Piety and Public Opinion

Understanding Indonesian Islam

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Thomas B. Pepinsky, R. William Liddle, Saiful Mujani
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Muslims get increasingly more pious, will they vote for Islamist political parties that promise the formal implementation of sharia law instead of parties that run on a secular platform? Will these Muslims choose the services of Islamic banks over conventional banks? Will these Muslims want their government to foster close relations with other Muslim nations at the expense of Western countries? These questions have been asked by scholars, policymakers, and politicians in Western democracies since around the 1980s in response to the Islamic religious resurgence that saw an unprecedented engagement with religious scriptures and doctrines among ordinary Muslims. There is a powerful assumption in the Western public that pious Muslims will always favor Muslim institutions and norms over ones that originate in the West, in part because of Samuel Huntington’s problematic but influential “clash of civilizations” thesis that posits a Muslim proclivity for religious communalism at the expense of cosmopolitan ties.

This book, written by three political scientists, addresses these ongoing concerns about the impact of enhanced religiosity on public life in Muslim societies. The authors conducted their research in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which recently celebrated their 20th anniversary of multi-party democratic rule. Methodologically, the authors surveyed over 2,500 Indonesians across different genders, religions, ethnicities, provinces, education levels, and income, and applied quantitative analysis to the data. This research method is seldom employed in religious studies, a scholarly field that is dominated by textualists, historians, and anthropologists—and indeed, readers without a background in quantitative analysis may find this book inaccessible. Nevertheless, the conclusions reached by the authors will be familiar to other religion scholars. Religion, the authors argue, is not the sole determinant of Muslim public behavior. This is because the Islamic religious revitalization has occurred alongside other transformations in Muslim societies, including the expansion of the middle class and rises in education levels. The choices that Muslims make, then, cannot be attributed to religiosity alone.

To make their case, the authors first set out to measure piety using survey data. The authors distance themselves from other quantitative data researchers who link piety to a circumscribed set of behaviors (typically mosque attendance or support for sharia law and the Islamic state). Instead, piety in this book is measured in relation to an individual’s self-assessment (do they think of themselves as religious?) and eleven different types of beliefs and practices that include obligatory rituals (such as the five daily prayers) and supererogatory ones (such as additional prayers). Each person’s response is then numerically analyzed to produce the “piety index,” which is the measure of individual religiosity. A key discovery is that, even within the broad context of Islamic resurgence, there are great variations in religiosity—for example, some respondents seldom pray while others often do, many people perform certain rituals but neglect others, and so on. In a puzzling turn, the authors then use their findings to argue against Clifford Geertz’s categorizations of the Javanese into abangan (nominal Muslims, assumed to be impious), santri (orthodox Muslims, considered to be pious), and priyayi (Muslims influenced by Hindu-Buddhist practices, assumed to be impious). In contrast to Geertz, the authors suggest that there are greater variations in piety within each typology rather than between them. Ultimately, however, the discussion on Geertz is superfluous given that his trichotomy has already been subjected to ample criticism over the past few decades.

Much more valuable is the authors’ discussion on how uneasily piety maps onto political choices. Some pious Muslims, for example, wish to make Indonesian law consistent with the sharia while other pious Muslims disagree. Some pious Muslims oppose democracy, though many more actually favor it. Enhanced religiosity in Indonesian society also does not necessarily translate into support for political parties that espouse Islamist ideologies. The authors conclude that Islamist parties cannot win on ideology alone and that they must establish favorable economic policy credentials to attract voter support. In fact, pious voters may be divided between Islamist and secular parties that offer comparable economic policies. When it comes to international relations, there is also little credible basis for the Huntingtonian prophecy that pious Muslims want their government to foster relations only with other Muslim countries. Yes, pious Indonesian Muslims want closer ties with Muslim nations, but they also want the same with East Asian and Southeast Asian nations. Piety alone does not shape public opinion about Indonesia’s foreign relations with the West.

A parallel insight applies to Islamic finance. The authors argue that there is little evidence indicating that piety is even a partial determinant of Muslim use of Islamic banks, or those financial institutions that operate according to sharia principles. While piety does not determine financial choice, the data that the authors collected suggest that Muslims who do business with Islamic banks tend to be those from the upper-middle classes who value the maintenance of ties with other Muslim countries. It would seem then that pious Muslim customers are acting upon their desire for cosmopolitanism and inclusion in a globalized Muslim identity rather than solely religious aims.

The takeaway message from this book is that piety has very little purchase in explaining Muslim attitudes toward sharia, democracy, party politics, international relations, or economics. In this book, the authors have usefully provided a methodological blueprint for survey research that is based on a nuanced understanding of religion and politics. It is a method that rejects the view of Muslims as caricatures who act according to religion alone and instead takes them to be complex subjects shaped by a myriad of religious and non-religious factors. Given the enormous influence that quantitative data have on the policies made by Western democracies, including policies that pertain to the Muslim world, the importance of this book’s contribution cannot be overstated.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nur Amali Ibrahim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of International Studies at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas B. Pepinsky is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University. 

R. William Liddle is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Ohio State University. 

Saiful Mujani is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Universitas Islam Negeri Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, Indonesia.


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