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.

Studying Indonesia is of course no easy task – and any scholar worth his/her salt would readily admit that one never really becomes an ‘Indonesian expert’ for the simple reason that this country that is an archipelago the size of Europe defies closure and full representation. The problem is evident to Sidel as well, who notes that many studies in Indonesia have been either too wide in their perspective (it is impossible to speak of an Indonesian identity in any meaningful sense for the differences between Aceh and West Papua are magnitude), or too narrow in their focus. One cannot, as Sidel notes, write on violence in Indonesia by simply focusing on ‘one riot here, one bombing there’. (pg. 6)

With one eye turned to Indonesia’s colonial past and the formation of what would later become the Indonesian nation-state whose foundations were laid during colonial rule, Sidel notes that Dutch colonialism helped to introduce and later perpetuate divisions of ethnicity, race and communalism in the country. In this respect of course Indonesia is not unique for the same long-term effects of colonialism were seen and felt in practically every other colonised country in Asia and Africa, leading us to the present state of affairs where race and religion-based communalist politics have become the norm in so many postcolonial states. (pp. 40-43) The particularity of Indonesia as a case study however lies in the intensity with which the colonial-capitalist project was undertaken, leading to a particularly powerful indigenous underclass who would later play a visible (and violent) role in the anti-capitalist as well as anti-communist pogroms of the 1960s. (pg. 42)

It was during the period of Suharto’s rule (1965-1998) that the ethnic and capital cleavages in Indonesian society grew more pronounced, partly as a result of Suharto’s latent fear of political Islam as a potential anti-state force and his regime’s cultivation of the business community and the military elite – which were dominated by ethnic Chinese and Indonesian Christians. (pg. 45) As a result of this top-down mode of state patronage politics, local small and medium scale producers found themselves increasingly marginalised and unable to compete against the mass inflow of foreign capital that was being invited into the country by Indonesia’s pro-Capital and pro-Western regime. (pg. 48) The indirect result of this combination of state neglect and persecution of radical Islamists was the rise of Islam as a political force in the country, and Sidel falls back on this to account for how and why the riots and pogroms that took place in the country assumed a more religious, and less ethnic-communal, character. (Chapters 3 and 4)

By delving deeper into the complex political history of Indonesia and taking into account the elaborate network of political, military and commercial interests that so dominated the political landscape of Indonesia between the 1970s to the late 1990s, Sidel manages to chart the rise and fall of political violence in the country, noting that the riots and pogroms that shook the country coincided ‘with historical moments of acute and unsettling urgency, anxiety and ambiguity as to the question of Islam and who was to represent the Muslim community’ in the country. (pg. 98) The very nature of the mass violence that took place in the country also began to change, shifting from the older pattern of looting to arson – a form of ‘symbolic destruction’ of the symbols of wealth, power and access that were so familiar to the people themselves. (pp. 104-105)

Sidel’s historical approach is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the book. By the time he reaches the thorny and somewhat over-discussed subject of religious violence and the spectre of ‘Jihad’ in Indonesia, he has effectively taken the reader on a long tour of the historical precedents that has brought Indonesia to where it is today, and Sidel’s accounting for the rise of religiously-inspired violence is one that does not fall into the trap of narrow essentialism or quick-fix over-generalisations about the alleged ‘nature’ of Indonesian society. Sidel traces the genealogy of some of the religiously militant groups in Indonesia today to the remnants of the Darul Islam movement and other anti-state forces that emerged in the postcolonial era as a reaction (albeit a violent one) to the totalising logic of the postcolonial state and the military-political-business hegemon that governed the country for more than three decades. Locating the roots of Indonesia’s Muslim anger not in religion or even the politics of piety, Sidel notes that there are economic and material under-structures that gird these movements and account for how and why their discourse came to the fore in the wake of the fall of Suharto. (Chapter 7)

Importantly, Sidel notes that many of these clandestine religio-militant movements were themselves bred and nurtured in the political laboratory of post-65 Suharto politics, and that they are the descendants of the very same right-wing Islamic movements and organisations that were mobilised by Suharto and the military against the Communists and Leftists in Indonesia from 1965 to the 70s. (pp. 206-210) The discursive, sociological and political context of Jihad in Indonesia (pp. 211-217) coincided with the collapse of Suharto’s power and the end of the ‘Asian miracle’ myth that had sustained and justified the regime for so long. In the power vacuum that emerged, radical Islam (and other forms of militant religiosity including Christian militancy) was reactivated again in various forms and in various episodes to serve a range of purposes: as a distraction, as a front for political manoeuvring, as a justification for extended military presence in the public domain, and so on.

The merits of Sidel’s work are many, but for us one of the most important observations to be made about this work is how it steadfastly steers clear away from the trap of cultural essentialism as well as historical determinism. True, Sidel has studied violence in Indonesia as a problem and a feature of that society, but he has not pathologised it to the point of rendering such violence specifically ‘Indonesian’ in nature. Violence, in Sidel’s work, is part and parcel of Indonesia’s painful growth process and has been an instrumental part of its development particularly during the last decade of the post-Suharto era; and by examining violence and its uses against the context of the social, economic and political development of the country he reminds us that the discourse of violence (including its symbolism) cannot be understood apart from the material-structural background of any society. As a serious work by a scholar who takes Indonesia seriously, this if a far cry from the predictable media reports we have been exposed to, and a powerful corrective to the former. A worthy book that deserves the praise it has received thus far, and a useful text for those interested not only in Indonesia but also the politics of mass and state violence.

1 Response to De-Essentialising Violence in Indonesia: John Sidel’s ‘Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia’

  1. Zainal Ajamain

    I find John Sidel narrative too macro in outlook. I also believe that the emerging nationalist sentiments especially from periphery states such as Sulawesi and Ache contributed to the increase in violence. This is of concern to the people in Sabah because of the possibility of spill-over effect. The conflict in Southern Philippines was a good lesson for us.
    I believe there is a need to drill deeper into this issue rather than just focusing on religious sentiments. The ethnicity of it I believe plays a central role especially studying the roles of the Bugis in this regional development.

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