The tiny Orang Rimba tribe in Indonesia converted to Islam in January in order to qualify for government benefits, which the tribesmen said are sorely needed to cope with the erosion of their way of life.
AFP quotes members of the tribe speaking candidly about their decision, which should net them government ID cards and eligibility for health care and educational programs.
“Thank God, the government now pays attention to us,” said one of the freshly-minted Muslims. “Before our conversion, they didn’t care.”
The accompanying photos show tribal children wearing Islamic clothing, including skullcaps for the boys and hijabs for the girls, instead of their traditionally minimal attire. A “stilt-mounted wooden hut” was converted into a school for teaching the Quran.
The Orang Rimba have been struggling to continue their existence as nomadic hunters as palm oil plantations and coal mines replace their traditional hunting grounds. A portion of the rainforest was set aside for them as a national park in 2000, creating a special environmental preserve where only the Orang Rimba was allowed to hunt and gather, but the arrangement was criticized for not providing enough space to accommodate the entire tribe. A great deal of the territory originally allocated for the preserve has been taken over by plantations and timber companies.
The tribe has recently been dealing with a severe outbreak of measles, which could help to explain their urgent interest in securing medical benefits. Until now, the Orang Rimba have not participated in Indonesia’s compulsory vaccination program. Pneumonia and malnutrition have also haunted the tribe.
According to AFP, the Orang Rimba were “approached by an Islamic NGO, and the social welfare ministry has helped with the process.”
Some members of the tribe have refused conversion to Islam and are attempting to continue their nomadic existence, which involves moving about three times per month, living under plastic tarps, and hunting with homemade rifles.
The Orang Rimba have reported feeling pressure from the Indonesian state to abandon their traditional lifestyle and religion. Some human rights activists denounced the government for abandoning the tribe until its leaders felt they had no alternative but religious conversion.
“I view this as a result of the state failing to protect them. They turn to clerics or the church in some areas because they offer protection,” Rukka Sombolinggi of human rights group AMAN said.
Indonesian government officials have offered the not-unreasonable counter-argument that providing social services to nomadic tribesmen is extremely difficult.