Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


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!

By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 7 2017 01:12PM

Sunday night, 10 September 2017, I attended the UK premiere of director Garin Nugroho's silent film Setan Jawa, accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra. The event was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy in London as part of the International Gamelan Festival.

The film was impressive not just for its tremendous artistic value (the film expert I was sitting with was in awe of the use of light in this black-and-white movie) but also for its historical echoes. I chaired a panel in the festival a day earlier in which Garin Nugroho spoke about his acute awareness of the early years of moving pictures in Indonesia. Where the first film actors were pulled from the Komedie Stambul stage tradition, Pak Garin also conscientiously wanted to bridge between stage acting and screen acting (this is even more apparent in his work Nyai / A Woman from Java). The black-and-white, silent film form was more than just a stylistic choice, it was also explicitly pushing the audience to think back to spiritual practices from a century ago, traditions now sidelined in Indonesia. The form effectively and pointedly furthered the director's goal of evoking the past into the present.

The incorporation of traditional arts was also beautiful. This was found, of course, in the live gamelan accompaniment, which was tremendous! I have been to lots of gamelan performances, shadow puppet plays, wayang wong, etc., but I don't think I had ever heard such a wonderful gamelan orchestra. On top of this, though, the actors in the film were also dancing in the classical Javanese tradition, and by the end of the movie (not to spoil it) the line between dance and non-dance-acting on screen was thoroughly blurred.

There is no doubt that this movie was aesthetically amazing. I would watch it again in a heartbeat. I am less convinced that it fulfilled the director's other mission, though, to challenge radicalism by showing other, more traditional spiritual forms on Java and demonstrate how conservative, Arabizing interpretations of Islam are new in the Javanese context. The story was thoroughly abstract, and (despite the director's own ideas as discussed in the previous day's panel) any connection with Islam was not just understated but unclear. I also was unable to grasp the connection of the "Prolog", which had a small boy punished by Dutch authorities, to the greater arc of the story.

Despite my own limitations when it comes to watching and understanding art films, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and would recommend it to others for its mesmerizing aesthetic power, above and beyond its more conteporary messages.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Sep 11 2017 02:22PM

One of the great privileges of teaching at Oxford is the opportunity to work with master’s students in the Europaeum programme, including one this year who wrote a dissertation on the international relations of the Indonesian struggle for recognition of its sovereignty in the 1940s (read Simon Boeke’s thesis here). Although his excellent project focused on Australia, it led us to discover together the tremendous resources available in the Frank Porter Graham papers for the study of Indonesian History in the 1940s.

Frank Porter Graham (1886-1972) was an academic, a US Senator (briefly), a United Nations official, and a president of the University of North Carolina (for which I can—barely—forgive him). Most accounts of his diplomatic career highlight his work in South Asia between India and Pakistan, but he also played an important role as the United States representative on the UN Committee of Good Offices assigned to mediate between the Dutch and the Indonesians during Indonesia’s war for independence. In this capacity, Dr Graham chaired discussions in the US, in Indonesia, and in Europe on the future of the archipelago, and he was crucial at forcing the Dutch to the negotiating table where they eventually acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty.

Dr Graham’s papers are held in the UNC library (again, despite being a Duke graduate, I can still see value in them). Many folders (#1980-#1984; #2089-#2098; #2156b-#2158b; #2196b; and #4955; among others) have materials related to Indonesia and/or collected during his time on the Committee of Good Offices, ranging from the very mundane (complaints among the different delegates about scheduling and accommodation) to the very serious (letters and reports from the Chinese community in Batavia about violence against them during the war). Many of the papers are reports that do not seem to be available elsewhere, either from US government officials or interested parties who submitted papers to Dr Graham, almost entirely in English. The collection also has ephemera from this period, such as Dr Graham’s passport, which can be so telling. On the visa pages, the stamp from the Indian representative in 1948 is already labelled as coming from the “Consulate General of India in Indonesia at Batavia”—a position that surprised me in its boldness to use “Indonesia” in formal diplomatic stamps when the country had not yet been officially recognized by India. A thorough examination of these papers would certainly find a lot of points of interest for Indonesian (and American!) diplomatic history in the 1940s, but probably also many points of historical interest about Indonesia in the 1940s more broadly.

Most of these files have now been digitized (indeed, my student and I arranged for the digitization of some of them) and are available for viewing on the UNC libraries website at the links above, so they are accessible to scholars in Europe, Indonesia and elsewhere who might find it difficult to travel to North Carolina. (This also makes them accessible to scholars like me who generally want to avoid being on the Chapel Hill campus.)

By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 7 2017 05:00AM

On 3 February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a harrowing report on the violence happening against Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. This was based on hundreds of interview conducted in January 2017 among refugee communities that had just crossed the border into Bangladesh. The report is disturbing, and is greater evidence that crimes against humanity are occurring.

The methodology appears careful and thorough. In addition to narrative testimony from recently arrived refugees, the investigators used photographs of physical injuries (only those photographs that they had taken themselves) which were examined by a team of medical professionals. The photographic and narrative evidence was found to line up, supporting allegations of horrendous abuse. Additionally, the report used comparisons of satellite photos from before and after October 2016 to demonstrate the burning or leveling of Muslim-majority villages.

Many of the findings of the report are too graphic and disturbing to be described again here, so I encourage those who are strong enough to read the original report. Some facts worth noting, though, are the 90,000 displaced people--just since October 2016, the 65% of the interviewees who reported killings, and 43% of the interviewees who reported rape on the part of Myanmar security forces. The report also acknowledges that these figures likely underreport the violence occurring, especially sexual violence. I also want to point out that the report states "Influential and respected members of the community, particularly teachers, imams, religious scholars and community leaders were reportedly specifically targeted." This suggests, by targeting religious functionaries, that the security forces were not only attacking the local population, but were specifically trying to undermine the Islamic religion. Additionally, the report found incidental evidence (this was outside its strict mandate) of further restrictions on religious practices, like prayer, wearing of beards, and burial of Muslim dead. Much like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forcing Muslims to eat pork, this appears to be a flagrant sign of genocidal intent (my analysis--not the report's). Finally, the report concludes that "the recent level of violence is unprecedented."

In an interesting twist, there was also big news out of Rakhine today that a Buddhist monastery head in northern Rakhine has been caught with millions of methamphetamine pills. In Indonesia, everyone knows that there is a strong correlation between high levels of local governmental corruption and the local imposition of Islamically-inspired bylaws; might violence against non-Buddhists in Rakhine be a cover for other nefarious activities by non-Muslim leaders?

One of the most stunning things in this context is how ASEAN's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights seems to be falling down on the job. There are no results when one searches their website for Rohingya or Rakhine. The events taking place are unambiguously in violation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by all states (including Myanmar) in 2012. (Find downloadable versions of the Declaration in English and Burmese on the Commission's website.) The press release of the Commission's most recent meeting makes no statement about current events. Much more is needed. I cannot say I am surprised at ASEAN's non-interference, as this is a long-standing characteristic of the body, but I am disappointed. The crimes against humanity in Northern Rakhine seem to me to be a major test case for ASEAN's human rights aspirations. When a case is so flagrant, can the body bring itself to say something?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 31 2017 11:00AM

Over the last week, I and so many others have been riven by policies of the new United States putting Muslims and minorities in jeopardy and, in the words of one federal judge, potentially causing “irreparable harm” to them. More concern arose when it became clear that a mosque in Quebec was the victim of an anti-Islamic terrorist attack.

In this same time span, though, there have been some concerning developments from Myanmar that should not fall off the radar screen, impacting religious minorities. Of course, the most beleaguered religious minority in the country is the Muslims, both Rohingya and otherwise. The Rohingya continue to be subject to ongoing oppression inside Burma’s borders. Now a large block of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh are facing a blow to their safety and security as the government there has announced they will be moved to basically a sand bank in the ocean that is not yet big or permanent enough to appear on Google Earth. It is already hard for Rohingya to get out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh, but this news makes the recognized refugee populations who have crossed the border much more vulnerable as they continue to await international action.

Perhaps the loudest news from Myanmar over the weekend was the assassination of one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers, a leader who happened to have been Muslim, U Ko Ni. (U is his honorific; some news reports give his name without this title.) U Ko Ni was a well-known activist dating back to the 1988 Student Movement, a prominent advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and a loud voice for equal protection under the law. He was shot in broad daylight, in cold blood, at the arrivals terminal of Yangon airport-- incidentally just having returned from a visit to Indonesia on official business-- while holding a toddler (his grandson) in his arms. Taxi drivers at the airport heroically chased down the assassin, but one among them was shot dead, leaving behind a wife and three children, including an infant only 45 days old. This attack appears to have been planned and coordinated; the attacker knew when the U Ko Ni was due back in the country, and traveled far from his reported home in Mandalay to commit this violence. Although the assassination severely heightens tensions, it has also brought some shows of solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, as the funeral was attended by a broad cross-section of society, including Buddhist monks.

Finally, although not so eye-catching, last week brought a development for two Kachin Baptist pastors in the north of the country, who will go on trial for their involvement in documenting and passing on to reporters information of a November attack on a Catholic church. The pastors have been missing and unreachable for over a month, but now the government has (under pressure) announced it was holding them and will be charging them with unlawful association with an armed ethnic insurgency. The bombing of the Catholic church building was originally claimed by the Burmese military-- with an accusation that the building had been storing munitions for ethnic fighters-- before they later denied any involvement and blamed the insurgents for the attack. Christians from across the spectrum have rejected the army’s new story, but the whole case is definitely putting a dark cloud over Christian activities.

I think it is useful to put the fates of Muslim and Christian minorities in Myanmar side-by-side, because they face similar challenges being simultaneously ethnic and religious minorities and very often opposing the still-powerful Burmese military. The only silver lining here might be that the discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional new policy in the US does give priority to refugees who are persecuted in their home countries for following a minority religion, so maybe Trump’s administration will allow in more Muslims and Christians from Burma?

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.