Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 10 2016 11:29AM

On 10 December, the United Nations celebrates Human Rights Day, in honor of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. Granted, the UN General Assembly at that time was not so representative as it is today, although it did include the majority of countries in the Middle East and Latin America, even when Asia and Africa were still pushing for broader decolonization. Still, there is a good argument to be made that these rights are universal.

In Malaysia, there has been a lot of push-back against the idea of "human rights" as a foreign construct, inappropriate for Malaysia as a Muslim society. (There is a great article about this by Goh Beng Lan in the edited volume Questioning Modernity in Indonesia and Malaysia; check it out if you are really interested in this stuff.) This seems to forget the fact that the Muslim countries of the Middle East, some of which are held up as models by conservative Muslims in Malaysia, supported the passage of the Declaration in 1948-- Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey all voted in favor. (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia abstained, but did not oppose the document.)

In Indonesia, the history of support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is even stronger. Indonesia's first constitution was written and promulgated before the Universal Declaration, but in 1950 the country's leaders sat down to write a fresh (albeit temporary) constitution once independence was consolidated, and it explicitly drew from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Supomo, one of the drafters, makes clear in his exegesis of the Temporary Constitution of 1950, elements like freedom of religion and others were specifically crafted based on the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The late Adnan Buyung Nasution has taken this further, showing how the draft constitution formulated by the Konstituante (Indonesia's Constitutional Assembly, meeting from 1956 until Sukarno unilaterally disbanded it in 1959) also integrated strong human rights protection based on the Universal Declaration. These points were not controversial in early Indonesian politics-- they were a strong consensus across different parties and among all the players involved.

Human Rights still have a long way to go in these two countries today. Even when human rights receive lip service, they are not always upheld in practice (part of the general gap between the letter of the law and its implementation in Southeast Asia.) The point of this post, though, is that opposition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Southeast Asia's Muslims is ignorant of the document's history and its acceptance by the generations of Muslim leaders before them.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 11:01AM

This blog entry has the potential to confuse lots of people and alienate lots more, so I wanted to separate it from the previous one, but it’s one worth writing to spur real conversation.

There is another key characteristic of Donald Trump that sets him apart from all his predecessors in the Oval Office: he is the first president elected in the US with no previous history in elected office, appointed political office, or military command for the United States. Basically, he’s never been in government before, at all, on any level. That is a big deal, and a major departure in our political history. Even President Obama was criticized in 2008 for having “only” two years in the Senate, plus some time as a state legislator—his opponents said this was not enough preparation to lead the whole government. Of course, Trump has made the case that his years as a business executive (often working directly under his father) not only fulfill the leadership prerequisite but also are indeed better than the corrupting experience of working in government (especially in Washington, a.k.a. “the Swamp”). Coming from entirely outside the government made him the big “change” candidate this year.

There is an obvious analogy to this in Indonesian history: a president whose (indirect) election surprised everyone, who had no experience in government but did have other leadership experience (following the footsteps of his father), and who was the ultimate “change” candidate. That man was Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately called “Gus Dur” (“gus” being the title for the son of a religious scholar, “Dur” being an abbreviation of Abdurrahman), elected in 1999.

This will be radical and probably offensive to some. I do not want to draw a moral equivalency between Gus Dur and Donald Trump. Gus Dur was a good man and a pious man (although quite quirky). he respected human rights (unlike Donald Trump), respected women, and respected democracy (again, it seems, unlike Donald Trump). Many of the great moral teachings of Gus Dur are still relevant in Indonesian society. (Remember “Tuhan tak perlu dibela”—was anyone saying that on 4 November?) I support the effort by PKB to name Gus Dur as a national hero. However, I think there are structural comparisons to be made, and they might even be informative when thinking about some of the weaknesses of a Trump presidency (or any future Trump wannabes in Indonesia).

Gus Dur had plenty of leadership experience in society, having been the chairman of the mass Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama for decades (like his father and grandfather before him) and a moral leader of the anti-Suharto movement. That experience, however, did not translate into a smooth or successful administration, though. I think it is fair to say that Gus Dur was great at being a moral leader, and pretty bad at being president. Of course, one could put forward other reasons for this: the bureaucracy probably opposed him, the tasks were so great as Indonesia transitioned to democracy, and Gus Dur was too reliant on a few advisors (Greg Barton’s biography links this to his diabetic blindness, which meant others had to read out documents and reports to him). Still, without a proper understanding of how the government worked, he failed to run it effectively. This is something I can easily imagine happening in a Trump administration.

Secondly, Gus Dur was pretty unpredictable. That meant even his allies never knew where they were going to be dragged next, which is a difficult position for allies to be in. This alienated quite a few of the people who had supported Gus Dur in the indirect election (in the Indonesian parliament) which made him president, and eventually led to his impeachment by that same house. (He was removed as president in 2001, and went on to a choppy term as leader of the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, as recently outlined by my colleague Firman Noor.) I don’t think anyone will deny that Donald Trump is also unpredictable as a political figure, and that he has a penchant for offending even leaders of his own party. (During the Vice-Presidential Debate, Trump’s own running-mate did not seem to know many of the man’s positions, and Donald Trump soon publically repudiated a statement that Mike Pence had put forward on behalf of the ticket.) This may very well have negative consequences in the US, as it did in Indonesia.

Again, I do not want to make a point of moral equivalency; I explicitly reject any moral equivalency between Abdurrahman Wahid and Donald Trump. However, structurally, there is a good argument to be made about the ways that lack of governmental experience, “change,” quixotic character, and electoral surprise make Gus Dur the closest analogue to Donald Trump in recent Southeast Asia.

By Kevin W. Fogg, May 13 2016 03:31PM

In my BBC news feed today, the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is insisting that all media outlets in the country refer to him as 'Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander'. Sounds like a pretty good gig to me.

This is not so different, though, from how titles grew exponentially towards the end of Soekarno's time as president of Indonesia. In 1950, as the country settled into independence, the Prime Minister and Cabinet circulated a memorandum in the government that all use of titles should be simplified and made egalitarian in line with the idea of independence. The instructions said (Indonesian first, translation after):

a. Bahwa baik dalam surat menjurat, maupun dalam pertjakapan sebutan 'Paduka Jang Mulia', 'Jang Mulia', atau 'Paduka Tuan' harus diganti dengan 'Saudara'.

b. Bahwa dalam pertjakapan seorang jang didalam masjarakat pantas dihormati karena kedudukan atau umurnja, dapat djuga dipergunakan sebutan 'Bapak' (Pak) 'Ibu' (Bu).

[ a. Both in correspondence and in addressing someone, the styles 'Your Excellency', 'Your Honour' and 'the Honourable' must be replaced with 'Brother'.

b. In everyday speech, someone who in society should be respected for their position or their age can also be addressed as 'Father' 'Mother'.]

[Source: Arsip Propinsi Naggroe Aceh Darussalam, Koleksi Lhok'nga 1934-1952, file #127, Salinan Surat Kementerian Dalam Negeri no. UP/34/I/4 tentang penghapusan sebutan]

By 1960, this instruction had been forgotten, and everyone was scrambling to pile new titles on Soekarno. Of course, he coined many for himself as well, including Penyambung Lidah Rakyat (Extension of the Tongue of the People), Panglima Tertinggi (Highest Commander), and Pimimpin Besar Revolusi (Great Leader of the Revolution). Others could get rather sour about these. For example, Sjafruddin Prawiranegara, in his oral history with the National Archives, complains that Soekarno should not have been the Great Leader of the Revolution, because he did not spend a single week fighting in the jungle-- he was either comfortably in a city or captured by the Dutch and in regulated detention.

Other groups also scrambled to throw titles on Soekarno, though. The most notable debate over this was betwen mass Islamic organizations who fiercely debated whether to confer upon him various coveted religious titles. In the 1960s, several branches of Muhammadiyah that wanted to curry the President's favour proposed bestowing him with the title Muballigh Agung (Great Proselytizer of Faith), although the Muhammadiyah leadership tamped down on this as best they could. [Source: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Koleksi RA34 Muhammadiyah, file #3443, Surat mengenai penyelesaian peristiwa yang melibatkan orang-orang Muhammadiyah, tahun 1963] The greater debates, though, had been in the 1950s, when Islamic preachers debated annointing Soekarno as Wali al-Amri (Holder of Power, or Ruler). The debate hinged on the question of whether he had been properly chosen by the people (Soekarno was never directly elected), but also whether the state was a sufficiently Islamic state to designate its secular head in such a position. In the end, he was given the title Wali al Amri adh-Dhaluri bi ash-Shaukah (Holder of Power under Emergency/Temporary Circumstances), but even this was highly controversial. The Darul Islam rebellion had followers write in to the government and criticize the use of this title, given by Muslim leaders who did not represent their beliefs. Major Islamic parties like Masjumi and Perti waffled on whether or not to use this title for Soekarno. (NU did not waffle-- it was all in for giving Soekarno religious titles, in part out of recognition of his contributions to national life and in part to curry favour.) [Sources: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Koleksi RA7 Kabinet President, file #1717; Deliar Noer, Partai Islam di Pentas Nasional; Alaiddin Koto, Pemikiran Politik PERTI].

In case Hun Sen is a reader of the blog and is looking for insights on this new policy, I should note that none of the titles listed for Soekarno above have lasted into the history books of today. Take this as you will.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 05:02PM

A friend on Facebook who is based in Yogyakarta has recently been noting (complaining?) that the whole country watches and even takes sides in the forthcoming Jakarta elections. He calls this Jakarta-centrism, I think along the same lines that British people complain about the South of England or Americans decry a Northern, East Coast elite. (Perhaps on an international level we could also complain of America-centrism, with much of the world bound up watching our presidential train-wreck, despite not being part of the electorate?)

Rather than blame a bias in favor of Jakarta as a region, I would like to propose a different interpretation. I believe the governorship of Jakarta, at least in the last ten years, should be seen as a national post, rather than as a regional post.

Exhibit A: The candidates for it can come from across the country and need not have been long resident in the city. (Jokowi came straight out of Solo, Ridwan Kamil is very much Bandung-based but was bandied about as a realistic candidate.) That kind of carpet-bagging would be unthinkable in other cities or provinces (in Indonesia as abroad-- can you imagine someone who hasn't been living in New York running for mayor of New York City?).

Additionally, the governorship of Jakarta can function as a viable springboard for a national campaign, in a way that (other) regional posts cannot. This might take more explaining. In the United States, it is perfectly common for a governor without experience in Washington DC's national politics to become a presidential candidate. They are sometimes unsuccessful (Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, Rick Perry), but have also seen some pretty good success in the last few decades (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush). In Indonesia, that kind of jump is not done. No one can imagine some governor of West Sumatra or East Java or South Sulawesi (just to name a few prominent provinces that can translate into good cabinet posts) as a viable presidential candidate if he (or hopefully in the future she) has not spent time subsequently in national politics. In fact, I would argue this is why current president Jokowi had to run for the Jakarta governorship, rather than wait for the governorship of his home province Central Java, because only Jakarta would be an elected administrative post that was still national, short of the president or vice-president.

So, rather than complaining about coverage of the Jakarta gubernatorial election as being some kind of negative Jakarta-centrism, I posit we should just accept that the governorship of Jakarta is a national, rather than regional post.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 03:31PM

The opening keynote of the Southeast Asia Symposium was given by Dr José Ramos-Horta, well-known for being not only the former president and former prime minister of Timor-Leste, but also his 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. He also gave what I (and some colleagues I spoke with) found a more engaging talk to the public to kick off the Festival of Southeast Asia last Tuesday night. I don’t know if it was the topic, the hour, or the audience, but he seemed both more open and personal—in addition to hitting on topics of interest to me—on Tuesday night. Three general points seem worthy to report on here.

First, Dr Ramos-Horta shared some rather amusing stories from his previous time in Oxford. He was invited to come by Peter Carey (my colleague and predecessor teaching Southeast Asian history here), who called on him in 1984 to take time off to study so as to prepare for Timor Leste’s future. (In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr Ramos-Horta was travelling around the world as an activist for the Timorese cause; he described this in the lecture as ‘organizing street protests’ rather than any formal or concerted diplomacy.) He came in 1986, but his main point of academic study at the time was southern African politics, connected with the Timorese leadership in exile in Mozambique. During his time at St Antony’s College, he describes the hall’s food as ‘oscillating between bad and worse’, so he often ate at High Table and thus managed to rack up a bit of a bill. When he left college without settling the tab (money was understandably tight for the kind of organizer he was), the college bursar managed to find his address for ever-increasing bills over the next seven years. No matter if he went around the US or in Europe or Asia, somehow St Antony’s knew how to track him down, and the interest kept compiling. Finally, with admiration for British bureaucratic doggedness and enthusiasm, he settled the tab which had grown to exceed £500.

Second, Dr Ramos-Horta had some interesting things to say in connection with Myanmar. He has been engaged with Myanmar for over two decades, and described giving the ‘first ever human rights training program’ in Myanmar in 1994, teaching NLD and Karen activists in the jungle after he had entered the country illegally. The real points of interest, though, related to his absolute refusal to condemn any actions of (fellow Oxfordian and Peace Prize Laureate) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course, in both popular and academic accounts she has come under fire for her silence on the persecution of Muslims and her strong-arm tactics setting an unexpected party list for the elections and compromises with the military and other shady characters. Dr Ramos-Horta said (an actual quote I recorded), ‘I will not criticize Suu Kyi.’ He believes that she has to stabilize her country first, and he sees her as following the same strategy he did in Timor Leste by working with her opponents, gaining their trust, and understanding them. When Timorese young guns criticize Ramos-Horta and his long-time associate and fellow leader of the Timorese people Xanana Gusmao over the issue of justice, Ramos-Horta’s response is that they must fight not only with their convictions but also with their brains.

This connects also with the third big theme that I wanted to highlight: Ramos-Horta’s perceptions of the relationship with Indonesia. This probably surprised me the most, with the night including such strong quotes as ‘There are no two countries in Asia who have a better relationship than Timor Leste and Indonesia.’ When in the context of a talk that unabashedly criticized the conditions of the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, and certainly in the context of Ramos-Horta’s career, this Indonesia-loving was unexpected for me. Ramos-Horta’s position is that the fight was not against Indonesia, per se, but against an unjust regime. He explained it by saying that Timor Leste never claimed to have defeated Indonesia, but rather his country became free because the Indonesians freed themselves. He highlighted his good working relationship with (former general and former Indonesian president) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, from the negotiations in 1999 that withdrew the Indonesian military from the territory to their overlapping presidencies, when SBY and JR-H agreed to set up an international centre on reconciliation as a model for other nations coming out of conflict. Ramos-Horta strongly defended the choice to form a ‘Truth and Friendship Commission’ with Indonesia and not to pursue any form of international tribunal (or even a national tribunal for collaborators in Timor Leste), arguing that ‘an international tribunal would not serve the cause of peace, stability, democratization.’ He also was very cold on other movements struggling for independence against the Indonesian state. Although Ramos-Horta described himself as a friend of Acehnese leader Hassan di Tiro in New York for many years, he says he never supported Acehnese independence. More shocking to me was that he very explicitly does not want to endorse West Papuan independence—rather, he went on the record saying that Indonesia must solve the situation, and that Papua is a part of a sovereign Indonesia. After his condemnations of the situation of occupation, this struck me as a surprising incongruity, but the case he made was that Timor Leste and Papua had very different situations under international law, and that he does not want to meddle.

The former president’s speech ranged much more broadly, including Israel-Palestine, corruption, North Korea, UN operations and bureaucracy, and the nature of ‘foreign experts’, just to name a few. Those interested in hearing the whole thing can check out St Antony’s podcasts, which recorded the event. (Unsurprisingly, some of the more Oxfordian experiences don’t come through on an audio recording, like Matthew Walton’s gentle prodding of the president to actually answer the questions posed, or Eugene Rogan’s absolutely masterful handling of the room in the face of a tricky audience member, or the really beautiful presentation of the college scarf to the former member by Phyllis Ferguson.) It is always interesting to hear from a distinguished international leader like José Ramos-Horta, but last Tuesday felt especially engaging for me, and especially Oxford.

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.