A work of reference on a period of Islam in Indonesia

Darul Aqsha, Dick van der Meij and Johan Hendrik Meuleman
(eds), Islam in Indonesia; A survey of events and developments from
1988 to March 1993.
Jakarta: IMS, 1995, 535 pp. ISBN 979.
811646.1. Price: / 40 (to be ordered from HAS, PO Box 9515,2300
RA Leiden).

MARTIN VAN BRUINESSEN

One of the tangible activities of INIS (The Indonesian-Netherlands
Cooperation in Islamic Studies, a joint project of the University of Leiden and the Higher Education Directorate of the Indonesian Department for Religious Affairs) has been the publication, since the inception of the project in 1989, of a half-yearly Newsletter.

The larger part of each issue has consisted of a ‘chronicle’: a summary in English, without commentary or analysis, of Indonesian press reports concerning Muslims and Islam. All major dailies and weeklies were scanned, and most reports on events (as against editorials, columns or interviews) summarized, apparently without any prior deliberate selection.

This approach had the benefit of giving readers a practically unfiltered view of the discourse on Islam in Indonesia’s print media. Most non-Indonesian readers, however, might have preferred some selectivity and editorial comments as to the relevance (or, in many cases, irrelevance) of the events reported. Be that as it may, although
I was an avid newspaper reader when I lived in Indonesia, I regularly found interesting bits of information in the Newsletter that I had missed or overlooked myself.

The present book reprints, rearranged by topic, the chronicles of the first ten issues of the Newsletter, covering events from 1988 through to September 1993. The news summaries are supplemented by a selection from another rubric in the newsletter, dealing with academic life in the 14 State Institutes for Higher Islamic Learning (IAIN).

The book has the same strengths and weaknesses as the Newsletter, although a 15-page index considerably adds to its usefulness as a reference work.

The years 1988-1993 were a turbulent period in the history of Indonesian Islam, and many Muslims believe that they represented a major turning point in the political fortunes of scripturalist Islam in Indonesia. The establishment of ICMI, the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals, in 1990 was perhaps the most spectacular development (on the meaning of which opinions are still divided: did it herald a triumph of political Islam, or the ultimate domestication of oppositional Muslims?). The period was also marked by growing tension between Muslims and non-Muslims, exemplified in the Monitor affair in 1990 and the burning down of churches.

Another event of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait, and the American led international effort to force him out, had a considerable impact on Indonesian Muslims and distinctly strengthened their concern with developments in the Middle East. Middle Eastern-type Muslim radicalism, represented by the younger generation of the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah and an increasingly vocal KISDI (‘Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the World of Islam’) established a permanent, and publicly tolerated, presence during the early 1990s.

Within Indonesian Islam, however, there were also developments in other directions. Abdurrahman Wahid, the charismatic leader of the traditionalist Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), developed during these same years into a major critic of Soeharto’s rule and the New Order’s authoritarianism. Refusing to join ICMI, he established instead the informal Forum Demokrasi, in which he collaborated with intellectuals of secular and Christian backgrounds. He emerged victorious from the conflicts that this attitude generated within the body of NU. His lasting popularity and influence indicate that the religious tolerance and liberal attitudes that he stands for have a large and stable constituency in Indonesia.

Critical discussion (rather than passive reproduction) of the Islamic tradition, an activity that until recently would have led to virtual excommunication from NU circles, became accepted practice in the organization during the period covered by this book.

Islam in Indonesia resembles a series of snapshots illustrating these developments.

The chapters on ICMI, NU, ‘political aspirations’ and interreligious
relations contain interesting pieces of detailed information. But, as is generally the case with the Indonesian press, the level of noise is so high that it is very hard to discern any message. Unfortunately, the editors have refrained from helping the reader by deciphering coded messages or providing a context for events’ that mean nothing to the uninitiated.

The brief explanations which do appear here and there are hardly adequate and seem to suffer from a form of self-censorship mirroring that of the Indonesian press. (When Probosutedjo makes a donation to ICMI, for example, he is described as ‘a noted Indonesian businessman’, without any reference to the fact that he is Soeharto’s half-brother.) The index, moreover, does not really compensate for
the absence of cross-references between reports.

As in the Indonesian press, Soeharto is omnipresent, fulfilling his religious obligations, addressing various national and international Muslim audiences, patronizing organizations, opening conferences, instructing the United Nations how to deal with the former Yugoslavia, and so on. Muslim leaders are also regularly portrayed in similar roles.

Thus we see KH Ali Yafie, from 1989 until 1992 deputy Rois Am of NU, give numerous talks and express his support for the government, but the nature of the conflict setting him against Abdurrahman Wahid, and the role of ICMI in this conflict, are not even hinted at.

The usefulness of this book is therefore limited. Those who already have a fair amount of background knowledge on contemporary Indonesian Islam may fruitfully use it as a work of reference or read parts of it for a taste of the atmosphere of those years. But readers who look for an introduction to the debates and developments in Indonesian Islam during that period are better advised to read the relevant sections of a superior journalistic work like Adam Schwarz’s A Nation in Waiting; Indonesia in the 1990s (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994) or the perceptive study by Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia; Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance (London: Routledge, 1995).

Source: KITLV, Bookreviews (The Netherlands)

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One thought on “A work of reference on a period of Islam in Indonesia

  1. Pingback: Pengalaman Martin Van Bruinessen dengan Gus Dur | Bani Madrowi

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