Two years into the uncertain transitions of the "Arab Spring," it is remarkable just how few Middle Eastern analysts have thought to look to post-Soeharto Indonesia for clues as to how Islam and Muslims may be accommodated in passages from authoritarian rule. In part the oversight reflects Indonesia's continuing perceived marginality in the global Muslim scene, and the mistaken conviction that Indonesia is somehow less authentically Islamic than the Arab, Turkish, and Persian heartlands. However, as anyone who has traveled in academic or political circles in the Middle East can testify, the neglect has also to do with uncertainty as to the quality of Indonesian democracy, not least in the face of reports of continuing militia assaults on Christians, Ahmadiyah Muslims, and other religious minorities. To my ear, the opinion recently expressed by Andreas Harsono (an Indonesian human rights observer) in an op-ed column in The New York Times1 is now widely shared among Middle Eastern Muslim intellectuals and analysts: Indonesia offers few clear lessons on Muslim democracy, not because it is insufficiently Muslim, but because the quality of its democracy as regards religious freedom remains so precariously uncertain.
Andrée Feillard and Rémy Madinier's new book on Muslim politics and the "temptations of radicalism" in modern Indonesia provides an eminently welcome point of entry into just this issue. The book is a translation and updating of the authors' 2006 work of a similar title in French.2 Skillfully rendered, the translation by Wong Wee preserves the easy readability and understated intelligence of the French original. The revisions the new edition has undergone bring readers up to date on a host of developments since 2006, including political struggles in Aceh, the current state of regional shari'a bylaws, and the declining political influence of the two pillars of Muslim civil society, the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. The updating guarantees that this book remains the most balanced and comprehensive study of contemporary Indonesian Muslim politics in print.
For many years, the authors observe, Indonesia had a place in Western media imaginaries as "a convenient counter-model to a rowdy and finger-pointing Arab Islam" (p. 1). Feillard and Madinier explain that a central aim of their book is to go beyond stereotypes like these so as to explore the "multi-faceted" nature of Indonesian Islam and, in particular, "the complex relationships the Indonesian Muslim community maintains with its extremist fringes" (p. 2). The authors' most specific ambition, then, is to explore how it is that a society that in the 1940s and 1950s produced some of the modern era's boldest experiments in Muslim democracy also spawned movements of violently irredentist Islamism. Even more specifically, the authors seek to explain how it is that "a section of reformist Islam with a sometimes-audacious liberal bent"—which [End Page 131] is to say, the Masyumi reformists led by Mohammad Natsir in the 1950s, renowned for their defense of parliamentary freedoms and their commitment to Christian-Muslim cooperation—"mutated into a sectarianism that closed in on itself" (p. 2).
The authors bring complementary backgrounds to their analytic project. A senior researcher on political Islam at Paris's National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS), Feillard has for thirty years been one of France's most respected and versatile Indonesia analysts. She is the author of a widely acclaimed study of Nahdlatul Ulama and Indonesia's governing elite from the early independence era to the mid-1990s.3 In the years since that work, Feillard has produced a series of publications on everything from female circumcision and women's rights to the marriage law and interfaith relations. A trademark of Feillard's scholarship is the easy breadth and depth of her familiarity with Muslim political elites, not least with the former NU leader and Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). Feillard was one of the few Western scholars who could challenge Gus Dur to his face, with both parties emerging...