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Indonesia, Islam and Ethnicity in

Robert W. Hefner
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Indonesia, Islam and Ethnicity in

With 88.7 percent of its 240 million citizens professing Islam, the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is also the most ethnically diverse, with some three hundred ethnic groups spread across some six thousand inhabited islands. Through the middle decades of the twentieth century, the country’s ethnic fault lines coincided loosely with variation in the profession of Islam. On the country’s “outer islands,” especially Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi, the dominant professions of Islam were reformist in orientation. On Java, the most populous of the islands comprising “inner Indonesia,” the dominant variety was an indigenized mixture of traditionalist and syncretic Islam.During the first years of Indonesian independence in the 1950s, this contrast in ethnic and religious culture coincided with an equally consequential political cleavage. Muslim portions of outer Indonesia lent greater support to political parties promoting Islamic and Islamist agendas; in Java, secular nationalist and socialist parties enjoyed great appeal. From 1950 to 1965, this loose co-incidence of ethnic, religious, and political divisions injected a destabilizing centrifugalism into Indonesian politics. The politicization of religious divisions contributed to the disastrous events of late 1965, when, in the aftermath of a failed left-wing officers’ coup, Islamic parties and the military (aided in some provinces by Hindu and Christian groupings) joined forces to destroy the Indonesian Communist Party. More than one quarter of a million people are thought to have perished in the violence, many of them ethnic Javanese peasants of syncretic Islamic persuasion.The military-dominated “New Order Regime” (1965–1998) that emerged from this conflict imposed strict controls on Indonesian politics. But it also succeeded in lifting Indonesia from the status of a poor to a lower-middle-income country. Social and political developments during the New Order and its democratic, “reformation” successor (beginning in May 1998) changed the landscape of Indonesian ethnicity and Islam forever, greatly diminishing the contrast between a syncretic Java and the Islamic reformist outer islands.

Ethnic Plurality within Civilizational Commonality.

When Europeans first arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in the early sixteenth century, the territory they encountered was not one of timeless traditionalism and separated populations, but a bustling maritime realm with a thousand-year history of commercial and cultural exchange. With its trade in rice, cloth, precious metals, and spices, the archipelago had long been one of the world’s great maritime emporia. The most important trade routes linked Islamic principalities in the east of the archipelago with larger ports in its west. Notwithstanding Muslim political dominance, Indonesian trading ports were meeting-points for peoples from across a broad swath of maritime Asia.

This great movement of people, commodities, and culture contributed to the archipelago’s most distinctive social trait: its pattern of ethnic plurality within civilizational commonality. Whether in matters of dress, dance, coinage, gender relations, music, or social etiquette, all but the most remote of the archipelago’s societies drew on a common “Indonesian” civilizational stream, even while maintaining varied ethnic identities. The precise content of the pattern varied over time. In the first millennium of the common era, Buddhism and Hinduism had made their way from India to court centers across the archipelago. With these religious traditions came Indian-influenced traditions of law, etiquette, and the arts. Following much the same route (although with an additional Islamic influence emanating from southeastern China), Islam spread across the maritime region from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Although the mountainous interiors, the parched islands of southeastern Indonesia, and the island of Bali stood apart from the change, most of the maritime region was eventually brought into the Islamic fold.

The process of Islamization and its implication for ethnicity varied by region. Where conversion had been facilitated by royal fiat, the new religion’s dominant culture and social organization remained raja-centered and ethnically inflected. Although Hindu-Buddhist monasteries and temples collapsed with the coming of Islam, in these court-dominated regions Indian-influenced arts and court traditions survived as well. Until the early twentieth century, Muslim courts on Java, the Malay peninsula, and Sulawesi continued to sponsor annual festivals in which, although preceded by a profession of the Islamic faith, court servants presented offerings to the guardian spirits of the air and sea. Notwithstanding this vigorous syncretism, from early on there were religious scholars well versed in Islamic legal commentaries and committed to canonical traditions. The influence of these scholars tended to be greater among ethnic groups and populations involved in the maritime trade, the culture of which was more normatively Islamic.

From Colonial to Postcolonial Pluralism.

Dutch colonialism established footholds in Indonesia in the seventeenth century, but its full assault on native society began only in the nineteenth. The Dutch introduced new elements into the diverse streams of archipelago civilization, and they also affected the regional dynamics of Islam and ethnicity. In the late nineteenth century, the Dutch resolved to block the spread of Islam to non-Muslim portions of the archipelago, and in doing so they deepened religious and ethnic divides. The Dutch feared that an expanded Muslim community would only strengthen opposition to European rule, an anxiety reinforced by Muslim leadership of several of the most bitter anti-colonial rebellions of the nineteenth century. Despite their best efforts, however, Dutch programs to block Islam’s advance met with only qualified success, actually accelerating the Islamic advance in some regions.

A key element in the European effort to contain Islam was the reform of native legal traditions across the archipelago. European experts divided native peoples into nineteen legal communities. Islamic law was acknowledged in each ethnic community’s legal culture only to the extent that colonial scholars determined that local custom (Indonesian, adat) explicitly acknowledged Islamic law. In this manner, colonial authorities deepened the ethnic divide between nominally Islamic and more deeply Islamized ethnic groups.

The colonial effort to strengthen ethnic divisions and weaken popular identification with Islam was counteracted, however, by a great wave of migration in the late nineteenth century that brought Islamic traders, scholars, and teachers first to maritime ports but, by the end of the nineteenth century, to inland portions of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. As colonial commerce provided new opportunities for natives, the ranks of educated Muslims swelled. So too did the number of natives making the pilgrimage to Mecca. These developments set the stage for the great surge in Islamic reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Indonesians from diverse ethnic backgrounds flocked to urban centers to take advantage of employment opportunities in industries processing newly introduced cash crops, Islamic schools followed. A new class of Muslim merchants funded the schools, promoting a cosmopolitan culture less supportive of ethnic customs and the localized profession of Islam. The reformists’ emphasis on self-study and individual responsibility also presented a challenge to the classically-trained scholars (ʿulamāʾ) long regarded as the custodians of Islamic learning, and especially influential in Java. With the establishment of the Nahdlatul Ulama (the “Renaissance of Islamic Scholars”) in East Java in 1926, however, traditionalist Muslim scholars responded to the modernist challenge. Although at times overshadowed by the rivalry with secular nationalists, competition between modernist and traditionalist Muslims has remained a key feature of religious culture and politics to this day.

The Muslim Abode Divided.

With the growth of towns and commerce across the archipelago, some non-Europeans began to experiment with new forms of public association and politics. Inspired by the republican movement in China, the colony’s Chinese minority (2 percent of the population) was the first to do so, organizing civic associations to support the nationalist cause back in China and to press for rights in the Dutch colony. Native Indonesians quickly followed suit, however, establishing a number of organizations dedicated to improving their rights. Most of these initiatives were at first protonationalist rather than nationalist in ideology, mobilizing followers on the basis of ethnicity and religion rather than the ideal of a nation-state. In the final years of the colonial period, protonationalist groupings began to give way to nationalist associations based on either Islamic or secular world views.

The opposition between these latter coincided roughly with ethnic and religious divisions. Islamic nationalist parties had their greatest centers of support in the outer islands, especially in regions where the influence of court-centric varieties of Islam was weak. On Java, and in a few other strongholds of syncretic and traditionalist Islam like Lombok, however, the secularist Indonesian National Party and Communist Party enjoyed considerable support. In the early years of Indonesian independence, the contest between secular and Islamic visions of Indonesia became the basis for mass mobilizations on a scale never before seen in Indonesian history. Taking their cues from the leadership in Jakarta, the main parties mobilized associations of youth, women, students, farmers, workers, and intellectuals. Local communities across Indonesia were eventually split into vertical factions organized along ideological lines. Indonesians referred to the vertical segments as aliran, literally “currents.” The injection of national ideological conflicts into local affairs politicized even the most mundane social occasions.

Aliran rivalries also reinforced tensions between reformist-dominated areas on the outer islands and the Javanese-dominated center. In 1959, regional rebellions broke out in several outer-island regions, fueled by ethnic resentment of Javanese political domination and by reformist unhappiness with the secularist and left-leaning course of national politics. The regional rebellions were suppressed by 1962, but the political tensions on which they had been based remained.

Region and Aliran.

The political and cultural impact of the aliran mobilization was different in Java from what it was in Sumatra, Sulawesi, and most other islands. In Java, aliran rivalries slowed and even reversed the advance of reformist Islam, which had been on the ascent since the late nineteenth century. In Muslim areas outside of Java, by contrast, aliran competition accelerated the progress of reformist Islam and the suppression of syncretic and ethnically-inflected Islamic traditions.

The military-dominated New Order regime that came to power after the failed coup of 30 September 1965 had an unexpected effect on this broad pattern of ethnicity, religion, and aliran. On the assumption that religion was the best way to inoculate people against the threat of communism, state officials launched “building up” (Indonesian, pembinaan) programs that required all citizens to receive instruction in state-authorized religions. Officially, the policy was designed to stop the politicization of religion. In practice, however, the policy was supposed to reduce the influence of Islamic political parties while also undermining the cultural appeal of left-wing ideologies. The balance was not always easy. At the beginning of the New Order, Islamic political parties were subject to draconian restrictions. As the New Order period advanced, however, the government made a growing number of concessions to Islamic organizations and interests, especially after Indonesia was swept by an Islamic resurgence in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the government had reversed course and was quietly reaching out to the leaders of major Islamic organizations. At the same time, its programs subjected syncretic Muslims in Java, Lombok, and several other provinces to heightened government pressures to declare their affiliation with one of the five state-recognized religions. In schools, the syncretists’ children were required to take courses in religion, with the result that growing numbers of youth were introduced to a more normative-minded profession of Islam.

By the 1980s anthropologists and journalists were reporting that normative Islam was making great progress in many former strongholds of secular nationalism, and syncretic varieties of Islam were in decline. Although some observers had predicted that the fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998 might lead to a revival of folk and syncretic Islam, no such development took place. As religion in the post-Suharto era was drawn back into political contestation, young people who disagreed with Islamist political agendas—including, it must be emphasized, many pious Muslims—have rallied around multireligious nationalism rather than the ethnicized or syncretic Islam of the 1950s.

The Rise of the Sunnī Center.

The overall effect of religious politics in Indonesia since the 1990s, then, has been to diminish the religious and ethnic centrifugalism of the 1950s. Many among Indonesia’s once-nominal or syncretic Muslim populations on Java, Lombok, and parts of South Sulawesi have come to a more orthodox profession of their faith. They have done so in part as a result of the transformation of the traditionalized social worlds in which these non-standard Islams had earlier been embedded. They were also influenced by programs of religious education conducted by the state and Indonesia’s enormous Islamic social welfare organizations. Although since the early twenty-first century some provinces have been experiencing a revival of ethnic and regional custom (adat), the customs celebrated have been largely purged of non-Islamic or “ethnicized” Muslim practices.

If the more florid expressions of syncretic Islam are today diminished, the pluralism of Indonesian Islam is not. By any measure, Indonesian Sunnism remains richly pluralistic, in both its social organizations and its cultural temperaments. Precisely because this is the case, the question of the types of policies and institutions that should be devised to manage that pluralism—the religious governance question—will remain a contentious issue for the indefinite future. The volatility of this issue has been demonstrated in the twenty-first century by the varied public response to efforts by the Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI), as well as authorities in Aceh and several districts, to suppress what they regard as “deviationist” currents in Indonesian Islam.

Although the question of religious pluralism remains contentious, the ethnoreligious divisions that once pitted reformist Muslims in the outer islands against secularists and syncretists on Java are today greatly diminished. Observers of post–New Order politics today speak of the centripetal trends in political party competition, as opposed to the centrifugal instability of the 1950s. Inter-party rivalries during the latter period polarized Indonesian society, and deepened regional and ethnic tensions. Although Indonesian politics is still today characterized by bitter contention, the issues of concern to most Indonesians rarely have to do with ethnically based disagreements over the proper profession of Islam. The political parties that vie for influence in Indonesia today differ only marginally on basic questions of Islam and politics, and few make overt appeals to ethnic divisions. National politics and religious culture in Indonesia bear witness, then, to the continuing Islamization of society, the relative decline of ethnic and syncretic Islam, and pluralist variation in the profession of normative Islam.


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