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The RSIS Working Paper series presents papers in a preliminary form and serves to stimulate comment and discussion. The views expressed are entirely the author’s own and not that of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. If you have any comments, please send them to the following email address: isjwlin@ntu.edu.sg.


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No. 222

What happened to the smiling face of Indonesian Islam?

Muslim intellectualism and the conservative

turn in post-Suharto Indonesia

Martin Van Bruinessen

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

6 January 2011

About RSIS

The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) was established in January 2007 as an autonomous School within the Nanyang Technological University. RSIS’ mission is to be a leading research and graduate teaching institution in strategic and international affairs in the Asia-Pacific. To accomplish this mission, RSIS will:

  • Provide a rigorous professional graduate education in international affairs with a strong practical and area emphasis

  • Conduct policy-relevant research in national security, defence and strategic studies, diplomacy and international relations

  • Collaborate with like-minded schools of international affairs to form a global network of excellence

Graduate Training in International Affairs

RSIS offers an exacting graduate education in international affairs, taught by an international faculty of leading thinkers and practitioners. The teaching programme consists of the Master of Science (MSc) degrees in Strategic Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy and Asian Studies as well as The Nanyang MBA (International Studies) offered jointly with the Nanyang Business School. The graduate teaching is distinguished by their focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the professional practice of international affairs and the cultivation of academic depth. Over 190 students, the majority from abroad, are enrolled with the School. A small and select Ph.D. programme caters to students whose interests match those of specific faculty members.


Research at RSIS is conducted by five constituent Institutes and Centres: the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, and the Temasek Foundation Centre for Trade and Negotiations (TFCTN). The focus of research is on issues relating to the security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region and their implications for Singapore and other countries in the region. The School has four professorships that bring distinguished scholars and practitioners to teach and do research at the School. They are the S. Rajaratnam Professorship in Strategic Studies, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Professorship in International Relations, the NTUC Professorship in International Economic Relations and the Bakrie Professorship in Southeast Asia Policy.

International Collaboration

Collaboration with other Professional Schools of international affairs to form a global network of excellence is a RSIS priority. RSIS will initiate links with other like-minded schools so as to enrich its research and teaching activities as well as adopt the best practices of successful schools.


The transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in Indonesia has been accompanied by the apparent decline of the liberal Muslim discourse that was dominant during the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing prominence of Islamist and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. This paper attempts to go beyond a superficial reading of these developments and explores the conditions that favoured the flourishing of liberal Muslim thought during the New Order as well as the various factors that from the 1980s onwards supported the rise of transnational Islamist movements, at the expense of the established mainstream organisations, Muhammadiyah and NU.

Liberal Muslim thought during the New Order developed in two distinct environments: among university students and graduates and the newly emerging Muslim middle class, whose family backgrounds connected them with reformist Islam, on the one hand, and among intellectuals and NGO activists hailing from the traditionalist milieu of the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) on the other. Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid were the most brilliant representatives of these environments. Although both adopted similar positions on such key issues as the idea of an Islamic state and inter-religious relations, they arrived at these positions by different trajectories. The paper analyses the development of religious and social thought in these two environments in its changing social and political context, and also traces the development and strengthening transnational connections of an undercurrent of Islamist and fundamentalist thought during the same period. It was through the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), established in 1990 as a vehicle for Muslim civil servants and businessmen, that the New Order regime co-opted formerly oppositional Islamists and fundamentalists and brought them into the mainstream.

Liberal and progressive Muslim thought by no means stagnated after the demise of the New Order; in fact, it reached higher levels of intellectual sophistication than in the heyday of Suharto’s rule. However, liberal and progressive Muslims have lost the power of setting the terms of public debate to the numerically stronger currents of radical Islam. Considerable segments of the Muslim middle class have come under the influence of Islamist or fundamentalist thought. Those who reject those radical varieties of Islam, appear to be more easily drawn to popular preachers leading Sufism-inspired devotional movements rather than to the intellectual successors of Madjid and Wahid.


Martin van Bruinessen is Professor of Comparative Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Originally trained as a theoretical physicist, he later switched to social anthropology and in the mid-1970s carried out extensive fieldwork among the Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – a region he has frequently revisited since. Between 1982 and 1994 he spent altogether nine years in Indonesia, as a researcher, a consultant for research methods at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and as a lecturer at the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) in Yogyakarta. In 1998 he was one of the founders of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), based in Leiden, and he has been one of the four professors leading this institute during the ensuing decade. In between, he also held visiting professorships at the Free University of Berlin and the National Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris. Since his return to the Netherlands in 1994, van Bruinessen has continued his research on Indonesian Islam and made numerous shorter research visits to the country. His published research on Indonesia concerns various aspects of Islam: Sufi orders, traditional Islamic education, the religious association Nahdlatul Ulama, and Islamic radicalism.

Van Bruinessen can be contacted at: m.vanbruinessen@uu.nl; many publications can be downloaded from his personal website:

http://www.hum.uu.nl/medewerkers/m.vanbruinessen/index-eng.html .

What happened to the smiling face of Indonesian Islam?
Muslim intellectualism and the conservative turn in post-Suharto Indonesia

Dedicated to the memories of
Abdurrahman Wahid and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

  1. Introduction

Developments in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto in 1998 have greatly changed the image of Indonesian Islam and the existing perception of Indonesian Muslims as tolerant and inclined to compromise. In the heyday of the New Order, the 1970s and 1980s, Indonesian Islam had presented a smiling face—perhaps appropriately so, under an authoritarian ruler who was known as “the smiling general”. The dominant discourse was modernist and broadly supportive of the government’s development programme. It embraced the essentially secular state ideology of Pancasila, favoured harmonious relations (and equal rights) with the country’s non-Muslim minorities, and rejected the idea of an Islamic state as inappropriate for Indonesia. Some key representatives spoke of “cultural Islam” as their alternative to political Islam and emphasized that Indonesia’s Muslim cultures were as authentically Muslim as Middle Eastern varieties of Islam.

Like Suharto’s smile, the friendly face of the most visible Muslim spokespersons hid from view some less pleasant realities, notably the mass killings of alleged communists during 1965–1966, which had been orchestrated by Suharto’s military but largely carried out by killing squads recruited from the main Muslim organizations.1 There was also an undercurrent of more fundamentalist Islamic thought and activism, and a broad fear—not entirely unjustified—of Christian efforts to subvert Islam.2 However, the liberal, tolerant and open-minded discourse of the likes of Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid was almost hegemonic. It was widely covered in the press and was influential in the universities, in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and other major Muslim institutions, and among the emerging middle class.

The post-Suharto years have presented a very different face of Indonesian Islam. For several years, there were violent inter-religious conflicts all over the country; jihad movements (supported by factions of the military and local interest groups) carried the banner of Islam to local conflicts, turning them into battlefields in a struggle that appeared to divide the entire nation.3 Terrorist groups with apparent transnational connections carried out spectacular attacks, including a series of simultaneous bombings of churches all over the country on Christmas eve of 2000 and the Bali bombings of October 2002, which killed around 200 people and wounded hundreds more, many of them foreign tourists.4 Opinion surveys in the early 2000s indicated surprisingly high levels of professed sympathy for radical Muslim groups among the population at large and unprecedented support for the idea of an Islamic state.5 Efforts to insert a reference to the Shariah—the so-called Jakarta Charter—into the Constitution were rejected by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in its 2001 and 2002 sessions, but in the following years numerous regions and districts adopted regulations that at least symbolically enshrined elements of the Shariah.6

Most of these developments, however, appear to have been temporary responses to the tremors of the political landscape rather than indications of a pervasive change of attitude of Indonesia’s Muslim majority. Meanwhile, both communal and terrorist violence have abated and it has become clear that much of the violence was directly related with struggles for the redistribution of economic and political resources in post-Suharto Indonesia. In most of the conflict-ridden regions a new balance of power has been established, although in some cases only after the relocation of considerable numbers of people, and the need for good neighbourly relations between the communities is widely affirmed. The terrorist networks have been largely uncovered and rounded up by the police, many of their activists being killed or arrested; the popular acceptance of violence in the name of Islam has been considerably reduced. The issuance of new regional Shariah regulations has by and large stopped—Aceh being the main exception where implementation of the Shariah remains on the agenda. The Muslim political parties, which in the general elections of 1999 and 2004 had recovered the high yield of around 40 per cent obtained in 1955, recorded significant losses in 2009, falling back to just over 25 per cent.

A more lasting development, however, appears to be the emergence of dynamic transnational Islamic movements that compete for influence with the older established Indonesian mainstream organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and make major contributions to setting the terms of the debate in Indonesia. Most significant among them are the Prosperous Welfare Party (PKS) and its affiliated associations, which constitute the Indonesian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Indonesian section of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HTI), and the apolitical Tablighi Jama’at and Salafi movements. Within Muhammadiyah and NU, moreover, the balance between liberals and progressives on the one hand and conservative and fundamentalist forces on the other, has shifted towards the latter.

The conservative turn

By 2005 it appeared that a conservative turn had taken place in mainstream Islam, and that the modernist and liberal views that had until recently found relatively broad support within Muhammadiyah and NU were increasingly rejected. Both organizations held their five-yearly congresses in 2004, and on both occasions the boards were purged of leaders considered as “liberals”, including persons who had rendered great service to their organizations. Many ulama and other Muslim leaders appear preoccupied with the struggle against “deviant” sects and ideas.

The clearest expression of the conservative turn was perhaps given by a number of controversial fatwas, authoritative opinions, issued by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars) in 2005. One of the fatwas declared secularism, pluralism and religious liberalism—SiPiLis, in a suggestive acronym coined by fundamentalist opponents—to be incompatible with Islam. This fatwa, believed to be inspired by radical Islamists who had recently joined the MUI but supported by many conservatives from the mainstream, was ostensibly a frontal attack on the small group of self-defined “liberal” Muslims of Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL, Liberal Islam Network) but attempted to delegitimize a much broader category of Muslim intellectuals and NGO activists, including some of the most respected Muslim personalities of the previous decades.7 Other fatwas condemned the practice of inter-religious prayer meetings (which had emerged in the days of political strife and inter-religious conflict, when representatives of different faiths joined one another in praying for well-being and peace) and declared inter-religious marriage haram, even in the case of a Muslim man marrying a non-Muslim woman. A fatwa on the Ahmadiyah not only declared this sect to be outside the boundaries of Islam and Muslims who joined it to be apostates, but it also called upon the government to effectively ban all its activities.8

The MUI had been established in 1975 as an adviser to the government on policy matters concerning Islam and as a channel of communication between the government and the Muslim umma. For a quarter century its voice had predominantly been one of moderation and compromise, if not political expedience; but it also saw itself as the watchdog of religious orthodoxy and repeatedly made statements condemning deviant movements and sects. (It had already condemned the Qadiyani branch of the Ahmadiyah as early as 1980, but without any effect on government policy.) Critics of the Suharto regime had heaped scorn on the MUI for its subservience to the wishes of the government, but the existence of a body that could represent the viewpoint of the umma to the government was generally appreciated.9 After Suharto’s fall, the MUI declared itself independent from the government, and it has since been setting its own agenda. At least one analyst interprets its current more assertive (and conservative) positioning as “an attempt to demarcate a role more aligned with the umma”,10 suggesting that the majority of Indonesian Muslims may have held such conservative views all along.

The conservative turn does not mean that the liberal and progressive voices of the past have suddenly been silenced. There were in fact many who did protest. The former chairmen of Muhammadiyah and NU, Ahmad Syafi’i Ma’arif and Abdurrahman Wahid, who had been genuinely popular among their constituencies, spoke out loudly and clearly, and so did several other prominent members of these organizations, as well as larger numbers of young activists. But they had lost the power to define the terms of debate and had to leave the initiative to the conservatives and fundamentalists.

What happened?

These developments call for an explanation. It is tempting to see a direct connection between Indonesia’s democratization and the declining influence of liberal and progressive views, but the assumption that the majority are inherently conservative or inclined to fundamentalist views is not a priori convincing. This would suggest that liberal Islamic thought could only flourish when it was patronized by an authoritarian regime. A related argument is that political democratization has drawn many of those who were previously involved in organizations or institutions supporting intellectual debate towards careers in political parties or institutions, thereby weakening the social basis of liberal and progressive Islamic discourse.

Another explanation (that has repeatedly been proffered by embattled liberals) concerns influences emanating from the Middle East and more specifically the Arabian Peninsula, in the form of returning graduates from Saudi universities, Saudi-owned and Saudi or Kuwaiti-funded educational institutions in Indonesia, sponsored translations of numerous simple “fundamentalist” texts, and ideological and financial support for transnational Islamic movements. The high visibility of Indonesian Arabs in leading positions in radical movements seemed to point to their role as middlemen in a process of Arabization of Indonesian Islam. The increased presence of Arab actors and Arab funding is undeniable, but, as I have argued elsewhere, their influence does not exclusively work in an anti-liberal or fundamentalist direction.11

The public presence of the new transnational Islamic movements is an important phenomenon that has definitely changed the landscape of Indonesian Islam, reducing the central importance of Muhammadiyah and NU in defining the moderate mainstream. It is too early to say whether the slide of the latter organizations towards more conservative views was temporary; my observations at the most recent NU congress in March 2010 suggest that the anti-liberal trend has subsided and may even be reversed.12

A brief note on the terms “liberal”, “progressive”, “conservative”, “fundamentalist” and “Islamist”

I have, in the preceding, hesitantly used the term “liberal”, for lack of a better and less controversial one, but aware that this term carries connotations that many of the thinkers to whom it is applied reject. The founders of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) adopted this name from an influential anthology of texts by modern Muslim thinkers that represented a broad range of intellectual positions.13 They have also defended political and economic liberalism, which some of them see as inseparable from religious liberalism. Others, who may share many of the religious views of JIL, object to the term “liberal Islam” precisely because of the association with neo-liberalism. Conservatives have tended to employ the term “liberal” as a stigmatizing label against a wide range of critical religious thought, implying rationalism and irreligiosity.

The term “neo-modernist”, used by the Australian scholar Greg Barton to describe the thought of Nurcholish Madjid and friends,14 does not carry the same connotations of economic and political policy but is hardly appropriate to refer to the thinkers whose intellectual roots lie in the traditionalist rather than the reformist side of the spectrum. Some of those who reject the label of “liberal” prefer to call their views, because of the emphasis on human rights (especially women’s and minority rights) and on empowerment of the weak and oppressed, and because of their generally left orientation, “progressive” or “emancipatory Islam”.15 Several other terms have been suggested but none has gained general acceptance. I shall be speaking of “liberals and progressives” to refer to the entire range of thinkers and activists offering non-literal reinterpretations of Islamic concepts.

The term “conservative” refers to the various currents that reject modernist, liberal or progressive re-interpretations of Islamic teachings and adhere to established doctrines and social order. Conservatives notably object to the idea of gender equality and challenges to established authority, as well as to modern hermeneutical approaches to scripture. There are conservatives among traditionalist as well as reformist Muslims (i.e. in NU as well as Muhammadiyah). By “fundamentalist”, I mean those currents that focus on the key scriptural sources of Islam—Qur’an and hadith—and adhere to a literal and strict reading thereof. They obviously share some views with most conservatives, such as the rejection of hermeneutics and rights-based discourses but may clash with conservatives over established practices lacking strong scriptural foundations. The term “Islamist” finally refers to the movements that have a conception of Islam as a political system and strive to establish an Islamic state.

Who are the embattled liberals?

The immediate target of the notorious MUI fatwa and the purges in NU and Muhammadiyah was the Liberal Islam Network, JIL, which had most explicitly and most provocatively challenged the increasingly vocal fundamentalist and Islamist discourses. One of the first public clashes between Islamists and JIL occurred in response to a short film clip entitled “Islam has many colours” (Islam warna-warni), for which JIL had bought air time on several commercial television channels in mid-2002. The clip showed colourful images of Muslim rituals and festivities, including music and dance, a variety of local styles of mosque architecture and of dress styles that differed from the new Islamic covering style favoured by the Islamists. It was a celebration of the distinctly Indonesian forms of expression of Islam, and of the rich cultural variety of these expressions. At least one group of Islamists took offense at this film. The Majelis Mujahidin (Council of Holy Warriors, MM), one of the more militant organizations striving for an Islamic state, wrote a letter to the television channels calling the film an insult to Islam and threatening court action if they would not stop airing the film. The MM’s argument was simple: Muslims could have many colours, but there is only one Islam and God’s commands are unequivocal. By suggesting that the divine message could be adapted to local circumstances, the liberals were blasphemously misrepresenting Islam. Although many prominent lawyers and intellectuals came out in support of the film, the letter proved effective and the channels stopped broadcasting it.16

This seemingly minor incident brings out clearly one aspect of the conservative turn: it is the result of an asymmetrical struggle between two visions of Islam—asymmetrical because one of the two attempts to silence the other whereas the latter only challenges its opponents’ truth claims and defends the possibility of other views. In the ensuing years, self-appointed conservative or fundamentalist guardians of orthodoxy have made efforts to silence “deviant” Muslim groups, from the Ahmadiyah and various syncretistic mystical movements to “liberal Islam”, through force of argument, court action, or (the threat of) physical violence. It proved considerably easier to mobilize mobs against the “deviant” groups than to organize effective support for religious freedom.

Intellectually, JIL is heir to two distinct currents of religious thought of the New Order period, which had Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid as their most prominent spokespersons. Numerous personal and intellectual connections link JIL to the other movements and institutions that derive from these predecessors. All of these are commonly lumped together as “liberal, secularist and pluralist” by their conservative opponents. This includes Nurcholish’ Paramadina Foundation and a number of related institutions, largely staffed by graduates of Jakarta’s State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN, currently named State Islamic University, UIN), where many liberal Muslims had received their academic training.17

In Muhammadiyah, the “liberals” include several senior persons who once had prominent positions in the organization (such as M. Dawam Raharjo, M. Syafi’i Ma’arif, Amin Abdullah) and a youth group known as JIMM (Network of Young Muhammadiyah Intellectuals), among whom the more senior Moeslim Abdurrahman has much influence. In NU circles, the liberals and progressives are typically found in NGOs, which have taken up different causes and addressed different audiences than the urban middle class, focussing on the social world around the pesantren and issues of subaltern groups. Some of these NGOs are actually affiliated with NU but most have a more tenuous relationship with the organization and cautiously guard their independence. Several of the latter have made significant efforts to enrich traditionalist Muslim discourse with later intellectual developments and an awareness of contemporary social and political issues. Another important group of NGOs, which cannot be easily classified with the reformist or traditionalist wing of Indonesian Muslim activism, has concentrated on issues of women’s rights or minority rights.

In the following sections of this paper, I shall present the major liberal and progressive currents of Islamic discourse and action of the New Order period and take a look at the various resources that were mobilized in their support and the changes in the support base that occurred in the post-Suharto period. I shall also take account of the various forces that opposed these liberal and progressive Muslim movements and their political fortunes. It will become clear that the development of liberal and progressive Islamic thought and action in Indonesia by no means stopped or stagnated with the demise of the New Order; in fact, they received new impulses and reached new audiences, although they lost the power to define the terms of the debate.

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