Indonesia: Finding Common Ground For Religion, Politics And Culture – OpEd


By Justin L. Wejak*

(UCA News) — I recently had the opportunity to join a virtual seminar where Professor R. Michael Feener of Kyoto University in Japan made an insightful and instructive presentation about the role of religion, politics and culture that binds societies in Southeast Asia.

The seminar with a thematic discussion on Islam and politics was organized by the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute where I teach.

Professor Feener’s insightful paper explains the trajectory of Islamic jurisprudence and adat (customary practices and traditions) in Southeast Asia, particularly highlighting the long history of dynamic interactions between Islam and culture.

“The history of Islam in Southeast Asia is in many ways a story of connections with and gradual integration in relation to a constellation of diverse Muslim societies that has been playing out for more than a thousand years,” the paper states.

The paper encouraged me to write a response, although my knowledge of Islam is relatively little. I grew up in a Catholic-majority community in Indonesia’s eastern province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. I studied Islamology for two semesters in 1987 at the Catholic Institute of Philosophy in Ledalero, Flores. I enjoyed the subject and I came to admire Islam as “a system of culture” as described by Clifford Geertz.

To me, Islam is like a religious cousin of Christianity and Judaism as the third Abrahamic religion. I continue to admire Islam thanks to my personal encounters with many Muslim friends, mainly in Indonesia, who share the same values of love, peace and justice — values that are fundamental to our universal humanity.

My academic field covers ethnography with a background in philosophy and theology. Due to my background, Professor Feener’s paper has raised in me a renewed interest in the discourse of Islamic jurisprudence and adat.

He referred mainly to Indonesia as a point of reference. The choice of Indonesia is understandable, partly because Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. About 87 percent of Indonesians or an estimated 239 million people adhere to the Islamic faith in a nation of about 275 million. By 2045, Indonesia’s population is projected to reach 320 million.

Despite that fact, it should be noted that in some parts of Indonesia, such as Bali, North Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara Timur and Papua, Islam is not a majority religion but a minority among other faiths. For example, Hinduism is dominant in Bali, while Christianity is dominant in Nusa Tenggara Timur, North Sulawesi and Papua.

It is essential to mention the concept of majority and minority in order to explore and understand whether this dimension may contribute to the willingness or unwillingness of people of certain faiths to embrace the force of adat as a way to strengthen their religious entity and identity. As is widely known, Protestantism in Indonesia has always been associated with ethnicity, so there are, for example, Gereja Batak (Batak Church), Gereja Masehi Ambon (Massiah Ambon Church) and Gereja Manado (Manado Church), among others.

In Catholicism, following the Second Vatican Council, in the spirit of aggiornamento (adaptation, inculturation, transformation), the Church became friendlier, more accepting and accommodating of adat, referring to the local beliefs, customs and practices. For example, local animism is no longer seen as a form of paganism or dualism to be condemned and abandoned. Animism is seen as a complementary force of Christianity.

The long-held Latin axiom that denied the value of other religions and belief systems within the Church pre-Vatican II — extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) — is then abandoned. The Church recognizes that salvation exists in any faith.

This new theology of salvation as a result of Vatican II is an important recognition of the continuing role of adat in the local Christian community. Sociologically, the revised theology makes the Church more favorable to the community, even though in other aspects the Catholic Church remains kolot (backward) and hasn’t caught up with the demands of the epoch, such as on questions of gender rights and marriage.

Professor Feener’s paper implies that there have been three forces or powers representing different times — namely, pre-Western colonialism, colonialism and post-colonialism, particularly highlighting their influences in the manifestation or authorization of Islamic jurisprudence and adat.

It seems, generally, there was unity between Islamic law and adat during pre-colonial times. This unity was deconstructed during the Western colonial era. There was even a suggestion of attempts to eliminate, or at least weaken, adat as a source of law governing communities in the West Sumatra Highlands.

In this regard, Professor Feener cites Jeffrey Hadler (2009), who wrote: “[the adat leaders] applied the law of adat basandi syarak … and if there was a problem with adat it would be brought to the adat leaders. And if there was a problem with Islamic law, it would be brought to the four Islamic authorities …” This implies a view at the time that religion and adat were two contrasting forces, that there was no need to be locally cultural to be Islamic.

In the post-colonial time, I am not completely sure if Indonesian Islam has come to feel more or less comfortable to mix religion and adat, like gado-gado (Indonesian mixed vegetables) or just like nasi campur (mixed rice).

This metaphor of gado-gado or nasi campur can be used to understand the notion of syncretism, as mentioned by Professor Feener in characterizing Islam in Java. He stated: “Over the centuries that followed, Javanese Islamic legal traditions developed in complex ways, displaying at different times both assertions of exclusivity and openness to diverse sources of authority and institutional formations.”

I found this very interesting, as most religious studies scholars would agree that all organized religions in Indonesia are syncretic in nature due to the long history of interactions with local belief systems and practices. Accepting or denying the idea of syncretic religions may partly be inspired by perceptions of culture as pollution to the purity of religion.

There seems to be an obsession with this idea of purity in religion, treating religion as a God-given thing; denying the fact that any religion is historically and sociologically a human creation for the need of humankind to communicate with the Divinity or the Invisible.

As I take note of Professor Feener’s paper, I regard Sharia law in Aceh province as overly simplistic and even lazy. It is because it heavily emphasizes external ritual purity, particularly in its interpretation of halal and haram, and its use of public physical punishments for moral wrongdoing. These are against the spirit of Sharia law as enshrined in Islam.

It is time for Islamic scholars, philosophers and theologians, both Indonesian and foreign, to play a more proactive role in revising and reinterpreting Sharia law in Aceh to make it a force for renewal, inclusion and liberation, not a cause of fear and violence.

*Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia, and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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