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.

Arab Islamic science was not Arab Muslim

Someone stupid who follows me on Twitter said “It seems @razibkhan forgot the Arabs gave us algebra and many other scientific/mathematical advances.” The history of algebra is actually somewhat more antique than the Arabs, as outlined in Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. But the origin of the word is Arabic. From Wikipedia:

The word algebra comes from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr lit. “the reunion of broken parts”) from the title of the book Ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala by Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi.

Though Wikipedia says that al-Khwarizmi is Persian, it is more accurate to say he was Iranian-speaking, because as his name attests his origins were in Khwarezm, which is in Central Asia. It is accurate to say that Arab Islamic civilization was intellectually productive in the centuries before 1000 A.D., but it is not accurate to say that Muslim Arab scholars were responsible for this.

A huge number of these scholars were not ethnic Arabs. In the early years a substantial number were not Muslim. Though it is often said that many were Persian, as recounted in Lost Enlightenment many of the “Persians” were not from Persia proper, but from Iranian regions of Central Asia which over the centuries have now become Turkified.

Why is this important? The multicultural nature of early Muslim (and later Ottoman) polities might inform us as to the future of this sort of diverse society. Second, it’s preferable that you don’t seem like an idiot if you want me to listen to anything you say.

Democracy leads to Islamism

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

Modernity is not magic with Muslims

There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*

One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.

To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East or the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on filling substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order. (I know this, so I’m passing this on to you!)

But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.

In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan which is prominent in the news today. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).

But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice among the Bohra. When I saw the doctor’s name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).

The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. The Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.

The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.

Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).

* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.