Habits of the Heart in Bali

By: Paul Marshall

On March 9, Indonesians witnessed a solar eclipse—in some areas, a total eclipse. This spectacular event excited pretty well everybody, but was of particular import for not only scientists but also the country’s majority Muslim population, for whom such heavenly occasions are a call to worship and prayer.

Normally, this would not present any problems, but March 9 was also the date of the Hindu holiday Nyepi. On this day, Hindus celebrate the Caka New Year with a day of complete silence and contemplation, and don’t travel or use electricity. Since Hindus are a majority in Bali, the island essentially shuts down for the day: ports, airports, and shops are closed; flights are delayed or cancelled, and only ambulances travel the roads.

Of course, this makes contradictory demands on Hindus and Muslims. Both are highly public religions, as most religions are, and on this day, their desires for public space—for religious gatherings and prayer on the one hand, for complete silence and domestic seclusion on the other—were in marked tension.

What then could they do?

The secular ideologies that are increasingly influential in the West often argue that the solution to such conundrums is to restrict religion from public space. In contrast to international standards, they also often claim that religion is either innately private or else that it should be required to be private—that only secular views may be allowed out in public without adult supervision. In the name of pluralism, they proclaim that theirs is the one true way. In the name of inclusion, they exclude views other than their own.

In contrast, Indonesia proclaims itself, including in the constitution, to be both fundamentally religious and fundamentally plural. The country certainly has problems enough, including with religious freedom, but most of its people find good ways to live alongside each other. This was beautifully illustrated in Bali at the coincidence of the solar eclipse and Nyepi. 

Abdul Kadir Makaramah, secretary of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council, a senior association of Muslim leaders, said the Council asked Muslims to pray either at home or else in mosques close to home, so they would not use vehicles, and also to forgo the usual practice of using loudspeakers in the mosques. He added, “We respect the Balinese Hindus observing Nyepi…. in Bali, we support each other.” [1] Another prominent Muslim figure, Badrus Syamsi, reported, “We told people not to ride their vehicles to go to the mosque and to respect our Hindu brothers and sisters.”

This spirit also appeared in worship. Hendro Saputra said, “For me, as a Muslim, Nyepi also serves as a time to be closer to God as we have the opportunity to pray the eclipse prayer, to read the Qur’an, and to be closer to the family.” Similarly, I Wayan Adhe, a Hindu community leader, declared “The eclipse means a lot to us, as nature also seems to be in silence…”

In Bali, there was no specific governmental prohibition of loudspeakers or travel: Muslims, and others, simply followed these admonitions voluntarily. Clearly, since these were not strict legal requirements, it is difficult to derive wider legal lessons. But perhaps there are more important lessons for Westerners.

At the risk of imposing foreign political categories on Indonesian practices that are centuries—sometimes millennia—old, these local habits of the heart seem markedly akin to a Burkean sensibility to tradition, custom, inherited wisdom, and, particularly, accommodation. Their focus is on how practically we can live together in ways that respect each others’ beliefs and accompanying ways of life.

These practices also appear to contrast starkly with currently influential Rawlsian calls for the exclusion of religious claims from public life—which are sincerely offered as ways to accommodate different religious beliefs, but only at the cost of confining such beliefs to closets barred from the wider world.

In our increasingly religious world, a world in which religions are not private, and are unlikely to bcome so, the former is more likely than the latter to provide good examples for us on how we can live peacefully and fruitfully together with our different neighbors.

At a simpler and deeper level, they also reflect the words and beliefs of many, including a Balinese Muslim, Ahmad Wahid: “We didn’t turn on the speakers because we understand that they are our neighbors….”  

[1] All quotations and other local information are taken from the Jakarta Post report on Nyepi published on March 10, 2016. 

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

This piece was originally authored on March 17, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.