More “orthodox” Islam in Indonesia is inevitable


Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia:

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.

First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.

But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.

Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.

In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.

To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).

At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, abangan and priyayi.

The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the abangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.

It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).

But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Abangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.

Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.

As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.

This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.

* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.

3 thoughts on “More “orthodox” Islam in Indonesia is inevitable

  1. Kind of OT, but I recommend the book “Indonesia, Etc.” for anyone who wants a slice-of-life overview of the country in its modern state.

  2. As an US expat living in Jakarta for a little over a year now, I’ve gotten to be a bit familiar with the classes you speak of, and part of me agrees with the outlook from a social perspective. However another part of me wants to say that the emphasis of this is too focused on international economic behaviors because of a common religion.

    There’s a thorium nuclear reactor molten salt start up from the US that’s here that couldn’t get a light of day state side has close inroads with the government/partnered with a state/private owned company here (read into the history the institutional graft that has held it back related technologies in the US) where I was talking to one of the founders saying that they are taking a Don Quixote look while leverage the decades of research and related existing industrial systems that have been around for much longer.

    So sure, you’ll still hear alarms for people to pray 5 times a day and all day during holidays and such, and perhaps even more protests (where people are promised free food and goods, not too different from the company that pays $25/hr “protesters” state side with uber credits for reinforcement…) that will be portrayed as the dawning of new orthodox era™, but a small contingent here recognize that there is a bigger game at play on this planet and wont care if it takes a couple eye catching articles on the LCD of their society esp if they can attract the smartest in the world who are being held back at wherever they are… luckily because of the internet and similar technologies, the marginal everywhere are no longer reliant upon mean social norms to find others who share similar outlooks to achieve some ends.

  3. Is the rise of orthodox Islam possible and even likely? Yes.

    But, inevitable? I don’t agree.

    Indonesians, in general, and Indonesian Muslims, in particular, do not live in a totalitarian state. It is not North Korea. It is not Cold War Albania. It is not even contemporary Saudi Arabia or 1990s Taliban Afghanistan.

    Many Indonesians have access via the Internet, via satellite radio and TV, via old school CDs and DVDs, and via older school dead tree books and comic books to global culture in a much more direct manner than ever before and at a grass roots level. This may not be available to the shrinking ranks to the anbangan, but it is available to the growing ranks of the tens of millions of people who are part of the urban middle class. The cultural products of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, Korea and Hindu India are available to them as readily and often more effortlessly than those of the Middle East and Islamic South Asia.

    Nobody is going to watch Fast and Furious XIV, or the anime Spirited Away, or Downton Abbey and suddenly risk death to abandon the faith of everyone in their community going back centuries based upon that one contact with foreign culture, anymore than reading Shakespeare will turn you into an Elizabethian Englishman. But, as a generation absorbs foreign culture many hours a week for decades, studies a fundamentally secular science in school from their elementary years until they earn higher educational degrees in science, and travels abroad now and then over their lives they will also inevitable come to the faith of their fathers immersed in the context of a different worldview.

    It wouldn’t at all surprise me if these kind of experiences lead to a way of living an Islamic life more like that of Muslims in Turkey and American and Canadian Muslims who, while certainly not abandoning their religion in any sense of the word, have come to interpret that religion in a much more “liberal” way than their Muslim peers in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Iran, despite remaining within the range of Islamic belief which is conservative on a global scale. This movement could easily echo the movement towards secular lifestyles among nominally Christian Europeans or towards expressly non-religious identification in the United States, notwithstanding the fact that these developments are largely rooted merely in the power of ideas and started from almost nothing and developed with very little formal institutional organization or support.

    One might look for a historical counterpart to this in the Socialist movements that swept the Middle East in places like Egypt, Iraq and Syria in the 1960s as European educated elites returned home with a skepticism of religious mandates along with a commitment to a future rooted in central planning and one party government. Only, this time, it won’t be confined to elites because the rest of the world can come to the people instead of requiring the people to come to the rest of the world to receive these influences.

    This could counterbalance other tendencies and in an overwhelmingly Islamic country that nonetheless lacks the institutions to enforce orthodoxy generally. People can moderate their take on Islam without making people feel threatened from within expressing their identity as particularly Indonesian Muslims.

    This is well within the realm of the possible. Indeed, Javanese may feel as alienated by Aceh as the West that they might want to deliberately take a more “liberal” stance to distinguish themselves from a people from whom they feel culturally distinct and also towards whom they feel they are superior. People do not culturally emulate their perceived inferiors.

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