Islam in Indonesia

The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values

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Carool Kersten
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Carool Kersten’s Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values delivers a rich intellectual history of the development of post-colonial progressive Muslim positions and their interlocutors in Indonesia. Kersten displays the multiplicity of tributaries that run between different streams of thought, especially those associated with Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama [NU], which have, at times, been presented as static and self-evident in the study of Islam in Indonesia. In tracing the historical circumstances and the divergences of contemporary thought of post-colonial Islamic thinkers, Kersten argues that there is an epistemological shift in the approach of progressive Muslims that indicates a need for different vocabulary for discussing what is at stake for these differing voices. Terms like secularism, liberalism, and pluralism are too bound to ideologies to sufficiently explain the positions of progressive, conservative, and reactionary Indonesian Muslims. So, he offers secularity, plurality, liberty, and freedom of thought as alternatives.

The first chapter provides the context necessary for understanding the divisive diversity of Islamic thought emerging and operating in contemporary Indonesia. Kersten identifies four recurrent characteristics of this period, beginning in 1995, that continue to play a part in Indonesia: 1) political-religious violence; 2) an increase in separatism as a result of the decentralization of the Indonesian government; 3) the changing place of the military; and 4) the continued prominence of New and Old order elites in Indonesian politics. These characteristics impact the formation of Islamic thought at different points, but the overall result of this environment was an increase in the participation of progressive intellectualism that has led to polarization between progressive and reactionary Muslims.

Chapter 2 and 3 present the polarization of reactionary and progressive positions as well as how the rise in progressive Islam complicates preconceived notions of the traditionalists NU and the modernist Muhammadiyah. The second chapter muddies the dichotomy by presenting the two major schools of Islamic thought that have developed in-between the traditionalist, modernist divided: Mazhab Ciputat located in the state Islamic institution Institute Agama Islam Negri [IAIN] Syarif Hidayatullah and the Mazhab Jogja Sapen based in the state Islamic institution IAIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta. These divergences from the ‘pillarization’ of Indonesian Islamic society into NU and Muhammadiyah are alternate, hybrid, and liminal members of the progressive Islamic movement.

The third chapter descends into the intricacies of Muhammadiyah and NU’s progressive intellectuals to argue for the shared intellectual background of these groups, which includes postcolonial theory, Western postmodernism, and Arab heritage thinkers. One of the most important contributions of this chapter is Kersten’s analysis of western thought in the progressive intellectuals of NU, the anak muda or post-traditionalists. Western thought is no longer a troupe of neo-modernist discourse related to the Muhammadiyah, but a reality in the multiple pillars of progressive thought.

Following the 2005 Fatwa given by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia [MUI], which condemned pluralism, liberalism, and secularism as counter to Islamic teachings, chapter four attempts to illuminate how these multiplicities of backgrounds and intellectual underpinnings are catalyzed in a shift of progressive Muslim’s mentality that began to use Islam as a method for engaging with the world rather than a philosophical abstract. This epistemological sensibility plays out in the debates surrounding Pancasila, the Indonesian state’s philosophical foundation, and law.

In the formation of progressive Islam in both the neo-modernist and post-traditionalist varieties, secularism and its relationship to Pancasila becomes fiercely debated, but “they all share the view that secularization constitutes a liberating development which will help the Muslim community to distinguish between transcendental and temporal values” (149). In this view, secularism becomes essential to the way in which progressive Muslim intellectuals understand and engage with the long-standing debates around Pancasila, or defining the type of country Indonesia wants to be. These debates surrounding secularism do not settle Pancasila as either a secular or religious ideology, but rather, they create further polarization between reactionary Muslims who see Pancasila and secularism as going against the Islamic tradition and progressive Muslims of various strands that see secularism as an important temporal value to Pancasila that allows for the transcendental values of the Islamic tradition to be enacted in the form of social ethics.

Chapter 5 provides a case study for the implementation of this epistemological sensibility in tension with reactionary Muslims who have introduced Islamic legislation into certain regions. The promotion of Islamic values does not necessarily take the form of Islamic legislation but rather, adopts a substantivist approach based on usul al-fiqh that is interested in the broader philosophical basis of law rather than its technical implementation. Kersten understands that these disagreements over law have a basis in the intellectual history of reactionary and progressive Muslims, thus needing the alternate vocabulary that he sets forth in the conclusion. He proposes that using secularity, plurality, liberty, and freedom of thought to describe and understand the contemporary debates around Islam’s relationship with Indonesia removes some of the ideology associated with the ‘isms,’ and makes these inter-Islamic debates relatable within the broader context of the study of religion.

Kersten’s breakdown of contemporary Islamic intellectual history provides a complex framework for thinking about the formation of Islamic sensibilities in Indonesia. His framework does not solidify stereotypical dichotomies—“traditional/modern” or “conservative/liberal”—which continue to not only haunt the study of Islam in Indonesia, but discussions of Indonesian Islam more broadly. His work is invaluable in this regard. The complexity and nuance of his presentation may restrict the work’s readership to specialists, but Kersten’s critique of the ‘isms,’ [secularism, pluralism, and liberalism] in trying to more accurately understand what is at stake in Indonesian debates within and between the reactionary and progressive Muslim intellectual community opens productive possibilities for future research.

To that end, an examination of the interaction between other practices, institutions, and tactics of everyday life with the intellectual history that Kersten sets forth would clarify how ideas create movement and change in local contexts. It would be additionally fruitful to apply Shahab Ahmad’s understanding of coherent contradiction in What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016) to Kersten’s presentation of the NU and Muhammadiyah as “reservoirs of varying, even conflicting, strands of Islamic thinking" (80). Finally, Kersten’s primary argument to move from the ‘isms’ to other terms that are less ideological in nature is initially interesting and perhaps helpful. However, the productivity of this method will only be determined by its future application in case studies coupled with an engagement with the broader academic field stemming from figures such as Hussein Ali Agrama, Saba Mahmood, Charles Hirshkind, and Talal Asad.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James M. Edmonds is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University in Religious Studies working on Contemporary Indonesian Islamic Movements.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carool Kersten is Lecturer in Islamic Studies at King's College London and has a PhD in the Study of Religions from SOAS. He worked for many years in the Middle East and has taught Asian his-tory and religions in Thailand. He is the author of Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam.


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