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Crossing Geographic and Religious Borders: Muslim Migrants on Sumba and Timor Islands


  May 25th 2021

Dr. Michael Quinlan with Muslim migrants in Sumba, Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara

Migration has shaped the genetics of the Indonesian archipelago. The world's religions have supplanted or mixed with local beliefs these last 2000 years of Indonesia's history, as migrants from China, India, the Middle East, and Europe migrated to and traded with and colonized this nation. Within this same country, there are places like Aceh, Bali, and Papua with radically different religious demographics. Furthermore, advances in transportation and communication technologies have opened new possibilities and new geographic spaces once believed to be out of reach. Therefore, migration is not something that only shaped this country in the past. Rather, migration is something that continues to reshape Indonesia even now as people move from the village or rural areas to the city or urban area, from Indonesian's outer islands to Java, from all over the world to Jakarta and to Bali. And, so, today in places like Yogyakarta, there is a 1300-year-old Hindu temple across the street from a mosque, a Catholic church built in Javanese style, and a group of people from around the world and from many different faiths joining this forum to learn from one another.

This issue of migration and religion was discussed by Dr. Mike Quinlan, a Christian pastor serving with the Yogyakarta International Congregation and alumnus of ICRS at the Ap4il 14, 2021 Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion held by ICRS and CRCS. Quinlan’s presentation was titled ‘Crossing Geographic and Religious Borders: Muslim Migrants on Sumba and Timor Islands’.  The presentation was based on his dissertation research which examines the phenomenon of migration and the changes which occur in Muslim migrants’ faith and practice as they move from their Muslim-majority homelands to the Christian-majority islands of Sumba and Timor. Migration disrupts the religious and cultural patterns of migrants leading to social and religious adaptations. Migrants mitigate the loss of ethnic and religious bonds through changes in personal habits, participation in religious communities, and ethnic enclaving. Many participants reported that their experience as migrants produced positive changes in their personal religious beliefs.

At the beginning of his presentation, Quinlan explained that this research was very much motivated by his own religious community’s failings to understand the experiences of migrants to the U.S. He grew up in a small suburb of a larger city and when he first moved to the city, the town was still mostly a farming community, mostly it was white and mostly it was rural but it was developing and modernizing quickly. At one point in the 1990s, his town was one of the top three fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and this growth brought newcomers from across the US and from around the world. No longer was my city ethnically or religiously homogenous. The U.S. has had several waves of mass immigration throughout its history. Early on most immigrants were northern European and Protestant, later Europeans of Italian and Irish descent, such as Quinlan's family arrived, and they drew suspicion on account of their Catholic faith. Still, until the 20th century, migration to the United States was largely European and mostly Christian. In 1965, much of that changed with the revision of immigration laws and the subsequent wave of Asian immigrants to the US brought changes to many cities including Quinlan's small town. In this city, immigrants from South Asia have replaced Hispanics as the largest immigrant group. Now, these immigrants are Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. When Quinlan moved to Indonesia in 2014, his postal code had become more than 50% immigrant, with one in three persons having been born outside the US. When Quinlan was young people with non-western names who went to the mosque or the temple, instead of a church were among his closest friends, every day they inhabited the same places, the same schools, playgrounds, officers, and neighborhoods. However, while everything seemed peaceful in his childhood. When he grew up and he took a position as a religious leader, Quinlan began to discern the tension within his community. One thing concerned him most of all was how the Christian church was dealing with the issue of immigration, mostly failing, mostly responding with fear and suspicion. Therefore, Quinlan and his family migrated to Indonesia, to experience firsthand the life of migrants entering a space wherein they are now a religious minority.

Align with that, Quinlan explained that, like the community in the US, wherein lies growing tensions between migrants and their host communities, similar struggles occurred in Indonesia. Many scholars comment on the demographic shifts in religion due to migration as the root cause of these conflicts. A quick survey of recent and ongoing conflicts reveals the struggles of communities as once seemingly firm and strict geographic and religious boundaries are eroded with the movement of people. This is evident in the houses of worship controversies across Indonesia where religious buildings are rejected by locals because this or that geographic space has been claimed for a particular religious group. For example, Bataks have difficulties building in Bekasi, the Balinese in Bogor, and Bimanese in Nusa Tenggara Timur (abbreviated as NTT). Nevertheless, in Indonesian conflict studies, migration is often one of the stated causes, but most of the commentary has to do with the immediate actions and reactions of the community and says very little of the migrant or host communities experience leading up to the conflict, thus Quinlan started looking for migration studies in Indonesia. The available literature largely dealt with urbanization or Indonesian migrant workers going abroad, there was little that spoke with internal migrants and their stories. This gap encouraged Quinlan to set out to listen to migrants, to discern if and how migration was affecting them, their beliefs, and their religious practices. Wanting to better understand the experience of Muslim migrants to the US, Quinlan determined to focus on Muslim migrants to Christian regions of Indonesia, therefore he chose the region of NTT and specifically the island of Sumba and Timor.

Sumba itself is well-known for its traditional houses and culture have recently drawn a large number of tourists. Many believe that Sumba could be the next tourism hotspot like Bali. However, Sumba along with NTT is underdeveloped and one of the poorest areas of Indonesia. Except for a few urban centers, the island is largely lacking in infrastructure and faces issues of food scarcity, health, and drought. The week prior to the forum, both Sumba and West Timor were hit by extreme weather resulting in flooding and damage to an already weakened crop season. Until the last century, Sumba was ruled by tribal kings, and in the Dutch colonial era, they claimed Sumba as part of their territory. There was little interaction with the island beyond trade. Known alternatively as Sandalwood Island, the island's main exports were timber and slaves. With the exception of a few protected forested areas, the island has largely been de-forested. Bimanese, Bugis, Indonesian and Arab traders have had small settlements on Sumba's northern coast for centuries, but neither Islam nor Christianity made its way inland until the 20th century. This was made possible by the Dutch pacification of the tribal kings at the turn of the 20th century.

Unlike other areas where the Dutch limited Christianizing activity, the Dutch allowed the Protestant Church on Sumba and Timor to freely work in the region, and they did so because they were actively trying to limit the expansion of Islam. Slowly, the islands traditional religions known have been replaced and mixed with Christian and Catholic belief systems. Islam is largely located on the coast, in the port cities of Waikoro, Mamboro, and Waingapu. However, in the 1900s it, too, made inroads into central portions of Sumba. Arab traders intermarried with locals, and people of Arab descent can still be seen walking around the streets of Waikabubak. Though there are native Sumbanese Muslims, the Muslim community remains a predominantly migrant community, most having arrived in recent decades. In Sumba, Quinlan chose Waikabubak (Urban)/Anakalang (Rural); and Timor: Kupang (Urban)/Baun, Oe'Ekam (Rural). Waikabubak had the benefit of several mosques, Islamic schooling, and pesantren. Waikabubak's Muslim population is nearly 15% while Anakalang is only 7%. Both of these areas are heavily Christianized with relatively few remaining Marapu adherents that mostly concentrated in the regency of East Sumba.

West Timor, like Sumba, is underdeveloped and poverty-stricken. The development levels of each of the eight regencies are below the Indonesian average except for Kota Kupang, therefore Kupang stands out among research locations. Its population and developmental state provide opportunities that cannot be found in other research areas in NTT. Kupang has been an important trading port for hundreds of years proven by the competition of western powers of the Dutch and Portuguese which fought over control of Timor. This eventually resulted from the division of the land regarding its religious demography as the Dutch promoted Protestantism and Portuguese Catholicism. Like in Sumba, Islam in Timor largely remains a coastal phenomenon. As in Sumba, the growth and spread of Islam and Christianity on the island is recent to the 20th century. Christianity spread with the help of Christian education offered by the Dutch and later a revival movement in the 60s and 70s. Outside of Kupang, there do exist small Muslim migrant communities. The rural areas chosen in Timor included the Village of Baum, about 45 minutes from Kupang and Oeekam about three hours from Kupang. Baum is a small town with a handful of migrant business which surrounds the market area. There is a mix of Bimanese and Bugis migrants there. Baum is surrounded by villages with no Muslim population due to local kings maintaining land rights into the late 20th century. Most of these local kings did not want Muslims to settle there, except the king of Baun who had a Muslim friend and thus allowed Muslims to live in his area and, hence, until today, a small population of Muslims exists in this region. Oeekam is also unique in its relationship with the local kings. One of the local kings converted to Islam and his tribe followed him. In Oeekam and surrounding villages, there are native Timorese Muslims.  Across NTT, the Muslim population has largely remained the same around 9-10% since the latter 20th century. There is a sizeable increase in the Muslim population due to continued migration and starting families, but this is matched by the high birth rates of the residents. In this research, Quinlan interviewed 108 participants in total (58 from Sumba and 50 from Timor); 63 from the urban area and 45 from a rural area; 64 male and 44 female; regarding the origin: 50 people from Java, 36 from Sumbawa, 16 from Sulawesi, etc; migration periods: 9 persons from around 1960-1970s, 22 persons in 1980s, 14 persons in 1990s, 36 persons in 2000s and 27 in 2010s.

Regarding the term migration and religion, Quinlan argues that those terms are both very large concepts. That is why Quinlan took a phenomenological approach to this study to focus the study on the interplay between the two, religion and migration. The research questions follow certain themes, such as: motivation (Do migrants assign religious significance to their migration and what role does migrants' faith play in the motivation for and decision-making of migration?); Second is, adaptation, (Does migration to NTT require adaptation and how the beliefs and practices of these migrants affected during this time of transition?); Third is, belief  (How does the experience of these migrants affect their religious attitudes and practice?); Fourth is, institutions, (How does the experience of these migrants affect their institutions?); Fifth is, perceptions of Christians, (How does the experience of these migrants affect their religious understanding of Christians?)

According to his research, Quinlan found that the stories of migration always began with the need to leave because most migrants struggled before they left their home islands. For many years they tried to find work, profit, and successful careers before finally deciding to move. Economic competition, job scarcity, corruption, were commonly the reason that staying in their home was no longer acceptable. The decision to migrate was helped by the developed formation of migrant networks in Sumba and Timor wherein migrants sent word back to their sending society of the successes that they have had. And bolstered by these stories of success, or the invitation from family and friends, new migrants set out to try their luck in NTT. However, regarding the  motivation for migration, Quinlan found that migrants’ faith played very little role in the initial stages of the migration process. Some of the participants found it hard to answer questions about their beliefs and practice, but all had a vivid story of their travel to NTT. One interesting story came from a man who had a vision that Allah was calling him to the East and so at 19 he stowed away on a boat and landed in Timor and has lived there ever since. He lived in Timor for five years before his parents even knew he was alive.

Furthermore, Quinlan found that the experience of migrants is religiously significant, but they largely do not utilize religious terminology and paradigms to describe their migration. Islamization is not a primary motivation for migration. These migrants are largely self-funded, spontaneous migrants and there is no sense of large-scale coordination between migrant communities for the purposes of Islamizing the region. Only one of 108 participants move for explicit Islamization motives. Moreover, economic concerns instigated most migrations because economic reasons are the primary motivation of migrants. Migration network and migration systems theory offer the best explanations for understanding continued migration to NTT. The vast majority of migration occurred as people were looking for work and profit for their businesses. Interestingly, basic economic theories of migration do not fit in Sumba and NTT. The economic disparities between the islands do not match, there is no sense of moving from an underdeveloped area to a more developed area, there is no sense of unskilled workers moving to a place in need of cheap labor. Instead, these are largely skilled workers and tradesmen moving to an underdeveloped area where the hope for income, the hope for a career is rolling the dice, a gamble. Migrant networks are built off the successes of previous migrants who share their successes story back to their communities and that drives further support and the chains of migration that continue until today.

Concerning adaptation, Quinlan argues that, although the migrants from this study are only moving within Indonesia, the changing context can be an extreme challenge for adaptation as they cross the borders from their homelands into NTT. Some challenges that they need to adapt or deal with are differences in language, culture, developmental state, and religion. In terms of religion, they face the concerns of poor religious literacy, a lack of or distance to worship space, a lack of or reduced access to halal vendors. All of these challenges result in a disruption of their religious practice. Regarding religious institutions, Quinlan explains that in NTT, when compared to sending societies, there are fewer mosques and they generally have poorer facilities and less qualified leadership. But, some of the things that migrants liked about their new mosques was the diversity that they found. In Sumba, for instance, there are three mosques in Waikabubak and one in Anakalang but because the smaller number of mosques, all people from different ethnic backgrounds and streams of Islam will join for worship. Thus, the migrant context opens them up to new ideas and a sense of forced tolerance because they have to come together and put away their differences. Because of this, some of the migrants appreciated their experience living as minorities in NTT. In urban environments, like Kupang, people may have more opportunity for diversification of their meeting groups along ethnic lines and religious lines. This diversification can be seen in pengajian or arisan groups, religious education, the mosques, and in ethnic enclaves. Lastly, concerning perceptions of Christians, Quinlan found that more data is needed here because migrants were generally hesitant, evasive, or unwilling to share their beliefs regarding Christians before their migration, but almost all of them had positive perceptions of Christians post-migration. Nearly all felt welcome and received by the community. Ninety-eight percent of the participants believed that NTT is more tolerant than their sending societies. And, while there have been small scale recent religious conflicts (e.g. delays in mosque construction), migrants generally do not believe religious conflict is a major concern. 

Quinlan concluded his presentation with five suggestions for communities to aid migrants in their transition. First, there is a great need for inter-religious literacy. Migrants need to know more about Christianity and the cultures that they are going to enter. Christian communities receiving migrants need to know about Islam, whether that is in a national curriculum or through teachings and pieces of training offered by local government or faith-based organizations. Second, there is also a need for religious accommodations. One of the biggest adaptions and problems migrants had upon entering Sumba and Timor were that there was no place or time set aside for them to pray at their workplace and schools. For instance, a migrant shared that work meetings were held on Friday so Muslims missed Friday prayers or the food that was brought for luncheons was not halal. Third, we also need to put away the idea that migration is somehow linked with Islamization and Christianization. There may be demographic changes but the idea that these migrants come with Islamization motives is unfounded in this research. Fourth, there also a need for support programs, be they from the religious community or local governments. Migrants shared that there was no religious-based organization or government program that helped them to adapt to their new environment. Programs like these could be important in preventing and solving the future conflict. Fifth, land rights protections and migration policy also need to be adjudicated in Sumba and Timor, to ensure that local tribes and indigenous communities do not lose their lands. In Waikabubak, the local tribe has lost most of its land because migrants have bought it by quick cash, it will be a generational problem very soon.