The island caught in the middle of Indonesia’s growing religious divisions

Southeast Asia Globe's David Fettling takes the political pulse of the Indonesian tourist island of Flores, where he encounters a people pushing back against the religious pandering of politicians

David Fettling
September 25, 2018
The island caught in the middle of Indonesia’s growing religious divisions
A Roman Catholic worshipper kneels in a church during Holy Week in Larantuka, on Indonesia's Flores island Photo: Reuters

Travelling away from the banana-pancake breakfasts of Flores’s tourist epicentre and inland into the cool mountainous hinterland of Manggarai, I’m finding a more complex picture of life on this Indonesian island. Growth from tourism is localised and uneven, with swathes of the population missing out. Simultaneously, developments in Indonesian national politics are casting a shadow on the island.

Indonesia’s government has been attempting to boost tourism to parts of the Indonesian archipelago other than Bali. Total visitors to Indonesia rose from 9 to 14 million between 2014 and 2017. That has meant a lot more visitors to the island of Flores and its Komodo National Park, home to the eponymous Komodo dragon. The rising numbers have brought more revenue to this relatively underdeveloped part of Indonesia’s archipelago. Boosting tourism is a key component of Indonesian government attention to Flores and the rest of eastern Indonesia – the industry is seen as a potential stimulus that can lift the entire region. The extent to which this will happen remains undetermined.

Flores is majority Christian; elsewhere in the archipelago, ideas of Indonesia as a pluralistic and multi-religious rather than specifically Islamic country are increasingly under attack. A more conservative, intolerant version of Islam, strongly influenced by Arab Wahhabism, has been growing in influence. Since the prosecution and jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or “Ahok”, in 2017, Indonesian opposition politicians have viewed religious and racial issues as a weapon to use against incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Greater prejudice against religious minorities – Christians, and groups labelled “deviant sects” of Islam – is rising across Indonesian society. With a presidential election next year, matters are likely to deteriorate further.

A Roman Catholic on majority-Christian Flores island. Photo: David Fettling

In coastal Labuan Bajo, I dodge sunscreen-glazed tourists to board a bus into the hills. Soon the landscape is rice fields, forest, ferns, bamboo. A group of Muslim women carry cardboard boxes tied with string. A kid plays a Christian pop song, bopping to the joys of finding Jesus from his smartphone.

The town of Ruteng is green, cool, clear-skied, surrounded by mountains and dotted with Catholic churches. It hopes to attract more tourists, but numbers remain minimal. From the city, I can see mostly disused logging trails snaking through the mountains. Ruteng would be a wonderland for hikers if those trails were developed for hiking – but only one mountain, Ranaka, has a well-maintained trail. Despite this, and with Flores’s tourist job market already flooded, a local tourism school currently produces 1,000 graduates a year, many of whom wander the city starting conversations with foreigners and offering themselves as tour guides.

I’m walking on the outskirts of town when two graduates, brother and sister, come racing out of their home to talk to me. But these two aren’t hustling. They want to test their English as determinedly as I want to test my Indonesian – we all but arm-wrestle over which language to speak. Their flip-flops and T-shirts are worn, the house they’ve come from is basic. They must know the long odds of getting regular guide work, but their faces are optimistic.

Flores fishermen earn their living as they have for generations. Photo: David Fettling

The uneven spread of opportunities is fuelling resentments, but Flores remains politically moderate. President Jokowi is popular here. He promises a more connected Indonesia, with infrastructure linking its islands and breaking down the economic disparities between the archipelago’s centre and peripheries. He is perceived as more supportive than his opponents of a pluralistic Indonesia.

“Jokowi is my president,” says a man running a noodle soup restaurant. The man says Jokowi knows the rakyat jelata – ordinary people – because that’s where he comes from.

The regency of Manggarai is reacting sharply against the growing Islamist chauvinism elsewhere in Indonesia. Here the Indonesian political opposition’s closeness with Islamic hardliners and willingness to continue the kind of racial and religious scapegoating seen in the fall of Jakarta Governor Ahok is undercutting rather than bolstering their support.

I watch a bearded man drink sugary black coffee and eat sweet potato on the porch of a house in a village just outside Ruteng, surrounded by rice fields, and counsel the group not to vote at the coming elections for any political party playing racial or religious politics. Punish them, he says, peeling his potato. People nod soberly.

Grievances are palpable in this village. The provincial government is funding a tourism programme in the next valley, but not this one. In many places, evidence of people being left behind is fuelling an angry, radical politics. But not in this village. Another man points out that Jokowi’s government is giving him financial assistance to build a new house – not a big house, and not a lot of financial assistance, but something. He will vote Jokowi.

In the meantime, the village is trying to attract tourists by itself, building a series of rickety timber bridges to a waterfall a hundred metres away. I walk across the first bridge, hear water slamming on rocks. These villagers remain politically patient in the face of considerable frustrations. Why? Media outlets everywhere are giving great attention to communities that are succumbing to populist politics: those voting for Trump, Brexit, Orbán, Modi and, increasingly, Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. What explains the communities that are not succumbing?

The people of Flores are often caught in the middle when politicians play racial or religious politics. Photo: David Fettling

A short distance away, I see no less than five flags for the PSI, the Indonesian Solidarity Party, allied with Jokowi and with a platform of vigorously supporting Indonesian diversity. To find these flags in a rural area, with media portraying the PSI’s values as hopelessly westernised and cosmopolitan, feels as unexpected as Green Party posters in flyover Ohio.

The bearded man’s desire to punish those parties playing racial and religious politics isn’t universally shared, though. Close by, on a section of highway on a ridge, is a gathering of supporters of Gerindra, the party of opposition leader, military man and would-be demagogue Subianto. The audience is mostly young men slouched on their motorbikes.

Despite the unevenness of mass tourism’s benefits and Flores’s continuing economic underdevelopment, a quiet faith in progress – real, if too-incremental, progress – appears widely held. Adrianus, another graduate of Ruteng’s tourism school, shows me the town’s oldest church. Then he points out a large new church under construction, tall concrete pillars already standing, crucifix installed. Adrianus speaks prudently of whom he intends to vote for in coming elections – in provincial polls for a ticket that promises farmers modest extra assistance and at the next presidential poll for Jokowi.

I wrangle an invitation from a Christian family to accompany them as they join their Muslim neighbours for the Idul Fitri end-of-Ramadan celebrations. At the first home, the reception parlour is packed. Hands are shaken, seats offered. The Christian family quickly joins the conversation. The hosts keep offering everyone more coffee, cake, nuts, lollies. Laughter floats out to the street. A diverse community resists division.

Neighbours interacting civilly across religious lines is increasingly rare in Indonesia’s bigger metropolises and more economically developed islands. But as Flores deals with uneven growth and deleterious politics elsewhere in the archipelago, it’s a tradition plenty of its people seek to maintain.

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