Indonesian Muslims in the Islamic World

Martin van Bruinessen, Utrecht University
(October 12th, 2011)

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The idea of Indonesia leading the third world was not only thinkable half a century ago, it even appeared as reality — briefly.

Since that time there has been some attempt at raising Indonesia’s international profile as a leading Muslim nation, and its visibility and global import have increased. But it is not yet a country that other Muslims look to for leadership. Even in its heyday, there was a direct relationship between the respect accorded to Indonesian Muslims by fellow believers of other nationalities and Indonesia’s political significance on the global stage. Interest in, and appreciation of, Indonesian Muslim culture hardly seemed to follow as a result.

Indonesia’s apparent lack of impact on Muslim thought and action is remarkable, as it is the world’s largest Muslim nation, currently numbering 211 million devotees — more than there are Muslim Arabs. South Asian Muslims jointly number 480 million, twice the number of those in South East Asia, and they have had a much more salient impact beyond their own region. Indonesian Muslims, on the other hand, have always appeared eager to borrow from other Muslim cultures — and many Indonesians consider ‘Arab’ Islam as more authoritative than local versions.

But Indonesian Islam boasts a number of unique features which draw the admiration of foreign Muslim observers. The pattern of associational life is one of these. Both Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have been around for so long they appear to be part of the societal landscape; but nowhere else in the Muslim world do we find anything quite like them. These two associations enjoy strong legitimacy as representatives of broad segments of the Indonesian ummah (Muslim community). In particular, they prevailed as strong embodiments of civil society throughout the 20th century, and have arguably served as a stabilising force in the democratic transformation of the country. Leaders of the organisations have been invited to various international conferences, but, until recently, neither NU nor Muhammadiyah had played a leading role on the world stage. During the past decade, these associations have shown increasing confidence and taken some initiatives to make their mark internationally through initiatives like the International Islamic Scholars Conference, which was first convened in Jakarta in 2004.

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Indonesia has also produced some remarkable Muslim thinker-activists: men as diverse as Tan Malaka, Haji Misbach, Agus Salim, Mohammad Natsir, Kartosuwiryo, Nurcholish Madjid, Dawam Rahardjo, Kuntowijoyo and Abdurrahman Wahid. With very few exceptions, none of their writings have been translated into Arabic or English, and so their work has never made the impact in other parts of the world that many would judge it deserves.

There are a number of possible explanations for the lack of interest in Indonesian Muslim thought, none of which is satisfactory. First, Muslim activists in the Middle East are more interested in the demographic and political weight of the Indonesianummah than its possible contribution to Islamic thought, because of the perception that Indonesian Islam tends to be syncretistic and less than rigorous. Second, it is believed that much Indonesian Muslim writing specifically concerns the Indonesian context, and is not relevant to other nations. This may be true of the earlier writers, but the work of the Muslim intellectuals who flourished under the New Order, and after, would be relevant to many other Muslim societies.

The reluctance of Indonesian Muslims to search the international limelight is remarkable considering their achievements. For example, in the Muslim feminist movement, there is a broad awareness of the special significance and achievements of the Indonesian experience, but like other thinkers, activists and organisers, its leaders never sought international attention, nor thought of spreading their ideas beyond the confines ofIndonesia. It was thinkers and activists elsewhere who ‘discovered’ them, found their work valuable, and made them into role models and major participants in the international networks.

Indonesia has not regained the position of political leadership it held briefly among Muslim nations, but its visibility has significantly increased since the fall of the Suharto regime, and there is a new confidence among Indonesian leaders urging them to take initiatives in the international arena. Equally, indonesia’s impact on contemporary Muslim thought still remains minimal, especially when compared to other large cultural regions such as Turkey and South Asia. But perhaps this is inherent to much of what is original in Indonesian Muslim discourse — the defence of pluralism, and variety and local colour in the cultural expressions of Islam — as opposed to the homogenising transnational tendencies seen elsewhere.

Martin van Bruinessen is Chair for the Comparative Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies at Utrecht University.
This is an abridged version of a paper presented at the 2011 Indonesia Update, the Australian National University.
http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2011/10/12/indonesian-muslims-in-the-islamic-world/

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