In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.
One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.
First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.
But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.
Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.
In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.
To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).
At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, abangan and priyayi.
The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the abangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.
It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).
But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Abangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.
Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.
As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.
This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.
* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.