Indonesia's Islamic Revolution
Kevin W. Fogg
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781108768214; Price: £75.00
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Date accessed: 28 March, 2023
In Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution, historian Kevin W. Fogg argues that the historiography of the Indonesian revolution and war of independence (1945–1949) urgently needs a broader perspective that takes Islam’s influence on both the grassroots and political elite levels seriously. Present historiography is strongly influenced by the popular secular nationalist narrative of Indonesian history. In this conception of the revolution, the personal influence of Sukarno, as national leader, and the army, as the guardian of independence, are strongly emphasised. Although other groups and individuals – like left-wing-oriented nationalists or local Islamic groups, such as the Darul Islam and its leader, Kartosuwirjo – are included into the narrative in the margins, there is no sufficient understanding of the nationwide role of Islam. Or, in the words of the author, who is associated with the Oxford Centre for Global History and Brasenose College, ‘the community of pious Muslims as a whole has not received attention as a nationwide category of analysis’ (p. 12).
The secular focus in historiography is in sharp contrast to the religious context in which the revolution took place for millions of Indonesian Muslims. The goal of Fogg’s book is to broaden the focus of historiography and include Islamic groups as independent actors with their own interpretation of the revolution. This inclusion of religion will lead to a more complete understanding of the history of Indonesia’s war of independence. Fogg makes clear that it is not his intention to fully rewrite the history of the Indonesian revolution or to claim that religion is the most legitimate way of looking at this history. Not all Indonesian participants in the revolution and war, Muslim or otherwise, experienced the war as an Islamic struggle. Fogg argues, however, that a significant part of Indonesian society participated in the revolution with Islamic motives and Islamic goals. The book concentrates on pious Muslims, Indonesians who were oriented to Islam as the source of inspiration for their worldview and lifestyle. These Muslims were particularly devoted to prayers and other Islamic practices, and they believed that their political and military actions were inspired by Islam. Although there is no sharp division between pious and non-pious (nominal) Muslims, Fogg estimates that around 1950, one-quarter to one-half of the Indonesian population could be regarded as pious Muslims.
According to Fogg, Indonesia’s revolution was an Islamic revolution in two senses.
First, looking at the war of independence, the pious Muslims who fought against the Dutch understood this as an Islamic struggle toward Islamic ends and organized themselves in Islamic ways … Secondly, looking at the political revolution with the establishment of a new state, there were fundamental transformations in the way that Islam affected politics and in the way that politics impacted Islamic life (p. 2).
These two perspectives, of grassroots revolution and elite political developments, determine the structure of the book. As the political role of Islam has attracted more interest from academic historians, the way Islam functioned at the grassroots level is thus far less explored. The first perspective in particular, therefore, is the strongest and most innovative contribution of Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution to our understanding of the Indonesian revolution.
The first part of the book is devoted to the grassroots experiences of the revolution and the role of Islam in actual battle situations following the proclamation of independence on August 17, 1945. To tell this story, Fogg makes use of a broad range of archival records, published memoirs and oral history material chosen from different regions of Indonesia. A fascinating example, which is the topic of one chapter, is the role of amulets and sacred objects and texts for the Muslim fighters. The Indonesian troops were significantly less well-armed and trained than their British and Dutch opponents. In this context, many fighters turned to supernatural protections like amulets with scripture verses, prayers, or mantras, called jimat, believing that they could reach invulnerability through these objects. Fogg shows that this Islamic magic has a long history in Indonesia, but these practices have not been used so widely since the revolution. The underlying reason for these magic practices, Fogg argues, is the belief of the participants that the war of independence was not merely a modern military battle. The Muslims participating in the struggle believed that supernatural powers, ‘the Divine’, were assisting them in the fight for the just cause of Indonesian independence. In most of the historiography, the influence of Islam on the actual fight is limited to the Battle of Surabaya (October – November 1945), where magical practices and the use of religious propaganda were widespread. Fogg claims that this limitation is not right, since pious Muslims organised themselves throughout the whole war into units led by religious leaders. In these groups, the belief in divine assistance and the ideal of fighting for an Islamic state in Indonesia existed to the end of the war of independence.
The chapter on ‘Islamic calls to action’ shows that the Islamic influence at the grassroots level was not always appreciated by the Republican government. Religious leaders (ulama) published a stream of fatwas to motivate (or obligate) Muslim fighters to participate in the holy war against the infidel Dutch. The first major fatwa was decreed on October 15, 1945 in Aceh. A few days later, a famous fatwa was issued on the eve of the Battle of Surabaya. According to Fogg, this fatwa was crucial in building support from Islamic militias from the wide surroundings of the city. After these initial ones, a continuous ‘flood of fatwas’ was issued during the four-year war of independence, showing the belief of Muslim leaders that the revolution would lead to a greater place for Islam in the new state. However, the national government responded negatively and prohibited the declaration of holy war by individuals. The declaration, issued by Vice-President Mohammad Hatta, shows that the government feared damage to the international reputation of the Republic, especially on the topic of religious freedom for religious minorities in the new state. The continuous stream of fatwas despite this declaration is a sign that the government prohibition did not have an effect at the grassroots level.
In this chapter, Fogg is focused on the fatwas issued by pious Muslim leaders. However, this leaves the broader public role of Islam out of consideration. During the war of independence, military leaders who were not pious Muslims themselves also published motivating texts and speeches with Islamic contents, ranging from superficial references to strongly inspired Islamic quotes. In the context of the Battle of Surabaya, for example, Fogg discusses the radio speeches of Sutomo, a ‘famously unorthodox’ military leader (p. 51). During the battle, he started and closed every speech with the Islamic creed, connected to the nationalist battle cry. The same goes for Sukarno, who ‘wore his Islam like his black felt hat’ (pp. 141 – 142). In his speeches, he frequently refers to Islam as a source of inspiration for the fight. At the start of the first Dutch military action, in July 1947, Indonesian Major General Moestopo wrote to his commanders on East Java that God should be praised because the time to kill and burn the Dutch had come. These examples show that religious motivations for the fight were widespread in Indonesia and not confined to the pious Muslims. Fogg’s focus on pious Muslims leaves the question of how to interpret these public references to Islam unanswered. Are these only a form of political propaganda, focused on pious Muslims with the goal to mobilise as many fighters as possible in the revolutionary struggle? Or do these references point to the central function of Islam as the state religion in politics, society and the army?
The second part of the book is concerned with the elite level – the Islamic influence in Indonesia’s political revolution and state building process. The core question in this part is whether Islamic politicians – from November 1945 united in the political party Masjumi – succeeded in exerting significant influence on the political future of the independent Indonesian state. On the one hand, their attempt to influence the Indonesian constitution failed. This is shown in the debates about the new constitution of the Indonesian state, discussed by Fogg in chapter seven on the ‘Jakarta Charter Controversy’. After negotiations, a compromise proposal (known as the Jakarta Charter) was reached to recognise Islamic law explicitly in the constitution. This would give Islam a strong place in the Indonesian Republic. However, in the night before the proclamation of independence, the Charter was removed from the constitution. The religious principle in the ideological basis of the Indonesian state was changed to ‘belief in the One and Only God’, without a specific reference to Islam. Again, the protection of religious minorities – and the preservation of national unity – was considered more important than an explicit Islamic interpretation of the basis of Indonesia. On the other hand, chapter nine shows that pious Muslims succeeded in establishing a Ministry of Religion that became ‘a bulwark for Islamic interest in the Indonesian government’ (p. 156). Fogg shows that the establishment of this Ministry was an important victory for the Islamic community, although it was initially opposed and rejected by parliament.
Fogg’s book is strictly confined to the Indonesian side of the war of independence; the Dutch perspective on the revolution is not taken into account. Given the state of the historiography, this is a legitimate choice. However, the book provokes interesting questions on the relation between the Indonesian and Dutch perspectives. In the Netherlands, the Indonesian war of independence attracts a lot of attention – both in academia and in the national media – especially focused on extreme violence.(1) However, religion is almost completely missing from these debates. For all historians working on the actions of Dutch troops in Indonesia, Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution is an absolute must-read. In letters and memoirs of Dutch soldiers, Islam is frequently mentioned as an incentive for their opponents. Not seldom, this Islamic influence is interpreted as a sign that the colony is not ‘ripe’ for independence but should be governed by the Netherlands. In their view, people who allow themselves to be ravished by religious leaders and sacred battle cries are not ready to build a stable society and independent political system. Instead, Christians in the Netherlands argued that God had given them the responsibility to evangelise the Indonesian people. Following this argument, Christian Dutch soldiers – around 80 percent of all soldiers were Catholic or Protestant – interpreted the influence of Islam on the revolution as a sign that existing Christian missions would not have any future in an independent Indonesian state. For them, the Muslim influence on the revolution was a strong motivating force. Reports of the Dutch (military) security services show that the Dutch colonial government monitored Islamic leaders and parties and their influence on the Indonesian population and the Republican army. In an effort to minimize the danger of a broadly supported uprising of the Muslim population, Dutch soldiers were instructed to respect mosques and Islamic objects. Ulama were actively approached by colonial officials and asked to support the Dutch colonial state. In diplomatic negotiations, the position of religious freedom was frequently addressed by the Dutch. In short, these examples show the need for more comparative research in order to reach a more complete view of the role of religion during the Indonesian revolution.
In conclusion, Indonesia’s Islamic Revolution is a powerful and convincing argument for taking Islam seriously as an autonomous factor in the history of the Indonesian revolution. The book enriches the historiography of the Indonesian revolution, especially because of the connection between grassroots and elite perspectives. Although the relationship between these two perspectives must be explored further, Fogg shows how different the interpretations and goals of the revolution were for different participants. In the context of the study of religion in the military, Fogg’s book posits interesting questions for further research and comparison.(2) The idea of pious Muslims fighting in the war of independence because they were assisted by the Divine is not unique for Islam or Indonesia, but a recurring trait of modern warfare. In particular, Fogg’s focus on the religious practices of Muslim fighters as part of the military actions is an important contribution to this research field.
 See for example: Gert Oostindie, Ireen Hoogenboom and Jonathan Verwey, ‘The decolonization war in Indonesia, 1945-1949: War crimes in Dutch veterans’ egodocuments’, War in history, Vol. 25 (2) (2018), pp. 254-276.
 See for example: Ron E. Hassner (ed.), Religion in the Military Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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.