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, 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, Jan 23 2017 02:25PM

Today’s front-page, lead article in Republika, the country’s Islamic-leaning national daily paper, is entitled: “Trump to Jokowi: I have Plenty of Friends in Indonesia.” The gist of the article is that Jokowi and Trump spoke by phone as the Indonesian president offered his congratulations on the inauguration of a new American counterpart, and that they believe American-Indoneisan relations can be stronger than ever.

A particular phrase in the second paragraph sticks out, though: “according to Jokowi, Trump also has business interests in the homeland (i.e., Indonesia). Because of this, Jokowi is confident that Trump will not do anything that could disadvantage Indonesia.” * In some versions, as in Indopos, Jokowi reports that Trump literally told him over the phone "I have many business interests in Indonesia," therefore our national relations will be good. Similar lines were reported in Kompas, MetroTV, and the Jakarta Post. Trump's old friend and campaign prop, Setya Novanto, was even more bald-faced in saying that relations would be good because Trump would see Indonesia as an investment opportunity for his personal enrichment.

It will surprise no one that I am all about having lots of friends in Indonesia. On my good days, I count myself among the Americans who has a fair number of friends in this country. However, the idea that Trump will not do anything that could be detrimental to Indonesia because he has business interests here (that, implicitly, would be hit extra hard if there were any negative consequences to spread around) sounds exactly like the kind of violation of the Emoluments Clause that the drafters of the American Constitution feared.

Even if this is just how foreign leaders perceive the new American president, as subject to their influence because of his overseas business interests and vulnerability to foreign governments' policies, then it will be a foreign policy moment unlike those we have experienced before. If we believe what Indonesia's leaders are saying, this is indeed how Trump wants foreign leaders to perceive him, which is more serious.

*The article as printed in the paper version of Republika does not seem to be online, so here is the Indonesian original: "Selain itu, menurut Jokowi, Trump juga memiliki urusan bisnis di Tnaah Air. Dengan hal tersebut, Jokowi yakin Trump tidak akan melakukan sesuatu yang dapat merugikan Indonesia." If I find a link in the future, I'll be happy to post it. In the meanwhile, I have a photo if anyone wants to see the whole thing.

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, Dec 26 2016 02:49PM

Selamat Natal! (This is Indonesian for "Merry Christmas!") I'm writing this Boxing Day post to say "Selamat Natal," only because this has become such a controversial thing for Indonesian Muslims in recent years.

This year, one of the big news stories leading up to Christmas was about how the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Indonesian Ulama Council), a quasi-governmental organization that issues fatwas, or juridical decisions, for Indonesian Muslims, prohibited any Muslims from using or wearing Christmas-related accessories. (Basically, stores should not ask Muslim employees to wear Santa hats or elf costumes leading up to Christmas.) This decision came out on December 14, 2016, and lead pretty quickly to raids by the rather radical Front Pembela Islam (FPI, so-called Islamic Defenders' Front) of major shopping malls across Surabaya to look for and take action against any Muslims supporting Christmas in prohibited ways. The spiritual leader of FPI, Habib Rizieq, has also gone on his website (possibly NSFW, because of loud audio and radical views) to decry attempts at "Christmas-ization" (Natalisasi) the country's Muslims and accuse the National Human Rights Commission of totaly misunderstanding the fatwa. (Fun update: Habib Rizieq has just been reported to the National Police--again-- for blaspheming another religion.) The MUI reportedly deeply regretted the FPI's actions as inappropriate, but no one was really surprised that the fatwa would lead to this chain of events. It got picked up in the world media, including everyone's favorite American alt-right questionable-news source, and continues to be a sore point locally.

This is not the first Christmas controversy to be caused by the MUI, though. In fact, MUI Christmas controversies date back to 1981, when the first head of the MUI, Hamka (perhaps Indonesia's leading Islamic popularizer and proselytizer of the 20th century) forbade Muslims from taking part in Christmas activities such as songs, nativity plays, or school Christmas assemblies (original fatwa here). Ironically, one of Hamka's sons spoke out in 2014 to say that his late father would have disagreed with the fatwa forbidding Muslims from saying "Merry Christmas," as his father always said "Merry Christmas to you" to his Christian neighbors.

This idea of explicitly wishing Christians "Merry Christmas", though, is one of the on-going points of contention (hardliners like Habib Rizieq are strongly against it). This is probably why my Facebook feed in the last 24 hours has been chock full of Indonesian Muslims explicitly using the words "Merry Christmas" (or, in one case, "Mele Kalikimaka") for their Christian friends. This social media-based, very visible protest against the forces of arch-conservatism is Indonesian Islam at its finest.

So, Merry Christmas to all, and hopefully this post will not Christmas-ize any readers.

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.