Following an attack by masked assailants that led to cancellation of the traditional Javanese sedekah laut ceremony in Cental Java’s Bantul regency on Saturday, another cultural festival in Banyuwangi, East Java, has decided to carry on despite opposition from a local hardline Islamic group.
The celebration in the spotlight is Saturday’s Gandrung Sewu Festival, the highlight of which is a massive dance exhibition. Gandrung is a form of traditional dance performed in many parts of Indonesia but which is especially closely related to Banyuwangi. Originally performed as a ritual for Dewi Sri, a goddess of rice and fertility, it evolved into more of a courtship dance and, now, a major tourist attraction. This year’s festival is set to feature a record breaking 1,314 dancers.
Although the festival is generally very popular, this year it was denounced by the Banyuwangi branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which issued a letter saying they officially rejected the event.
Essentially, the reasoning in the letter is that, because the Gandrung Sewu festival has animistic origins and associations, it could trigger the wrath of God in the form of a natural disaster similar to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Central Sulawesi on September 28.
Banyuwangi FPI leader H. Agus Iskandar told the media that the letter, and the threat of God’s anger, were both very real.
“Yes, that is our statement. The point is to warn people so they are not punished by God for indulging in such disobedience. The disaster in Palu must be a mirror for Banyuwangi residents,” Agus told reporters on Thursday as quoted by Detik.
However, Agus also said the letter was just a warning and if the organizers decided to carry out the festival then FPI would not take action against it.
The chairman of this year’s festival, Budianto, said the festival would go on as planned as they did not think FPI’s rejection constituted a significant problem. He also argued that the dance was purely an art performance without any religious connotation.
Hopefully the festival will go off tomorrow without having to deal with anything like what happened to last week’s sedekah laut ceremony in Bantul. On the night before that event was set to take place, a group of about 50 masked men went to the beach and started destroying tables and chairs set up for the ceremony. The ceremony was ultimately canceled while the assailants remain unidentified.
The sedekah laut ceremony in nearby Cilacap did take place last Friday, but in the week before, banners denouncing the event, carrying messages like “Jangan Larung Sesaji Karena Bisa Tsunami” (Don’t do offerings because it can cause a tsunami) and “Make a Tourism Program that Doesn’t Incur God’s Wrath” caused controversy in the area.
Those banners had been put up by the Cilicap branch of the hardline Muslim People’s Forum (FUI), who eventually agreed to take down the banners following severe criticism by locals.
The mention of a tsunami in the banners was also no doubt a reference to the disasters in Central Sulawesi, with the implication being that the sedekah laut ceremony is a form of shirik (in Islam, actions that support idolatry or polytheism) that could make God angry and thus cause natural disasters.
The idea that those disasters were caused due to God’s anger has unfortunately found a strong following among some Muslim in Indonesia. In addition to numerous anecdotal reports we’ve heard about Muslim preachers blaming immorality for the disaster in Central Sulawesi, there is actually a conspiracy theory that it was caused by the existence of a monument that resembled the shape of an eye — which is a sign of Dajjal, the Islamic Anti-Christ — in the nearby regency of Mamuju in West Sulawesi (the monument was even destroyed by the local government on Oct. 11 due to fear caused by the conspiracy theory).
The theory says that the people of Mamuju were going to carry out a sacrificial ritual for the sea gods on the day of the disaster. Some, such as preacher Zulkifli M Ali in the video below (which has over 2 million views) claim that it was that blasphemous idolatry that led to the disasters which, back in the real world, caused over 2,000 people to be killed and over 5,000 feared to be missing.
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