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Black magic: The key to fighting corruption in Indonesia?

Indonesia has a witchcraft problem. Belief in the supernatural is widespread in the Southeast Asian archipelago — and not just among the underclasses. But like many post-colonial societies, its inherited legal system leaves victims of sorcery unable to seek judicial relief. That may be about the change, however, if the country’s parliament OKs a number ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Indonesia has a witchcraft problem. Belief in the supernatural is widespread in the Southeast Asian archipelago — and not just among the underclasses. But like many post-colonial societies, its inherited legal system leaves victims of sorcery unable to seek judicial relief. That may be about the change, however, if the country’s parliament OKs a number of amendments to its Dutch colonial-era criminal code. The Financial Times has more:

Indonesia would make it illegal for anyone to "declare the possession of mysterious powers" or "encourage others to believe that by their actions they can cause mental or physical suffering of another person." The crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to Rp300m ($30,700).

The amendments, which have been in the works since 2008, would put an end to the perceived bias of the state in favor of witches and sorcerers (the difference: witches possess innate mystical powers, whereas sorcerers have come to acquire them). Critics have denounced this kind of bias not only in Indonesia, but also in numerous other post-colonial societies that have since moved to outlaw black magic. As Michael Rowlands and Jean-Pierre Warnier explained in a 1988 article about witchcraft in Cameroon:

Cases of sorcery were to be brought to court. But the courts dismissed them for lack of evidence against the accused. Once acquitted, the latter often sued the defendants for libel and won their case. The sorcerers were thought to go unchecked and the victim felt betrayed by the colonial authorities who appeared to side with the sorcerers.

Unchecked sorcery has become a major issue in Indonesia, where hundreds of people have been killed by anti-witchcraft vigilantes who have taken the law into their own hands. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono claimed in 2009 that ”[m]any are practising black magic. Indeed, I and my family can feel it.”

But not everyone is in favor of outlawing the dark arts. Indeed, one of the country’s best known warlocks has proposed harnessing the power of black magic to solve other, more pressing problems. "This is the heritage from our ancestors and we need to preserve it," he told the Financial Times. "Rather than banning it, we should use black magic to punish those who are corrupt."

Ty McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. @TyMcCormick

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