Dr. Carool Kersten – Islam in Indonesia


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Dr.Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam & the Muslim World, KING’S College LONDON, author of Islam in Indonesia – The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, published by Hurst Publishers, in an interview with Mark Ulyseas

“Fifteen years after the fall of the Suharto Regime in 1998, Indonesia’s Muslims are still pondering what role religion should play in public life. Although the religious violence marring the initial transition towards democratic reform has died down, in the first decade of the 21st century, the Muslim community has polarized into reactionary and progressive camps with increasingly antagonistic views on the place of Islam in Indonesian society. Debates over the underlying principles of the democratization process have further heated up after a fatwa issued by conservative religious scholars condemned secularism, pluralism and liberalism as un-Islamic. With a hesitant government dominated by Indonesia’s eternal political elites failing to take a clear stance, supporters of the decision feel vindicated to pursue their Islamization agendas with renewed vigour, displaying growing intolerance towards other religions and what they consider deviant Muslim minorities. Extremist and radical exponents of this Islamist bloc receive more international media coverage and scholarly attention than their progressive opponents who are defiantly challenging this reactionary trend. Calling for a true transformation of Indonesian society based on democratic principles and respect for human rights, they insist that this process depends on sustained secularization, religious toleration, and freethinking.” – Kertsen

Could you kindly give us an overview of your book?

Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values is in part a sequel to my previous book, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, in which I examined the work Indonesia’s leading Muslim intellectual of the late twentieth century, Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) — more affectionately known as Cak Nur. His writings have been seminal in developing what is often called a liberal or neo-modernist strand of Islamic thinking, because it rejects an Islamic state or even the need for Islamic political parties, arguing that a secular political system should be perfectly acceptable to Muslims because it leaves ample room for the expression of Islamic values. Although he was not associated with either the Muhammadiyah or Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and never joined any political party, his influence did extend into politics and he was instrumental in convincing Suharto to step down in 1998, thus helping to secure the transition into the Reformasi Era. I ended that book noting how the torch has now been passed on to younger generations of progressive-minded Muslim intellectuals and activists. Islam in Indonesia tells their story.

I think it is an important story to tell at this point in time, not only because Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world – a fact that many people are not aware off – but, more importantly, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Indonesia’s experiences during the last decade and a half, especially in view of the seismic shifts that are currently taken place in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world.

The new freedoms that came with the regime change of 1998 opened up the public space to a diversity of voices that had been unheard of before in Indonesia. This meant that not only those drawing inspiration from Cak Nur and other like-minded Muslim activists had new opportunities for further developing and implementing their ideas, on the other side of the spectrum, reactionary Muslims were now also able to openly advocate their political agendas. This resulted in a mushrooming of a wide range of Muslim political parties, civil society initiatives, NGOs, think tanks, and what have you, but it has also led to the emergence of radical and frequently violent vigilante organizations such as FPI, militias involved in inter-religious armed confrontations, such as Laskar Jihad, and even more sinister exponents of Islamic political extremism like JI.

As a consequence, also debates within Indonesia’s Muslim community have become more antagonistic, leading to a growing polarization between the various viewpoints of what kind of role religion — in this case Islam — should play in Indonesian society. Politicians, the media, and also academics have paid more attention to the reactionary side of the spectrum than to progressive Muslim voices. In my book I want to restore that balance. This has become all the more important following the release of a controversial fatwa, or religious legal opinion, by the Indonesian Council of Islamic scholars (MUI), in the summer of 2005. In this document, they condemned the notions of secularism, pluralism  and liberalism as ‘un-Islamic’. Not surprisingly this caused quite a stir, splitting Muslims into two camps: supporters and critics of the fatwa. For me, this provided both a motive for writing this particular book and a motif around which to organize my narrative.

Concentrating on progressive Muslim intellectuals who have begun to make a name for themselves in the fifteen years that have passed since the fall of New Order, I use the 2005 fatwa as a calibration point for gauging to what extent Indonesia has succeeded in becoming a more democratic country. After all, democratization is not just about the ballot box, and organizing free and fair elections and regular intervals.

I argue that, since 2005, the antagonism among Indonesia’s Muslims was further aggravated by a conservative turn within the leadership of both traditionalist NU and the modernist Muhammadiyah, and a government that seems to cow tow to conservative and reactionary Muslims. However, younger generations of Muslim activists do no longer slavishly follow their more senior colleagues or former teachers. The progressive voices also do not form a monolithic bloc. To help the readers in finding their bearings in this intellectual cacophony, the beginning of the book maps different schools of thought, which often took shape through critiques of their intellectual mentors from earlier generations.

One of the interesting things I discovered is that, contrary to what you would expect, Muslims from traditionalist rural backgrounds were more progressive than their urban modernist peers. In their ‘intellectual adventurism’, they demonstrated a knack for looking back to the tradition and come up with creative reinterpretations of centuries of Islamic learning which are relevant to the present and future of Muslims in Indonesia.

The remainder of the book deals with the ways Muslims engage with specific themes affecting Muslim society and its politics, such as the relation between religion, statehood and democracy; the very hotly debated issue of the place of Islamic law in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Indonesia; and questions of universal human rights, tolerance, and religious education. Many of these issues have been contested since Indonesia gained independence.

For example, after 1998, we saw a rerun of the same debates of 1945 whether there should be any mention of Islam in the country’s constitution and the need for Muslims to adhere to Islamic law. These attempts were again soundly defeated, and Islamic parties had to find different ways of fulfilling their political agendas. I don’t expect there to be any decisive or final outcome to these debates, but the fact that they are taking place will give direction to Indonesia’s political future and – ultimately – to what kind of country Indonesia will be.

Is it true that there is a blurring of lines between religion and state with the growing influence of Islam? And do you foresee Indonesia becoming an Islamic State?

Yes, there is a blurring of the lines between religion and state in Indonesia, but this is neither a new phenomenon, nor a result of a supposedly recent growing influence of Islam. It makes Indonesia a very interesting case study for the phenomenon of secularization.

The way the Indonesian republic has handled the relation between religion and state in the almost seventy years of its independent existence prefigures what political and other social scientists have only begun to realize in the last twenty years or so. And that is that modernization has not so much led to a reduction of the importance of organized religion as to a differentiation between the function of religious institutions and that of the state.

Also the claim that in modernizing societies, religion has been relegated to the private sphere can be challenged. The evidence for that does not only come from the Muslim world, empirical research shows that this also applies to countries with Christian majorities. The United States is a prime example: nobody can deny that religion is of great importance to Americans and it is very much present in the public sphere.

Indonesia is somewhat unique in the sense that, since 1945, its political system is defined by the Pancasila or Doctrine of Five Principles: The first principle being the need of every Indonesian citizen to belief in a supreme being, without any further identification. In practice, this has resulted in the formal recognition of only a limited number of religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The Chinese tradition of Confucianism has been in and out a few times, and there is still much debate about indigenous spiritual practices alternately referred to as Kejawen, Kebatinan and Kepercayaan.

Some observers refer to this as Indonesia’s ‘soft secularism’, which stands in contrast to the ‘hard secularism’ found in, for example, France, or to mention another Muslim country, Turkey. Since the political success of the AKP, that country has in fact moved closer to the Indonesian situation.

It is against this background that one has to situate the current debates among Muslims as to the role of Islam in present-day Indonesia. Some Islamist parties have tried to revive the discussions of 1945 and insert a stipulation into the constitution making it mandatory for Muslim citizens to abide by Islamic law.

However, this was not just rejected by parties such as Golkar or the PDI-P, but also moderate Muslim parties. Although, in contrast to the New Order years, it is no longer mandated that all political parties and mass organizations (including Islamic ones such as the Muhammadiyah and the NU) accept Pancasila as their ‘sole foundation’ or asas tunggal, many progressive Muslims remain convinced that the Pancasila forms an important safeguard for pluralism and tolerance in an ethnically and religiously diverse country such as Indonesia.

That is also the reason why they corralled the Pancasila in the wake of the notorious fatwa of 2005. Criticizing the condemnation of the principles of secularism, pluralism and liberalism by conservative Muslim scholars because they were supposedly running counter to Islamic values, together with other segments of Indonesian society progressive Muslim circled the wagons to protect the toleration of religious minorities, including Muslim groups which are considered ‘deviant sects’ by their conservative and reactionary adversaries.

There is no denying that the Islamists remain very vocal, and in the early Reformasi years, when there was a momentary breakdown of law and order as the military was forced to retire from its former predominant role in politics and wider Indonesian society, some of the more radical and extremist elements constituted a real danger to the integrity of the state and the fabric of Indonesian society.

Also the release of the 2005 fatwa and the conservative turn in important organizations such as the Muhammadiyah and NU is a reason for concern. But at the same time, I think the phenomena which I discuss in my book show that there is also a very substantial counter current of progressive Muslims who have every intention to defend the gains that have undoubtedly been made in turning Indonesia into a more democratic country.

Why, in your opinion, do the radicals get more ‘publicity’ than those intellectuals who seek to ‘democratize’  Indonesia, to turn it into a truly ‘open’ society?

That question can be answered very cynically: Because the actions of radicals are more ‘newsworthy’ than measured intellectual debates, or average Indonesian Muslims going about their daily business.

And, obviously, the most extremist exponents of Islamism are also a security risk, which means that government bodies dealing with such developments and — I should add — academic studies of religious violence will find it a lot easier to secure funding than NGOs involved in community cohesion building or grassroots level development initiatives, let alone scholars – like myself – who are interested in what Muslim intellectuals discuss.

The latter often takes place in scholarly circles or, at the very least, among highly educated Indonesians, who are still a relatively small minority of the total population.

There appears to be little resistance from government for it often succumbs to the diktats of  extremists: attacks on minorities and places of worship, etc. Please comment.

Since 2005, religious intolerance has certainly been on the rise, affecting not just non-Muslims, but also Muslim minority groups such as the Ahmadis and Shi’ites. That is not only due to the fact that vigilantes such as the FPI feel vindicated by that fatwa, but also due to a government that gives mixed signals. On the one hand, they claim to uphold Pancasila, on the other they refuse to step in when acts of violence are perpetrated against religious minorities. Instead of speaking up for freedom of conviction and expression, the Indonesian government only stepped onto the international stage to propose a UN protocol against blasphemy.

It is very surprising how the incumbent SBY administration has failed to capitalize on the extended and expanded mandate following its 2009 re-election – usually a rare feat for a sitting government. In part this is due to SBY’s own passivity and indecisiveness. On the other hand, I believe the resilience and survival instincts of what I call Indonesia’s ‘perpetual elites’ are still holding Indonesian society in its grip. Even fifteen years after Reformasi, you still see the same names recurring in politics, business, and even in Muslim circles too. NU leader Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) may have been the first freely elected president Indonesia ever had, but he was the grandson of the founder of the NU, and his father had served as minister of religious affairs under Sukarno, his career was only cut short when he died in a tragic car accident in 1953. Although an opposition figure, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gus Dur was very much a fixture of Indonesia’s political mainstream. These elites are not adverse from manipulating less savoury elements from Indonesia’s social underbelly for their own purposes. The recent statement by the interior minister that the thugs of the FPI should be ‘empowered’ to play a more prominent role in Indonesia than the vigilante actions and persecutions they have been involved in so far does not bode well. It offers an eerie reminder of the involvement of paramilitary organizations such as the Pemuda Pancasila and the Muslim Ansor in some of the more sinister episodes in Indonesia’s recent history.

The continued ‘war on terror’ and the rising Islamophobia particularly in the West, have been partly instrumental in creating a ‘fear psychosis’ and thus maligning all Muslims. What affect has this been on Islam in Indonesia?

Indonesia’s own track record is ambiguous in this respect. Internationally, Megawati Sukarnoputri was one of the first to jump on the Bush bandwagon after 9/11. When Islamic radicalism hit home in Indonesia with bombings in Bali and Jakarta, it briefly seemed that domestically the gloves were coming off too. However, pursuing the mentors of the terrorists was only done half-heartedly. As I have mentioned earlier, especially since 2005, ambivalence and hesitation seem to be the hallmarks of the government attitude vis-à-vis undesirable aspects of Islamic political activism.

Did the power vacuum left by Suharto become fertile ground for the breeding of Islamic extremists who took the opportunity to impose their sense of religiosity?

Certainly, the initial chaos in the immediate aftermath of the changes taking place in 1998 and 1999 played in the hands of organizations and activists with very dubious agendas. On the other hand, the new openness of Reformasi also means that those with whom one disagrees also deserve an open forum to voice their opinions and a platform for developing their agendas for Indonesia’s future, provided they stay within the confines of the law, of course. Such challenges are an important test for the robustness of the democratization process. A clear example of this is the issue of the introduction of Islamic law. When it became clear that there would be no reference to Islamic law in the new constitution and that the central government would not enforce Islamic law on a national level, Islamists changed tactics by using one of the achievements of the democratization process under Reformasi: The decentralization of Indonesia’s state administration and the devolution of powers to regional and local authorities offered a new window of opportunity by introducing Islamic law on these lower levels through so-called ‘Local Religious Orders’, or Perda Syariat, in staunchy Islamic area such as Aceh and certain districts in Java and Sulawesi.

Progressive Muslims are countering this ‘creeping shariatization’ of Indonesian society, not by rejecting Islamic law out of hand, but by pointing at what Shariʽa really means. Generally, the term is used as shorthand for ‘Islamic law’, but that is a misunderstanding. Shariʽa is actually a very general principle offering Muslims an ethical code or moral compass for proper Islamic conduct. Concrete stipulations pertaining to dress codes, segregation of the sexes, and the more notorious examples of stoning adulterers or cutting off hands, are not part of that. They are the outcome of legal practices during the early centuries of Islam’s formative period, which were incorporated in a historical body of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh in Arabic. Such rulings were constantly debated among scholars in order to determine their continuing relevance or obsoleteness. Reactionary Muslims think the only right way forward is to reintroduce these rulings, which by now have become anachronisms.

How can the right thinking educated Muslims of Indonesia repulse this growing trend of radical Islam? How can their voice be heard above the ‘war cry’ of the extremists who have become the self appointed gendarmes of the faith?

Progressive Muslims try to recapture the spirit of Shariʽa by shifting the attention from archaic jurisprudence to the underlying principles developed in a juridical specialism called maqasid al-shariʽa, the ‘objectives of shariʽa’. In effect, this is a philosophy of law not dissimilar to the natural law debates of the Western tradition. The moral guidelines that can be teased out from such a purpose-based approach to legal debates are fully compatible with a political system such as democracy and with the universal human rights standards that have now gained global acceptance.

There is no need whatsoever, progressive Muslim intellectuals argue, to create a parallel alternative Islamic political and human rights system, let alone make certain reservations to these universally accepted standards in terms of the rights of religious minorities or the participation of women.

These debates are far from finished. In fact, when Abdurrahman Wahid was impeached in 2001 due to his mercurial behaviour, supposedly progressives in moderate Muslim parties tried nevertheless to prevent Megawati Sukarnoputri from becoming president because she was a woman. That was a moment when a generation gap became apparent between some of the pioneers of innovative Islamic thinking in the 1970s and the younger generations of progressive Muslims.

Are the radicals using Islam as a weapon to fight the growing ‘modernisation’ or ‘westernisation’ of Indonesia because they see it as a threat to Indonesian culture, in the process maligning Islam?

The conflation of modernization with westernization has been plaguing the debates between progressive and reactionary Muslims since the late 1960s. At that time, Nurcholish Madjid — whom I mentioned at the beginning – was the leader the country’s largest Muslim student organization. In 1968 he had written an article in which he argued that modernization meant a rationalization of Muslim thinking, not the wholesale Westernization of Indonesian society and culture.

Since then, progressive Muslims have been at pains to develop ways of modernizing Indonesian society, including its Muslim segment, without losing its Indonesian distinctiveness. That also means they are just as much opposed to the ‘Arabization’ of Indonesian Islam. To their mind, the kind of Islam propagated by reactionary Muslims who try to copy their Salafi brethren in the Middle East, is just as alien to Indonesia as many aspects of Western culture. Nurcholish Madjid called his variant Islam Kemodernan Keindonesiaan, while Abdurrahman Wahid spoke of Pribumasi Islam, or the ‘indigenization of Islam’.

Younger generations of Muslim intellectuals continue exploring new avenues of this cultural or cosmopolitan Indonesian Islam. They also exhibit a growing assertiveness towards Muslims in the Arab world who very frequently take a rather patronizing attitude towards Indonesians. Many of these Indonesian Muslims are not just fluent in Arabic, but also English and often other foreign languages too. They have spent time abroad, studying at universities in the Middle East, as well as in North America, Europe or Australia. Thus they are not only intimately familiar with the cultural heritage of Islam, but also very well informed of the latest advances of Western academe in the humanities and social sciences. This has led to new intellectual initiatives, which they have presented under names such as ‘Islamic post-traditionalism’ or ‘transformative Islam’ and which I have tried to unpack in my book.

Could you give us a glimpse of your life and works?

I am originally from the Netherlands, but I have been working at King’s College London since 2007, where I am currently a senior lecturer in the study of Islam and the Muslim world. But my interest in that part of the world actually dates back to my high school years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the time of the Iranian revolution, the Camp David accords, and the assassination of the Egyptian President Sadat. The fascination I had for the Middle East made me decide to specialize in this area during my university studies. Eventually, I graduated with an MA in Arabic language and culture, writing a dissertation on Islamic international law.

Subsequently, I found myself working for more than ten years in Saudi Arabia as a translator and personnel manager, interrupted by a sabbatical year during which I went back to my old university in the Netherlands to study philosophy. By the end of 2000, I thought it was time for a real change. Now married and with two children, we moved to Thailand where my wife is from. I gave myself another sabbatical and obtained a diploma in Southeast Asian Studies. Rather unexpectedly, the university offered me a job as an instructor in Asian history and religions, and I also found some time to write two books on the Dutch in Southeast Asia. I became increasingly convinced that I wanted to turn this into an alternative career, and in 2005 I decided to pursue a PhD. With 9/11, the incidents in Indonesia, and new troubles in Thailand’s Muslim south just behind us, I was looking for a subject where I could combine my earlier background in Arabic and Islamic studies with my new found interest in Southeast Asia. Having already done a course in Indonesian language during my graduate and postgraduate studies in the Netherlands, I applied to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to write a thesis comparing three contemporary Muslim intellectuals from Indonesia, Egypt, and Algeria, which also became the basis for the book Cosmopolitans and Heretics.

I was exceptionally fortunate to be offered a job at King’s College London even before I had finished my PhD. Since then, I have been involved in a variety of research projects on contemporary Islam. This has resulted in book collaborations on the caliphate and on new strands in Islamic thinking and the consequences for religious authority. My next writing project will be yet another book on Indonesia, this time a history of Islam for the Islamic surveys book series published by Edinburgh University Press. When that is finished I can dedicate myself to another contract I have signed with Routledge for an overview of contemporary Muslim thought, in which I also envisage saying something about the repercussions of the Arab uprisings for Muslim thinking in the present-day world.

Apart from indulging in research, I continue to teach and advise PhD students. Being based in London, I also have regular opportunity to comment in the media on current affairs in the Muslim world.

Dr. Carool Kersten is a Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London and a Research Associate with the Centre for South East Asian Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His research interests include the intellectual history of the modern Muslim world, Islam in Southeast Asia, and Islam in global and inter-regional contexts. He has an MA in Arabic Language and Culture from Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands), a Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies from Payap University in Chiang Mai (Thailand), and a PhD in the Study of Religions from SOAS, University of London.

He is the author of three other books, including Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (2011), and the co-editor of Demystifying the Caliphate (2013) and Alternative Islamic Discourses and Religious Authority (2013).


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