Indonesian Pluralities

Islam, Citizenship, and Democracy

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Robert W. Hefner, Zainal Abidin Bagir
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , January
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the last few years, scholars have analyzed the conservative turn in Indonesia, with many questioning whether Indonesia can maintain its commitment to pluralistic democracy. Indonesian Pluralities: Islam, Citizenship, and Democracy, edited by Robert W. Hefner and Zainal Abidin Bagir, addresses the same concern; however, it offers a new analysis of these developments by looking closely at a wide range of case studies that assess local and national efforts in maintaining democracy, plurality, and citizenship in Indonesia today.

Hefner starts the book with an argument that in assessing the quality of democracy in Indonesia, it is important to examine not only the state-centered politics but also the “less formal but more pervasive processes of social recognition at work” (2). Hefner states three theses that frame the book: First, grassroots initiatives and national development have significantly restrained communal conflicts that had erupted in the early years of the 1998 political reformation (Reformasi). Second, Indonesia is at an unfinished critical juncture with regard to religion, social recognition, and citizenship. It is uncertain whether Indonesia will strengthen its inclusive nationalism or move toward differentiated citizenship. Third, the contentious plurality in Indonesia was not the simple product of “anti-Pancasila populism or patronage scheming” (29); rather, it is influenced by a starker distinction between religion (agama) and spiritual beliefs (kepercayaan).

The case studies discussed in the book are based on a research project conducted by the coeditors and a research team in several regions in Indonesia from late 2015 to late 2017. In each setting, the authors identify the most influential actors, organizations, and coalitions as well as the focal events that define the contestations for plurality and coexistence. While the book title might suggest Muslim-majority regions as the sole focus of study, the project also engaged regions that have Christian-majority populations, namely, Manado and Ambon. This afforded the chance to understand whether similar religio-political dynamics prevail in different religious demographies. This volume delivers insightful observations on agonistic plurality, ongoing competition between pluralities of authorities and normativities—across Indonesia. Such contestations have taken place in communal settings, in educational and religious institutions, and in street politics as well as in higher-level policy making.

Kelli Swazey and Marthen Tahun observe communities that suffered communal conflicts (1999–2000) on the islands of Banda and Ambon respectively. They highlight the roles of adat (local traditions and customary law) in affecting the social-recognition mechanism in these two localities. On the one hand, adat practices help bridge religious divides. Tahun discusses how the local ritual of pela (intervillage alliance, which encourages the idea of brotherhood among all Malukan people across religious lines) became a potential source for reconciliations in Ambon. The pela ritual has been revived and even extended beyond the village settings. Recently, pela pacts were conducted between Muslim and Christian high schools and universities as a symbol of their commitments to strengthen their interreligious relationship.

On the other hand, Swazey argues that the selective rearticulations of adat in the Bandanese tourist industry “unintentionally rewrite native concepts of authenticity as dependent on Muslim identity” (110–11). This in turn effectively negates the possibility for the Christians, who mostly were displaced following the communal conflict, to reclaim their identity and belonging to the Banda Island and its culture. Erica Larson also discusses problems related to the exclusive linkage between adat and religion in Manado, which has a different religious demography: Christians as majority and Muslims as minority. The adat organizations in Manado promote a Minahasan identity that is strongly linked to Christianity. Like in Banda, this also ultimately reinforces local exclusion, in which the Minahasan are considered “insiders” whose Christian religion “guarantees the peace of the region,” while the Muslims are seen as “‘outsiders’ whose loyalty to nationalist principles is suspect” (70).

The book also discusses actors and groups that unapologetically work against pluralist democracy. In investigating the contestation of gender issues within three Muslim women’s organizations in Yogyakarta, Alimatul Qibtiyah not only focuses on the progressive voices but also insightfully engages the textualist and antiprogressive normativities. Similarly, M. Iqbal Ahnaf carefully examines the strategic narratives used by Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) to scale up their vision of a caliphate-based state and society through reinterpreting the historical recollection of Nusantara and intellectual legacies of Indonesian Muslim leaders of Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. HTI was notably successful in capitalizing on the growing religious sectarianism, forming alliances with political oppositions and engaging with the Indonesian Ulama Council and local bureaucracy. However, it also received significant resistance, particularly from the moderate Muslim organizations. This culminated with the official ban of HTI in 2017, on the ground that it was opposed to the five national principles of Pancasila and the Indonesian Constitution.

In the final chapter, Bagir underlines two positive developments amid the rising intolerance and political polarization in Indonesia. The first is the Constitutional Court’s ruling that allows the followers of indigenous religions to fill in the name of their belief systems on their national identity cards. This policy signals a more inclusive category of religion (agama) that includes spiritual belief. This disrupts the long-accepted binary between religion and indigenous beliefs (agama vs. kepercayaan). The second is the Constitutional Court’s rejection of a petition to criminalize extramarital sex and sex within same-sex relationships. Both cases, which have been frequently overlooked, demonstrate the successful bolstering of inclusive citizenship.

As a response to the Indonesian government’s restrictive policy against Islamist groups, the final chapter also raises a question that may stimulate further investigation: “Does defending pluralism or countering intolerance allow for repression of anti-pluralist ideas?” (223).

Overall, this book provides a depth of information valuable for scholars working on issues related to religions, plurality, democracy, and peacebuilding beyond contemporary Indonesia. The shared analytical framework across chapters enables readers to follow the critical analysis and find coherence with ease. Moreover, the book is also accompanied by six documentary films, which makes the complexity of the issues presented in this study more accessible, engaging, and digestible for scholars and students who may have limited familiarity with Indonesia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Siti Sarah Muwahidah is an Alwaleed Teaching and Research Fellow on Contemporary Muslim Societies in Southeast Asia, University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zainal Abidin Bagir is director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies and teaches at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. He is the author and editor of a number of books on interreligious relations and freedom of religion or belief, especially in Indonesia.

Robert W. Hefner is professor of anthropology and world affairs at the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University. He has authored or edited more than twenty books on Islam, Muslim politics, and modernity.


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