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Islam in Indonesia (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Jajat Burhanudin and Kees van Dijk (eds). 2013.
Islam in Indonesia: Contrasting Images and Interpretations
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9789089644237

Islam and Muslim communities in Indonesia have been historically illustrated as most tolerant and accommodative. This is a very double-edged qualification. At one hand, it puts the very religion and Muslims in other parts of the world as less tolerant and aggressive – standing in lines with the popular narratives in mainstream media and Islamophobic rhetoric. On the other hand, it is an injustice to the history of Islam in Indonesia itself. Even if we ignore the fierce theological debates and consequent violence in premodern Indonesian Islam such as in 17th-century Aceh, the religio-political scenario in post-colonial Indonesia too is not much different from trajectories across the globe, the Muslim world in particular. It was well explicated through several occasions like incomparable massacres of 1965, series of bombings in Bali happened in the 2000s, and attacks on ‘deviant’ Muslim groups such as Ahmadis. Yet Indonesian Islam continues to be depicted for its ‘smiling face’ throughout popular, journalistic and even academic narratives. Against this background, the essays in Islam in Indonesia: Contrasting Images and Interpretations edited by Jajat Burhanudin and Kees van Dijk put forward a promising analysis on the diverse image constructions and the actual contexts behind them.

The positive and appreciative rhetoric for Islam and Muslim communities in Indonesia was mostly generated through its adaption of a democratic parliamentarian system and accommodative policies towards the pluralities of ethnic, linguistic and marginal groups, without creating an intimidating domination of homogeneity. The attitudes taken by the political leaders and policy-makers during the post-colonial state formation have facilitated in constructing such a tolerant and easygoing face to the Indonesian Islam. But subsequent sociopolitical and religious formations were not that easy, as was the case elsewhere in post-colonial states of South and Southeast Asia and in the Muslim/Islamic environments. Conversely, such deleterious aspects were not taken into consideration in most analyses until a violent image of Islam began to dominate the mainstream media and intellectual discussions after the 9/11. The radicalized Islam of Indonesia also thus found its route to the discourses, especially after the terrorist and extremist incidents in eastern Indonesia. The present volume therefore perfectly fits into the growing concerns against the constructed and contrasted images of Islam in Indonesia, as elsewhere. However, the volume does not address this wider problem of images in the post-9/11 Islamic world, and it does not contextualize the contrasting images of Indonesian Islam in its own historical settings either.

The editors are two eminent specialists on modern Indonesian Islam who have produced some remarkable works emphasizing on religious, gender and political aspects in their various writings. Burhanudin has worked on Indonesian religious scholars, power-struggles, authority and elitism, religious education, and most importantly, on gender and familial issues, whereas Van Dijk has written extensively on religious authority, power struggles, along with his path-breaking studies on the 19th- and 20th-century Indonesian Islam. This trajectory enables them to bring together analyses on diverse and complex aspects of the topic with a high participation of the Indonesian scholars themselves. In the ‘Introduction’, and in the first chapter by Van Dijk, we are provided with a theoretical lens to look at problematic changes in images – contrastingly categorized or branded by the two towering Indonesianists: Snouck Hurgronje and Clifford Geertz. The latter in particular depicted Indonesian Islam as adaptive, absorbent, pragmatic, gradualistic, malleable and syncretic – a few images that underlined a scholarly stream henceforward, against the older depictions by Hurgronje (p. 19). Van Dijk asks: ‘whose approaches we should follow?’ Looking into the construction of traditional mosques as an example, he further emphasises on the question of ‘Is Indonesian Islam different?’

The following four chapters provide answers to this question in multiple ways. Ahmad Najib Burhani endeavours to define Indonesian Islam as “a new expression of traditionalist Islam” (p. 41); resistance against “projecting Islam as a political ideology” as “political Islam does not acknowledge the plurality of Indonesia” (p. 44); “distinctive in manifestation, not in essence” (pp. 45–6). Examining the traditionalist and modernist perceptions around these issues, he suggests that the national ideology and nationalism unite both streams while the questions of traditional culture and global Islamic achievements divide them. In the following chapter, Robert Hefner takes up this global scenario and contrasts it with the Indonesian Muslim culture. He projects three ‘socio-religious variables’ (religious education, associational life, and constitutional politics) as the crucial elements in Indonesian Muslim culture which differentiate it from the rest of the Islamic world. Putting the question of Islamic law and democracy at the centre of his articulations, he writes that the Indonesian Muslim public has made remarkable progress in settling the tension between the both. Therefore Hefner concludes that notwithstanding some challenges “Indonesia will indeed come of age on global state, offering remarkable lessons on Islam and democracy for the broader Muslim world” (p. 62). Azyumardi Azra, in the next chapter, further enlists the variables in Indonesian Islam vis-à-vis the one in the Middle East or Europe. Thus he highlights the complimentary and overlapping features such as penetration pacifique, culturally embedded, rich heritage, the Pancasila state, the role of women, Islamic-based civil society organizations, uprooting of ‘radical groups’, and empowerment of the moderates. In the fifth chapter, Taufik Abdullah analyses how multiple Islamic non-governmental organizations and young thinkers have positively contributed to the recurring tensions between state, society and Islam.

All these rather theoretical analyses take up the ‘exceptionality’ of Indonesian Islam either within the slightly parochialistic frameworks of Indonesia/Southeast Asia or in comparison with Islamic traditions and practices in the Middle East. A significant element underlying these chapters is the incongruity between the binaries of traditionalism and modernism, local and extralocal (national or global), and democratic and religious state. Azra’s eight ‘lessons to learn’ somewhat polemically enumerate the uniqueness of Indonesian Islam in a way that even a non-specialist can easily identify how it was pigeonholed in comparison with the Islam elsewhere. All such formulations lack sensitivity to the developments in broader scenarios, especially the Muslim communities in South Asia which accommodates the largest Muslim population in the world. If they were sensitive to it, they would have immediately realized that many ‘exceptional’ features are not that exclusive to Indonesian Islam.

In the subsequent chapters we have multiple readings of Indonesian Islam that emphasize particular aspects or case-studies. Different contributors examine, with their case-analyses through rich ethnographic surveys and fieldworks, the themes like spiritualistic embodiments, feminist elucidations, reformism, religious authority and its making through (both traditional and non-traditional) educational systems, social activism, pluralism, religious organizations. Three chapters in particular deal with the questions of gender and feminism. Dian Maya Safitri studies a religious educational institution established exclusively for the warias (male-bodied transvestites) in Yogyakarta. Through a convincing narrative, she analyses their spiritualistic struggles to build up a strong Islamic ground of piety against the hegemonic religious interpretations even if their position “is insecure, uncertain and complex due to the opposing discourses (conventional versus progressive interpretations), in lieu of being ‘passive’ or ‘resistant’” (p. 104). In the seventh and eighth chapters, Nina Nurmila and Euis Nurlaelawati respectively deal with the legal aspects of family and inheritance in which the existing practices are questioned through legal reforms and feminist interpretations. While Nurmila tries to read the Quranic verses related to inheritance through a feminist perspective utilizing the possibility of independent investigations, Nurlaelawati emphasizes the same technique (ijtihad) as a relevant method for actualizing the reforms in many familial legal complexities. In the following chapter, Andrée Feillard and Pieternella van Doorn-Harder analyse further nuances with regard to feminist theologians and their encounters with Islamic traditions. The rereadings of classical Islamic texts by these new ‘traditionalist Muslim feminists’ in order to achieve gender equality and to counter misogynistic and patriarchal forms have been creating impacts not only in the country, but also across the Malay archipelago.

In the remaining chapters, we have many dissimilar and less interconnected themes varying from religious pluralism, welfare activities, fundamentalism, to media and Quranic interpretation. However, the tenth and fourteenth chapters by Asfa Widiyanto and Syaifudin Zuhri respectively deal with the multiple expressions of religious authority in the country since the 20th century. Widiyanto investigates into the careers of two prominent religious scholars who chose poetry as a means to express their ‘religious pluralistic’ views standing within or outside the organizational frameworks. Zuhri analyses the activities of Majlis Tafsir Al-Quran, ‘an emerging Islamic movement in Surakarta’, which sought ways to reform Islam through its ‘da’wa activism’ of eradicating “local/non-Islamic influences from Islamic traditions, practices and worship” and “local Islamic tradition which is mentioned by neither the Qur’an nor Sunna” (p. 238). The motivations of dakwa radio stations in Surakarta are also not that different, as analysed by Sunarwoto in the twelfth chapter. Stressing the ‘proper’ Islamic practices and norms through diverse possibilities of radio broadcasting, the religious elites and organizations propagate their agendas to a larger audience. Hilman Latief and Didin Rosidin, with their respective focus on social activism and fundamentalism, provide us with further interesting narratives on Indonesian Islamic collectives that differently prosper or alter the contrasting images of Indonesian Islam.

All such articulations recurrently keep up the bottom-line of the exceptionality identified with Indonesian Islam, linked differently with the question of ‘growing’ radicalism, fundamentalism or extremism. As the constant discourses take place at various regional contexts about the rights, responsibilities, representations and interpretations in which always Islam stands as the major point of reference, a change in the so-labelled ‘smiling face of Islam’ is complementary and inevitable.

An overemphasis on the exceptionality of one region’s Islam against a ‘universal or global Islam’ is rather precarious. The constructions of certain compartmentalized forms of Islam as more sophisticated ones, such as Sufi Islam stressing on a collective-paradigm or Indonesian Islam accentuating the region-specific paradigm, intentionally or unintentionally tend to vilify Islam in its totality by negating the constant discourses that happen within the Muslim world from region to region and time to time. In such a sense, even though the larger picture drawn by the volume may not be an acceptable one for the pitfalls it keeps under the shell, it offers a better understanding of contemporary developments in a region-specific articulation of Islam, along with fascinatingly diverse anthropological, sociological, political scientific, feminist, historical readings for studying Islam and Muslim societies. Also, while the labelling, image-imposing and stereotyping are some of the major problems that compound streams of Islam and Muslim communities encounter, this volume digs deeper into such mainstream image-nations and demonstrates how complicated the internalities of Islam are even at micro-levels of a particular region, and why the negative labels are nonrepresentational to the so-implied ‘terrible face of Islam’.

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