Oct 25, 2016

From sex to murder: Dark face of Indonesian cults

Callistasia Anggun Wijaya and Dandy Koswaraputra

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, October 25, 2016 


Some people seem hardly able to differentiate between spiritualism and shamanism, given the fact that they are seeking cults to indulge their spiritual thirst without really exploring the insight of the groups.

At least two scandalized cult-turns-to-crime cases have recently come to light in the world’s most populous Muslim country recently. The latest incident was the detention of cult leader Taat Pribadi, who claimed to have the ability to multiply banknotes, over alleged involvement in murder cases.

Taat, the self-proclaimed “Kanjeng Dimas” (a royal title), has rejected the allegations. However, police allege the man of Javanese-Arab descent was responsible for the deaths of some of his followers.

Before the detention of Taat, police arrested another sect leader from Sukabumi, West Java, Gatot Brajamusti, who has been accused of misusing drugs for his ritual activities including having sex with many women, aside from another indictment of possessing illegal arms.

Despite the fact that both leaders’ claim the status of “spiritual guru”, the police have named them as suspects.

The public have been puzzled not only by the news and publication of these sensational cases but also surprised by the many prominent individuals, educated people and famous artists, who have joined the groups.

One of the most prominent devotees is Marwah Daud Ibrahim. She used to lead the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) and worked as a research assistant for both the World Bank and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT).

Marwah was also a member of the House of Representative from 2004 to 2009, representing the Golkar Party. The US doctoral graduate and intellectual politician met Taat Pribadi in 2011.

“At first I didn’t believe it either. Could it be true? I was afraid that it was something negative,” Marwah told The Jakarta Post recently, adding that she was heavily skeptical at first because of her academic and professional background.

It took her a year of regular meetings with Taat, and witnessing him in action, before she started believing in his “miraculous” power and publicly acknowledging that he had been blessed with "extraordinary gifts" from God.

“Slowly [I started to believe him]. And it was a rational thing. And it was also not against religion. In the Quran, there’s a saying that if God wills it, then it will be,” Marwah said.

As her belief grew stronger, Marwah’s role in the ritual group expanded and she was eventually appointed as the head of an organization named after Taat, who was domiciled in Probolinggo, East Java.

Unlike Marwah who took a year to follow her spiritual guru, famous singer Reza Artamevia did not take long to join Gatot Brajamusti’s cult in 2005, located 900 kilometers from Taat's base.

Her relationship with Gatot reportedly became more than just that of a student and a spiritual teacher after she divorced her husband Aji Masaid. They have reportedly been married informally.

Reza, a graduate of Pancasila University, was recently arrested with her spiritual guru in a hotel room in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara, for alleged drug possession. 

This leads to a question: how can well-educated individuals and prominent persons, be so easily deceived by claims and promises that are too good to be true?

Fragile modern people

Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra examines the phenomenon from the standpoint of the sociology of religion, saying that the cases of Taat Pribadi and Gatot Brajamusti indicate the fragility of modern Indonesian people’s understanding of the praxis of religious intellectualism.

Like Azyumardi, lecturer at the State Islamic University, Muhammad Latif Fauzi, said the phenomenon showed the way religion—and its traditional values—and modern thought are interwoven into legal, black-and-white cases: between black magic, crimes, fraud and the like.

According to Latif, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Leiden University, scholars over the last few decades have been concerned with the relation between modernity and religion. That modernity, attributed to rationality, leads to the decline of traditional religious values and practices.

Commitment to modernization has led to the alienation of past traditions, discouraging ritual activities. Here modernity experiences a problematic relationship with the past. It has somehow invented new kinds of authorities and “rites”.

Many Asian countries have been experiencing this variety of religious resurgence, a resistance against modernity. These movements interestingly benefit from modern technology and transnational networks.

Azyumardi said the Taat and Gatot cases also showed that such fragility among modern people was related to many other things; not only aspects of spirituality and religion but also the social environment, economics, law and politics.

Therefore, he added, these cases should not only be explained from the viewpoint of religious studies. Various approaches and viewpoints are needed to explain why people lapse into understandings and practices that are religiously, socially and culturally "heterodox"—defying the legitimate and authoritative orthodoxy, teachings, values and standard practices.

On the one hand, Azymardi said, people's lapses into heterodox understanding and practices are related to a wider social and cultural crisis. Such crises can create severe disorientation in individuals who are troubled and deluded due to the personal issues they are facing.

Therefore, according to Azyumardi, the people who are dragged into religious, cultural and social heterodoxies are usually those facing problems that they cannot resolve naturally.

Psychologically, they are engulfed by delusions that make it easier for them to be engulfed by superstition. Because of this, they are also easily tempted by offers and promises that can resolve their problems instantly.

There are at least three factors that drive people—both ordinary and highly educated people—to submit to religious-intellectual heterodoxies. These factors are internal and external and they mesh with one another.

First, an identity crisis due to unresolved personal or family issues. As time goes by, unresolved identity crises may create a greater push for people to find shortcuts or instant resolutions. This might explain why an educated and economically successful artist such as Reza was trapped by Gatot’s allegedly pseudo-spiritualism.

Second, a political obsession for power and position. There may be difficulties fulfilling these obsessions for various reasons, both internal and external. Such conditions drive people to seek instant solutions to obtain or maintain power through unusual ways.

Third, greed for money and financial difficulties due to the piling up debts or stagnating business endeavors. This can drive people to believe in promises of multiplying money, gold or other valuable assets. In order to be eligible for the money-multiplication process they willingly deliver a down payment that can reach hundreds of millions, or even billions, of rupiah.

According to Azyumardi, Indonesia's fragile religious-social development gives space for the emergence and rise of cults. The fast-changing socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions have disrupted and disoriented many people.

They may potentially fall into the embrace of charismatic figures who are nothing more than con men promising "shortcuts" for the problems they are facing.

The fact that there are loyal educated followers who keep defending their cult leaders despite legal issues indicates that there is something greater behind the phenomenon, which might involve social, psychological and economic aspects of society.

Therefore, it would be too shallow to see the cult phenomenon only from criminal and religious perspectives. Due to the always-looming threat of the con-man cult phenomenon, religious organizations and the public at large need to be smart and use their common sense.

Religious functionaries and religious organization leaders should always protect their followers by disseminating religious understanding and practices. They must take a note that our modern society turns out to be still fragmented with paradoxes between modern and traditional values and practices. (ags)



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