Your first book is Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia (2003). How did you become interested in Indonesian nationalism?
I grew up in Australia, where Indonesian language is taught in quite a few secondary schools, so I encountered the subject of Indonesia naturally. As an undergraduate--after a false start as an aspirant aeronautical engineer--I studied Asian history, Indonesian, and Arabic. I went to graduate school to study Indonesian history with an eye to combining my language interests, and so I became interested in the long history of interaction between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, in which the development of nationalism is a shared experience.
The book examines the influence of new ideas that were taking shape in the Middle East--in Mecca and Cairo in particular--on the nationalist movements that formed in Indonesia in the late 19th and early 20th century, a period which coincides with the final, and most intense, period of Dutch colonial rule over the archipelago. In part I was inspired by Benedict Anderson’s idea of the nation as an “imagined community”--how people who will never meet one another are nonetheless bound together by participating in common practices such as reading the same newspaper. How was the modern nation of Indonesia formed out of a diverse collection of populations spread across a vast archipelago? I came to realize that you cannot answer that question adequately for the Indonesian case without talking about Islam. In terms of population Indonesia is today the largest Muslim nation on earth--a lot of people don’t realize that.
An important piece of the story is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which all Muslims are obliged to undertake during their lifetime if they are able. At the end of the 19th century the number of Southeast Asian Muslims participating in the hajj increased dramatically thanks to the availability of steamship travel. I argue that some of the roots of Indonesian national consciousness can be traced to this experience of international pilgrimage. By traveling to Mecca, Muslims from Southeast Asia achieved a new sense of commonality, both as members of a universal religion and simultaneously as distinct peoples from the Malayo-Indonesian world. And upon returning home they were confronted with the increasingly visible Dutch colonial state, which further heightened national feeling.
When did Islam come to the Indonesian archipelago?
It’s a difficult question. Scholars tend to assume that Muslims have been present in the region for almost as long as Islam has existed because there were trade networks linking the Middle East to China and India as early as the 2nd century, although there is little direct evidence. Middle Eastern goods have been found in early shipwrecks, but these do not prove anything regarding the ethnicity or religion of the crews. Then again, Chinese sources consistently suggest that there were Muslims whose activities linked the peoples of Sumatra to those on the mainland in what today is central Vietnam, and then to the ports of Southern China proper. There are numerous Javanese sources indicating the emergence of Muslim coastal polities under local rulers who were of Chinese extraction. In any case, we have evidence of a local ruler converting to Islam in the late 13th century in what is now the Indonesian province of Aceh, in north Sumatra; this is the earliest known case of a shift at the level of the state. And when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, they reported that most of the coastal regions of the Straits of Malacca were Muslim, although it is debatable how deeply Islam had permeated the societies. At that time much of the north coast of Java was Muslim but the hinterlands were not. So it’s clear that the Islamization of the archipelago was a very slow process--a process that some argue is continuing to this day.
What is the standard story of Indonesian nationalism, and how does your work relate to it?
The standard narrative of Indonesian nationalism focuses on the Westernized elite: in particular it explains how a rising group of activists who had been educated in the colonial school system established by the Dutch across the archipelago came to conceive of the Netherlands Indies as their homeland, a place that they would prefer to call Indonesia. Such feelings were also felt keenly by the expanding communities of expatriate students living in the Netherlands, many of whom became particularly active in the nationalist movement that was then developing in Indonesia. I should emphasize that I’m not trying to erase that story; I’m adding another narrative alongside it to explain why so many who did not share this experience could nonetheless appreciate the message disseminated by the Western-educated nationalists. In particular, I focus on a different group of people who studied in places like Cairo and who were exposed there to a similar diet of modernity, but one mediated through Arabic and Islam.
Over the course of the 19th century an influential modernization and reform movement developed within Islam, particularly in India and Egypt; for Indonesians the element of this movement centered in Cairo was key. The local dynasty in Egypt, which was nominally under Ottoman rule but which enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, carried out a number of important modernization projects, including infrastructure development, modernization of urban spaces, and an attempted reform of the curriculum at the al-Azhar mosque, a famous college established in the 10th century and known throughout the Islamic world. In the 1890s, some Muslims in Southeast Asia became interested in al-Azhar and other, more avowedly modern schools as places to send their children to study. Cairo was seen by them as an alternative to the Netherlands as a center of learning and modernity; it was a place your son could get a modern university education that was also grounded in religion. So Muslim elites in Southeast Asia, some of them expatriate Arabs, sent their sons to Cairo to study, and these students came back to Indonesia with ideas borrowed from the Islamic reformist movement there (which also intersected with the Egyptian nationalist movement). In particular, they were interested in how reform of religion was tied to national independence.
How did the Dutch-educated nationalists get along with those influenced by the Cairo reformers?
The nationalists in Indonesia, whether Western-educated or associated with the Muslim reformers, agreed about many things, including the importance of education and modernity in the future of Indonesia. In short, I argue that quite a few of the key actors in the Indonesian nationalist movement came out of the reformist world, or had associations with those who had. Still, they often disagreed profoundly about what Islam was, the place of religion in the new state, and how the new state should be run. Another aspect of the story is Sufism. In many Indonesian societies the elites were linked to Sufi groups, that is, movements linked by a shared understanding of a mystical ‘inner’ form of Islam. However, the Cairo-oriented reformers generally viewed such understandings as backward and corrupt (some in fact argued that the practice of Sufism explained why Muslims in Southeast Asia had been vulnerable to colonization). So when these students returned to Indonesia with the view that Islam needed to be reformed and Sufism had to be done away with, they often came into conflict with local authorities, or at least with their own societies.
Ultimately the Muslim reformers were sidelined and the secularists prevailed as leaders of the national movement under Sukarno, the first president of the independent republic (proclaimed in 1945), who was trained as an engineer at the prestigious Bandung Technical College. Even so, members of the nationalist movement still had close connections to fellow Indonesians in the Middle East. Here we might think of the Dutch-educated Muhammad Hatta, who had ties to the students in Cairo, or Agoes Salim, a former translator at the Dutch consulate in Jeddah and the republic’s first foreign minister. In looking at the legacy of contact between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, we should not cast Islam, or at least Muslims with an experience of life in the Middle East, as the natural opponent of the national idea or the secular state. Many Indonesian thinkers who have studied the classic texts of Islam in the Middle East are also dipping into the widely read works of liberal thinkers. In particular I have in mind two Egyptians, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid and Hasan Hanafi, men who are committed both to their religion and to interfaith dialogue in a truly global perspective.