Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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By Kevin W. Fogg, Jun 10 2018 12:19AM

Two news items from the last week have me seriously concerned about academic freedom in Indonesia (again). This is unlikely to be a real issue in the upcoming provincial and local elections this month, or even in the national elections next year, but it is something that colleagues both inside and outside the country should be watching.


Inside the country, the leading national university in Yogyakarta, Universitas Gadjah Mada, has apparently brought down sanctions on two lecturers in the Faculty of Engineering for their affiliation to the now-banned organization Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. As Ed Aspinall noted recently, the banning of HTI itself was a cause for concern about authoritarian trends in the country, but the sanction of lecturers in this way echoes the excesses of Turkey and brings new concerns to the fore. To be clear, I strongly disagree with the proposed programme of HTI, and I vehemently dislike the positions they have advocated in Indonesia politics. I also find the organization's hypocrisy-- to abstain from politics on principle, except when they don't--to be awful. All the same, I am not afraid of other academics advocating ideas that I disagree with as long as they are doing it in a peaceful way that respects others. Indonesian universities, including state universities, should review their lecturers on the basis of teaching, service, and scholarship, not their political views. (This corrective could be equally important for the many undcoumented cases of appointment and promotion due to positive political connections, but let's leave that aside for the moment.)


Outside the country, there has been disturbing news circulating about further restrictions on foreign experts conducting research in Indonesia. As one of very, very few professional academics on Indonesia who consistently gets research permits for work in Indonesia, I find the proposed changes counterproductive. Already, so very few researchers, especially in the humanities and social sciences, get proper permits for their fieldwork in Indonesia, largely because the government makes it incredibly burdensome in terms of time and energy (the monetary cost is less of an issue, especially when compared to the weeks of my life I've wasted waiting in government offices for these letters). With increased restrictions and even-more-burdensome guidelines, like providing all raw data to the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (something that would violate ethics protocols for so much social science and humanities research, too), the government will be pushing more and more of my colleagues to do their work unregistered. Additionally, there is a shrimp behind the rock, in that it seems a main desire in making the process more burdensome is also to restrict further the topics that foreign researchers can study. The fine work of researchers exposing corruption, monitoring deforestation, or documenting cultural aspects that are not celebrated by the government gets even harder than it already is. This is a further threat to the academic study of Indonesia, and it goes against the interests of the Indonesian people as a whole.


Of course, as I am not an Indonesian citizen, I have no voice in these regulatory processes, but I do have a strong interest. I hope that the government will consult actual stakeholders on both issues and come up with better directions for policy.

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 28 2018 08:00AM

As everyone has now seen, Malaysia made history this month by breaking the hold of the United Malay Nationalist Organization over parliament for the first time since independence. Of course, the new coalition that has come to power is led by a 92-year-old man (fellow blogger) who led UMNO (indeed, his name was almost synonymous with UMNO) for several decades.


Rather than spend this blog post rejoicing with the Malaysian people over the exercise of democracy or digging through the full and fascinating history of Dr. M leading Malaysia, I thought it might be more interesting to look to Malaysia’s future by using an example from Indonesia’s past and present. Somewhat like UMNO, the Indonesian political party (or, initially, non-party / party alternative) Golkar emerged as an elite vehicle that ran the country for decades. From when it joined elections in 1971 to the fall of Soeharto in 1998, Golkar never lost a national election, and kept a pretty good stranglehold of most provinces, too. Since the fall of Soeharto, though, Golkar has consistently sought to join governing coalitions in Indonesia’s national politics. Although it supported losing presidential candidates in 2004, 2009, and 2014, each time it has switched over to join the winning candidate’s coalition (in December 2004, October 2009, and May 2016, the latter after much leadership infighting).


The reason for Golkar repeatedly abandoning its previous position to then join ruling coalitions is not just the absence of real party difference in Indonesian politics—although that certainly plays a role. I join the academic consensus in identifying as the greater issue the fact that Golkar only knows (and only knew) how to function as a funnel for channelling patronage down the party apparatus. When a group of people (or, in this case, muckity-mucks) comes together to organize, but has no principled issues and only organizes around self-enrichment, it is really hard to justify the organization without continued avenues for self-enrichment. This explains both why Golkar keeps jumping into governing coalitions where patronage is much more available, and why Golkar keeps spawning new parties when potential leaders find themselves foiled in attempts to become party head. (Among current parties, NasDem, Gerindra, and Hanura were founded by unambiguous breakaways from Golkar.)


A strong argument can be made, especially in recent years, that UMNO has come to represent the same kind of self-enriching clique of political leadership. So, the question becomes, will it follow the Golkar path to try and crawl back into someone governments led by other parties so as to gain fresh spoils for party functionaries?


The first thing to note is that several UMNO functionaries as individuals (and smaller parties of the old UMNO coalition, Barisan Nasional) have already jumped ship. Notably, this includes several state legislators in Perak and Sabah whose switch to join new coalitions has cemented those coalitions’ power at the state level. This suggests that the model of following the gravy train wherever it goes is a reasonable premise for studying UMNO (and a very strong premise for its minor coalition partners in East Malaysia). However, plenty of party leaders have stayed committed to the party so far (even while more and more are willing to throw former-leader Najib Razak under the bus), so one cannot take this premise too far.


Another caution is that UMNO does actually hold to some principles in Malaysian politics. The most notable of these, of course, is the idea of special privileges for ethnic Malays. Could this be enough to hold the party together and to keep it out of a new government containing so many parties that question Malays’ special privileges? I do not think UMNO has enough of a platform to keep it in principled opposition consistently, and I also do not think its platform positions are sufficiently unique to set it apart from the new parties that have come to power. Note that the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (a break-away from UMNO in much the same way that NasDem broke from Golkar) is not substantially different from UMNO on any issue besides holding Najib Razak somewhat accountable. Even Anwar Ibrahim, the long-time opposition leader from Partai Keadilan Rakyat who is down to be the next Deputy Prime Minister, was assuring the press that Malay privileges would be protected.


Given that the current ruling coalition was created as the anti-UMNO and so would be unlikely to let UMNO as a party back in, what is the likely fate of Malaysia’s classic ruling party? One spectre that must have its leaders worried is the pattern of several of the parties that were junior partners in UMNO coalitions: the Malaysian Indian Congress, Malaysian Chinese Association, and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia. In the good old days of coalition, these three were perennially given cabinet posts and used as a bulwark against increasing racial tension by the successive UMNO-led governments. But, as the minority ethnic vote on the peninsula consolidated in opposition to UMNO, these smaller parties lost the Chinese and Indian voters that had previously kept them relevant. In General Elections 12 and 13, they lost most of their seats, and this year Gerakan was wiped out of national politics while the leaders of MCA and MIC also failed to win reelection. Now some are saying that these parties will or should disband. Is it possible that an UMNO without dispensable patronage could go the same way?


UMNO is not dead yet. It still has 47 seats in the federal parliament and key roles in several states. However, the road back to government will likely be arduous. Unlike Golkar, UMNO probably cannot crawl back in just for the spoils (the most optimistic interpretation is that ill-gotten spoils as a feature of Malaysian politics will also go down under the new/old leadership), and the party will have to find a fresh way to actually win.

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 25 2018 08:00AM

This week, my article about " Reinforcing Charisma in the Bureaucratisation of Indonesian Islamic Organisations" has been published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs. Here's the abstract:


Many studies of Islam in Indonesia have focused on the mass Islamic organisations that form the backbone of civil society and Indonesian religious life. However, studies of these organisations have not appreciated the central place of charisma amid their bureaucratic features. This article looks at the case of Alkhairaat, a mass Islamic organisation headquartered in Central Sulawesi but spread throughout eastern Indonesia, as a bureaucracy built to reinforce and perpetuate the charisma of its founder, Sayyid Idrus bin Salim al-Jufri. The case of Alkhairaat demonstrates how mass Islamic organisations in Indonesia bureaucratise Islam but also, in doing this, defy the broader trend of legalisation. Instead, the on-going veneration of the founder’s charisma helps to make sense of the continuing attention to supernatural occurrences among traditionalist Indonesian Muslims and the power of organisational leaders over their followers.


You can read the full article free, from the open-access journal's website, at this link.

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 22 2018 12:02PM

In today’s Jakarta Post, K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf (a leader in Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and its outreach Bayt ar-Rahmah in North Carolina) has written another piece in his consistent call for the separation of Islam and politics and moderation in religion generally, this one generically titled “Islamist Politics in ‘Reformasi’ Indonesia.”


The article is a fine statement of the NU leadership’s opposition to transnationally-oriented Islamism and commitment to the Indonesian state, but it also includes a highly revisionist (I would argue, unsustainably revisionist) interpretation of NU’s history vis-à-vis Islam and the state. In the passage that surprised me most as a historian of Indonesia, the kyai writes, “During the 1950s and ‘60s, [Abdul] Wahab [Hasbullah, then leader of NU] blocked Masyumi from restoring the Jakarta Charter and transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state, supported Sukarno and the Indonesian military in repressing the Darul Islam and PRRI/Permesta rebellions, and allied with Soeharto to prevent a communist seizure of power, such as that which had already occurred to such devastating effect in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China, Korea and Tibet.”


It is worth breaking down these claims one by one:

1. Did Abdul Wahab Hasbullah and NU “block Masyumi from restoring the Jakarta Charter and transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state?” Unambiguously no. In the Constitutional Assembly (Konstituante) of Indonesia, which met from 1956-59 in Bandung, Wahab and the rest of the NU delegation supported the establishment of Islam as the foundation of the Indonesian constitution. Indeed, in the final votes of May and June 1959 before the Constitutional Assembly was unilaterally dissolved by President Sukarno, Wahab and most NU party members voted in favor of the Jakarta Charter—not against it!


2. Did NU “support Sukarno and the Indonesian military in repressing the Darul Islam and PRRI/Permesta rebellions?” Only sort of. As well-documented by Greg Fealy, NU did draw closer and closer to President Sukarno in the late 1950s, and thus grew closer to his allies in the armed forces, too. However, NU was not practically involved in the suppression of either rebellion. In fact, I have it on good authority from Prof. Mestika Zed (whose father-in-law was the head of NU in Central Sumatra in 1958) that it was the NU-faction in the provincial legislature that first put forward the motion of a ‘revolutionary’ rebel government, which led to PRRI. National NU leadership (including Wahab) does seem to have been opposed to both rebellions, though: Darul Islam for being too hardline about Islam (although this opposition was rarely foregrounded; cf. Remy Madinier’s discussion of Masjumi’s awkward position with regards to Darul Islam), and PRRI (less so Permesta) for being its former political rivals from Masjumi.


3. Did NU “ally with Soeharto to prevent a communist seizure of power?” Again, I think this is partly true and partly misleading. NU definitely had been opposed to PKI, vocally and publically, for many years from the 1940s, and this opposition became fever-pitched by the 1960s. NU definitely joined in the attacks and killings initiated by the army under Soeharto in 1965-67 in response to the supposed Communist-backed failed coup of 1 October 1965, and aspects of NU’s participation have been very deftly unpacked by Fealy and MacGregor in their 2010 article. However, this statement seems to be premised on the idea that the Communists were actively trying to seize control of the government through extra-legal means—an idea that many or most overseas historians of Indonesia would dispute.


So, by my tally, this paragraph from the kyai’s article has one strike and two balls (to use the baseball analogy, go Flying Squirrels)—no hits.


Perhaps more important that the historical fudges or flagrant revisionism themselves is the question of why an NU leader today would want to engage in such revisionism. This is partly a manifestation of NU’s continuing opposition to conservative, perhaps transnationally-inspired challenges from the right, which have been seen as eating away at NU’s dominant position in Indonesian Islam over the last two decades. By asserting that NU so strongly defends Indonesia, the leaders can imply that groups further to the right do not defend Indonesia and thus should not merit popular (or political) support. This revisionism also makes NU more appealing as a mass-base for political campaigns both this year and next, something very much in the interest of NU leaders hoping for various kinds of patronage and positions.


Although I can understand the revisionism and the reasons behind it, my position as a historian places me strongly opposed to this kind of tweaking (or denying) the facts to match the desired narrative. I think NU will grow stronger, not weaker, as a democratic force in Indonesia and the Muslim world more broadly if it honestly faces its history.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 7 2018 04:49PM

Some readers may recall several years ago when I debated a colleague in Oxford, with our prompts being ‘Global History’ (for him) and ‘Area Studies’ (for me). (Read my remarks from that night on an earlier blog post.) It was a fun night, and a useful exercise in thinking about historiography and academic disciplines for the post-graduates who hosted the event.


My opponent in that debate, Dr Jan-Georg Deutsch, passed away in 2016, leaving a big hole in the Faculty. This year, in his memory, I proposed to the same student-run seminar a debate on a similar historiographical question. My colleague, Prof Alexander Morrison, was game to participate, and put up the proposition, as follows: ‘Global History Is An Excuse for Anglophones to Study the History of the World Without Having to Learn any of its Languages.’


It was a provocative topic, leading to lots of enjoyable discussion. I argued against the proposition, but neither of us (of course) was really arguing our honest feeling on the matter; we argued opposing positions as a useful exercise. As I did last time, I wanted to share here my comments, in case they might spark further debate.


Many thanks to everyone for joining us tonight, and especially to my esteemed colleague for putting forward the proposition and debating me on it. The last time I defended one side of a debate in the Transnational and Global History Seminar, Jan-Georg Deutsch mopped the floor with me, and I hope I have learned a thing or two in order to improve my performance this time.


I reject the proposition on three levels: It is wrong as a specific idea, as a general idea, and as a principle.


1. The proposition is wrong as a specific idea.


All of us can name specific global historians who definitely speak more than just English. Without even resorting to many names from our own Faculty (indeed, many names of those within the room), I could point to Engseng Ho (for his beautifully nuanced studies of Hadrami Arabs spread around the Indian Ocean world) or Cemil Aydin (for his deep inquiries into alternative global ideas: pan-Asianism, pan-Islamism, and now the concept of the Muslim world).


Lest these names sound insufficiently Anglophone, though, let me through out a forefather in the study of Indonesia who is far more British than I am: Benedict R. O’G. Anderson. What global history has been more influential in the last four decades than his global history of the idea of nationalism? To drive the point home, though, let me remind us all that Benedict Anderson was anything but a monoglot. He spoke some Chinese from having been born in Kunming, learned Indonesian (and, I’m told, passable Javanese) for his doctorate, and after he was prohibited from entering Indonesia after 1965 he casually took up the study of Thai, then later Spanish and Tagalog to write on the Philippines. His pioneering lens on global history was not born out of an inability to access the local histories of specific places, but precisely by observing many places (several of them in their own languages) and finding striking similarities and the modular spread of ideas.


So, as a specific idea about the way global history is practiced in this day and age, I find the proposition wrong on its face.


2. The proposition is wrong as a general idea.


One can have some sympathy with the sweeping, pro-global South claim that there are too many individuals out of touch with the global South who are now empowered by circuitous academic thinking to make authoritative statements about the world. We have also just heard the argument that global history might be nothing more than the old imperial history masquerading under a new name. However, the idea that studying the largest geographic scale as a historian is a tradition with roots in Anglophone historians only pulling on Anglophone sources is seriously misguided. That assumption overlooks the facts and engages in exactly the kind of patronizing Orientalism that it claims to combat.


We have always had world histories that were neither Anglophone nor Eurocentric. Look at Sima Qian with his Shiji or Taishigongshu (1st century BCE Han China), or Rashid al-Din with his Jami’ al-tawarikh (13th century CE Ilkhanate Persia), or even the anonymous Babad Jaka Tingkir (19th century CE Java). All of these aspired to be world histories, and we can find in them an alternative genealogy for global history. Thus, it would be an error to say that only Anglophones have been interested in global history or writing the whole world in one scheme.


Even when turning to the establishment of modern, Western historiography, many of the white men who gave birth to the ‘global’ approach of historiography were indeed able to speak foreign languages. Perhaps my favourite among them was Marshall G.S. Hodgson (another thoroughly Anglicized name, to keep the rabble happy). Although we now think of him as a pioneer of world and global history, those writings were all published posthumously. The historical work he published in his lifetime was about the Assassins, grounded in Arabic sources.


If you prefer something a bit more up-to-date, what about Kenneth Pomeranz? He broadly revised our thinking about the comparative history of China and Europe entering the modern world. Here is a man who made his name researching China, thoroughly skilled in Chinese, and whose first book used records made by the Japanese imperial state. This is no linguistic weakling.


Thus, I would argue, great global historians who speak the languages of the world are not the exception, but are the backbone on which the sub-discipline was built. Furthermore, they come in a long line of non-Anglophone, non-Western writing on the history of humankind.


2a. As a side note, is there something wrong with global history written using only one language?


Harping only on linguistic qualifications of historians to write on certain topics overlooks many of the other types of sources and other types of knowledge that might be just as important. When we read a book on maritime history (the theme of this seminar in this term), do we question the sailing bona-fides of the author? Understanding how ships and boats work on water and amid wind is just as important, one could argue, as reading the language of the captain and crew. When we read early modern histories, what assurances do we get that the author is qualified to deal with non-written sources from archaeology and material culture? Surely those are also a source base just as important as sources in a foreign language.


When we look at language as just one tool of many in a historian’s toolkit, perhaps we can see that the proposition is a bit problematic. But I would go even further than that:


3. Dismissing global history as exclusively Anglophones using English sources is wrong as a principle.


The proposition would silo those historians who work on other parts of the world and speak other languages into a limited, area studies framework. We become the afterthought of history as a discipline, rather than the cutting edge of building new historical knowledge and ideas. As much as I (being an expert on Indonesia who put in the time to learn five non-English languages along the way) do not want to lose the specificity and distinctiveness of Indonesian history, I am equally concerned about not being dismissed as irrelevant to history broadly.


Rather than making the case for myself, let me frame it as defending one of my respected colleagues. Lien-Hang Nguyen speaks and reads Vietnamese, English, and some Chinese and French. Dismissing her fantastic book, Hanoi’s War, as being less than a global history of the Vietnam War is to undercut the importance of her work. To demote her from being a global historian of the Cold War to just being a regional historian of Vietnam flirts dangerously with the position of arguing that the history of peoples speaking languages other than English are minor histories. Especially tonight as we commemorate the great historian Georg Deutsch, let this be a trap that we never fall into!



The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent the Oxord Centre for Islamic Studies, nor any other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.