Book review: A vital book to read to understand Islam in Indonesia

“Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity” by Robert Pringle

There was a time when Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) was a political party in Indonesia, when Muslim Communists exist and did not contridict itself, and when the 1st Pancasila was in 5th and declared “Believe in God, with the obligation of the adherent of Islam to carry out Islamic law” (Ketuhanan, dengan kewajiban menjalankan syari’at Islam bagi pemuluk-pemuluk nya).

Furthermore, there are good explanations why in the whole Sumatra island only the Toba Batak people are Christian majority, why the people in Bali remain Hindu, and why those in eastern parts of Indonesia are predominantly Roman Catholics and Protestants. Meanwhile, there is a cheeky urban myth on why the Istiqlal national mosque has 12 pillars, created by its Christian architech. And contrary to popular believe that Muhammadiyah organisation is named after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the organisation was actually named after their theological godfather Muhammad ‘Abduh, a 19th century Egyptian reformer.

Moreover, did you know that the “Wali Songo” whom spread Islam in Java were mostly Chinese and Vietnamese descents? And did you know that Imam Bonjol in Padri War was in truth a Wahhabi mob that attacked the Minangkabau matrilineal tradition (they even killed some members of the Minangkabau royal family) and wanted to make Minangkabau an extreme-syariah state? The Minang indigenous requested help to the Dutch, and because he fought the Dutch in a war this Imam from Bonjol became a national hero and not a radical fundamentalist in Indonesia’s history book.

As the title suggest this book is indeed about Islam in Indonesia. But it is not about the theological history of Islam in Indonesia, although the author covered this in quite some length as well. Instead, it is first and foremost the history of politics in Indonesia – from the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms era, to colonial subject under the Dutch English and Japanese occupations, into the formation of the independent state of Indonesia, the turbulant first few decades, the post-1965 violence, until the modern Indonesia as we know it today – with Islam plays one of the most central roles in every era and influenced the evolution of the country. And conversely, this book is also the history of religion in Indonesia with Islam emerged as the dominant power that are shaped by the political scenes.

Central to the evolution of Islam in Indonesia (and thus the development of the book) are two great mainstream Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (which the author refer as Traditionalist, due to its assimilation with the traditional local cultures) and Muhammadiyah (which the author refer as Reformist due to its more doctrinaire style). And both organisations act as the pillar of Islam in Indonesia, which covers social, educational (with its great network of boarding schools (pesantren)), political and professional aspects of daily lives.

There are also those Islamic militant groups that became “the other side” of Islam evolution in Indonesia, such as separatist Darul Islam and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiyah whom wanted to make Indonesia an extreme-syariah compliant nation. There are also the organised political parties such as Masyumi and PKS that have tried (but so far fail) to make Islam a more dominant force in Indonesian politics. And then there is Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), an organisation that was originally created in 1975 to mobilise support for Suharto’s development policies, to give them stamp of approval from a religiously progressive minority of clerics, but then has since issued some of the most controversial (and idiotic) fatwas after the fall of Suharto.

All of the big events throughout the country’s history, all of the big names, the many riots and violences in the name of religion in Poso, Ambon, Aceh, Dayak vs Madura, etc are analysed. All of the structure and history of Islamic organisations are also discussed in details in the book, from every single political parties, separatist groups, down to the vast Islamic school system – from the 14000 pesantren in Java, to Surau in West Sumatra and Dayah in Aceh.

The author himself is an ex American diplomat who had served in Indonesia, and it was only natural of me to be sceptical at the author at first, where quite often a book by an American diplomat resident are written through the bias of the American point of view and its Foreign Policy interests. But to my delight, Robert Pringle remain balanced and unbiased throughout, where he did not hold back on the raw truths, did not sugar-coat the reality of American involvements in some of the deadly occurrences in Indonesian history, and he also acknowledged some of the rumours without filter.

I especially like the brilliant conclusion at the very end, where the author writes with a touching respect and love towards Indonesia, describing the complicated web of events that have created the unique and moderate Islam that Indonesia now have, and he ultimately concluded that Indonesia’s own diversity “act as a break, however imperfect, on ideological, religious or political extremism.” Lazy cover aside, this book could not do any better than this. 5 stars!

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