De-Essentialising Violence in Indonesia: John Sidel’s ‘Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia’
By Farish A. Noor ~ June 10th, 2010. Filed under: Book Reviews.
De-Essentialising Violence in Indonesia
John Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia
Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2006
279 pgs. Paperback
Explaining communal, ethnic and religious violence via recourse to essentialised understandings of ethnic identity and cultural difference is about as silly and illogical as trying to explain corruption in terms of genetic traits. Unfortunately that has become the trend of late, and in the domain of Indonesian and Southeast Asian studies in general it is a lamentable fact that we still come across academic and pseudo-academic studies that purport to be objective, even scientific, which still betray the lingering influence of such bias and cultural perspectivism.
Thankfully, John Sidel’s Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia reads as a sobering antidote to such material, and he correctly notes from the very first sentence of the book that Indonesia deserves to be studied and understood seriously by scholars, and not framed as some hive of irrational, violent militancy as it has been cast by some self-confessed ‘security experts’. Indeed, Sidel’s book can perhaps be read as not only a study of the phenomenon of violence in Indonesia, but also as a response to the caricatural depiction of the country that has gained so much currency in the mainstream media over the past decade, since the fall of Suharto and significantly after the Bali bombings: an event that has somehow wielded an inordinate arresting power in determining the image of Indonesia in the eyes of the world ever since.
But lest we be misunderstood here, it ought to be noted that Sidel’s work is far from an apologia for all that has gone wrong in Indonesia. It is, in fact, a detailed and systematic study of the history of mass organised violence in the country that is rooted in an analysis of its material structures and political economy. As he notes: ‘the question of religious violence in Indonesia calls for comparative historical and sociological analysis’ (pg. xi) and it is good that Sidel is not fixated on the phenomenon of inter-religious violence solely. In fact the book is structured in such a way as to give equal care and attention to a myriad of phenomena, ranging from riots in provincial towns to witch-hunts in the countryside to organised forms of religiously-inspired militancy. Responding to the somewhat narrow logic of those scholars in the ‘religious violence industry’, Sidel frames religious militancy against a wider backdrop of routinised (and often state-sponsored) violence that has plagued Indonesia for decades.