Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 31 2017 11:00AM

Over the last week, I and so many others have been riven by policies of the new United States putting Muslims and minorities in jeopardy and, in the words of one federal judge, potentially causing “irreparable harm” to them. More concern arose when it became clear that a mosque in Quebec was the victim of an anti-Islamic terrorist attack.

In this same time span, though, there have been some concerning developments from Myanmar that should not fall off the radar screen, impacting religious minorities. Of course, the most beleaguered religious minority in the country is the Muslims, both Rohingya and otherwise. The Rohingya continue to be subject to ongoing oppression inside Burma’s borders. Now a large block of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh are facing a blow to their safety and security as the government there has announced they will be moved to basically a sand bank in the ocean that is not yet big or permanent enough to appear on Google Earth. It is already hard for Rohingya to get out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh, but this news makes the recognized refugee populations who have crossed the border much more vulnerable as they continue to await international action.

Perhaps the loudest news from Myanmar over the weekend was the assassination of one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers, a leader who happened to have been Muslim, U Ko Ni. (U is his honorific; some news reports give his name without this title.) U Ko Ni was a well-known activist dating back to the 1988 Student Movement, a prominent advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and a loud voice for equal protection under the law. He was shot in broad daylight, in cold blood, at the arrivals terminal of Yangon airport-- incidentally just having returned from a visit to Indonesia on official business-- while holding a toddler (his grandson) in his arms. Taxi drivers at the airport heroically chased down the assassin, but one among them was shot dead, leaving behind a wife and three children, including an infant only 45 days old. This attack appears to have been planned and coordinated; the attacker knew when the U Ko Ni was due back in the country, and traveled far from his reported home in Mandalay to commit this violence. Although the assassination severely heightens tensions, it has also brought some shows of solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, as the funeral was attended by a broad cross-section of society, including Buddhist monks.

Finally, although not so eye-catching, last week brought a development for two Kachin Baptist pastors in the north of the country, who will go on trial for their involvement in documenting and passing on to reporters information of a November attack on a Catholic church. The pastors have been missing and unreachable for over a month, but now the government has (under pressure) announced it was holding them and will be charging them with unlawful association with an armed ethnic insurgency. The bombing of the Catholic church building was originally claimed by the Burmese military-- with an accusation that the building had been storing munitions for ethnic fighters-- before they later denied any involvement and blamed the insurgents for the attack. Christians from across the spectrum have rejected the army’s new story, but the whole case is definitely putting a dark cloud over Christian activities.

I think it is useful to put the fates of Muslim and Christian minorities in Myanmar side-by-side, because they face similar challenges being simultaneously ethnic and religious minorities and very often opposing the still-powerful Burmese military. The only silver lining here might be that the discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional new policy in the US does give priority to refugees who are persecuted in their home countries for following a minority religion, so maybe Trump’s administration will allow in more Muslims and Christians from Burma?

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, Dec 16 2015 09:12AM

On Monday and Tuesday, 14-15 December 2015, I participated in a great workshop at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, on the topic of "Regulating Religion: Normativity and Change at the Intersection of Law and Religion." I felt a bit strange to be in a room full of legal scholars from around the world, because I am not only not a law expert but I am not even a legal historian. All the same, the engagement with legal scholars certainly helped to sharpen my thinking on the idea of regulation and how the state can approach religion.

I think there were two basic questions going on at the conference, although I did not hear anyone classifying the papers in this way. The first question was about how states have approached the idea of religion (protections for religious freedom, Islamic law as a source of positive law, religion as an underlying authority-maker for the state). The second question was about how states have approached religious communities (navigating new faith communities, mediating between religious groups when they disagree, facilitating believers’ use of their own religious beliefs [e.g., personal law]). Unsurprisingly, most papers pulled some from each of these questions.

The paper I presented was on how the Indonesian Ministry of Religion came to understand and engage with religions in the early independence period. I got a fair amount of pushback in informal conversations during these two days about the overall optimistic, even positive, picture of the Ministry’s work that I put forward, but I really believe that in this period the Ministry officials were open to different ideas of what religion could be and how the government might engage with them (supporting various religious communities, and not just trying to funnel everyone into the most orthodox forms of recognized world religions). I believe this because I built up the argument from archival documents about the actions of low- and middle-ranking bureaucrats: lists of belief communities that they found when surveying the archipelago, correspondence between Ministry officials and faith leaders, complaints to local offices, even announcements of how one group truly believed that President Soekarno was the prophet of their new religion. [If you’re interested in these kind of archival documents and some of the zany beliefs that the Ministry encountered in the 1950s, you can see many of the original documents scanned and uploaded on my page.] Thus, I think my paper was more answering the second question, but they idea of categorizing what did and did not count as a religion at the time also plays to the first question.

Some other favorite papers of mine also leaned heavily towards the second question. Clark Lombardi of U Washington thought through how framers of Islamic constitutions actually rig the game as to which interpretations of Islamic law will flourish under those constitutions, thus empowering certain communities/ideas. (Upon deeper reflection, I've been wondering whether my paper is a kind of push-back against Prof Lombardi's ideas-- I show how it actually took upside of a decade for the Indonesian state to decide how it dealt with religion; none of this was rigged by the constitution.) Ben Schonthal of Otago gave a fascinating overview about the relationships of the Sri Lankan versus Thai states to their sangha (Buddhist monastic communities), although he framed this more as a question of constitutionalism. Jaclyn L. Neo (one of our rockstar conference organizers from NUS) explained the way that the Singaporean state much prefers informal mechanisms instead of formal legal methods to deal with its religious communities. Yuksel Sezgin of Syracuse gave a great paper that kind of turned the lens in the opposite direction, showing that religious courts in Greece and Israel were reforming interpretations of Islamic law due to pressure from both other state institutions (other courts) and from society (especially in Israel, where activist NGOs play a key role). Daniel Goh (another rockstar conference organizer) looked at how the Singaporean state has dealt with—or tried desperately to avoid dealing with—the evangelical megachurches that have arisen in the last few decades.

Plenty of other papers were great, but more focused on my first question above (so a bit out of my wheelhouse). The one that I was able to translate most directly into my work was the paper by Arif Jamal (rockstar conference organizer #3) on “What Are We Regulating When We Regulate Religion?” The typology of European secularisms by Silvio Ferrari (from Milan) also stands out for its clarity, although I’m still chewing through how I would react to the British “ideal-type” he put forward. Admittedly, several of the papers on the more theoretical or abstract end of this spectrum went right past me, either because they were over my head or because they were issues that I could pass on. [I wish I could recap all the contributions of the conference, but I’ve got to hop onto a plane for Jakarta in a few minutes.]

I was really impressed, though, that despite landing only very late the night before the conference, I was engaged and learning in every single paper of every single session. The whole enterprise was good to engage with, and especially welcome as a break from the very intense but not academically-edifying exercise of Oxford undergraduate admissions. Many thanks to the organizers and their excellent support staff for bringing me to Singapore and stretching my mind.

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, Jul 24 2015 06:33PM

Sorry that I have been a very absentee blogger, but issues have arisen this week that I could not pass up. Very occasionally, the events of my home country (USA) and of my research-focus country (Indonesia) line up in surprising, enlightening, or appalling ways. Sadly, last week we saw an alignment of tragic dynamics in each place.

In the US, the last six months and more have been marked by harrowing news story after harrowing news story of the persecution faced by African-Americans. The worst moment (for me, and I think for most Americans) was when a white, teenaged gunman entered an African American church and gunned down pastors and parishioners in cold blood, but the response to African-American protestors in Baltimore, the inability to indict the killers of Tamir Rice, and the recent suspicious death of Sandra Bland are also devastating statements about America today. Questions of police immunity, racial injustice, historical grievances (and historical ignorance), cultural symbols like flags and places of worship, overuse of firearms and more all loom large.

In Indonesia last week, similar issues came to the fore in an ugly confrontation on the island of Papua. The details have been much disputed between different parties, but the basic outline seems to be as follows:

Coinciding with the national holidays for Eid al-Fitr (called ‘Lebaran’ in Indonesia—the celebration of the end of the fasting month of Ramadan), the Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI) was hosting a major seminar with hundreds of participants (maybe more) coming in from across the country to Tolikara, a rural district in Papua. The leaders of GIDI coordinated with local police and security forces about their seminar, and asked the local Muslims to please not blast their mosque speakers too loud with calls and prayers, remembering that the majority of the locals are Christians and the church seminar was happening nearby. On the day of Eid al-Fitr, seminar participants were upset that strong amplification of voices was continuing anyway, so a group of them marched towards the Muslim festivities. According to the head of GIDI, they marched to ask the assembly to turn down the volume, but according to later police pronouncements that were widely circulated they marched in a threatening way, throwing rocks and aiming primarily to break up the prayer and prohibit Muslim religious ceremonies altogether. The police and security forces present certainly felt threatened, and shot at the marching Christians. Eleven were injured, and one fifteen-year-old named Endi Wanimbo was shot dead. Now enraged at the death and injuries, the Christians started rampaging, lighting fire to the local market; the Muslim worshippers were already scattered or scattering fast. The fire spread and engulfed the local prayer hall, burning it down.

In the immediate aftermath of this event, the news that was released was entirely about the burning of a mosque, leading to all kinds of allegations about Islam under threat. Many of my contacts on Facebook have been livid about the burning of a prayer hall, posting articles like this one, saying that if it were a church instead of a mosque that burned down, the national political leaders would be paying more attention to it. (This is entirely unbelievable, considering the national political leaders have still refused to open a church that has a Supreme Court orders saying it must be allowed to open—a case lingering for the better part of a decade.) The police have now arrested two Christian, Papuan suspects for instigation, and for much of this week there have been allegations of foreign meddling to cause this incident (including accusations aimed at Israel).

What astounds me, though, is how little concern there has been for the life of the murdered Papuan, and for the ten others wounded (most of them still in the hospital). The national police chief has refused to say whether police did the shooting (although he has oddly said they will be responsible for victims). Most of the fundraising efforts, including some 1.3 billion rupiah (roughly $10,000 USD) from an Islamic political party, have been for the Muslim-owned shop stalls and the prayer hall that burned down, not for the dead or wounded. If previous patterns continue to hold, police who have abused their authority will not be held accountable for their actions in this incident, and there will not be a transparent investigation.

Although the actors and the incidents are very different, I think there is some eerie overlap between the systematic racism seen in the US today and the systematic racism on display in the Tolikara incident. Much like the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, national media is aghast that the community of victims would be angry and express their anger in rioting after being attacked and killed by local police. Much like we saw in Cleveland and then recently in Texas, Papuans are routinely suspected for being dangerous and violent, leading to police overreaction—in Tolikara this then led to dangerous and violent Papuan responses. Papuans feel that they have been limited in their ability to express themselves and their complaints without being called traitors, indigents, and criminals; this is seen, for example, in the political prisoners held in jail for 15 years for the symbol of raising a flag. Places of worship are a central nexus of conflict in both countries, although I think this is much starker and more volatile in Indonesia were differences in skin colour map pretty closely to differences of religion in the country’s two easternmost provinces.

In light of the media coverage that values the wooden walls of a mosque more than the life of a 15-year-old, is it time to ask whether Indonesians sufficiently value Papuan lives? Is it time to speak about how Papuan Lives Matter? Can Indonesia have that conversation yet?

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.