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  • Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia by Hew Wai Weng
  • Muhamad Ali
Hew Wai Weng, Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia. Copenhagen: NIAS (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) Press, 2018. xxvi, 305 pp. £22.50 (pb). ISBN 978-87-7694-211-3

There are today about 3–5 million ethnic Chinese Indonesians, 1.5–2 percent of the total population of the predominantly Muslim country. Among the total population of Chinese descent across the archipelago, Chinese Muslims number around 50,000, or 1.6 percent of ethnic Chinese. Most of these Chinese Muslims today are converts, rather than Hui Muslims. With this background, Indonesia has witnessed diverse and fluid expressions and practices of being Chinese and Muslim.

Chinese Ways of Being Muslim thus offers a welcome contribution to the development of comparative Chinese and Muslim studies. Based on fieldwork undertaken in 2008 and 2009, it seeks to examine how and under what conditions ethnicity and religiosity are performed and negotiated in diverse ways. The author has explored various perspectives, people, organizations, and practices, associated with being Chinese and Muslim in contemporary Indonesia. There are a number of interesting theoretical concepts employed, although specialist and general readers may wish for an underlying theme tying the chapters together more tightly. A focus on one or two concepts such as "religious hybridization" (instead of "religious syncreticism" for instance) and ethnicity in flux (instead of "fixed ethnicity"), could have developed the theoretical analysis of the book more deeply.

Chapter 1 introduces this ethnographic research on Chinese Muslims' identity formation, cultural diversity, and religious cosmopolitanism. Chapter 2 examines the reconstruction of Chinese Muslim histories in different time periods characterized by distinct but not necessarily separate trajectories. According to local histories, Chinese Muslims have resided in Indonesia at least since the fifteenth century. In this pre-colonial period, Chinese Muslims created a hybrid culture reflected in things such as mosque architecture. In the colonial period, the Dutch created a Chinese minority, classed as "foreign orientals," and distinguished from the natives. Sino-Javanese Muslim culture seemed to have declined due to colonial discouragement. In the later part of the colonial period, from the 1890s to the 1945 independence, Chinese, including Muslims, began to organize themselves. In the era of Soekarno (1945–1967), several Chinese Muslims reached cabinet posts. In the era of Soeharto (1965–1998), Chinese had become largely assimilated and ethnic expressions were banned. The era after 1998 witnessed a resurgence of Chinese, and Chinese Muslim, culture. The Chinese Muslims' re-articulation of history is regarded as a "self-strategic essentialising which should be differentiated from an identity essentialisation and control by the state," a process which "is culturally and politically empowering" (p. 76). But how might this act of essentializing and empowerment among the Chinese be analytically linked to the way in which religious hybridization and ethnicity in flux work? Unfortunately, this is never addressed.

Chapter 3 argues that Chinese-style mosques, particularly the Cheng Hoo Mosque 鄭和清真寺, represent a "cosmopolitan space envisaged in marginality," borrowing Bhabha's concept (p. 199). The pagoda-like mosque and its minarets, the dominance of red, green, and yellow colors, and the handbooks in Chinese as well as other languages are some of the striking elements of Chineseness blended with some of the characteristics of mosque architecture quite common in other parts of Indonesia. This translocality is mixed with Javanese elements, quite different from the Chinese Islamic center in Jakarta which mainly borrows a Moorish design from Spain. In the complex of the Cheng Hoo Mosque, Chinese and non-Chinese, Muslims and non-Muslims also participate in Mandarin classes, qigong 氣功, and dancing courses. This translocal and [End Page 225] multicultural physical space would sustain the general argument of religious hybridization and ethnicity in flux.

In chapter 4, the author uses the concept of the hybrid performance in discussing Chinese Muslim preachers, alongside the concept of commodification of religion, which he sees as "not necessarily weakening, but transforming faith" (p. 123). Muslim preaching also is a case of "inclusive Chineseness" (p. 152). Chinese culture is expressed not in terms of ethnic exclusivity but in terms of...


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