Tracing the Roots of Pluralism in Indonesia: An Interview with Professor Anthony Reid


Does Indonesia have a strong basis for religious pluralism that is deeply rooted in its history? This question can help shape the way Indonesian people today imagine their national identity when dealing with religious diversity. To get a historian’s perspective, CRCS student Azis Anwar Fachrudin interviewed Professor Anthony Reid, distinguished historian of Southeast Asia and Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University, when he visited CRCS on February 24, 2016, and spoke at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum.  Following his doctoral work at Cambridge University on the contest for power in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, in the late 19th century, he has written many books on the political and cultural history of the region, including The Contest for North Sumatra: Aceh, the Netherlands and Britain, 1858-98 (1969); The Indonesian National Revolution (1974);  The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Northern Sumatra (1979); An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and other histories of Sumatra (2004); Imperial Alchemy: Nationalism and political identity in Southeast Asia (2010); and To Nation by Revolution: Indonesia in the 20th Century (2011); as well as works of historical synthesis, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, c.1450-1680  (2 vols. 1988-93) and A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads (2015). He was the founding director of the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).  .


In some of your papers you argue that religious pluralism has long been rooted in Asian tradition or, more precisely, South, East, and Southeast Asian traditions. Does that mean that religious intolerance is a modern development? In other words, is it quite recent?

That is what I was attempting to say, to help in a sense legitimize diversity as an Asian tradition. There were examples of intolerance in Asia, in earlier times, but they were very minor in comparison with what happened in Europe and probably what happened in the Middle East.

If you can point out something essential to Asian tradition that has made it more tolerant toward religious diversity than Western tradition was, what would that be?

Perhaps, two things. One is a simple necessity that the Indian ocean was a place of great interactions between many kinds of people. Many of the traders were Muslims; most of the other people were not. Of course they interacted all the time. Nobody could imagine a homogenous situation. The trade was made to bring people together with different religions. This is just a basic fact of geographical condition. The other point is that Indic religion in general was very different from the Abrahamic in that it did not create boundaries around the faith and it did not generate a creed.

No concept of heresy?

Yes, no concept of heresy, because there was no concept of a single revelation that has to be defined and defended by the faithful. Indian religion was more about sacred places, different kinds of deities and forms of worship. It is inherently a more diverse system. In many of the Indic mystic traditions, including one that was very strongly practiced in Java, there was the idea that there is diversity but essentially truth must be one. This diversity that is obvious, as apparent in different practices, must fundamentaly be one. We don’t have to force the appearance or the lahir to conform to the batin. We must realize the oneness in some deeper level.

So, you agree with the thesis that Islam came to Nusantara in a more peaceful way than how it came to, for example, Africa or Europe?

Yes. I mean, there were religious warfares, but it came [to Nusantara] initially by trade, which must accomodate diversity.

The way Islam and Christianity formed an orthodoxy is different. The schism in Christianity happened mostly after the Council of Nicaea. In Islam it happened not long after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Does this have an impact in the way Muslims and Christians reconcile their respective religion with modern values?

There were many schisms in Christianity. And like the Islamic schism, they all have something to do with political power. In Christianity it certainly was the Roman Empire that, when once it embraced Christianity, was calling Christian theologians to come up with some consensus and those who did not accept it would be considered heretical. Most of the people who did not accept were outside or removed from the Roman Empire. So, the empire enforced orthodoxy. Of course this idea of enforcing orthodoxy is not something inherent in the religion, but it definitily happened in both Christianity and Islam as they became the ally of the state.

But if we look at the last century there have been more movements within Islam that strive to establish an Islamic state or a caliphate than that in Christianity. Is there something in Islam distinct from Christianity with regard to this issue?

Well, the issue of religious tolerance and the separation of church and state was settled some time ago. At least since the French revolution, it became established that there has to be a difference between the state and religion. Religion could not be forced by the state. Of course there were still few states that try to enforce things like this. But basically, that was by then pretty settled. And that was much earlier established in America as a necessary way of dealing with diversity. But, while that was settled in Christianity, I think that has not been settled in the same way in Islam; I mean, the debate on how the relationship between religion and the state should work. And I suppose that the absence of any religious authority in Islam makes the relation with the state more salient. I mean, this issue of what state should do or whether the state is supposed to impose a single power of religious authority is still there.

Or, it has to do with some sort of doctrine in Christianity that says “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, render to God the things that are God’s”?

I’m not theologically sure enough that that is the case. I know that there are words of Jesus that say don’t draw swords, don’t fight, don’t do violence—these sorts of things help modern people resolve the issue. But I don’t know for sure if Muslims were really anxious to settle the issue to the extent that they couldn’t find something like that in Christianity. This is not my job to decide.

Your dissertation was about the history of Sumatra, particularly Aceh. There was Sultan Iskandar Thani, backed by Sheikh Nuruddin ar-Raniri, imposing its state-sanctioned doctrine on people. Was it an exception in the general picture of religious pluralism or common to other places in Nusantara?

That’s one of my favorite stories, but the case was not that simple. There were reactions against Iskandar Thani and ar-Raniri. And I think it’s not unique; it was quite common to that period. I mean, the similar thing happened in Aceh, Banten, and Makassar. The Sultanate states were actually relatively new, and became suddenly rather powerful, while there was nothing like that before. They rose very quickly on the strength of trades; guns were then introduced; and new religion Islam gave them sort of legitimation to make war against their neighbours. These three things combined made them aggressive. This in part shows that this kind of fundamentalism is not new. It was tried before though it then failed; it was tried again and failed again, because it found a backlash. Earlier I talked to a Batak student about Batak history. They were stateless, highland people; I mean, Batak, Toraja, and perhaps Sundanese to some extent. They were forced into the highlands at the time of these expansionary aggressive Muslim Sultanates. There were Batak people on the coasts before Islamic aggression came from Aceh. After the aggression, they were given a choice to accept Aceh rule, accept Islam, etc., or move to the higlands. They said no; they wanted to be free, and they moved to the hills. I think that is a turning point in their history. The same thing happened in Makassar. In Makassar, Sultan Hasanuddin was rather intolerant and made his enemies that way; I mean toward Bugis and others. It was Arung Palaka from Bone who was the one who defeated Hasanuddin. But Arung Palaka then tried to conquer the whole South Sulawesi and campaigned against Toraja. The Toraja people, however, then celebrated their mythology and rituals to resist Bone.

Is that a kind of battle between Islam and adat (customs) or indigenous cultures? Like the case of Imam Bonjol in West Sumatra, for example.

It is a battle between themselves; I mean, between Bugis, Bone, and Toraja. As for West Sumatra, I guess that’s true. But there was a sort of happy ending to that story. In his memoir, Imam Bonjol explains that there were some people who went to Mecca; they then came back, telling what the Wahhabis did; you know, conquering Mecca, destroying holy places and sacred tombs, causing havoc, and everything. Paderi then did the same things. But later other people went to Mecca, and found Turkey had fought back, and Wahhabis were out. And those people coming back said, “Oh, we made a mistake. We misunderstood the truth. We should give back some of the properties we took from these people.”

Still in Sumatra. Some say, the rising sectarianism is a modern phenomenon. They say in the past Sunnis and Shiites were tolerant to each other. There have been traditions like Tabot in Bengkulu and Tabuik in Pariaman. In Aceh there was Perlak, said to be a Shi’i Sultanate, though replaced then by a Sunni Sultanate Samudera Pasai.

I don’t know much about Perlak. What I know more is Haru, which was more clearly adopting a kind of Islam that was not acceptable to Pasai in Aceh. It seems probable that Haru then became Karo, when Aceh conquered and suppressed them. They retreated and Haru became Karo-Batak. On Sunni-Shia relationship, I think there was sort of self-conscious harmony between the two groups. In the earlier time people was not making that disctintion clear. It seems, it is after the Islamic revivalism around the last 19th century that people began drawing the lines. But my knowledge of this is limited.

Last question. The closing statement in your paper says, “In fact, pluralism in Indonesia rests upon a very secure base of history as well as ideology.” It was written in 2007. And now we have Shiites expelled from Sampang; Ahmadis persecuted; and, more recently, the Gafatar members whose homes and property were burned. Also, over the last decade the 1965 defamation law has been increasingly used by those who want to eliminate the ‘deviants’. How would you explain this?

Well, as you heard in the seminar just know, I backed off a bit from that confidence, knowing these recent disturbing events. I was interested in listening to what people said because you guys know more what is going on. But on the whole I was still reassured, seeing many people around the room were still optimitic. And that’s very encouraging. It’s easy to sit at a distance, and now you see how nasty all the news you hear; you need a reassurance of optimism. But I guess, those who are struggling for tolerant, inclusive Indonesia should feel confident that they have history on their side more on the other side, even though that doesn’t necessarily mean they can win easily. The challenge now is the globalizing trend that tends to decontextualize ideas. So, yes, I am not as confident as I was.




  1. Inthai

    10 March 2016

    There is the need for initiating critical study of Indonesian and Nusantara history by local scholar. They are largely absent in this area. Most of studies about Indonesia are done by outsiders.

  2. M. Faruq Ubaidillah

    19 June 2016

    We indeed have a rich historical landscape.

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