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Reviewed by:
  • Rising Islamic Conservatism in Indonesia: Islamic Groups and Identity Politics ed. by Leonard C. Sebastian, Syafiq Hasyim, and Alexander R. Arifianto
  • Robert W. Hefner (bio)
Leonard C. Sebastian, Syafiq Hasyim, and Alexander R. Arifianto, eds. Rising Islamic Conservatism in Indonesia: Islamic Groups and Identity Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2021. 230 pp.

During the first years of the post-Suharto transition in 1998–99, Indonesia witnessed a surge in interreligious communal violence, militia mobilization, and attacks on religious minorities. These events led one of the most distinguished foreign analysts of Muslim Indonesia, Martin van Bruinessen, to speak of a “conservative turn in Indonesian Islam.”1 “The transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in Indonesia,” van Bruinessen wrote, “has been accompanied by the apparent decline of the liberal Muslim discourse that was dominant during the 1970s and 1980s and the increasing prominence of Islamist and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.”2 Although some observers had hoped that the continuing operation of electoral democracy might soften the current’s hard edges, the 2016–17 mobilization against the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnomo (commonly known as Ahok), indicated that the movement was growing and threatening democracy and multiconfessional citizenship.3

It was against this troubled backdrop that the contributors to Rising Islamic Conservatism in Indonesia came together in February 2018 on the campus of the Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta for a conference on “Understanding the Rise of Islamism in Indonesia.” The book’s thirteen chapters consist of a thoughtful introduction and an epilogue by the editors, which bookend eleven in-depth case studies of Muslim politics and Islamism in contemporary Indonesia. The case studies are written from diverse disciplinary perspectives, from social psychology and anthropology to Islamic studies and political science. Rather than blurring the book’s focus, the chapters’ multidisciplinary breadth only adds to the book’s achievement. No less significant, although two of the three editors are based at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, the other twelve contributors are based at public and Islamic universities in Indonesia. These contributions bear witness to the remarkable quality and breadth of scholarship on Islam in Indonesia written by Indonesian academics themselves.

The editors’ introduction previews the content of the book’s chapters and highlights the themes that unite the volume as a whole. The editors emphasize that “the rise of Islamic conservatism poses significant challenges to Indonesia’s continued existence as [End Page 57] a multi-religious state” (2). They also rightly underscore that, although radical groups exacerbate the problem, “conservative Islamic groups often do represent opinions . . . that are broadly popular in Indonesian society” (3). As the book’s case studies make clear, the varied conservative currents have different social drivers, but most agree in opposing liberalism, gender equality, and the hermeneutic approaches to scripture and jurisprudence favored in progressive Muslim circles.

In chapter 2, Burhanuddin Muhtadi and Rizka Halida draw on national surveys to explore social psychological factors influencing support for radical Islamism. Over the past several years, and often working with the Australia-based scholars Ed Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, Muhtadi and Halida have established themselves among the leading survey analysts of Muslim affairs in contemporary Indonesia. In this chapter, the authors demonstrate that socioeconomic factors like income, employment, and education correlate less strongly with support for Islamist radical groups than does depth of identification with Islam (14). Their far-ranging analysis also shows that the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is the most broadly supported of radical Islamist groups (20); support for Islamism is stronger among women than men (21); and that a full 27.2 percent of Indonesian Muslims subscribe to worldviews that can be categorized as radical (33).

In chapter 3, the Harvard-trained anthropologist Dadi Darmadi examines growing support for Islamist and neo-Salafist viewpoints in five cities across Indonesia. Darmadi’s research found that public schools are one of the most important channels for radical ideological transmission. This is in part because teachers providing state-mandated religious instruction show Islamist sympathies on such topics as state-based shariah (62 percent favor) and Indonesia’s Pancasila philosophy (23.4 percent oppose) (42). Darmadi also shows that the...


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