Carool Kersten, Islam in Indonesia. The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values. London: Hurst & Company, 2015, xx + 373 pp. ISBN: 9781849044370. Price: GBP 25.00 (paperback).
This rich and thorough study is intended to be an ‘intellectual history of contemporary Indonesian Islam’ (p. 4). It starts with a reference to a fatwa of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI; the Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars) issued in July 2005. In this legal opinion the Council gave its view on religious pluralism, liberalism, and secularism. Although its fatwa was not binding, the position taken by the Council roused the emotions of progressive, conservative, and reactionary Muslims in Indonesia and heavily influenced the debates between them for over a decade. By taking this point of departure the author wants to show ‘[…] how Indonesian Muslims value state governance, civil society, and individual liberty and freedom’ (p. 288).
Kersten’s book focuses on the so-called Reformasi era in Indonesia that is the period after the forced withdrawal of Soeharto in 1998. However, Kersten starts with the work and person of Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005) who, together with the 2005 MUI fatwa and the thoughts of Abdurrahman Wahid (1940–2009), represents the touchstone against which the intellectuals Kersten identifies as representatives of progressive, conservative, and reactionary Islam in Indonesia are measured with regard to their views on religious pluralism, liberalism, and secularism. With his slogan ‘Islam Yes! Islamic Party No!’ Madjid started the ‘radical renewal of Islamic thinking’ in Indonesia in the 1970s. Madjid’s initiative became known as ‘Islamic Neo-Modernism’ and Kersten understands it as one of the key moments in the intellectual history of contemporary Indonesian Islam.
Ever since publicizing Madjid’s view that Islam and secularism may be compatible, lively and often bitter debates ensued, discussing, evaluating, and criticizing its implications. The great merit of this book is that the author contextualizes these debates by sketching their background and showing their relation with the historical, cultural, social, political, and economic developments in Indonesia and abroad, both in the Western and the Islamic world. Besides, Kersten not only presents the views of supporters of Madjid but also of his opponents who can be distinguished into progressive, conservative, or reactionary Muslim intellectuals. He also makes clear that differences in opinion between Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia can be caused by the fact that they belong to different ‘schools’, such as the so-called Ciputat School in Jakarta or the Sapen School of Yogyakarta, or to different mass organizations, such as the Muhammadiyah or the Nahdlatul Ulama. Moreover, within these two mass organizations some adherents can sympathize with very progressive ideas, while others within the very same organization strongly resist them by defending conservative standpoints or championing reactionary ones, especially since the so-called ‘conservative turn’ had taken place. Sometimes a kind of ‘generation gap’ seems to play a role, as can be seen between liberal youngsters and elderly traditionalists.
Kersten presents his ‘intellectual history of contemporary Indonesian Islam’ in an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. After having explained the intentions of his book, he focuses on the social and political developments since 1997. These provide the contextual background for the discourses Kersten presents in the other chapters. For a good understanding of contemporary Indonesian Islam it is necessary that the reader becomes aware of Indonesia’s incredible diversity in all regards. Chapter Three presents the views of the most important Muslim intellectuals according to Kersten. Key in their selection is their relation vis-à-vis Madjid and their thinking about secularism, liberalism, and pluralism. Chapter Four is more politically oriented, while Islamic Law plays a central role in Chapter Five. Finally, in the last chapter the tension between Indonesia’s religious plurality and the key themes of the book—secularism, liberalism, and pluralism—is discussed.
By offering a many-sided and multi-layered perspective of Indonesian Islam, Kersten has written a nuanced, insightful, and important book. Because I value this work so highly, I find it most regrettable that there are some inaccuracies in the book. To give only five examples: Megawati is not the daughter of Soeharto, but of Sukarno (p. 20); the title of Kuntowijoyo’s book is: Muslims without Mosque (p. 50); Sira’s handbook, read: Siraj’s handbook (p. 90); Muhammadiyah—Muhammadiya (p. 127); finally, I do not understand what the word ‘Regime’ means after ‘the importance of technical competence in fiqh,’ (p. 203). Because I am convinced that Kersten’s Islam in Indonesia is a must read and an eye-opener not only for Islamicists but for a much broader reading public, I hope these inaccuracies can be corrected for a second edition. For now, Kersten has to be congratulated with his epoch-making book.