‘Invisible’ Indonesia could show path to Islamic democracy in the Middle East

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Long regarded as peripheral to the mainstream Islamic world, Indonesia could have much to teach the Middle East about Muslim democracy.

By Jean Gelman Taylor

Dr Jean Gelman Taylor

Dr Jean Gelman Taylor

SCHOLARS and journalists often raise the conundrum: why doesn’t Indonesia have greater importance within the world    community of Muslims

Indonesia, with a population of 240 million, is the world’s largest Muslim country. Compare this figure with Saudi Arabia’s 29 million or Egypt’s 81 million. The late Malay studies scholar Amin Sweeney reminded us that Indonesian–Malay is the third language of Islamic scholarship after Arabic and Persian. Indonesia would seem to be qualified to speak for Muslims in world affairs, to be influential in theological debate and the harbinger of political reformation for the Muslim Middle East.

Consider a recent world history by the Afghan–American Tamir Ansary. Ansary structured it from a consciously Islamic perspective. He challenged conventional texts that begin in Mesopotamia, that channel the world’s history through Greece, Rome and Europe, only inserting the Islamic world at points in the grand narrative. Ansary’s world history is organised under the headings: Ancient times; Mesopotamia and Persia; Birth of Islam; the Khalifate; Quest for universal unity; Fragmentation: Age of the sultanates; Catastrophe: Crusaders and Mongols; Rebirth: the Three-empire era; Permeation of East by West; the reform movements; Triumph of the secular modernists; and the Islamic reaction. Yet Ansary’s corrective Destiny disrupted: history of the world through Islamic eyes gives Indonesia just two mentions in 410 pages.

Indonesian Muslims performing Tarawih Prayer during the Ramadhan month in Istiqlal Grand Mosque, 29 Juni 2014. Photo: ANTARA/Rosa Panggabean

Indonesian Muslims performing Tarawih Prayer during the Ramadhan month in Istiqlal Grand Mosque, 29 Juni 2014. Photo: ANTARA/Rosa Panggabean

Is the ‘invisibility’ of Indonesia to be explained in spatial and historiographical terms? Historians have made much of Indonesia’s geographic location on the periphery of the Islamic world, remote from its spiritual heartland before the late 19th century’s ‘connectives’ of steamship, telegraph and post. In the 1960s, sociologists and anthropologists were struck by the folkways of Islam in the archipelago’s villages. Indonesian Islam seemed a ‘thin flaking glaze’, a ‘veneer’, laid over a Hindu–Buddhist bedrock. It was localised, tolerant, not ‘real’ Islam when compared with Arab societies.

Western scholars date the origins of the first indigenous Islamic communities in the Indonesian archipelago to the 12th century. Indonesians were inducted into an Islam that had evolved over the six centuries since the first Muslim community was governed by Muhammad in Medina. Lacking direct transmission from Arabia, Indonesians had embraced an Islam of Sufi sects, veneration of saints’ graves, talismans and miracles.

Idul Fitri prayer at Baiturrahim Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh.

Idul Fitri prayer at Baiturrahim Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh.

An influential book, The religion of Java, by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz, posited that ‘scriptural Islam’ came late to Indonesia. Recent research by scholars in Indonesia and the West has modified views that Indonesian Islam long developed in isolation from the wellsprings of Islamic theology. Textual studies have led to the conclusion that Malay-language commentaries on the Quran date from at least the 16th century. Biographies of archipelago scholars who spent 20 and more years in Mecca and Medina provide evidence of continuous connection with Islamic scholarship in Arabia since the 17th century and of those scholars insistence on observance of sharia and a Sufism regulated within the Sunni tradition.

This research does, however, suggest that Indonesia’s Muslims were connected with world Islam in a parochial way. Indonesian teachers who made long stays in Arabia attracted primarily students from their own home communities in the archipelago. In Arabia they wrote their commentaries and learned opinions in Malay. Their scholarly output was, therefore, not read beyond the Malay-speaking world, but communicated to audiences at home. Archipelago Muslims, feeding off Indonesian scholarship produced in Arabia in Malay, were a distinct community, irrelevant to the learned elites in the Islamic heartland who wrote and taught in Arabic or Persian.

Direct links with the Islamic heartland became a reality with colonial technology. Dutch steamships took Indonesians to Mecca and Cairo as well as to The Hague and Amsterdam. Steam-powered transport and the telegraph ended the ‘tyranny of distance’. Printing in Arabic letters, finally sanctioned by the Ottoman sultanate, multiplied the pamphlets and books in circulation; lending library stalls brought reading within a wider reach. Students who travelled at the beginning of the 20th century from Indonesia to Cairo became caught up in the latest currents of religio-political thought in the Middle East.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 obliged Indonesians to question their distinctive religious practices and observance. Local movements multiplied to induce greater inner devotion to Islam and greater outer conformity to communal religious observances such as mosque attendance and Islamic presentation of the self in dress and manners. More Indonesians enrolled in Arabic language classes. There were more scholarships for study in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, modifications to domestic mosque architecture, and discarding of customs deemed un-Islamic. There was more drawing of boundaries between Muslims and Christians, and between Muslims and those labelled ‘deviant’ Muslims.

These changes occurred in the later period of President Suharto’s presidency when the government was making concessions to ‘political’ Islam. Suharto, for instance, sanctioned an Islamic think-tank to bring Islamic solutions to Indonesia’s social and economic problems. He allowed an Islamic press and television shows, and the introduction of Islamic banking. The Association of Indonesian Islamic Intellectuals brought Muslims into the centre of public policy making and made Islamic credentials a plus in career paths. There was an equalising in status between civil and religious courts of law. Mosque youth groups and branches of international Muslim associations on Indonesian university campuses mushroomed. There was a growth of public attendance at Islamic festivals and an upsurge in Islamic arts and popular entertainment.

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Young Indonesians, who have never lived under colonial rule, have come of age in a world of the internet, university degrees, foreign travel and pilgrimage packages to Mecca. They associate being Muslim with being modern, prosperous, successful; they strive for ‘Islamic chic’ in dress, manners and cultural pursuits. They want greater personal freedoms and more political clout. They emerged from their own political and social tumult following the downfall of President Suharto in May 1998.

There were four years of fighting in Indonesia between religious and ethnic communities and regional movements demanding autonomy or even secession from the republic. In 2002, with three million internal refugees, observers were speculating whether Indonesia itself would continue to exist. But in those same years, Indonesians removed a strong military from public life. Through constitutional changes, tenure of presidential office was restricted to a maximum of two four-year terms, to be achieved through the ballot box.

Javanese Muslim family holding 'selametan', a thanksgiving function. Photo: Collection of Tropen Museum.

Javanese Muslim family holding ‘selametan’, a thanksgiving function. Photo: Collection of Tropen Museum.

The post-Suharto era is characterised by political parties with a broad mix of religious and social agendas. The media has been freed. Elections at national, regional and municipal levels have won broad acceptance of their results. There is a confidence that local cells of international Islamic groups, such as Hizbut Tahrir, are not a real force in Indonesian society. Reformists downplay the power of the Islamic Defenders Front to physically intimidate those they declare to be enemies of ‘true Islam’. Despite rulings by the Department of Religion against Ahmadis and determination that liberalism, secularism and pluralism contradict Islamic teachings, reform activists believe Indonesia offers a working model for Muslim democracy, or rather for a democracy of Muslims.

Indonesia’s Institute for Peace and Democracy has initiated dialogue with counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia on issues such as the state and politics, Islam and the state, the place of armed forces in democracy, and participation of women in public life.

Here Indonesia may assume a leadership role in international Islamic affairs. At the same time, Indonesians seem to be creating a novel variant of being Muslim that confirms their difference on the periphery.

Dr Jean Gelman Taylor is honorary associate professor of History, University of New South Wales. This article is a summary of a talk she gave at Hebrew University of Jerusalem last December.

Muslims performing Aidil Fitri prayer at the Jakarta port of Sunda Kelapa.

Muslims performing Aidil Fitri prayer at the Jakarta port of Sunda Kelapa.

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