To judge by a news report on May 2, religious authorities in Malaysia’s Pahang state have been pressuring the Batek to abandon their plan to renounce the state-supported Muslim faith.

A Batek boy (Photo by Cleffairy that was on his blog Over a Cuppa Tea with a Creative Commons license)
A Batek boy (Photo by Cleffairy that was on his blog Over a Cuppa Tea with a Creative Commons license)

Siti Kasim, an attorney who has been helping the Batek, uploaded a video to Instagram in which she argued the Batek point of view. In the 1990s they were pressured into abandoning their traditional beliefs and converting to Islam. They claim they still did not really accept the tenets of the new faith. They were not really practicing Muslims. But the villagers feared being evicted from their homes if they were to renounce Islam, which is the state-supported religion of Malaysia.

This Batek community is now considering taking their anti-Islam issue to court but the authorities are trying to discourage them from doing that. Religious figures and government officials have recently been visiting the community with offers of rice. Siti urged the officials to ease off the pressure on the Batek. Let them alone.

This brief news report raises the obvious question, what is it about the traditional Batek beliefs that provokes concern among the Malaysian secular and religious authorities? A first step in answering the question is to consult major ethnographies on the Batek.

Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011
Kirk Endicott speaking at a conference in 2011 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Kirk Endicott’s 1979 book Batek Negrito Religion describes their religious beliefs: their deities, shamans, rituals, views of the cosmos. Their beliefs allow them to understand their world and cope with the forces that surround them. While Endicott’s primary focus is explaining the breadth and depth of Batek religion, he does provide some interesting insights into their peaceful social structure plus their relationships to one another and the earth.

Lye Tuck-Po reported in her 2004 book that until about 100 years ago, Malay slave raiders came up the rivers and decimated the Batek communities. Their caution towards outsiders, even today, is understandable. The Batek fear of outsiders persisted through the 1960s. They would flee settlements along the rivers at the sound of an approaching motorboat.

Those attitudes persist, according to the anthropologist: they socialize their children to conflate fears of strangers with their fear of tigers. While barriers and suspicions are gradually diminishing in communities where Batek and Malays live close to one another, the Batek realize that they are always the subordinate people.

Periodically, she writes, tensions will flare up, particularly when the Muslim Malays become intolerant of the animist beliefs of their neighbors, who continue to resist converting to Islam.