home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Islamisation in Java

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor, The Australian National University, of Professor Emeritus M.C.Ricklefs, Islamisation and its Opponents in Java (NUS Press, Singapore, 2012), Canberra, 14 August 2012

With the arguable exception only of the two giants, China and the U.S., no country is of greater importance to Australia’s future than Indonesia. And no contemporary issue has caused more concern over the last decade, both in our own region and through much of the rest of the world, than the nature, extent and implications of the rise of Islamist sentiment and activit y. No Australian or regional policymaker can afford to be ignorant of or indifferent to what this phenomenon means for our huge neighbour, and by extension for the rest of us.

We should feel extraordinarily indebted, accordingly to Professor Emeritus Merle Ricklefs, one of the really great international scholars of Indonesia, past and present – and a longtime star in the Australian National University firmament – for producing this magnificently comprehensive account of Islamisation in Java from around 1930 to the present day, bringing to triumphant conclusion a trilogy tracing the story back to the 14th century.

It is hard to think of many other contemporary scholars with the chutzpah to undertake a study with a seven-century sweep on one of the most politically sensitive topics of the day – let alone the ability to pull it off.

Merle uses the study of Java as a vehicle for examining broad themes: how societies change (you can’t get much broader than that!); the mutual dependence of religious and political elites; and the changing dynamic between religion and the state.

The operative word here is “changing”. Merle’s panoramic historical vision enables him to show how frequently relationships accepted as immutable truths by scholars were instead products of a particular time and place, whether this is the santri – abangan distinction in Java initially made famous in the 19560s by Clifford Geertz, or the more universally applicable notion of a generation of Harvard political scientists (on which I for one have to say I pinned a few hopes)  that the inevitable outcome of modernization was secularization.

 No-one looking at the American political campaign would make that mistake today – and indeed Merle’s work frequently reminds us that while the subject of the book is the Islamisation of Java, many of the themes presented transcend a single place, time or religion. I particularly liked the parallels he draws from time to time in this volume between Islam in 21st century Java and Christianity in 16th century England.

For me, because my own political life overlapped with it, probably the most fascinating part of this third volume is his treatment of the relationship of religion to the state during and after Soeharto’s New Order. He shows how in the aftermath of the appalling violence of 1965-66, Soeharto deliberately led the state on a path toward controlled Islamisation, using religion as a social control mechanism to ensure there was no resurgence of the left. It was the state that created and manipulated Islamic institutions.

But now, in democratic Indonesia, as Merle makes clear, the opposite is taking place: non-government Islamic groups are manipulating the state, or at least having a major impact on public policy. They are able to do in part because of the steadily increasing religiosity of the population, whether measured in terms of how many people fast during Ramadan compared to 50 years ago, or the increase in Qur’an-reading classes sponsored by local police commanders.

That’s the other hallmark of a Riklefs study, by the way – the sheer amount of data marshaled to support an argument. The range of sources in Indonesian, Javanese, Dutch and English is breathtakingly immense. I wouldn't want to have been a publisher’s fact checker, or one of the army of them that would have been necessary, for this one – though of course such is Merle’s scholarly reputation that I’m sure no such second-guessing was seen as remotely necessary.

One of the more interesting conclusions of the study is that growing piety in the population is not producing more uniformity of views. As Merle notes, “there is no single, coherent ideology called Islam” and Indonesia’s Muslims are no different their counterparts elsewhere in their ability to generate intra-religious feuds and divisions. NU feels threatened by Hizbut Tahrir, Muhammadiyah is worried about PKS and as Sidney Jones and my other old friends at Crisis Group in Jakarat tell me, salafis and salafi jihadis are at each other’s throats.

I’m delighted to note in that context that Merle has some very kind words for my old organization, saying (p.410) “Readers interested to learn more about [terrorism in Indonesia] would be well advised to turn to …International Crisis Group publications”, adding with splendid waspishness (and naming names in the process) “They should generally avoid the writing of self-labelled ‘experts on terrrorism’ whose work has too often characterized by superficial analysis and research and television sound-bites”.

For the talk-back radio and blogging and tweeting warriors who see terrorists under every bush in Indonesia, it is worth noting that Merle, who had several interviews with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir – along with everyone else in the country who has counted for good or ill over the last 30 or more years – shows how marginal the jihadist groups are within the Muslim community more generally.  And he assures us they’re likely to remain so, in part because they scare away the middle class.

That said, this tide of Islamisation in Indonesia is not going to be reversed any time soon, because, going back to Merle’s title, it no longer has any strong opponents. The polarization between devout Muslims and the more syncretic Javanese that characterized much of the first half of the 20th century culminated in the bloody annihilation of the PKI in 1965-66 – and since then no political or social institutions have had the will or capacity to reverse the trend. 52,000 young Indonesians may have lined up to buy tickets for Lady Gaga  ­– but the authorities, pressed not only by hardliners but nervous more mainstream groups like Muhammadiyah, made sure the concert did not go ahead.

We have increasing concern these days about growing religious intolerance toward non-Muslim minorities and about the increasing effectiveness of hardline civil society in their quest to enforce morality. But one of the many virtues of Merle’s study is its scope and its insistence that nothing is static. The story of Islamisation in Java is constantly evolving; if there is one lesson to take away from this quintessential historian, it is that we constantly need to question our own time-bound assumptions.

So congratulations to Merle on producing a truly amazing feat of scholarship, and a book that ­ – although certainly a very dense read for the non-specialist, is a very good read, with lots of engaging little asides like the waspish one on terrorism commentators that I’ve already mentioned. For example, describing some of the fissiparous extremist groups that have flourished around Surakarta in recent years, he offers this observation:

Their attitude towards technology tends to be schizophrenic. While they may insist on wearing Arab-style clothes and brushing their teeth with a small wooden stick as did the Prophet, they also use flush toilets, mobile phones and the Internet and, given a chance, would see no objection to exchanging their sword for an AK-47. (p.423)

And Merle, if I haven’t been persuasive enough to move the mass market and this trilogy doesn’t in fact make as much money as Stieg Larsson’s did, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have more footnotes.

Congratulations to you, NUS Press, and all who sailed with you in producing this fine book. It will not only add yet another very thick layer to your own already formidable scholarly reputation and legacy, but will be a work with which all of us at ANU will feel pride continuing pride at having been associated.