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Religion and Society

An Uncertain Destiny for a Polymorphous Island






With a surface of about 118,000 km2, Java is the smallest of the four Sunda islands which make up, together with the western part of Papua (New Guinea), the bulk of the territory of the Republic of Indonesia. Java has always been the political centre of Indonesia. The name ‘Javanese’ is given to the autochthonous inhabitants of the central and eastern part of the island (1). They not only make up a very rich and varied culture but also constitute the Indonesian ethnic group that is by far and away the most influential.




The Javanese have developed their own characteristic identity through an uninterrupted process of hybridisation. In the Javanese population it is possible to find all the shades of the various ideological and cultural lineages. There are people who adhere to Islam but never pray; as well as devout Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists such as the Mujahiddin or the laskar jihad (warriors of the jihad). Amongst these live more that a million Javanese Christians, all from an Islamic background, and under the surface moves a flux of orthodox and heterodox mysticism (kebatinan) which is still able to influence models of communication and identity. After a certain fashion, these make up a cultural and religious whole that has been able to resist terrible social fractures. For that matter, the Javanese are a fundamental part of Indonesia, understood here as a complex process of growth and development of a nation that is underway, a phenomenon that can also be seen as a process of constant hybridisation.




In this article, after discussing the first and second waves of hybridisation experienced by the Javanese, I will dwell upon the recent developments of this phenomenon.




Javanese culture is inseparably bound up with religion. Original Javanese beliefs may be defined as a sort of animism. It was believed that behind what takes place in nature there are spiritual forces, often to be located in sacred trees, stones or springs. It was important to maintain good relations with these forces and the Javanese did this by respecting certain taboos, making small offerings of incense, flowers or money in specific places, and celebrating the great events of the human life cycle in line with tradition (adat).




From the second century onwards, Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread in the Indonesian archipelago. From the sixth century onwards, the Hindu kingdoms to be found throughout the territory of Java left behind them impressive testimonies in the form of temples, the most beautiful of which is the complex of Prambanan in the area of Yogyakarta. A little time beforehand, during about a century of Buddhist domination by Sumatra, the Javanese built one of the architectonic wonders of mankind – the temple mountain of Borobudur, to the north-east of Yogyakarta. At a practical level Hinduism and Buddhism achieved co-existence with each other. With the passing of time both became increasingly ‘Javanised’: behind Hindu and Buddhist forms more ancient Javanese religious tendencies re-established themselves, such as belief in the power of ancestors or that the King concentrated in himself supernatural powers, spiritually uniting Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha. From the tenth century onwards the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were translated into Javanese and Sanskrit letters evolved into the Javanese alphabet.




From the twelfth century onwards, Islam began its slow penetration of Indonesia, starting with the current area of Aceh, in the north-western tip of Sumatra. Merchants from Gujarat, Arabia and later from China were its bearers. Islam spread with different levels of intensity, with cultural expressions of different kinds. Rather than taking the place of the previous mix of religions, it added to them, stimulating their development in a new religious-cultural panorama of even greater complexity which was characteristically Javanese, even though, at times, it was antagonistic to it. This is a process that is still underway (2). Whilst Islam penetrated deeply in the cities, towns and fishing villages along the northern coast of Java, the internal areas of the island were for the most part only touched superficially by the new religion. In many Javanese villages a mosque did not exist, people did not say five prayers every day, they did not observe Islamic fasting, and when they looked for a spiritual direction they turned to the Hindu heroes of Javanese shadow theatre (wayang) rather than to the teachings of Islam or the example of the prophet Muhammad. These ‘low profile’ Muslims are often called abangan (‘reds’), a definition that Clifford Geertz (3) has raised to a technical term. As is evident, Islam easily penetrated the religious mix of Java and as had happened previously with Hinduism and Buddhism it was often seen by the Javanese rulers as a new and powerful source of metaphysical power. In embracing Islam, they hoped to absorb real powers, the powers of the world hidden behind the seen world (4). At court the nobles, although they clearly saw themselves as Muslim, avoided expressions of Islamic piety that were too emphasised and cultivated the culture of the traditional court as it has been inherited from Hindu times (5).







Dutch Hegemony





What was the cultural impact of the Europeans which, in the form of Dutch colonialism, began to grow during the nineteenth century? The economic and social impact was very notable. The Dutch hegemony in trade between the islands killed off the maritime vocation of the Javanese of the pre-colonial period and strengthened their tendency to withdraw into spiritualism. The Javanese continued to live in their own world which could easily accommodate Dutch royal power and concentrated on perfecting the inner world and on spiritualism. For this reason, at the end of the nineteenth century, we find that amongst the Javanese there was a hybrid Islamic society with very different shades of observance. The northern coasts of Cirebon and Surabaya were strongly Islamised. In the interior, the kings and the high and middle nobility saw themselves as the protectors of Islam but often did not really practice this religion but cultivated pre-Islamic ceremonies and arts. The villages of the interior were Islamised only at a very superficial level, apart from around the pesantren, the Islamic schools. However, all these components formed a social and cultural complex whose component parts interacted with each other and recognised and accepted each other. Their way of practising religions was decidedly different but this did not lead to real tensions. Religious pluralism was one of the features of life. Both the inhabitants of abangan villages and the nobility in the towns and cities gave great importance to awareness of the divine and saw the exterior forms of worship as relative. This was the cultural background to the famous Javanese tolerance, which abhors religious exclusivism and extremism and appreciates inner feelings. The observing muslims (santri) were convinced of the superiority of Islam without, in general, calling into question the continuation of a ‘low profile’ Islam amongst the members of the upper classes and the peasants. They, too, appreciated the inner religious experience a great deal and thus in the pesantren Sufism took different forms, at times that of tarekat, religious groups that were often secret. However, this socially and culturally hybrid scenario became more complicated and problematic with the arrival of modernity.




Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a growing number of Indonesian Muslims began to travel to the Middle East. There they came into contact with the reformist movement that had been initiated at the end of the nineteenth century by reformists such as Al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh. These wanted to open up Islam to the sciences, to technology, and to the Western school system. At the same time they wanted a return to a pure Islam based on Arab Wahabism. Influenced by this type of Islamic reformism and impressed by the schools and hospitals that Christian missionaries were beginning to open – after the Dutch finally decided to end the prohibition of every kind of missionary activity amongst the Javanese – K. H. Ahmad Dahlan founded in 1912 in Yogyakarta the organisation Muhammadiah. Influenced by Wahabism, this organisation nonetheless had a moderate appearance and supported the Indonesian pluralistic political philosophy called Pancasila. However, the birth of the Muhammadiah had an unexpected consequence. Irritated by the criticisms expressed by the Muhammadiah of their ‘impure’ Islam, the kiai (religious leaders) in the eastern part of Java founded in 1926 the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a sort of umbrella organisation for most of the traditional schools and which at the present time has forty million members. At that time Indonesian Islam split in a definitive way into a modernist wing and a traditionalist wing.







The Platform of the ‘Pancasila’





Meanwhile nationalism, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, became a force of primary importance. The dramatic events that surrounded the declaration of independence on 17 August 1945 and the subsequent four years of the war against Holland, under the leadership of Sukarno, unified the Indonesians of the whole of the archipelago with the goal of forming a nation. In this way a new identity was born which was transversal as regards religions, ethnic groups and cultural lines and found expression in the Pancasila, the five principles on which Indonesia was to base itself with the guarantee of complete equality to all Indonesians without any forms of a discrimination of a religious kind. Islam, which was the religion of almost 90% of Indonesians, was not even mentioned in the Constitution.




Despite frequent complaints of the Indonesians to the effect that the nationalistic spirit is dissolving, nationalism has been in fact the tie that has kept the Indonesians united ‘from Sabang (in the north-west) to Merauke (in the east)’, as a very famous song tells us, with problems only in the territory of Aceh and in the far corner of Papua. Nationalism keeps the abangan, or secular people, united with the moderate Muslims. Most of the ‘political nationalists’ were Muslims and the Muslims of the Islamic political parties were in the depths of their hearts Javanese nationalists.




This type of integration was not successful with the third ideological ingredient – Marxism. In the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the Javanese intellectuals, including pious Muslims, were almost all in favour of some kind of socialism but only after independence was achieved in November 1945 was the Indonesian Socialist Party founded.




After the failed insurrection of 1948, during the 1950s the Communists consolidated their position and when Sukarno abolished democracy in 1959 and replaced it with his so-called ‘guided democracy’ the Communists became his most loyal supporters. The tensions that developed between the Communists and the military, on the one hand, and between religious groups and many nationalists, on the other, began to reach dangerous levels. On 1 October 1965 left-wing officers, who called themselves the Movement of 30 September, kidnapped and killed six generals, overthrew the government, and proclaimed a revolutionary council. This led to the greatest tragedy in the history of Indonesia. The coup was rapidly put down by the then little-known General Suharto. The Communists were then accused of having originated the coup. The nation thus found itself irremediably divided between the Communists and their political allies and everyone else. During the following months, according to estimates, half a million ‘Communists’ were killed by the military or (especially in the eastern part of Java and in Bali) by groups of local youths. During this period almost two million ‘Communists’ were arrested, more than a hundred thousand of whom were kept in prison camps without trial until 1979. Millions of people lost their homes, their fields and their means of income. Anybody who was in some way linked to the Communists had special rules imposed on them which stigmatised them as worthless bad Indonesians.




The events of 1965 meant a final break within the Indonesian population. Whereas nationalism and ‘political Islam’ (which were widely spread) were always able to reach pragmatic agreements and thus remain within the Indonesian horizon that embraced unitary values, although they at times were strongly opposed each other over the introduction of the Sharia through legislation, the Communists found themselves outside this deep socio-cultural agreement. When the knot was finally broken after the failure of the Movement of 30 September, the purification of the community after a slow beginning was expressed in terrible vendettas and bloodletting (which in Bali took on almost ritual forms). This demonstrates that the ability of Indonesian society to accept different ideologies is limited. A single explosion was enough to unleash the tension that had been accumulated and which mutated into a cold determination not to allow any possibility of a Communist revival.







Thousands of Mosques and Chapels





From the 1970s onwards, the cultural and religious panorama of Indonesia has become increasingly differentiated because of a second wave of Islamisation (6). When Suharto had consolidated his power, at the end of the 1970s, he saw ‘political Islam’ as the only potential opposition possible and thus he repressed it in a determined fashion. In fact, he was going back to the old Dutch colonial strategy which suffocated every political aspiration of the Muslims but gave a free rein to ‘religious Islam’. For this reason, during the 1970s thousands of mosques were built in the cities and villages, government offices were given mushollah (Islamic chapels), and prayers on Fridays and pilgrimages to Mecca were encouraged.




The result of this was an increasing Islamisation of the Muslim community. The 1970s witnessed certain new developments in Indonesian Islam. One of these was the emergence of so-called neo-modernism, which was called this to distinguish it from the traditional modernism of the Muhammadiah. Young intellectuals who had received both a modernist and a traditionalist education tried to reform and modernise Indonesian Islam (7). They wanted to show that Islam is pluralistic, global, open to democracy, and in favour of universal human rights. They thus dedicated themselves in an active way to inter-religious dialogue and rejected the idea of an Islamic State, adopting secular approaches to the relationship between the State and religion and declaring that Islamic customs were an optional.




Neo-modernism developed two different branches: at the beginning of the new century a group of young intellectuals of the NU founded the JIL (Jaringan Islam Liberal) which has enjoyed increasing importance in the mass media but has also become the target of the threats of extremist Islamic groups. Within the Muhammadiah, the JIMM (Jaringan Muda Muhammadiah, the Network of Young Muslims of the Muhammadiah), has received criticism from its mother organisation because of its openly liberal views.




A development in the opposite direction has been the growth of Islamic fundamentalism which infiltrated from Malaysia. Indonesian fundamentalism is a phenomenon that grew up primarily amongst the students of the secular state universities of Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya. They read with enthusiasm the writings of the Pakistani, al-Mawdudi (Islam is the Solution), of Hasan al-Banna and of Sayyid Qutb (the founders of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt). Since then, an increasing number of female students have begun to wear the jilbab (the Islamic veil). In some university faculties students made the female students sit apart from the male students. During periods of fasting they kept Muslim students apart from the others in order to be able to control the observance of fasting more effectively. In a change of policy, in 1989 Suharto authorised the existence of an Islamic banking system and made religious instruction from elementary school to university compulsory. In 1990 Suharto gave his blessing to the foundation of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICNI) within a process of the purging of public jobs occupied by Christians in the name of representative proportionality.







A Million Internal Refugees





The relations between Muslims and Christians grew worse. The number of churches that each year were the subjects of attacks grew quickly and reached its maximum point with a large number of terrible pogroms when angry crowds deliberately sacked churches and businesses in various Javanese cities. It then became very difficult to obtain permits to build new churches. These developments led to semi-civil war between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas and the region of Poso in eastern Indonesia between 1999 and 2002. Almost ten thousand people died as a result of these wars and they produced almost a million internal refugees. Later on in these wars, the Islamic militias of Java (the laskar jihad) and certain terrorists well known at an international level intervened in the clashes in Poso. Another event of notable importance was the simultaneous attacks with explosives on about thirty churches in Sumatra, Java and Lombok, on Christmas night 2000 (there were 17 deaths and 140 wounded).




After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Islamic extremists exploited the new democratic openness to come out into the open. They conducted a campaign in favour of an Islamic State, requested the introduction of Shariah legislation for Muslims, and employed very aggressive language towards Christians. The first expression of these groups is a political party, the PKS (Partai Keadilan Kesejahteraan, Party of Justice and Welfare), which obtained 7% of the votes at the elections of 2004 but in the capital Jakarta became the first party with 24% of the votes cast.




Will Indonesian Islam become more uniform, more ‘Arab’? Will the pluralism of this country diminish, with all the consequences of this for the nation and for its religious minorities? Some people believe that there is nothing new in what we are witnessing at the present time. It is said to be simply the continuation of a movement that has been going on for five hundred years – the Islamisation of Indonesia. Indonesia is still within a process of Islamisation and certain external factors, such as extremism or international terrorism, have only accelerated this process. This would mean a slow but dangerous pathway that would lead to a kind of uniform Islam with an ‘Arab’ matrix and also to the end of Indonesian pluralism.







Superficial Islamisation





There are, however, good reasons for disbelieving this sad prognosis. The facts point to a development in the opposite direction. The mystic groups, both the Islamic tarekat and the kepercayaan ‘synchretists’, the non-Orthodox movements which are in large measure Indonesian in their origins, resist, even though in a subterranean way. A political fact worthy of note has occurred – the internal Islamisation of the last thirty years (some people even talk about the disappearance of the abangan), strangely enough, has not had any effect on the behaviour of the electors at national elections. In 1955, at the first free elections, the Islamic parties, which were campaigning strongly for the creation of an Islamic State, received 43% of the votes cast. Forty-four years later, at the first free political elections after the fall of Suharto in 1999, the parties of an Islamic character as a whole obtained only 37% and at the elections of 2004 they received 40%. The parties that referred explicitly to the application of the Shariah received only 13%. This took place in a country where Muslims make up 87% of the population. The reason for this strange situation whereby an increase in the intensity of Islamic practice has not led to a growth in political Islam seems to lie in what, during the 1950s, was called politik aliran, a phrase that refers to the fact that Indonesian politics is still determined by certain implicit cultural forms. According to these forms, a person with an abangan background will never vote for a political party that defines itself in religious terms, a traditional Muslim (of the NU) will never vote for a modernist party, and modernist and Salafite Muslims will vote solely for modernist or Salafite parties. These cultural forms, therefore, continue to resist. The very evident Islamisation of Indonesia is much more superficial than it appears. Superficial not in the sense that the abangan children that pray today are not really devoted to Islam but in the sense that they still see religion, the Islam with which they are connected (even if it is an Islam of a very orthodox kind), as an internal question, and they still believe that each person must follow their own feelings and that the State should never try to impose on others any type of religious practice, including the Islamic practices with which they themselves are connected.




In my view the way in which the Islamic community has reacted to the disturbances of the last twelve years is of the greatest importance. Perhaps the most impressive fact is that relations between Christians and Muslims have not suffered because of the terrible civil war between Christians and Muslims in eastern Indonesia. Politicians and political parties have not exploited the civil war for political purposes. A repetition of the killings of 1965 and 1966 – in this case one would be dealing with the killing of Christians – has never been a real option. Headly (in the above mentioned work on Javanese cosmology, see note 2) describes the way in which the city of Surakarta, in the centre of Java, reacted to the devastation of 13-14 May 1998. The town council organised performances of shadow theatre (which go back to Hindu myths performed to ward off threats to people, things, etc.), and thus returned to old cultural forms. This took place with the support of all the religious groups of the city. Specifically during situations of crisis, therefore, the complex cultural unity of the Javanese and the Indonesians did not break down; indeed it reorganised itself. The violent expulsion of the Communists from the Indonesian community some forty years ago may not be repeated. There is, therefore, the hope that hybrid Indonesian society will be able to demonstrate its stability, something, naturally enough, that would constitute a guarantee of success for Indonesians in the creation of a just, peaceful and prosperous society.











(1) In addition to the Javanese there are the Sondanese


in the western part of Java and the Madurese,


the original inhabitants of


the island of Madura, on the


north-eastern coast of Java.




(2) For an analytical study


of the interaction between traditional Javanese beliefs and Islam see Stephen


C. Headley, Durga’s Mosque. Cosmology, Conversion


and Community in Central Javanese Islam




of Southeast Asian Studies, 2004); see also by the same author From Cosmogony


to Exorcism in a Javanese Genesis. The Split Seed


(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000).




(3) Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (The Free Press,


New York, 1961).




(4) See R. Benedict and O'G.


Anderson, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’


in Claire Holt (ed.), Culture and Politics in Indonesia (Cornell Univerity Press,


Ithaca, NY, 1972), pp. 1-69;


see also Soemarsaid Moertono, State and Statecraft


in Old Java. A Study



of the Later Mataram



Period 16th to 19th Century


(Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1968).




(5) See for example



M.C. Ricklefs, Jogjakarta


under Sultan Mangkubumi 1749-1792. A History



of the Division of Java


(Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1974).




(6) For this and later sections


of this article see, for example Johannes Herrmann,


Unter dem Schatten



von Garudas Schwingen. Chancen und Probleme



nationaler Integration



in Indonesien


(J&J Verlag, Wettenberg, 2005) and


M. Syafi'i Anwar, ‘Political Islam


in Post-Soeharto Indonesia: The Contest between


“Radical-Conservative Islam” and “Progressive-Liberal Islam”, in T.N. Srinivasan, (ed.), The Future of Secularism (Oxford University Press,


Kuala Lampur, 2007).




(7) The first generation


of reformists was represented


by Nurcholish Madjiid,


Abdurrachman Wahid, Djohan


Effendi, Ahmad Wahib, Dawam Rahardjo, Masdar


Masudi; the second-generation


reformists are Komaruddin Hidayat, Azyumardi Azra, Moeslim Abdurrachman,


Bahtiar Effendi


and many others.