Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


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, 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, Aug 25 2015 02:42PM

An undergraduate who has recently completed his history degree here at Oxford now blogs about the Singaporean military (and some related issues). Looking back at one of his entries from earlier this summer has caused me to do some thinking. In "Everything but the kitchen sink - some reflections on undergrad history," blogger "Delta Whiskey" expresses some surprise but more disappointment at the fact that he had trouble getting tutors to discuss the military aspects of war. The cultural, social, economic, political, and other aspects of war were well within the curriculum, but the actual fighting and strategy on the ground, the moving of personnel and materiel, the casualties, captives and battlefields were avoided.

I could absolutely see myself in this post—and not just because I tutored this student for one of his requirements! As I am currently writing a book about a war (Indonesia's Revolution for independence, 1945-49), I thought about how much, or rather how little, I am covering military aspects in my research and writing. Sure, I talk about the formation of militias, and I lay a lot of emphasis on interpretations of the cause for which people fought. I cover in great detail the political machinations happening alongside the war. But, looking at it now, there is not a single battle, or even a string of military engagements, where I write about army tactics or boots on the ground.

I am not alone in this. Looking at the leading Anglophone authors to write on Indonesia's revolution, most have also skirted the most purely military aspects. George McT. Kahin and Benedict Anderson do not cover the strategy in any specific battles (although they do delve into the causes of the Battle of Surabaya, for instance—but this is explicitly not what the student was looking for); John R.W. Smail only briefly touches on the face-offs in Bandung (writing about the intensity of Muslim fighters, for example, who believed themselves invincible); Robert Cribb talks militias but not battlefields; Ann Swift is all high politics. The two English-language books that I think come closest to incorporating the military side of the history of this war are Antony Reid's The Blood of the People and Mary Margaret Steedly's brilliant new Rifle Reports. Reid goes into a little bit of military business, like how villages were surrounded and enemies eliminated, especially in the Perang Cumbok episode of the social revolution in Aceh. Steedly, I would say, delves even deeper into the military side of the conflict, even though her study is fundamentally about the role of women during this war. (Perhaps Prof. Steedly is helped by the fact that she has also studied of the Citadel, one of America's state military colleges.) I think of the book as providing greater military insights, though, because it demonstrates what a horrible disaster so much of the Indonesian military strategy in North Sumatra was. Of course, she also includes a major episode about securing weapons for the army, but the stories of large civilian populations in a helter-skelter, scorched-earth retreat and the ineffective results provide insight into how not to fight a war of independence (crippling one's country by destroying its resources).

This aspect of Indonesian warfare during the revolution—that it was basically a failure, despite the assertions of successful guerrilla warfare made by Indonesia's most famous author on the war, General A.H. Nasution with his eleven-volume tome—might be part of the reason why we historians writing about the Indonesian side of the struggle do not dwell on military issues. As everyone since Kahin has basically agreed, independence was won at the negotiating table, under the looming threat of withdrawn American aid money and sanction from the new United Nations Organization, not at the end of a gun.

This is probably not the only reason that my field has avoided military questions, though, and this speaks to the other side of my former student's wonderings. I have not known any of the major centers of academic history to produce military historians anymore. I can think of not a single one of my colleagues in graduate school who wrote on military strategy, battles, or boots on the ground—not even the one with a military career. Come to think of it, one of the master's students here in Oxford whom I recently worked with was a commissioned officer in the Marines, and she didn't want to write about strictly military history, either; she wrote on the social history of prostitution surrounding a naval base in the Philippines. Somehow, history faculties are generally wary of getting too close to the armed forces.

And we are not alone. When I was at Yale, a scandal erupted when a recent anthropology PhD was in the New York Times touting her ethnographic work with the US Army in Afghanistan. This harkened back to the resistance of anthropologists to being instrumentalized for the US military in Vietnam, and I had a long work-study job during graduate school under one of the major anthropologists who had resisted government attempts to co-opt the field of Southeast Asian anthropology. (When he read the New York Times article, I remember Prof. Conklin telling me "It's like the 1960s all over again!" I don't know if this should count as irony, but in fact Prof. Conklin had gotten his start in Southeast Asia when he was decommissioned in the Philippines, rather than being returned to the US, after serving as a soldier in the Pacific during the Second World War. Hmmm.) There is a broad skepticism among academics about military solutions to today's issues, and this bias surely contributes to our reticence in studying the warfare of war.

Where, then, does this leave the undergraduate who wants to study military history? In large faculties, like my current one, there are some positions that support this interest. Oxford has a Chichele Professorship in the History of War (until recently held by Professor Sir Hew Strachan, now vacant but recruiting). Of course, those schools traditionally associated with military sciences, like the United States Military Academies or state colleges like VMI and the Citadel, will also have positions in explicitly military history. In other universities, should we look for (or even call for) the creation of military history posts to serve this student (and possibly public) interest? I think not. I feel that battle tactics and strategy are not what historians do best, and I believe we can skip the battles but still teach the war effectively by studying all the other aspects (political, economic, social, cultural) surrounding it.

My former student has certainly prompted me to think on this more, and my position may very well evolve, but for the time being, if any more undergraduates come seeking military history, I'll still start seeking cover.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 12 2014 11:58AM

In January I attended the American Historical Association annual conference in Washington, DC. Unlike so many of my friends in attendance, I was neither presenting nor on the job market; I was instead enjoying other folks’ panels and especially enjoying a few days to crash with my awesome brother, who lives in DC and is awesome. (Also, my brother has led me on a tour of the best brunches ever, which all happen to be in the District. Oxford needs to learn how to brunch!)

By virtue of enjoying the conference without extra pressures, though, I have some time to reflect on a few things about it. The biggest thing that struck me was the lack of Southeast Asia papers and panels. This was my impression reading through the program of the conference, but now having been back through on a key-word digital search of the program to make sure I didn’t miss anything, I can confirm that we were very underrepresented as a region. (Methodological caveat: I have excluded American papers that use the phrase “Vietnam War Era” but don’t talk about the Vietnam War, but I have included papers about US foreign policy in Southeast Asia.) Only two panels (1 2) focused on Southeast Asia topics (both on the Vietnam War, which is equally or more an American history topic for this conference). In papers (not panels), one paper (by my colleague Alan Strathern here at Oxford) alluded to Southeast Asia in the title (as one of four regional examples), eight (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) were on Vietnam (including from the panels above, and including a paper on Vietnamese in the US), seven (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) were on the Philippines (including Filipino Americans), one on Laos (or US foreign policy thereto), one talked about Singapore and Malaysia (as a way of getting to South Asian history), one film screening on Myanmar, zero on Thailand, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Brunei, and all of ONE paper that mentioned Indonesia in the title or abstract (but only in the context of “US and Soviet Food Aid to Ghana and Indonesia”). This gives a total of twenty papers, being very generous. Fellow Southeast Asianists, where are we? Indonesianists especially, we should show up and represent more for the fourth most populous country on earth!

There are, of course, some explanations for this. For example, I’ve written before about the statistics showing Southeast Asia is the most underrepresented field in history today (compared to proportion of current world population). There’s also the idea that AHA attracts more historians of America, and that Southeast Asian historians are more likely to attend the Association for Asian Studies in March. Still, given the well-over one thousand papers presented (and looking comparatively at our colleagues who study Chinese history), I think we can do better than this.

Any other Southeast Asian historians want to put together a panel for next year? Any historians of other places that I can encourage to think about Southeast Asia as a place that needs your attention and support?

NB: Contrast the strong representation of political scientists in the American Political Science Association, as noted by my colleague Tom Pepinsky at Cornell.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 6 2013 09:08PM

I just read a great blog post by someone I knew at Duke, Prof. Cathy Davidson. She reminds us academics of all stripes (but especially those who might be finding themselves on the job market) to Google ourselves and find out what comes up first. I felt pretty good about my results (Oxford, OCIS, this website, Still, I don't think this is the time for complacency.

The real challenge should be what comes up when we Google the keywords of our research -- and do we as academics make an appearance? I tried Googling "Islam Indonesia", and I got a mix of sites, but (unsurprisingly) I'm nowhere. Similar story for "History Islam Southeast Asia".

Academics should not just ensure that we have professional sites appearing when our names are Googled -- that should be only half of our job. We should be producing sites that inform the public about the results of our research, websites that present important information in attractive ways. We should create sites for our research projects with good labeling and clean coding, so that reliable information pops up earlier in search results. We should make it so we are found, looking professional, when someone looks for our research topic, not just for our name.

Respect to Cathy, for pointing out a good first step. May I humbly suggest that we push it further.

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or 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.