GREG FEALY and SALLY WHITE, eds.
Expressing Islam: religious life and politics in Indonesia
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008. 296 pp. ISBN 978-981-230-850-4, pb US$25.90, S$29.90
Reviewed by John Sidel, London School of Economics and Political Science
Since 11 September 2001, Islam in Indonesia has largely been viewed through the prism of the ‘Global War on Terrorism’, with Islamic ‘extremism’, ‘fundamentalism’, and ‘radicalism’ dominating discussions of the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country. With the rise of ICMI in the late Suharto era, the ascendancy of ICMI chairman B.J. Habibie to the presidency in May 1998, and the emergence of diverse new Islamic parties in 1998-99, the question of politics had already come to overshadow all other trends and developments in Indonesian Islam. With the Christian-Muslim conflict in Maluku, North Maluku, and Poso in 1999-2001, the rise of Front Pembela Islam and Laskar Jihad during the same years, and the terrorist bombings by Jemaah Islamiyah in 2002-2005, the connection between Islam and violence also attracted enormous attention.
With the fading of inter-religious violence and terrorism in the name of Islam in recent years, however, broader sociological trends have finally begun to receive the kind of close attention they have always deserved among scholars and other interested observers of Islam in Indonesia. Indeed, the past few years have seen the publication of a growing number of articles, monographs, and edited volumes treating in great depth and with ample nuance and sophistication the highly varied religious terrain of the Indonesian archipelago. The recently published volume Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia edited by Greg Fealy and Sally White offers the best available overview, in terms of breadth of coverage, diversity of themes and trends treated, and quality of scholarship represented. Emerging out of the 25th annual Indonesia Update conference held at the Australian National University in September 2007, the volume showcases important new work by specialists on Islam in Indonesia based in Australia and Southeast Asia (and, in one instance, the United States).
The first section of the volume, ‘Expressing Personal Piety,’ traces patterns of religious activity over the past decade with close attention to the ways in which commodification and communications technology are transforming Islamic practices and understandings among Indonesian Muslims. The pieces here by Greg Fealy, Julia Day Howell, George Quinn, Julian Millie, and James Hoesterey range widely across the field of religious activity, from Sufism (Howell) to pilgrimages to the grave sites of Javanese Islamic ‘saints’ (Quinn) to shifting forms of dakwah oratory (Millie) and the trajectory of the celebrated Islamic da’i Aa Gym (Hoesterey). In these fine pieces, we can now see Indonesian Islam through fine-grained ethnographic lenses enhanced by familiarity with scholarship – the works of Jon Anderson and Dale Eickelman, Charles Hirschkind, Patrick Haënni, and Gregory Starrett – on parallel trends in the Middle East and elsewhere across the Muslim world. Greg Fealy’s essay, ‘Consuming Islam: commodified Islam: commodified religion and aspirational pietism in contemporary Indonesia,’ provides an excellent overview of these trends in what stands as the keystone piece of the volume as a whole.
The second section of the volume, ‘Political Islam and Legal Expressions of Islam,’ shifts attention from the sociological trends treated above back to the realm of politics, paying close attention to historical and sociological context. The eminent historian Merle Ricklefs, for example, provides a richly detailed account of the diversity of forms of Islamic piety across Java, noting, for example, how the Central Javanese village of Ngruki, home to the pesantren identified as the recruiting ground for the Islamist terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah, ‘is also home to a local mystical group that brings together followers of both Islamic and Christian backgrounds to undertake indigenous spiritual disciplines. They ignore the Islamic school in their midst, practise supernatural and healing skills, and insist that “Javanese culture is more pure than religion” (pp. 130-31). Sally White and Maria Ulfah Anshor discuss a range of ongoing public debates and disputes about Islam and gender in Indonesia, covering what some have termed a ‘culture war’ with greater nuance and sophistication. Nadirsyah Hosen, Robin Bush, and Ian Douglas Wilson treat online fatwa, local experiments with so-called shariah legislation, and Islamic preman (gangsters), respectively, with similar care and clarity. Ken Ward provides a very interesting account of religious practices and beliefs among Islamic activists affiliated with the terrorist Jemaah Islamiyah network. The third and final section of the book, ‘The Islamic Economy,’ features three illuminating essays on Islamic banking (Umar Juoro) and Islamic microfinance (Muhammad Syafii Antonio and Minako Sakai).
Overall, Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia offers the best overview of the diversity of trends in Indonesian Islam over the past decade. Greg Fealy and Sally White, as well as the various contributing authors, are to be commended for an excellent collection of essays, which merit a close reading by all students of Indonesia and of Islam in Southeast Asia.