Islam in Indonesia is deeply rooted in local communities and it is therefore impossible to find a common interpretation of the religion in this country of diverse ethnic groups. There are many Muslim communities, each with its own character. The different characteristics of each community mostly stem from different methods being used to interpret religious texts and are also closely linked with real socio-cultural situations.
Take the Madurese, for example.
Madura is part of East Java province and people outside Madura Island often assume that culturally the Madurese are the same as the Javanese. However, if we take a closer look into Madurese communities, there are clear socio-cultural differences that distinguish the religious character of the Javanese from the Madurese.
In Madura, there are common beliefs that reflect the social character and way of life of the people regarding certain issues perceived to be sacred and that command full respect. Among those issues are Islam, women and self-esteem and the three are closely intertwined. A disregard of any of the three will bring forth violent reprisal, popularly known as carok, which is the Madurese problem solving mechanism.
According to a study conducted by Wiyata (2002), sexual advances or harassment of other people’s wives topped the list of conflicts between carok in Madura. Although religion values human life and advocates amicable solutions to conflicts, for the Madurese there is only a solution to a dispute involving a man’s wife: kill the perpetrator. Moreover, Muslim clerics or kyai seem to give social approval of such a violent action. No case involving a dispute over women has ever been settled peacefully, despite the involvement of the kyai as a mediator.
There were even reports of a kyai resorting to carok when his wife was harassed.
Carok has become the common way to settle problems in Madura, especially with regard to a threat to human dignity and self-esteem, as it satisfies the Madurese’ craving for justice, as compared to a court settlement. Madurese people have no trust in law enforcers. For the Madurese, to bring a case to a legal institution means to end up with greater losses. The case may not be settled, while the individual must also dig deep into his/her own pocket to cover the legal fees. Besides, it is a common belief that justice here belongs to the rich, not to the poor.
Madura’s religious institutions are powerless to end this violent practice. The Kyai, too, in whose hands lies the power to interpret religion and promote nonviolent acts, seem to be powerless to end the practice of carok. They have been trapped into providing justification and social approval for this cultural phenomenon.
In most cases, carok has led to a vicious retaliatory cycle. It also form a vicious cycle of violence which is unbreakable as the kyai and religious institutions in Madura are unable to start a new tradition of conflict-resolution. Ironically, some kyai play a significant, albeit indirect, role in preserving the carok culture by practicing magic and selling religious symbols like amulets, spells, and offering other “religious services”.
Why does violence as reflected in the carok tradition flourish in Madura?
There are several explanations to the question. First, the land is barren with limited water resources and yields limited agricultural produce. Poverty is rampant and discontent has made the people highly temperamental and emotional. Poverty has turned the eyes of the Madurese to immaterial things, including the value of dignity and self-esteem. Poverty has not made the people lose their social dignity. Hence, life is at stake when it comes to preserving their self-esteem, considered to be the last “treasure” owned by an individual. Ango’an pote tolang e tembeng pote mata, literally translates as: “It is better to have white bones than white eyes”, a local proverb meaning … Life simply loses its meaning when a man or a woman is humiliated and loses their self-esteem.
Second, there is the blater tradition. In Madura, there is a community known as blater, or thugs that plays a prominent role in their community. As a blater, an individual must have courage, wit, and skill in handling all means of defense, like martial arts, weapons and debus (magic). Blater are very fond of cockfighting. In addition, these local thugs also belong to a place called remoh, where they get together to feast to enjoy music and alcoholic drinks. Blater each take turns to hold such meetings and contribute money to the host.
A blater will enjoy great influence and command respect from the people if he wins in a carok duel. The influence of blater is strong in Madura as most village heads or klebun come from the blater community or are at least a former blater.
Third, weakening governmental institutions. The impotence of the already corrupt government institutions has strengthened blater‘s presence in Madurese society and made them more powerful than government security forces.
Among these three social factors, Madurese Muslims seem to face a complicated social dilemma. On one hand, they are willing to create the basis for peaceful and tolerant values, but are faced with social-cultural conditions that provide a hotbed for violent traditions. In this context, Muslim Madurese are still dominated by local character rather than by Islamic teachings which are basically humanistic.
Hence, the best way to break the vicious cycle of violence is through: 1. Promoting a more pluralistic, tolerant, and humanist face of Islam through discussion because Islam that merely emphasizes symbols and texts promotes a violent expression of Islam; 2. Building a religious orientation which is deeply rooted in society by strengthening civil society to counter the structural and cultural domination that has tainted the religious elite, i.e., the kyai; 3. Tracing back the socio-cultural roots of the Madurese society to find a conflict resolution model that capitalizes on the people’s social behavior and non-violent facets like humility, rampa’naong, baringen korong (life in the shadow of peace).
— The writer is a post-graduate student of the school of sociology of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He is also writing a thesis on the Power relationship between kyai and blater in Madura.
The Jakarta Post
Fri, February 07 2003