg Bali discourse portray Balinese culture and religion almost as if they are static — often denying the existence of a Balinese culture that has been heavily influenced from the outside, searching for a ‘pure’ Balinese cultural and religious identity.

Religion has long played a role in defining Balinese ethnicity. But there are many Balinese Muslim families — even villages — that have adapted to Balinese community structures, kinship patterns and wet-rice agriculture. They even join in the banjar (community organisation) and take part in village ceremonies, while adhering to the practices of Islam. Some interpretations of ajeg Bali define ‘Balineseness’ as Balinese Hinduism — excluding both Balinese Muslims and Javanese Hindus from the identity.

Recently, public school children in Bali have been asked to wear pakaian adat (customary dress) to school on purnama (full moon). To celebrate purnama, students pray during the school day in a Balinese Hindu fashion. Although wearing pakaian adat and joining in the purnama activities are not compulsory, non-Hindu children can feel left out of their school community, in addition to losing class time.

Redeeming Balinese Hinduism

It is not only Muslims and non-Balinese who are visibly excluded or even threatened by this discourse. It also affects Balinese Hindus who do not practise the ‘appropriate’ Hinduism as portrayed in the Bali Post and as taught by the televangelist Hindu priests on Bali TV. This form of Hinduism is supported by the PHDI (Indonesian Hindu Council). Ajeg Bali is part of a larger movement to ‘sanitise’, standardise and explain Balinese Hinduism. Thus Bali TV will often have programs explaining how offerings should be made and how rituals should be performed. There are also community and city-wide youth ‘praying competitions’, enforcing ideas of stylised praying and how a Balinese should and should not communicate with God. In addition to the standardisation of praying styles and ritual activity, ceremonial clothing has also become more uniform. Today, it is the norm to wear white for most ceremonies and black for cremation, whereas ten to 15 years ago ceremonial clothing was much more varied in colour. The Western colours of purity and grief have been appropriated by the PHDI, Bali TV and other ajeg Bali proponents and promoted as a form of standardising ritual and pakaian adat.

Balinese Hinduism is not only going through a process of standardisation, but also sanitisation of ritual practices. ‘Inhumane’ aspects of ceremonies and rituals, such as animal sacrifice, cock fighting and even the traditional practice of tooth filing, are heavily discouraged. In place of live animal sacrifice, symbols or meat are used. Instead of a full tooth filing, Balinese are encouraged to get a less invasive, more ‘symbolic’ tooth filing ceremony. While animal rights groups may be cheering about this, for many Balinese, ceremony and ritual is not about symbols and meaning but about practice. Thus, many Balinese believe that if the demons want a blood sacrifice they must be appeased, or else they could do serious damage to the lives of those who did not pacify them.

Ethnicity, religion, class and the general state of the economy are all thickly intertwined in Bali, and it is all but impossible to address one without addressing all of the others, as the lines between them are often blurred. While Bali’s society is generally fluid, the growing separatism and quest for clear ‘definitions’ of group membership, practices, identity and collective past and future are threatening Bali’s image as the peaceful and welcoming ‘island of the Gods.’ In this context, pushing for a more clearly defined and popularly supported ethnic and religious identity may leave not only Balinese Muslims, but also some Balinese Hindus out of a homogenised, Hinduised and sanitised vision of Balinese identity.

Elizabeth Rhoads (erhoads@brynmawr.edu) is a senior anthropology student at Bryn Mawr College, writing her senior thesis on the Balinese identity discourse ‘ajeg Bali’.

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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