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Martin van Bruinessen (ed.),Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn”. Singapore: ISEAS, 2013, xxxi + 240 pp. ISBN: 9789814414562. Price: USD 29.90 (paperback).

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Author: Rachel Rinaldo1
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  • 1 Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Open Access

Indonesia was long viewed by outsiders as the antithesis of the Middle East—a place where Islam was tolerant and flexible, in harmony with other faiths. This image has suffered over the last 15 years. Ethnic and religious violence broke out during and after the 1998 democracy movement, and in the early and mid-2000s the country was plagued by terrorism. Although stability has returned, religious intolerance endures, particularly in the form of violence and discrimination against heterodox religious sects like Ahmadiyah, as well as continuing efforts to implement or enforce local laws inspired by conservative interpretations of Islamic law. This new volume, edited by Martin van Bruinessen, seeks to explain ‘the conservative turn’ through well-researched essays exploring various dimensions of the rise of Islamic conservativism in Indonesia, including case studies of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, Muhammadiyah, Shariah in South Sulawesi, and radical Islam in the city of Solo (Surakarta).

Bruinessen’s introductory essay provides crucial background to these case studies, noting that while the Soeharto dictatorship was authoritarian and illiberal, and that undercurrents of extremist thought were already visible by the 1980s, relatively liberal forms of Islamic thought were hegemonic during the Soeharto years. This is an intriguing paradox that deserves more discussion—certainly it is worth noting that the regime used liberal Islamic thought as a part of its strategy to separate ‘cultural’ from ‘political’ Islam, promoting the former while repressing the latter. But there is no doubt that the emerging urban middle class under Soeharto was strongly attracted to the ideas of liberal thinkers like Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid. What happened, then? Where did the conservatism come from and why were so many Indonesians enticed by it?

The answers to these questions are indeed complex, and Bruinessen does not provide us with an overarching explanation. Instead, the empirical chapters demonstrate that in many cases, specific local and/or organisational dynamics are at work. Moch Nur Ichwan’s study of the Majelis Ulama Islam (MUI), a quasi-governmental organisation that rules on matters of Islamic law, argues that after the fall of the Soeharto regime, the organisation became more independent and came to see itself as the main defender of Muslim interests in Indonesia. Though much of its membership is relatively moderate, a few extremists have had outsized sway, while liberals have been excluded. Indeed, this theme of extremists and hardliners having more influence than their actual numbers warrant appears in several of the case studies—it is certainly a challenge for democratic politics that is not limited to Indonesia. In this case, Ichwan proposes that MUI’s ideology has shifted to ‘puritanical moderate’ (p. 91), which he defines as ‘basically moderate Islamic thought and practice that are imbued with some aspects of puritanical Islamic teachings emphasising the purity of the faith.’ It is this puritanical impulse that seems to account for MUI’s regression on issues of religious freedom and tolerance.

The story of what has happened with the national Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah also demonstrates the importance of organisational dynamics. Ahmad Najib Burhani chronicles the struggles between liberals and conservatives that have beset the organisation, showing how both sides have dealt with each other in unproductive ways. Unlike with MUI, Burhani suggests that the conservative wave in Muhammadiyah has subsided, partly because liberals and conservatives came together to root out influences from rivals such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Moreover, he notes that while there have long been tendencies toward puritanical Islam within Muhammadiyah, the organisation’s focus on practical activities usually brings compromise and moderation.

The campaign to implement Shariah law (or laws inspired by Shariah) in South Sulawesi is the focus of Mujiburrahman’s chapter, and it is a less straightforward story. Mujiburrahman traces the history and politics of Islamic movements in the region in great detail, showing how Islamist efforts have recurred in the region at various points in time, and suggesting that, once again, they represent real grievances but are rarely representative of majority views. The most recent Islamist effort, by this account, seems also to be subsiding, having narrowed its goal from achieving special provincial autonomy to selectively enforcing restrictive regulations at the district or village level. Nevertheless, it would be useful to have more detailed information about precisely how such regulations have affected people in the region, especially women and minorities.

Finally, Muhammad Wildan’s chapter provides a fascinating discussion of the dynamics of radical Islam in the city of Solo. He traces the rise (and dissolution) of the notorious ‘Ngruki’ network of extremists centered around the Al-Mukmin Muslim school, as well as the history of radical vigilantes like Front Pemuda Islam Surakarta, and the more recent emergence of the area as an important site for Salafist versions of Islam. Observing that Solo’s court traditions and history of syncretic Islam make it an unlikely host for religious radicalism, Wildan argues that orthodox Muslims’ minority position in the region leads to radicalism. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why this would be the case, as often minorities show greater tolerance and flexibility than the majority—perhaps a sense of being embattled and/or isolated? Other factors that Wildan cites include the weakness of mainstream Muslim organisations in the area, and a weakness of religious authority in the region more generally. Wildan is not the first scholar to note that the greater Solo area was a Communist stronghold in the 1960s. The connections between left and Islamic radicalism in the region demand more exploration from scholars—perhaps the appeal of populism is the link between then and now.

Overall, this volume does not present an all-encompassing explanation of why the conservative turn happened in Indonesian Islam, but it does provide nuanced and detailed accounts of how and why conservatism emerged in particular organisations and regions. Importantly, it is also a corrective to some of the more hyperbolic media representations of Indonesia. The case studies show that religious extremism is indeed a serious problem, yet in some cases it seems to have already peaked. As Bruinessen observes in his measured conclusion, liberal and centrist Muslim voices may have lost their broad institutional backing, but they still have an impact on public discourse, and their ideas are probably more widely shared than those of extremists.

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