Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


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!

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 16 2017 03:13PM

I think it is no secret that I really like to exercise my right to vote in American elections, and that I supported the presidential candidate who won my home state of Virginia this last autumn. Like so many people who fit that profile, I am appalled by the allegations that Russia may have tried to rig American elections. I am appalled, but not surprised. Furthermore, I am not surprised, and also struggling with whether to have feelings of indignation. This is because I know a bit too much about America’s history abroad.

For all our decrying of a foreign government meddling in our electoral process, we Americans should remember that we have frequently throughout the twentieth century been documented to meddle in other country’s elections!

When I taught Cold War history under Prof. John Lewis Gaddis (a rather outspoken conservative and pro-America historian), it was taken as a well-established fact that America had engaged in a campaign on multiple fronts to influence the Italian elections of 1948. Fearing another repeat of Czechoslovakia, where Communists had come to power through elections and immediately joined the developing Communist bloc, the US put all kinds of money plus both overt and covert actions into supporting the Christian Democrats in this election. Apparently, this tactic (using everything short of military intervention) came to be called “political warfare.” Certainly there was a campaign to get Italian-Americans to write home to relatives and discourage voting for Communists. Media events were staged to make the Christian Democrats look good. All signs point to suitcases of cash being handed to America’s preferred party. There were also engineered political stand-offs to create circumstances favorable to the Christian Democrats. Some of the interventions were just careful propaganda from abroad; some (like shipping over weapons with minimal or no reimbursement, just in case of a Communist victory) seem to have violated both US and Italian law at the time.

The case I know best, which is much less documented, is American intervention in the 1955 elections in Indonesia. Much more work has been done on the American support for a 1958 regional rebellion on Sumatra and Sulawesi, but it seems that the United States also intervened in the democratic national elections three years earlier. Indonesian historian (and priest, incidentally) Baskara Wardaya has written in his book about American policy towards Indonesia about a $1 million US dollar “donation” provided to the Masjumi party—with no strings attached. This was a tremendous sum in Indonesia in those days, but it is not entirely surprising that the CIA would dump it into a party that had both led the most pro-American administrations of Indonesia (almost explicitly crossing over to the American bloc) a few years earlier and would generate the leaders of the CIA-backed rebellion a few years later. Joseph Burkholder Smith, in his rather questionable tell-all memoir of his CIA agent days, also alleges that the US was subsidizing the Masjumi-aligned newspaper Abadi and that Masjumi’s failure to win an outright victory was a big surprise.

The big revelation from the Smith memoir, though, is the entirely believable allegation that the United States attempted to create a scandalous sex-tape with a Sukarno look-alike. The CIA apparently hired a balding Chicano actor in Los Angeles to play Sukarno, and filmed him in flagrante with a blonde woman portrayed as the wicked KGB operative pushing his policies to the left. If this is true, or even if a former CIA-agent wished people to believe it was true, it sounds an awful lot like kompromat.

So, although I am sad about recent foreign disinformation and influence games related to American elections, I’m not sure my country can throw many stones from our glass house. What the United States did in interfering with other country’s elections was morally wrong, and what the Russian Federation has done interfering in American elections was morally wrong, but no American intelligence official should claim that we do not understand or could not foresee these tactics.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Mar 21 2016 04:49PM

Oxford is finally free from term time, which means both that I have a little bit more time on my hands to update the blog and that I have been able to attend some conferences. I spent last week in the Netherlands, which was wonderful and will get updated in another post, but I wanted to write a quick note first about the Warwick Indonesia Forum on 12 March 2015.

This event was organized by the University of Warwick branch on behalf of the national Indonesian Students Organization of the United Kingdom (PPI-UK), involving both an update by the new Indonesian ambassador (who was really great) and some academic respondents, and discussions in disciplinary groups about how students studying in this country can have a positive impact on Indonesia itself. I was happy to join the event, and I even made it into a photo about the day in the story on

As part of the networking lunch, though, I approached the current president of PPI-UK, because he was wearing a shirt made out of cloth from Lombok. (Those who know my research are probably aware of my upcoming sabbatical project, which will involve significant time working with Nahdlatul Wathan, so I am on the lookout for Sasak students who might be looking for an opportunity as a translator or research assistant.) It turns out he was not Sasak, but rather Minangkabau—a happy coincidence, as I happen to know a fair bit about West Sumatra, having lived there off-and-on during my five years of living in Indonesia. What ensued was a discussion about the nature of West Sumatra, the role of Islam in Minangkabau society, the relationship of religion and cultural traditions: standard fare for a discussion of West Sumatran life. I was really surprised, then, to read a fiery blog post about the incident posted by the student the next day. Apart from the peculiar ad hominem attacks (quite frankly, I occasionally get hardline Muslims questioning my religious motives, but the implication that I do not understand the study of history is a new allegation for me), I think that the blog post fundamentally misrepresents our conversation and my position. Rather than try to rewrite the conversation in toto, let me instead take this time to make my position on the role of Islam in Minangkabau life clearer.

Islam clearly has a role in Minangkabau life, something I have never disputed—indeed my academic career is rather famous for arguing about the importance of Islam to understanding Indonesia. However, that role has been continuously and consistently debated for the past two centuries. I do not deny—nor did I last week deny—key developments in this debate (e.g., the settlement towards the end of the Padri War) or key elements in the debate (i.e., the effort to synthesize cultural and religious traditions, the famous “Local culture is based on Sharia, Sharia is based on the Qur’an” formulation). Instead, as a historian, I want to point out that at no time has there been an unassailable consensus about how Islam and Minangkabau culture fit together. Rather, all of this has been continuously debated. You can read the debate spilled out in ink in the periodicals (surat khabar) of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, or you can find it in polemics in politics and society before or after. Those who remember the political moment immediately after Reformasi might remember the staunch debate circa 2001, when a mayor of Padang tried to implement mandatory veiling for women, I think specifically in government offices, using the line that “Adat bersandi Syarak, Syarak bersandi Kitabullah.” The fact that his regulation would specifically not have allowed for women wearing veils in the traditional Minangkabau style (i.e, making horn shapes above the head and leaving the neck exposed) was a point of much public furor and some mockery, causing the proposal to be rescinded. (Since then, we have seen similar regulations pass province-wide in West Sumatra, pushed by then-governor, later Minister of the Interior Gamawan Fauzi. I would remind readers that even these regulations were heavily debated in the provincial legislature.)

If there is any doubt about the fact that the relationship between Islam and Minangkabau culture has been perpetually debated through the last two centuries, a quick recourse to prominent Minang individuals of this period should dispel it. The great preacher Ahmad Khatib al-Minangkabawi famously refused to come back to West Sumatra from Mecca because he felt that the Minangkabau culture was so un-Islamic. He fiercely opposed any attempts to accommodate matrilineal culture to Islam and wanted to eliminate adat (traditional culture) altogether. (See Zaim Rais’s great book on Against Islamic Modernism.) And yet, he was very much out of step with most Minangkabau people at the time. Later on, for every Hajjah Rahmah al-Yunusiyyah, who believed in a strongly Islamic iteration of Minang culture, there was a Rasuna Said, who transitioned from Islamic activism to marrying a Communist (her second marriage) and foregrounding gender struggle alongside nationalist politics. Certainly no one should mistake Buya Hamka (who even disagreed with his own father about the place of traditional culture and tried to rearticulate the nature of matrilineal inheritance) and Tan Malaka for having the same position about Islam in society. Sutan Sjahrir and Mohamad Natsir may have been political allies and even distant relatives (through Natsir’s wife), but they did not share ideas about the place of religious teachings and traditional practices. If you prefer fiction as the mirror of society, one sees the characters of A.A. Navis’s famous short stories articulating very different approaches to religious and cultural questions.

I have not argued, and would not argue, that Islam is not a part of the social life of the Minangkabau. Rather, as a historian I observe Minangkabau people themselves debating exactly how Islam will function as a feature of social life. That process continues, even until today. (Witness the recent Alexander Aan controversy, or the incident of the returning Minang expatriate who was run out for trying to find his supposedly “irreligious” father’s mass grave.) To properly understand Minangkabau society, or any society, one should not paint it as a static system where issues like the place of religion have been resolved. History shows us that human societies are constantly developing, constantly changing, and denying the continuous debate and development of Minangkabau over the last two centuries would be against all evidence.

Finally, this is not just something that foreign researchers are working on. Sure, I am a tremendous fan of the brilliant work done by Audrey Kahin, Jeffrey Hadler, Joshua Gedacht, and others, but I am also a great admirer of Minangkabau historians and colleagues like the aforementioned Zaim Rais, Gusti Asnan, Azyumardi Azra, Reni Nuryanti, and others.

Hopefully this clears up some of the confusion that may have been caused in the wake of the Warwick Indonesia Forum, an otherwise lovely event.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 21 2016 11:22PM

As in previous years (2015 2014), I thought it would be good to look over the program for the American Historical Association annual conference (held this year in Atlanta, GA), for traces of Southeast Asia. I have said in the past and I am sure to say again: the AHA is not a great forum for representing the history of Southeast Asia. (We tend to do much better at the Association for Asian Studies, usually held in March.) Still, I think it is very important for Southeast Asian history to be represented at this conference, because it helps experts of other regions know what is happening in our field, reminds them of the importance of Southeast Asian studies in world and comparative contexts, provides a showcase for up-and-coming talent in need of permanent employment, etc etc.

As per usual, this year the most visible Southeast Asian country in the program is Vietnam, with two whole panels (1 2) and four additional papers (1 2 3 4). The only caveat is that both panels and all the papers were about the Vietnam War (almost all of them explicitly from the American perspective), so these can be seen as more American history than Southeast Asian history. There were no papers or panels that invoked Vietnam apart from the war.

In a similar vein, the Philippines did very well this year, with five individual papers. Three of these were about US occupation of the Philippines or US-Philippine relations (1 2 , the third seems to have been pulled in te end from its poster session)—so more American history—and another was on the British and Spanish empires clashing in Manila, but there was one paper on Chinese-Filipinos in the 1920s. Hurray, maybe?

Actually, the country that fared best for getting attention this year was Indonesia, with three individual papers looking at aspects of its history (1 2 , the third again seems to have been pulled in the end from its panel on decolonization), although admittedly one in the context of the Dutch empire. Malaysia got two papers (1 2), including one by my esteemed colleague Nurfadzilah Yahaya who is always great. There was additionally one paper on Chinese nationalism in Southeast Asia.

There were no papers or panels whose titles invoked Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Brunei, or Timor Leste. Oomph.

This does not mean that there were no other papers or panels that raised questions or spoke about Southeast Asia or its constituent communities, of course. Marilyn Young, the famous historian of Vietnam and the Vietnam Wars, was commentator on a panel about military toxins, and there was a whole panel on Zomia, but entirely on the Chinese side of the modern border (surely they spoke across the borders, though, right?). I’m sure some of the more abstract titles could have been hiding some Southeast Asia content, too.

All in all, though, there is little to be proud of here: fifteen papers and two panels across the four days of the conference, not all of them actually materializing, and more than half of them actually about American history that looks towards Southeast Asia. This is roughly on par with 2014, and does not seem to be quite as exciting as 2015. (Admittedly, I could not attend this year, so I don’t know what the feeling on the ground was like.)

Again, I renew my call to colleagues: how can we represent ourselves and our field better at the AHA annual meeting?

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.