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Response to Review of Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution

I am very grateful to Koos-Jan de Jager for this careful and thoughtful review of my book. I am particularly pleased to have such a positive reception from a Dutch historian who is working to contribute to the larger reckoning that the Netherlands is having right now with its late colonial history. Dutch historiography (and, in many ways, public discourse in the Netherlands) is facing the historical reality that the country’s conduct in the Indonesian war of independence was often unnecessarily cruel and violent. This historiographical turn has led to remarkable outcomes, for example the recent apology by King Willem-Alexander to the Indonesian President Joko Widodo (although this was only for Dutch conduct after the Indonesian proclamation of independence—not for all the excesses of Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia). Mr de Jager and his fellow Dutch historians are pushing forward a fundamental shift in the way that the Netherlands looks at these years in the 1940s.

But where are the equivalent shifts in the Indonesian side of the historiography (both scholarly and popular)? Regrettably, it is my impression that there has been very little recent movement in understanding the Indonesian side of the revolution. Indonesians are happy enough to agree with the recent Dutch condemnations of colonial violence against Indonesian civilians—but that has been part of the Indonesian narrative from the very beginning. There is very little work afoot in Indonesia to challenge the fundaments of the secular nationalist narrative, crafted under Sukarno and cemented under Suharto’s army-backed administration, that projects national ideological unity, military leadership of the struggle, and broad success on the battlefield (all of which are dubious, at best). As we approach the 75th anniversary of Indonesia’s proclamation of independence (this coming August 17th), it becomes even more urgent to think about how Indonesia should look back on its birth as a country. I am thankful that Mr de Jager finds my contribution worthwhile, to bring more attention to the religious aspects of the revolution, but I recognize much work still needs to be done (and I welcome many further contributions, especially of the comparative type that Mr de Jager calls for).

Honing in on the religious questions that drive Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution, Mr de Jager is correct that Islamic rhetoric was rife across society and not limited strictly to the pious Muslim community. Plenty of nonpious leaders made overtures to Islam, too. I would argue, though, that the speechifying of leaders like Sukarno (who fought for a secular form of government when the chips were down) was different from the sermons of pious Muslims who were guided by Islam in all aspects of their engagement in the revolution. In answer to the review’s questions (although not knowing the exact speeches he is referencing), nonpious leaders often sought to harness grassroots Muslim enthusiasm for the battle, without conceding to their religious understanding of the fight or its ultimate goals. Thinking more broadly about the impact on the historiography, though, the Islamic rhetorical flourishes of leaders—and what I have seen has been little more than rhetorical flourishes—in this majority-Muslim country do not upset the dominant, secular narrative of the Indonesian revolution taught to the country’s schoolchildren all this time. I advocate for bringing in the broader and deeper diversity of perspectives among fighters (not just Islamic interpretations that form the object of my book, but also leftist, nativist and other interpretations), which will actually challenge the popular understanding of the seminal moment in Indonesia’s 20th century history.

If there is one place where Mr de Jager and I might disagree, it is on the elite side of the Islamic revolutionary story. His review has identified my core question as “whether Islamic politicians … succeeded to exert significant influence on the political future of the independent Indonesian state.” That question does get an answer in the pages of my book, but it did not motivate me to write this section. Instead, I hope to prompt more reflection on how the revolution changed Islamic politics (not just how Islamic politics changed the state during the revolution). By flagging new trends that emerged at this time and continue until today—such as layperson leadership of Islamic parties and the ability of the new Ministry of Religion to determine the boundaries of orthodoxy—I emphasize that the changes of the late 1940s were revolutionary for the beliefs and practices of Indonesian Islam moving forward.

Overall, I agree very strongly with Mr de Jager about the remaining “interesting questions on the relation between the Indonesian and Dutch perspectives.” As we think about other ways that religion played into the Indonesian war of independence, I hope the discussion will be comparative not just of Dutch and Indonesian perspectives (to which one could also add British and South Asian perspectives, as the initial reoccupation was led by the British with a largely colonial army). Future studies can also be comparative within Muslim and Christian and Hindu perspectives (notably, there were plenty of Christians on both sides, and some Muslims who sided with the Dutch). One argument of this book on a more theoretical level is that Islam as a revolutionary ideology necessarily must look very different between the grassroots and elite levels. Building from this, was there a similar dichotomy in religious understandings between, say, the average Catholic Dutch soldier and the leaders of the Katholieke Volkspartij in the highest rungs of the Dutch government at the time? How did Balinese Hindu leaders integrate religion into their approaches to the revolution? Did South Asian Muslims entering Indonesia under British command have a different perspective on the religious imperatives at the time—and how would we get at their position? I join Mr de Jager’s call for new and innovative approaches to religion in the Indonesian revolution, from all participants. Religion is merely the likeliest entry-point for a broader reevaluation of the Indonesian side of the revolution, which will hopefully match the serious self-critique happening in Dutch historiography.