An Interview with Jeremy Menchik on his new work, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism
Why did you write this book?
My book stems from frustration with the most common approaches to Islam, tolerance, and democracy. Instead of asking whether Islam is compatible with democracy, my book investigates the more important (and less polemical) question: what kind of democracy do Muslims want? Instead of asking whether Indonesian Muslims are tolerant, my book investigates the historical and political conditions that engender tolerance and intolerance. Most important, to me, is that my book explains what tolerance means to the leaders of the world’s largest Islamic organizations and challenges the assumption that liberal modes of tolerance are necessary for making democracy work. Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance without Liberalism demonstrates that Indonesia’s Muslim leaders favor a democracy in which individual rights and group-differentiated rights converge within a system of legal pluralism, a vision at odds with American-style secular government but common in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
In investigating the kind of democracy that Indonesians want through the use of archival research, quantitative surveys, interviews, and ethnographic observation, your book indicates that Indonesia wants a type of communal tolerance not based on Lockean senses of liberalism. How do you see your findings in reference to the ‘conservative turn’ indicated by Martin van Bruinessen and picked up in popular discourse?
I agree with Martin van Bruinessen and others that conservatives such as the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, Front Pembela Islam, and Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia have become more vocal and visible since democratization. As van Bruinessen rightly notes, the conservatives set the terms for debate and social change in Indonesia. This is a contrast with the 1970s and 1980s when more liberal voices such as that of Abdurrahman Wahid from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Syafii Maarif of Muhammadiyah were the most prominent voices of Indonesian Islam.
As the same time, however, my research suggests that Abdurrahman Wahid and Syafii Maarif were never accurate representatives of the leadership or members of NU and Muhammadiyah, let alone representative of Indonesian Islam writ large. Based on surveys with contemporary leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah, as well as historical material on the attitudes of past leaders, I suggest that Indonesian moderates are not liberal in their views about tolerance or democracy. They are mostly tolerant and support democracy, but a variety of democracy that is very different from the liberal and secular political institutions of Western Europe and the United States. Also, their tolerance does not extend to the most difficult issues like a Christian holding the presidency, or building a Church in an overwhelmingly Muslim village. Indonesian Islamic organizations seek a state and society where each recognized community has religious freedom, but is not free to interfere in the faith matters of others. In that sense they support communal tolerance rather than individual tolerance.
So my findings suggest that Indonesian Muslim’s conservatism is the norm rather than a turn. Or, in other words, we are witnessing a ‘conservative return’ to the modal attitudes of moderate Muslims.
In thinking about the ways in which to combat violence against the Ahmadiya in Indonesia, you suggest that a new category could be established that would allow them to “define their own version of orthodoxy” (162). How do you envision this taking place as the Ahmadiya may not be interested in categorically separating themselves from other Muslims in Indonesia?
Alfred Stepan’s research on the ‘twin tolerations’ in India, Senegal, Turkey, Canada, Belgium, and other highly diverse states suggests that there are many effective ways to represent groups like the Ahmadiyah through a collective rights framework. Legal solutions to problems of cultural difference are almost always tenuous and are impeded by issues of power inequality, as the work of Winnifred Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd demonstrate. Yet, a major strength of democracy is that differences can be negotiated through political institutions rather than violence. The goal of collective rights systems is not perfection or resolution, but rather that everyone is a bit satisfied, and a bit unsatisfied, and ultimately seeks peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
That said, an administrative solution to the problem of the persecution of Ahmadiyah is not realistic at the moment. The best option right now is for the policy, courts, and state to treat Ahmadis as Indonesian citizens and to guarantee their safety and security. I am doubtful that that will happen given Indonesia’s weak legal institutions, but it is best available option. Ultimately my analysis is pretty pessimistic about the options available to the Ahmadiyah.
Your articulation of the concept of ‘godly nationalism’ as "an imagined community bound by a common, orthodox theism and mobilized through the state in cooperation with religious organizations in society" is compelling and provides an interesting backdrop for understanding the intertwining of the state and religion in Indonesia (67). You additionally propose that this type of nationalism could perhaps be found elsewhere. How might godly nationalism help shake loose the narrative of secularism not just in Indonesia but elsewhere?
The narrative of secularism is sustained not by scholarly research but rather the normative preferences of elites. Sociologists of religion like Peter Berger long ago demonstrated that secularization was limited to Western Europe rather than being a global and teleological product of modernization. If influential public intellectuals like Berger, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad cannot dislodge that narrative, my research is unfortunately far less likely to do so.
That said, within Indonesian studies and maybe the religion and political literature, I think the concept of ‘godly nationalism’ has a certain productive resonance. Americans, for example, are generally receptive to having a Protestant become president, a Catholic become president, and even to a lesser extent a Jewish or Muslim become president, but are totally opposed to an atheist president. My students consistently laugh at the idea that a modern person could worship a goddess of the sea, even while they also profess to be secular-liberals who are agnostic to other’s religious views. In other words, most Americans, like Indonesians, feel that it is necessary to belong to one of the world religions in order to be fully modern.
We clearly need a better vocabulary to describe the power of religion in a world where unbelief is one option among many, as Charles Taylor notes in A Secular Age. What Taylor neglects to mention is that not all belief options are equally viable. In Indonesia, like the United States, there is social and institutional pressure to choose a belief that aligns with a recognized world religion. In that respect, I hope the concept of godly nationalism helps us see beyond the binary of secularism or theocracy to the many ways in which religion continues to shape modern life.
In thinking about the formation of the Indonesian state and the consolidation of Islamic sensibilities in Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, and Persis, much of your engagement is focused on the island of Java. These organizations were formed in Java, and they remain an essential part of the Islamic life. However, how might we expand the understanding and analysis of communal tolerance and godly nationalism to other regions that now compose the modern nation-state of Indonesia?
We have a long way to go toward understanding the diversity of religious experience in Indonesia. As you rightly note, we need more research beyond Java. We also need research that examines how issues of tolerance and nationalism play in the kampoeng (village) rather than the capital. We desperately need to understand the implications of the fracturing of religious authority. It is not at all clear that Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, or other major Islamic organizations are as powerful as they once were, but neither are they irrelevant. Compared to the Middle East, where scholars like Ussama Makdisi and Stéphane Lacroix have developed really thoughtful approaches to the intersection of religion and political economy, I also think the economic aspects of Indonesian Islam are under theorized.
I am, however, hopeful that the new generation of scholars is up to the task. Kevin Fogg, for example, is finishing a book manuscript on Islam in Indonesia’s Revolution with careful attention to Sumatra, South Sulawesi, and Lombok. James Hoesterey’s research examines the power of new cultural brokers like Abdullah Gymnastiar. The field is wide open, and it is a great time to be an Indonesianist.
I appreciated your ability to push the field of Political science past the binary of “rationalism” and “theological determinism,” and I think this has repercussions for Religious Studies as well. How did you deal with struggling against these biases in Political Science, and how do you think it will be received?
The book outlines a constructivist approach to religion and politics by synthesizing the work of established scholars like Lisa Wedeen, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, and Michael Barnett. Scholars already working within that constructivist tradition should find it useful, and I recently published an article, “The Constructivist Approach to Religion and World Politics” that aims to give that coalition a bit more grounding. That article was written as a guidebook for my graduate school self; someone should have articulated a non-theological, non-rationalist approach to religion and politics in the mid-2000s given that most of the theoretical work was done by anthropologists and social theorists in the 1980s and 1990s. But, unfortunately, my field tends to be on the receiving end of social theory, which is paradoxical given that we specialize in the study of ideas.
Beyond self-identified constructivists, I have no idea how the book will be received. This is my first book and I can honestly say that the whole process has been surprising. Despite the fact that the book engages with anthropology and religious studies, my main audience seems to be other Indonesianists, followed by political scientists. Indonesianists tend not to care about the theoretical issues of rationalism or theological determinism so those reviews have been positive albeit limited to the empirical chapters. Political science, meanwhile, is still very much captivated by secularization theory, which is not the case for anthropology or religious studies. Political science is very much still inside the liberal missionary project. So in the short term, I suspect the book will encounter resistance from the bulk of political scientists who are rationalists and secularists, or they will simply ignore it.
In the long term, I hope the next generation of graduate students will find the book to be a useful launching off point for how to approach religion and politics. The strategies that I develop for approaching religion—local genealogies, the coevolution and mutual constitution of state and religion, and the reimaging of social science concepts—should be tractable for the longue durée. We know that theological and rationalist approaches to religions have major weaknesses, but we lack an alternative framework. I hope my book gives students tools to build knowledge in an age of transition and uncertainty.