MC. Ricklefs: Polarization streams and Politicised Religion in Indonesian Society

“Professor Ricklefs is a historian who is expert in Indonesia; some of his texts have been read Indonesian and Indonesian scholars. Here is an interview between a CRCS student (Hatib Abdul Kadir) with Ricklefs about the polirazation of Javanese society, starting from the beginning of Islam in the 14th century in Indonesia, the emergence of the term abangan in the 19th century, until the political constellation of religious events ant the future of religious polarization of the Indonesian people. This interview would be enjoyed more for those who had read Polarizing Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions (C. 1830-1930) (2007), one of Prof. Ricklefs ambitious books. Here is the interview.”

CRCS: What news from the new forms of polarization of Islam in Indonesia?

Ricklefs: Very dynamic, it is usual where the persons who used to be a PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) member, converted to Christianity, and also a lot of them who have a kebatinan (inner faith) background, yes indeed some were also converted to Islam, others enter Christianity. I just got the new information from West Java, by my colleague, Mr. Ali, it is interesting because there is one group that has a distinctive religion called Agama Sunda Wiwitan, a sort of kebatinan. At the beginning of the New Order, they felt threatened, thus embraced Christianity, now they embraced Agama Sunda Wiwitan again.

CRCS: I am doing a research on gang in Islamic schools in Yogyakarta. They have a strong affiliation to Islamic kampong, such as Kauman, and Islamic political parties such as PPP (United Development Party). Along with it, they also have strong rivalry with other secular gangs, or may be called Abangan gangs, with Non-Muslim schools and Abangan village. There is an anthropological research explaining that there is a deep hostility between gangs in Islamic kampong, such as Kauman with the “Abangan” who live in Mergangsan. This gang is also affiliated to PDI P.

Ricklefs: Wawww ya, very interesting, I can feel that the political stream (politik aliran) is actually weakened, so that the interest and conflict between Islam and abangan is not very meaningful. Because now the abangan is no longer represented by one political party, although Golkar tries to approach these kinds of persons, but they would not represent one party only, and try to stand in the middle way. It seems that a lot of politicians are trying now to prevent the politics of stream (politik aliran) because this is dangerous. But in the case of your research, probably the political stream still exists; maybe political parties use those gangs only for their interest. Actually gangs do not have any awareness of the political streams, and any political party can be their affiliation.

CRCS: Yup, particularly during the 1999 and 2001 elections when political parties were still using political power and gangsters who were considered having loyal followings.

Ricklefs: Yes, Jogja is always very interesting, the role of the Sultan in the political stream is also important. A week before the election in Yogya, I participated in a sermon in a village where PPP is majority there. In that village, the distinction was based on people who are pro-democracy and who are anti-democracy. They who were anti-democracy made such “parliamentary of dakwah” and there were also people who were anti-parliament, for instance Abu Jibril. People from PKS are very interesting because they said that democracy is actually an opportunity that should be conducted to enforce final destination that is Khilafah. But they also argue that they defend democracy, even though one of its members said that Islam and democracy are not suitable at all, hehehe, he is a member of the PKS in the DPP Party of Sleman.

CRCS: So where is the entity of “abangan” now?

Ricklefs: Well, in the mid-nineteenth century, the new group of abangan appeared. In 1950, abangan group was represented by two strong parties at the time; PNI and PKI. If we examine the campaign in the 1950s, it was interesting; the group santri itself; indeed has quite sharp differences as well; such as between NU and Masyumi, they also have difference. At that time, the majority of Javanese, the same also with the majority of other Indonesians, was illiterate, they cannot read, so the important vehicle for campaign was slogans, symbols, song etc. It is was a political vehicle, for example, at that time PKI was capped as Party Criminal Indonesia, why PKI was considered as such, because, they would steal land. While NU was considered as Partainya wong Nunggu Udan (Waiting for Rain Party) because they were considered not moving to anywhere. In fact there was a movement of santri people who lived in abangan’s village who moved to santri’s village and vice versa. There was an interesting report from the research team of Geertz and Robert Jay. Jay was there with Geertz in 1953 if I’m not mistaken, but Jay came back in 1958, and there was a report that is interesting, he said that at the time he first he came, usually santri women do not always wear veil, and abangan women usually wear veil when they go out from their houses. Whereas, in 1958, women santri never go out from their houses without wearing veils and abangan women did not wear the same veil again. This is a sign that the difference is underlined. And the peak of this polarization was in mid-year of the 1960s which ended with mass murder. But the fusion of political parties in the 1970’s, abangan was not represented by any political party anymore; even abangan culture is actually quite anti-institutional. All institutions that had no strong representation of its religion, for instance abangan, were eliminated.

But on the santri, although political party cannot represent them, there are still many representation of Islamic expression, such as Islamic teaching school, hospitals, and charities business, there are Islamic boarding schools or pesantren. So many institutions are still defending and representing the santri. Now, the wave of Islamization can run without any hindrance at all, there is no institution that inhibits Islam at all, on the other hand, it is actually quite difficult to calculate how many people of abangan, how many people of Islam; all the surveys are rather difficult. According to my calculations, in the 1950s, santri was ¼ of the entire Java, it is based on how many people who paid zakat, did fasting and pilgrimage. Actually, abangan people also vote for political party, NU, because they recognize the leadership of Kyai, although they do not pray, do not fast and so forth, but abangan people recognize Kyai as community leaders. But now, people who claim themselves as abangan are probably not more than ¼ of Javanese population. But I doubt that survey too.

Nevertheless santri people are still considered the majority. There is a social change that is fundamental, my hypothesis is based on a world process, since the 1960s, almost all religions in the world were getting stronger. The first Protestant movement in the United States was in the 1960s, and after that Islamic revivalism was in the 1970s, and in 1980s was Hinduism. And Indonesia was part of the phenomenon. Awareness of religions was getting stronger in almost all religious traditions around the world, except Europe; it was an interesting one, why it did not happen in Europe? This is a big question.

CRCS: So, people who belonged to PDI were not considered abangan in the 1970s?

Ricklefs: People who are still regarded abangan still exist; they are affiliated with Golkar, and PDI P. On the other way around, from our information, there is one interesting case in Kediri. Since the decision of MK (Constitutional Court) is set on the winner of legislative candidates based on votes, it has important impact. In general, political parties in Indonesia are weak, now, more vulnerable. It is because the citizens choose based on the people, not the party. For example, a cadre of PPP, in a village, who considers himself abangan, never pray, never go to the mosque, and so forth, but he became a cadre candidate that supports PPP, not because of the party, but because of the village where he lives.

CRCS: If the relation between santri-abangan, santri-priyayi, priyayi-colonial government since post Java War (1825-1830), movement mesianistik-colonial government, SI-Muhammadiyah, Boedi Oetomo-Taman Siswa and the relation of movement tarekat naqsabandiyyah and Satariyyah was mapped well, both relations and their polarizations, what do you think about the abangan relation with the colonial government?  

Ricklefs: Well, the Dutch colonial government always encouraged cooperation with the elite. Dutch colonial government strengthened the society only on the political level. Therefore, they chose priyayi who had high loyalty on them. Dutch colonial government also often suspected missionaries, because they assumed that those missionaries would cause trouble in the society. So in fact, Christians got no support from them. Nevertheless, most of the Moslems were priyayi. And most abangan people who lived in the village had far relationship with the colonial government. During the Japanese government, the Japanese mobilized those abangan communities; it was different with the Dutch, their goal was to control the society, not to mobilize as what the Japanese government did.

CRCS: So how about the fragmentation of messianic motion and also kebathinan movement that appeared in 1850 and flared in 1870 to 1880?

Ricklefs: Most of those movements came from the abangan, because their spirituality was very strong, full of spirit, and supernatural strength. But as we usually see, the kebathinan movement like that, almost always depends on the leaders, if the leaders die, the movement dies as well. If we see now, for example, a year ago in Surabaya, I met a prominent figure of kebathinan and that there was a kebathinan meeting in East Java, I forgot where exactly the place is, according to him there are 4000 people who attend the meeting, and he was very proud of that. If we go back in the early 1970s, a census in Solo, at that time they do not have categories of official religions, there are still record of kebathinan and the number of adherents around 40 thousand people. If each city in Central Java has more or less 40 thousand kebathinan adherents, then the number has the big difference compare to now.

CRCS: In an illustration made by a well-known historian, Sartono Kartodirdjo, throughout the years from 1860 to 1890, a lot of movements of Islamic mechanistic appeared sporadically, why did it happen?

Ricklefs: One of the reasons is the changing centuries, at the same time the changing of Javanese almanac, and those millenarian movements believe that the new century will bring a new saviour who will save them from bad situation. These phenomena also occurred in Europe, during the transition between 19th and 20th century. But the most important is those Javanese messianic are more emphasized on the Javanese almanac.

CRCS: Ok, let’s go back to the present, do you think that the emergence of Islamic movements such as HTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia) and MM (Majelis Mujahidin), those who do not willingly acknowledge the system of democracy in Indonesia, is a reflection of those polarizations that happened in the mid-19th century?

Ricklefs: Generally, anywhere, in any religion, in any society, if there is a new movement coming and when they come to purify, certainly there will be reaction and opposition. And many always opposed to these radicalism movements. Apparently, HTI is a Wahabism movement that generally sees people as rudimentary who they have to purify. Have you already seen a new book issued by the Wahid Institute, “The Illusion Islamic State,” that’s one example of opposition.

CRCS: But what about the fate of radical movement for the future?

Ricklefs: Radical movement always splits.

CRCS: Oh yes, such as the FPI in Bantul, there are fractions in FPI, the FJI (Front Islamic Jihad) that has a membership of 135 persons who do not agree with the action of Habib Rizieq.

Ricklefs: Yes, there is also a new group that Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Majelis Mujahidin has broken, but it is perhaps still small in number. On the other hand, this phenomenon is also interesting, after the regional autonomy, all the districts tried to look for something that’s unique to their regions, like local mascot and so forth. They often see from the Pre-Islamic era, such as local dance, local kingdom. Moreover, it was a process that strengthened heterogeneity among regions. But Islam would homogenize those cultures. So, indeed there were two waves of civilizations, and each of them opposed. For example in Kediri again, from the local government, they wanted to revive tayub dance as a mascot, and all of the Kyai opposed to that notion, it was considered too sensual. Now jaranan was also very strong, exactly as when Soeharto stepped down. Local revival awareness should not only be considered as identity but also should be seen to have supernatural strength. I have four partners who are from Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya and Kediri, they enrich my data. It’s very interesting in Kediri, during the recently concluded local election (pilkada), there were some candidates who were supported by Kyai, including son of Kyai Imam, Gus Riza, in fact there were several candidates from Kyai family who were supported by Kyai, but aaaaaaaalllll of them lost, from the eight candidates, no one won. Moreover, a year ago, there was a local election, there were about five pairs of candidates, four of the candidates were promoted by the Kyai, and the winner was a man from Muhammadiyah, the vice was of Arabic descent. So, clearly the influence of political leadership of kyai has started to decline and people seem to want to find something new.

CRCS: Well, yesterday, Jusuf Kalla and Wiranto still went to Kyai to collect votes and find support.

Ricklefs: Yes, but there is always a way to find support, even though it does not mean that they will win. Previously, people argued that the influence of prominent figures is important, but it is now declining, including the political influence of Sultan in Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta never supports Golkar officially, even though the Sultan himself is a prominent cadre of Golkar. It seems that the life of the Indonesian political elite is very individual, for instance in 2004, there were many political activists who supported one party then moved to another party when the Presidential election was held. So, indeed there is no loyalty when it comes to what political party to support. Now they are loyalists of PDI P, then a couple months later, they switch to another party.

CRCS: What caused the emergence of radical movements in Indonesia? They developed rapidly after the New Order regime; even HTI members have already claimed more than 1 million, although the movement is prohibited not only in Germany, but also in the countries of the Middle East.

Ricklefs: First, because the army does not consider HTI as a threat to state security. Although abroad they are considered as an extreme movement, HTI has never been involved with terrorism activities. And my impression is that extreme group already acknowledged that terrorism will only decline the support from many people, especially the support of middle-class; because middle class always determines the political fate of a country. HTI conducts discussion and debate. Therefore, they move peacefully in order to be not eliminated by the state and the military. Also, especially from the military, if the civilian politics fails to rule the state, the military would take the advantage and it’s an opportunity to seize power again.

CRCS: So how about PKS, an Islamic parties which is considered the “rising star” during the election?

Ricklefs: Yes, this party was outside estimation, they want to achieve 20 percent vote, in fact only 7 percent during the general election this year. PKS is more professional and disciplined. But the method of PKS movement has many similarities with PKI, both are active in the grassroots level; they are much disciplined and professional and much more suspected by the other parties, suspected to have hidden agenda. The thesis of Masdar Hilmi was very good one. He distinguished two sorts of member in PKS; the utopian who believes that the caliph will be established, and the millenaries who gets inspiration from Christians. They regard that the world as this world is not perfect, so they are looking for improvement. This is not utopian because they are only looking for something better. My impression is that all political movement of PKS can work together as long as the directions are same, although the method is different.

If you look at the election in 1999, PKS only reached less than 6%, and now they reached 7%. It is evident that the strategy they employed is successful to achieve success. PKS always looks for support from the middle of the political field, clean and careful, and does not emphasize the support for Shariah, because it threatens their future existence.

CRCS: Respond to the latest book from Wahid Institute, “The Illusion Islamic State,” it was gazed at and protested by HTI, what kind of polarization will happen 10 to 20 years from now, will history that moved in rhythmic way happen again, or just polarization between faith and religion like in the year 1830 to 1950?

Ricklefs: The most impressive is that, all political party now seem to attempt to bridge the gap among streams to prevent the flow of the polarization. First, Democrat Party is seen as secular, but now they are looking for support from PKS, PBB, PPP and so forth, although there are always a lot of slogans, that non-religious parties are secular. This condition is also based on the education of various Islamist movements. Does it lead to new forms of polarization? The possibility that a political stream will appear again, I think it will not happen, because the political of stream (politik aliran) will be very-very dangerous. But there is polarization between movements in Islam itself, not polarization between Islam and abangan, polarization between the NU-Muhammadiyah, PKS-MMI. Once, Kyai Idrus Marzuki said that your country will be destroyed by the HTI, MMI, and I asked, if so, what will the NU do? He said that they still have supernatural strength to prevent it.

CRCS: Yes, first Farish Noor had an interview with Ustadz Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Ba’asyir said that all bid’ah and syirik must be removed from the face of Indonesia, when he asked about the existence of the Prambanan and Borobudur Temples, whether it needs to be destroyed or not? Ba’asyir answered, “Oh no, don’t, because it is a part of the cultural heritage.”

Ricklefs: I also asked Abu Bakar Ba’asyir something like that. He said that anythong that does not contain syirik and maksiat, may be accepted in the Islamic tenets. Then I asked, how about the leather puppet? “Oh, that is Syirik,” he answered. Then, how about the dance of Bedhaya, he answered, “Oh, that is syirik.” I asked him how about keris, he answered, “Oh, that is syirik.” So, in principle, all Javanese culture was received by Abu Bakr, but in practice, not all are received. So, when I asked him about the Javanese language, he answered, “It will be gone naturally.” Baasyir said that in his region, near Ngruki, almost no people speak Javanese, all used Indonesian language. Actually Baasyir is an interesting person, very good and nice, but he is narrow-minded. Indeed, very difficult to meet with him, because people surround him suspect outsiders. I can be there with my colleague, a historian at UNS, Pak Soedarmono. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir clearly sees that Pak Darmono is a kejawen. He explains something about Syariat Islam. Then I asked, how can it be known since 1400 years ago, it has been an on-going debate about Islam Syariat, and how about the existence of other religions, like Christianity and Judaism. Then I asked, if he definitely has been directed or inspired? Because the allegations of other people suspect that Baasyir is a Syiah. Then, he said that God was directing him directly, oh that was very interesting, because it sounded very arrogant. We also interviewed a member of HTI in Surabaya, he said that the system khilafah is a perfect political system. Then I asked, why was it that three caliphs before had difficulty in ruling and there were a large amount of corruption, even khilafah Turkey utsmani did a terrible corruption, and he said that the system is not wrong, but the person. Haidir, my colleague asked, if so, how to run the system without the people? This defence is the same with the alibi of communism, many people who criticize the communist system. Because they see the poor condition of countries in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and so forth, and they defended that the system is not wrong, but people who run it. Actually, a system without a person running it is weird.

CRCS: Well Pak Ricklefs, thanks for your time chatting with me.

After my interesting interview with Professor Ricklefs, he took me to the door and we bade each other goodbye, hoping to meet each other again.(hatib)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


Leave a Reply