In the past century, everything and its opposite has been written about Islam and its relation to politics, nationalism, and laws in Indonesia. The following paragraphs are far from being a complete review of this literature, as I wish to weave only some threads useful to understanding the scholarly context in which this work is set. Takashi Shiraishi’s portrayal of Sarekat Islam and Michael Laffan’s investigation into the Jawi-Middle East connection in the first quarter of the twentieth century form my starting points. The first work has highlighted the key role played by this Islamic organization in the development of the pergerakan; the latter has focused on Islam, in particular its ability to adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining an unchangeable and universally recognizable core, as the driving force behind the initial conceptualization of an idea of nation. Bob Elson, however, denies this characterization, placing Islam ‘at the margins’ of the nationalist discourse.

What they all agree on is that by the mid 1920s, Islam had begun moving slowly towards political inconsequentiality. Locally, Sarekat Islam was weakened by internal splits and colonial repression. And internationally, the aspirations of political Islam were quashed by the failure of post-Ottoman debates on the caliphate and by a surge of nationalism across the Islamic world.[1]

Harry Jindrich Benda’s 1958 masterpiece on Islam during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia aptly points to the short-lived prominence granted by the Dai Nippon to the Islamic leadership and the quick turning of the tables that followed in 1945. Recent works addressing the position of Islam in Indonesian politics and law constantly return to the crucial day when Soekarno proclaimed that Indonesian independence was to be founded on the non-confessional Pancasila state philosophy, thereby ignoring the pleas of Islamic parties that requested the inclusion of the Jakarta Charter, a preamble generally interpreted as enforcing the obligation for Muslims to abide by sharia law.

As influential as Soekarno’s decision was, there is more to the failure of political Islam than this, and occasionally scholars have addressed some of the other factors involved. Greg Fealy, in his work on Nahdatul Ulama, has given much attention to this party’s secession from Masyumi in 1952 and its impact on the overall outcome of the 1955 elections, as well as on future developments of Islam during the Guided Democracy and New Order periods. To a certain extent, and with some confusion, Bernhard Platzdasch has put back on the table the issues related to the delayed formation of a constitutional assembly and Masyumi’s decline whilst awaiting elections (due since 1946), but Nadirsyah Hosen and Masdar

Hilmy seem to be content with jumping from 1945 to 2000, when President Megawati Sukarnoputri re-opened the constitutional debate on the position of Islam in the legislation.6 The struggle for the inclusion of religion in the constitutional text and the state’s structure is thus commonly considered by most scholars as ending at some point between 1945 and 1955, to be reopened only in 2000.

With few exceptions, the ‘new’ post-2002 wave of literature addressing Islamic activism and militancy in Indonesia treads the path of looking at external influences to explain domestic events, an approach with foundations in the colonial depiction of Indonesian Islam as a ‘thin veneer’ coating Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.7 Accordingly, local Muslims would be ‘more tolerant’ than their coreligionists across the globe.8 While rejecting the idea that Indonesian Islam is more tolerant or apolitical because of the historical dynamics that surrounded its spread in the archipelago, my study is also far from suggesting that there is anything inherently violent or intolerant about it.

  • 6 Harry Jindrich Benda, The crescent and the rising sun: Indonesian Islam under the Japanese occupation, 1942-1945 (The Hague: Van Hoeve, 1958); Greg Fealy, ‘Wahab Chasbullah, traditionalism and the political development of Nahdatul Ulama’, in Greg Barton and Greg Fealy (eds), Nah- datul Ulama, traditional Islam and modernity in Indonesia (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 1996), pp. 1-41; Bernhard Platzdasch, Islamism in Indonesia: Politics in the emerging democracy (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009); Nadirsyah Hosen, Shari’a and constitutional reform in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007); Masdar Hilmy, Islamism and democracy in Indonesia: Piety and pragmatism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010). Also, see Chiara Formichi, ‘Review article: Is an Islamic democracy possible? Perspectives from contemporary Southeast Asia’, Journal of South East Asian Research, 20-1 (2012b): pp. 101-6.
  • 7 Greg Fealy, Martin van Bruinessen and Andree Feillard have advanced ‘historical arguments’ and explained radicalism as a homegrown phenomenon.
  • 8 See for example Anthony H. Johns, ‘Islam in Southeast Asia: Problems of perspective’, reprinted in A. Ibrahim, S. Siddique, and Y Hussain (eds), Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985), pp. 20-4 (originally printed in 1976); Merle C. Ricklefs, ‘Islamization in Java: Fourteenth to eighteenth centuries’, reprinted in Ibrahim, Siddique, and Hussain (eds), Readings, pp. 36-43. For the idea of abangan (‘local, nominal’ Muslims) versus santri (‘orthodox’ Muslims), see Clifford Geertz, The religion of Java (Chicago/ London: The University of Chicago Press, 1960). More recent reformulations have been advanced by Johan H. Meuleman and Azyumardi Azra in numerous publications. Adam Schwarz and Robert Hefner have both pointed to the non-political aspect of Islam until the 1970s-1980s global revival; see Adam Schwarz, A nation in waiting: Indonesia's search for stability (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999) and Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). The more sensationalist trend, suggesting al-Qaeda’s monopoly on militant Islam in Indonesia, is best represented by Bilveer Singh, Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2004); Mike Millard, Jihad in paradise: Islam and politics in Southeast Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004); Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of terror (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003); and Rohan Gunara- tna, Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific: Threat and response (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003) and Inside al-Qaeda: Global network of terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

  • [1] Elson, The idea of Indonesia; Michael F. Laffan, Islamic nationhood and colonial Indonesia: Theumma below the uhnds (London: Routledge, 2003); Nikki R. Keddie, ‘Pan-Islam as proto-nationalism’, The Journal of Modern History 41-1 (1969): pp. 17-28; Takashi Shiraishi, An age in motion:Popular radicalism inJava, 1912-1926 (Ithaca, NY/London: Cornell University Press, 1990). Ked-die makes the very interesting point that Pan-Islam came to signify that all Muslim peoplesshould cooperate with each other in their individual efforts to gain independence from infidelrule, and, possibly (but not necessarily), unite under a single spiritual and political leadership.She defined this as ‘proto-nationalism’, a movement built upon a mixture of anti-imperialismand Islamic ecumenical sentiments. Kartosuwiryo argued the same in the 1920s and early 1930s.
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