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, 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.

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, Oct 25 2015 09:55AM

Yesterday marked 10 Muharram in the Hijri (Islamic) calendar, called Ashura, a day especially sacred to the Shi'a for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) at Karbala.

Even some non-Shi'a Muslims have events for Ashura. In West Sumatra, they have a major cultural event on the beach in Pariaman, called Tabuik. It starts at the beginning of Muharram with a few little events, and then culminates with a ceremony carrying a large model of a winged horse-woman (bouraq) into the sea. Paul H. Mason has described the whole thing well in an article for Inside Indonesia, but I'm told similar ceremonies also happen in Bengkulu province at the same time.

This year, there is less to celebrate. Shi'i Muslims across Southeast Asia (and around the world) are coming under increasing pressure in Sunni majority contexts. In Malaysia, the Islamic Religious Department has announced 'stern measures' against any Shi'i Muslims who practice their faith this year. West Java, Indonesia, has had some infortunate incidents, too. The mayor of the city of Bogor has banned any celebrations of Ashura. In Bandung, the police are caving to protestors who claim that the Shi'is are not only blaspheming the majority Sunni faith but are also threatening the integrity of the country. The pitiful response of the police is especially flagrant when a reported 120 protestors apparently so threatened the 1000 police officers that they forced the Shi'a community to immediately stop the event and evacuate the stadium. Literally, they had over eight police for each protestor, and yet the Bandung police still felt "too threatened" to let Ashura commemorations continue? It seems clear to me that they were looking for an excuse to call them off. The Indonesian threats (and violence) against Shi'is this year have even internationalized, with rioters outside Yogyakarta attacking a community of immigrants from Afghanistan because they were Shi'a.

Of course, this uptick in Southeast Asia reflects increasing tensions around the world between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims. Plenty of people have pointed out the Sunni-Shi'a divide lurking behind some of the international machinations in Syria, and experts debate whether the war in Yemen is basically a confessional one. Attacks in Iraq continue (not a new story, since the American-led invasion), but this increased antagonism is happening internally in other Middle Eastern countries, too. Saudi Arabia has already seen gunmen attack Shi'i mosques where believers were celebrating Ashura this year. Tension seems to be spreading through other states, too. We shouldn't forget South Asia, either, where Pakistani officials and society have not been able to stop attacks on Shi'i worshippers. To me, the ultimate sign of Sunni-Shi'a conflict (which may actually be fundamentally political between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but is certainly talked about in sectarian terms) becoming paramount this year was not Iran's screaming over the pilgrims killed at Mina, but rather when Saudi Arabia lined up with Israel to argue against the international treaty with Iran.

Hopefully the more intense violence of South Asia and the Middle East will not spread to Southeast Asia, where the numbers of Shi'i Muslims are also fairly small. Still, this is something that I hope both watchers of the region and policymakers will educate themselves on before it spills over into more trouble. The question of Shi'ism in Southeast Asia has been tackled most comprehensively, I think, in the recent edited volume by Chiara Formichi and Michael Feener (both friends and colleagues). Getting under the skin of this particular type of religious intolerance, though, we might do very well to look at the work of Jeremy Menchik, who has explained the limits of Indonesian Islamic tolerance in a way that deserves attention.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 9 2014 02:18PM

Continuing from the last post about today's Indonesian legislative elections, there are a number of real surprises among the Islamic parties. (Statistics on results from the Kompas and CSIS quick-counts, at the time of writing.)

First, though, one has to define what parties can be considered "Islamic". On the national ballot, there are three explicitly Islamic parties: PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), PPP (United Development Party), and PBB (Star and Moon Party). All of these parties claim to be based on Islam, even if sometimes they campaign on in a more pluralist mode.

There are two other parties that are Islamically-aliged: PAN (National Mandate Party), which grew out of the mass Islamic organization Muhammadiyah, and PKB (National Awakening Party), which grew out of the mass Islamic organization Nahdulatul Ulama (NU). Both of these parties are very explicitly not based on Islam, despite the character of their founders, and they aim to span the confessional divide while still being sympathetic to certain religious ideals.

As a bloc, these five Islamic parties have been losing voters since the beginning of the Reformasi Era, from 33.74% between them in 1999, up slightly to 35.12% total in 2004, they reached a nadir of 25.94% in 2009. (These are really gross generalizations about Islamic party politics; I know I'm leaving out other parties that I would clump in if this were a real academic study.) And yet, this year, their total vote share is back up to 31.9%-- a significant rise. This suggests that we collectively as an academy proclaimed the death of Islamic Parties too early.

Two specific parties suprised me (and others) among these five. First, PKS, which has had a horrible, ugly year of scandals, slid only slightly, from just under 8% in 2009 to around 7% this year. That is much less than I personally expected-- I had been predicting to friends that they might not even get over the minimum threshold of 3.5% for seats in parliament. This means that PKS support runs deep, and that all the hullabaloo from five years ago about them being the most cadre-ized party was accurate.

The second surprise, and the one that everyone is talking about, is the marked rise in PKB votes, from 4.94% in 2009 to about 9.2-9.3% today. After NasDem (National Democratic Party), which was created since the last national election, and the Gerindra (Greater Indonesia Movement Party), which will be covered in my next post, this is the largest percentage increase in the field this year. (Granted, it still leaves PKB with a lower percentage of the vote than they grabbed in 2004 [10.57%] or 1999 [12.61%].)

What accounts for this bounce back? One thing I will mention, that I don't think other people are talking about yet, is that this is the first moment that PKB as a party can move beyond the figure of its founder: Abdurrahman Wahid (lovingly called Gus Dur). He was a major opposition leader in civil society in the 1990s, then becoming president in 1999, and his inability to manage Indonesia well absolutely cost the party some votes. By 2009, I think the party was probably running on fumes from their leader's heyday, but without significant roll-over in ideas or people. Gus Dur then passed away on New Year's Eve 2009, a few months after the last national elections, and the party has come back, certainly with new blood. I mentioned some of that in an earlier blog post here.

So how much has that new blood really contributed to PKB's new awakening? At the Association for Asian Studies ten days ago, I heard an astute but also hilarious paper from Andrew Weintraub of Pittsburgh, who talked about possible PKB presidential candidate Rhoma Irama. In that talk, we all but dismissed Irama as a joke (the man's own rhetoric about being "King of Dangdut" alongside Elvis [King of Rock and Roll] and Michael Jackson [King of Pop] didn't help). One wonders, though, whether popular-cum-populist campaigning like that done by the King helped PKB's resurgence.

Other folks are speculating about a combination of factors, including not just the candidacy of Rhoma Irama and the former Constitutional Court judge Mahfud MD (who was coy about his thinking on the matter earlier), but also the leadership of party head Muhaimin and the elimination of the PKNU party that had previously split their voting bloc.

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.