Indonesians ask if calamities are a divine rebuke

Jakarta, Indonesia - Shockwaves from the string of natural disasters over the past 19 months, including numerous earthquakes, two tsunamis, and an imminent volcanic eruption, have reached even Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the state palace.

Irked by nationwide whisperings that the calamities were a divine statement against his rule, Mr. Yudhoyono told state meteorologists Thursday to explain the science behind the disasters on radio and television.

"Superstition and mysticism is a factor in Indonesia," says Dino Patti Djalal, a presidential spokesman. "But it's the last thing we need when facing natural disasters."

The giant Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 that struck 11 countries seemed to leave in its wake a series of natural disasters. Since then, Indonesia has faced deadly floods, landslides, and parching droughts. One week ago Monday an earthquake struck off the coast of Java island, leaving at least 668 dead. Sunday, a 6.1 magnitude quake off Sulawesi island sent coastal residents fleeing inland – but no tsunami materialized.

In the scramble to explain the apparent wrath of nature, science is jostling against religion and even supernatural beliefs. National newspapers have carried full front-page color diagrams of the crashing tectonic plates beneath the 17,000-island Indonesian archipelago. On the editorial pages, writers have called for "national introspection," quoting religious leaders calling for repentance.

The president's political opponents, such as the well-known soothsayer Permadi, have eagerly spread the notion of a divine warning. Speaking on Metro-TV Wednesday, he warned that the president was angering nature. "He [the president] has 'hot hands' which are causing these calamities," said Permadi, a legislator in the national parliament. In the late 1990s, Permadi, of Yudhoyono's rival political party the PDI-P, also foretold that aliens in UFOs would arrive to save Earth.

According to the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), a national polling agency, the president has reason to be worried. The LSI released a survey in July based on a sample of 440 people in earthquake-afflicted Yogyakarta concluding that the public had begun to interpret the natural disasters "mystically, irrationally, or spiritually."

The survey concluded that 78.1 percent of those polled believed the disasters were a "warning from nature to Indonesia." The LSI's executive director, Denny Ali, said to reporters that the president's political opponents were indeed pushing the idea that he had helped trigger the disasters.

"In Indonesia, people believe in the supernatural," says Muhammad Qodary, an LSI researcher. "And the more people believe [the disasters] don't come from scientific explanations, the more they'll look to the supernatural."

Mr. Qodary says that those polled tended to explain the natural disasters based on either religious or pantheistic beliefs.

Gendut Irianto, a Muslim and car salesman in Jakarta, is turning to his faith for explanations. "I think the earthquake was definitely a warning from God to all Indonesians so we should chant and pray for forgiveness." He adding that "although Java supposedly has mystical protection from Nyi Roro Kidul, [the spirit-queen of the South Seas], nothing could protect us from the holy wrath for our sins."

Henri Siregar, a Catholic business executive in his 30s, says, "The earthquake is a warning to the central government." Decrying Indonesia's widespread corruption, Mr. Siregar says: "I think a lot of people are screwed up. Of course we'll get a slap on the wrist [from God]."

Not all are convinced. "The earthquake was just a natural phenomena, not a sign that nature or God was angry," says Tonie Tanu, a music producer in Jakarta. Among the skeptics is the president himself, who aides say described predictions of omens of his downfalls as "rubbish."

President: It's a sign ... of tectonics

Palace officials said that Yudhoyono, himself a devout Muslim, confirmed that the May 27 earthquake in Yogyakarta was indeed a sign, but "of Indonesia sitting on top of unstable tectonic plates."

Dr. Fauzi, a US trained geophysicist who monitors earthquakes for the Indonesian government, says that science and religion did not necessarily contradict each other. "You can see it purely on a scientific level. We rest on tectonic plates," he says, "but God created them. We can study nature and understand it, but if we misuse it, the Koran – and the Bible – can tell us the consequences."

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, all citizens by law must subscribe to at least one of five state-sanctioned religions.

Pantheism endures in Indonesia

Aside from the 88 percent Muslim majority, Indonesia has Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. But religions imported in the past 1,000 years have in many places blended with pantheistic beliefs and nature worship. Qodari, who helped research the LSI survey, believes pantheism may be strongest on the most populous island of Java.

The spiritual caretaker of the Merapi volcano in central Java, an octogenarian known as M'bah Maridjan, showed the strength of such beliefs in May when he chose to defy orders from the government – and warnings from seismologists – and remain in his house on the mountain's smoldering slopes.

Hundreds of villagers chose to follow Mr. Maridjan's example, angering some scientists who warned of an imminent eruption. Maridjan, instead, chose to pray and lead a procession up the mountain, claiming that he was told by a nearby sultan, the late Hamengkubuwono IX, to guard the volcano and take care of the villagers.

Maridjan's credibility jumped after the government relaxed its alert warning in June, allowing thousands of villagers to return to their homes.