Indonesia: The Battle Over Islam

Indonesian President-Elect Joko Widodo (left) receiving a tour of the presidential palace from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the day before Widodo’s inauguration, Jakarta, October 2014
Dita Alangkara/Reuters
Indonesian President-Elect Joko Widodo (left) receiving a tour of the presidential palace from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the day before Widodo’s inauguration, Jakarta, October 2014

The Islamic State’s butchery and takeover of territory in Iraq and Syria dominate the headlines, but a much less violent yet little-known conflict exists in Indonesia, where more Muslims live than in all of the Middle East. It is a battle to define Islam in Indonesia and it matters because it is taking place in one of the few democracies with a Muslim majority. There are more Muslims in Indonesia who can be loosely called progressives than there are anywhere else, but they are in constant struggle with conservative Muslims. This is a political fight as much as it is a religious one.

Since 1998, when the dictatorial president Suharto was forced to resign, Indonesians have been fashioning an active but flawed democracy that must contend with an entrenched oligarchy and a corrupt political elite. At the same time, a dramatic Islamic revival is underway that pits pluralist Muslims who favor an open society against Muslims who claim that it is the responsibility of the state to enforce their puritanical version of religious piety.1

In his excellent history, Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java, Merle C. Ricklefs places this contemporary struggle over Islam in a broad historical setting. This is the last of a magisterial trilogy on the history of Islam in Java, the politically dominant island that includes Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and 57 percent of the country’s population. Ricklefs, recently retired as a professor of Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore, has devoted his life to tracing how Islam came to Indonesia. That story begins in the fourteenth century, when Muslims originally from Arabia, Gujarat, and China spread the faith by slowly blending local Indonesian culture with Sunni Islam. Ricklefs’s most recent volume deals with the period since Indonesia emerged from the ruins of the Dutch East Indies in 1945, during which it has become the world’s largest nation with a Muslim majority.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most-populous country, yet to most outsiders its history and culture are largely unknown. That it consists of more than 17,000 islands strewn along the equator and has 350 ethnic groups who speak more than seven hundred languages gives a hint of its complexity. In Islamisation and Its Opponents in Java, Ricklefs describes the political tumult in postwar Indonesia, especially the confrontation between Muslims and Communists in 1965 that led to one of the worst massacres since World War II and ensured Islam’s deeper and deeper hold on politics and society. Ricklefs’s book, along with Carool Kersten’s Islam in Indonesia and Jeremy Menchik’s Islam and Democracy in…

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