Migration and Religion: Muslim Migrant Experience on Sumba and West Timor

Friday, April 17th, 2020, 11:49 WIB


Written By: Michael R. Quinlan 

Migration induces social change across the Indonesian archipelago as shifts in demography reshape communities. These demographic changes often upset longstanding balances of power held by groups across religious and ethnic lines. Analyses of many of Indonesia’s historic and ongoing communal conflicts point to migration (and the changes it brings) as an important factor in the instigation of these clashes. Communities on Indonesia’s outer islands commonly criticize migration, suggesting it is an attempt to Javanize or Islamize their regions. Though these claims are numerous, little is known about Muslim experiences of and motivation for migration in Indonesia. The religion and religious sentiments of Muslim migrants is vastly understudied and therefore little understood. 

The process of migration not only transforms host communities, but also the migrants involved. With that in mind, this research set out to study the phenomenon of migration in Eastern Indonesia. Drawn from ethnographic research, this study examined migration’s influence in shaping Muslim migrant religion in Christian majority Sumba and West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) Province. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews of 108 migrants between February 2018 and February 2019. Research sites included Waikabubak and Anakalang on Sumba Island and Kupang, Baun, and Oe’Ekam on Timor Island. To analyze Muslim migrants’ experience, the study utilized a five-pillared ethnographic framework. The pillars for this framework are: (1) motivations for migration, (2) adaptations of migrants, (3) changes to migrants’ religious belief and/or practice, (4) migrant institutions, and (5) migrant perceptions of the Christian majority. For our purposes here, we summarize the main findings of each pillar below.

Motivation - Against the suspicions that migration is a means of Islamization, this study found that, with the exception of one participant “given to bring the faith to Dili,” the participants had no intentions to proselytize local inhabitants. With the theme of migration playing such an important role in the history and theology of Islam, the researcher hypothesized that migrants would characterize their migrations using Qur’anic concepts and terminology. Surprisingly, only a handful of participants related their migrations to that of the Prophet, used Islamic terminology, or acknowledged seeking guidance through prayer or discussions with a religious leader. The vast majority of participants to this study began their migration due to economic and employment concerns. Corruption and economic competition in sending societies and strong migrant networks provide the primary motivations for participants to begin their migration.

Adaptation Migration studies largely focus on international movements of people and the respective adaptations which occur. Domestic migrations potentially pose fewer challenges for migrants based on a shared national identity and common forms of government and commerce. The migrations of the participants of this study, largely from Bima, South Sulawesi, and Java, to NTT required and resulted in linguistic, cultural, and religious adaptations. Migrants who arrived in earlier decades, females, and those living in rural areas experienced the need for greater levels of adaptations. As the Muslim migrant communities have grown in recent decades along with advancements in transportation and communication technologies, more recent and urban migrants find easier transitions to life in Sumba and West Timor.

Adaptations to Muslim migrant religion occur due to the move from a Muslim majority context to one that is predominantly Christian. In their new contexts, migrants find fewer mosques, often further away. The call to prayer is rarely heard, if ever. The availability of halal eating establishments is diminished or nonexistent. Migrants have adapted to these challenges by reorienting their daily prayers to their homes or workplaces, using applications to sound the call to prayer, and by meeting the demand for halal options by entering the marketplace as food vendors. Confronting communities in which Islam in largely unknown, migrants also create space for practicing their faith through advancing religious literacy through informal and formal discussions about Muslim dietary law and other religious practices. 

Effects on Religious Beliefs and Practices - The most immediate effect of migration on Muslim participants of this study is a disruption of their daily practices. Bimanese and Bugis participants noted a common practice in their sending societies of multiple, daily visits to the mushollahor mosqueto pray. After their move, daily attendance has been abandoned due to the distance to the mosque. Frequency of daily prayer drops on arrival due to the inability to hear the adzan and due to adjustment patterns of finding work. A majority of participants noted that the disruptions and adaptations resulting from their migration served to increase or enhance their faith. Free from the social pressures of their sending societies, migrants’ faith became a personal choice. The new context provided freedoms to practice (or refrain from practice) according to one’s own desire as well as to choose the stream of Islam they find most appropriate. Conversions, both to and from Islam, occur, but these are rare and largely linked to intermarriage. 

Effects on Migrant Institutions - In addition to its effects on individual believers, migration shapes the institutions in the receiving communities. As migrants group together to recreate the religious assemblies and social groups of their sending societies, they utilize models from their home societies and adapt them to fit their new contexts. As noted above, fewer mosques exist and this, for most migrants, results in the mosque being more distant than prior to migration. Mosques, therefore, have smaller congregations and are less well attended. They suffer from inferior facilities and educated leadership. In urban areas, most notably Kupang, the size of the migrant community allows for diversification of mosques (and other institutions) along ethnic and theological lines. Elsewhere, the mosques are more ethnically and theologically diverse than those in migrants’ sending societies. This theological and ethnic inclusiveness led several participants in Waikabubak to prefer their migrant context mosques to those of their home islands. 

Socio-religious groups, like arizan-pengajian, follow similar patterns as the mosques. There are fewer options and, where once mandatory for many, the freedom to associate/dissociate results in less regular attendance. Here, also, a higher density of migrants allows for ethnicization of pengajian groups along ethnic lines in urban centers. Religious education options are present in many areas with migrants having mixed preferences between  national and faith-based schools. Enclaving, along ethnic, religious, and ethno-religious lines, is largely a matter of pragmatism as migrants join together to purchase land and build homes. Though practical in their origin, these enclaves have the benefit of aiding in the preservation of culture and religion.

Migrant Perceptions of the Christian Majority - The researcher hypothesized that Muslim migrants would enter the host context with preconceptions of Christians formed in their sending societies and as part of their religious belief. The hope was to discern how these perceptions changed as a result of migrating to a Christian majority and the accompanying increased interaction with non-Muslim individuals. Migrants expressed some difficulty relating an opinion of Christians in advance of migration simply because they had little prior contact with Christians due to the demographics of their societies. Others were notably hesitant to share their personal opinions of Christians prior to migration. Migrants from each of the dominant sending societies (Java, Bima, South Sulawesi), while not affirming personal beliefs, noted a collective intolerance of Christians in their sending societies. 

The participants’ current attitudes towards the Christian majority are clearly positive. They believe themselves to have been warmly welcomed by their Christian neighbors. They have many Christian friends and often deep interreligious friendships with colleagues and community members. Muslims and Christians participate in religious celebrations of both faiths. They involve one another in their daily lives as they would Muslim neighbors on their home islands. They do not believe themselves targets of Christianization and nearly all participants found NTT to be more tolerant than their home islands. While interreligious conflict has occurred in the region, it is largely understood to be an aberration to the daily interactions and relationships between host and migrant communities.  

Conclusion - Migration from Muslim-majority regions of Indonesia to Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara disrupts the religious and cultural patterns of migrants which leads to social and religious adaptations after arrival. Migrants mitigate the loss of ethnic and religious bonds through changes in personal habits, participation in religious communities, and through enclaving. The experience of migration proves to be a “theologizing experience” as a majority of participants reported that their experience as migrants produced positive changes in their personal religious belief. The increased intensity of religious belief draws from processes of individualization, perceived increases in personal liberty, and higher levels of social coherence due to both intrareligious and inter-religious diversity in the host context. While the transformations of the migrants’ individual expressions of Islam are numerous, the intrareligious and inter-religious diversity has a liberalizing effect on migrant perspectives of religious others. The experience of these migrants’ as religious minorities is positive, with participants finding their contexts to be more tolerant than their respective sending societies.

While the relationship between migrants and their host communities in Sumba and West Timor, at present, is a model for other communities, the study reveals opportunities to assist religious groups, civic organizations, and local governments in negotiating the challenges brought by migration. First and foremost, increasing religious and cultural literacy of both migrants and their host communities would prove helpful in mitigating conflict. In the case of the participants of this research, this was largely accomplished through sporadic, informal conversations resulting from misunderstandings. The research also showed that the need for greater literacy spans the spectrum, from the average citizen to leaders involved in protecting religious harmony. Second, this research, at a personal level among these participants, helps to dispel the myth of Islamization. Greater awareness of migrant motivations may allow host communities to develop a more welcoming attitude to their new neighbors. Finally, this research reveals that faith can thrive in the midst of a multicultural, multireligious environment.     

Photos By: Michael R. Quinlan