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Debate Islam in Indonesia

Interlocutors of Indonesian Islam
Ahmad Najib Burhani | December 08, 2012

A few months ago, the Japanese anthropologist Mitsuo Nakamura told me that studying Nahdlatul Ulama as an organization was beyond the imagination of any American scholar from the 1950s to the ’70s. But he is not the only academic to have noticed this. George McT. Kahin of Cornell University stated the same thing. Even NU-expert Martin van Bruinessen was not expecting to study NU as his primary focus when he came to Indonesia for the first time in the 1980s. 

During the early decades of Indonesian independence, NU was relatively unorganized and its management was largely based on the authority of religious teachers ( kyai ). Of course there were a number of scholars who studied NU-affiliated religious schools ( pesantren ) and its kyai, but not NU as an organization. 

Even though NU was one of the winners of Indonesia’s first legislative elections, in 1955, most of the academic work during these years focused on modernist movements, like Muhammadiyah. But since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic shift, especially visible in American scholarship on Indonesian Islam, toward a more NU-centric approach. 

Weber and the Protestant Ethic 

Most of the early academic work on Indonesian Islam was done by Christian missionaries and colonial officials. Before World War II, American scholars relied heavily on Europe, particularly the Netherlands, when they studied Indonesian Islam. But this changed after WW II when Americans wanted to see for themselves what was going on in Indonesia, a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement. 

The main characteristic of the early US scholarship on Indonesian Islam was the influence of Max Weber. This can be seen clearly in the work of Clifford Geertz, Harry J. Benda, Lance Castles and also that of Nakamura. 

Fred Inglis wrote in 2000 that Geertz, who would become highly influential, came to Indonesia in the early 1950s with an intention to find a local variant of the Protestant ethic in Muslim societies — inspired by Weber’s famous “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Other scholars did likewise, like Robert N. Bellah in his “Tokugawa Religion.” 

A good example of the influence of Weber in Geertz’s work is the santri-priyayi- abangan trichotomy — similar to Weber’s distinction between the urban middle class, warrior nobilities and peasants. 

How come Weber was so influential in Indonesian studies? 

The dominance of the Weberian perspective among US scholars in general at the time was one factor. Geertz was a student of Talcott Parsons, and Parsons was the one who introduced Weber to American academia by translating “The Protestant Ethic” into English. 

But of course Geertz’s choice to use the Weberian perspective was not simply because of this teacher-student relation. The most important reason was because he tried to find the relation between religious ideas and human conduct, politics and economic development — between religion and social change. For this analytical endeavor, Weber provided very useful tools. 

Recent studies have been trying to uncover whether there were any other motives behind the Weberian approach in Indonesian studies — political ones perhaps. Inglish among others has argued that US scholars visiting Indonesia at the time were greatly influenced by the idea that capitalism was to be promoted to counter to Sukarno’s “Asian socialism.” 

As the Cold War was raging, Sukarno was among those taking the initiative to establish the NAM. Furthermore, although Sukarno was a leader of the so-called non-bloc nations, he was also a good friend of communist Cuba’s Fidel Castro and close to the People’s Republic of China. To challenge Sukarno’s hegemony, the US government needed to promote and support capitalism in Indonesia. Coincidentally, modernist Islamic movements at that time were opposing Sukarno. This is presumably one of the reasons why American scholars focused on modernist movements and neglected NU — a Sukarno ally in promoting his Nasakom (nationalism, religion and communism) ideology. 

From an academic perspective, another reason for not looking closely at what was going on within NU was that many scholars believed this organization would be left behind by modernization. Modernism and rationality, they believed, had no place in NU. And if Indonesia were to be become a modern country — like the United States — then it had to follow the Protestant ethic and especially the spirit of capitalism. “New Indonesia,” using a term coined by Geertz, would thus only appear with the help of Muhammadiyah and other modernist movements. 

New era of scholarship 

James Peacock’s work is the culmination of American scholarship on Indonesian Islam from a Weberian vantage point and seeing Muhammadiyah as the incarnation of the Protestant ethic in the Muslim world. But Peacock’s books were published almost at the same time as Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978), which marked the beginning of a new era of scholarship on Islam all over the world. 

New generations of American scholars of Indonesian Islam were no longer unconsciously trapped by the Weberian perspective — look at Robert Hefner, John Bowen and Mark Woodward. 

There are four factors that have contributed to this paradigm shift. 

The first is — using Edward Tiryakian’s term — “Durkheim’s religious revival.” Among other things, this trend was due to a new translation of Emile Durkheim’s “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.” It was also stimulated by a broad swing in social science toward cultural analysis, structuralism and post-modernism. Interestingly, Geertz was also a pioneer in this regard. 

The second factor that contributed to the shift away from Weberian scholarship on Indonesia was the decline of the modernist paradigm in universities, mainly thanks to critique from post-modernist and culturalist circles. 

A third, related factor that gave rise to a new era of scholarship is the fading away of the orientalist tradition. We can see this for instance in the references used in scholarship since the 1980s. Researchers started to quote Marshal Hodgson, Talal Asad, Charles Taylor and Michel Foucault — instead of Christian missionaries and colonial officials. But not only did scholars start to use other sources as part of their move away from orientalism, there was also a change in their perception of Indonesian Islam. 

Before the ’80s, scholars almost unanimously considered Indonesian Islam as a peripheral, or superficial form of the faith. This was a consequence of the binary perspective used by orientalists, who approached Islam in a normative way and used the Middle East as their point of reference. 

The final factor leading to the paradigm shift were the dynamics of Indonesian Islam itself — particularly under the influence of longtime NU-leader Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. 

He successfully transformed NU from a traditionalist to a more progressive movement. He also played a key role in changing the image of Indonesian Islam — from the “peripheral Islam” of the orientalists to an “authentic Islam” no less orthodox than forms of the faith practiced in the Middle East. NU no longer feels inferior in the face of modernism and has even been able to become a trendsetter in the Indonesian Islamic discourse — at times even critiquing Muhammadiyah. 

Combined, these four factors changed for good the way scholars all over the world approach religion in the largest Muslim-majority nation-state. Yet they also remind us of the non-academic considerations that over time have shaped the endeavors of Islam’s interlocutors. 

Ahmad Najib Burhani is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).


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