Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Islam, Nationalism and Democracy: A Political Biography of Mohammad Natsir

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Islam, Nationalism and Democracy: A Political Biography of Mohammad Natsir

Article excerpt


Islam, nationalism and democracy: A political biography of Mohammad Natsir


Singapore: NUS Press, 2012. Pp. 235. Maps, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Veteran Indonesia observer Audrey Kahin has written a concise biography of one of the country's most prominent Muslim activists and politicians in the twentieth century: former Masyumi party leader Mohammad Natsir (1908-1993). Although she notes that Natsir considered his engagement with Islamic history and philosophy as his key lifetime occupation, Kahin admits that she lacks the competence to deal with this aspect of Natsir's life, focusing instead on his political career. For this she relies on meetings and interviews with Natsir, his relatives, and close associates since the late 1960s, as well as her late husband George Kahin's encounters dating back to the 1940s.

Presenting a largely straightforward linear account of Natsir's life, Kahin's narrative revolves around four questions: first, the apparent contrast between his early intellectual broadmindedness and evident confidence in the merits of a political system shaped by Western ideas of democracy and his later conservative and at times even anti-cosmopolitan attitude. This brings up the second question: whether Natsir's significance lies primarily in his role as an early independence leader or as a critic of Suharto and his New Order regime. Third, after gaining increasing international recognition from the 1960s onwards, did Natsir see the shortcomings of Islamic thinking originating in the Middle East and its limited value in the multiethnic and multireligious context of Indonesia? And finally, to what extent did his evangelical and missionary organisation the Dewan Da'wah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII) play a role in breeding Muslim radicalism in Indonesia.

Originally from the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra, Natsir's formative years were shaped by the combined exposure to the colonial state education system, the relatively egalitarian politics of Minangkabau internal self-governance and the Islamic learning provided through local private initiatives as a counter force to the perceived incursions of Christian missionary activity under the aegis of the Dutch colonial administration. A bright student, Natsir managed to gain access to the best education available to native Indonesians. However, although he qualified for higher education in law or economics, under the influence of early mentors such as Ahmad Hasan, one of the founders of the literalist Muslim reformist organisation Persatuan Islam (Persis), Natsir decided to work in Islamic education instead. While he was also influenced by other figures such as Sarekat Islam leaders Haji Agus Salim and Tjokroaminoto, Natsir's own political views were tempered by his secular education. At the same time, he disagreed with Sukarno's admiration during the 1930s for Turkey's Ataturk, arguing that Islam formed a unifying factor for the Indonesian nation.

Natsir entered politics during the Second World War. Details of Natsir's own political views are sketchy because his writings of that time are largely restricted to official documents. The picture that emerges is one of loyal collaboration with Sukarno, but closer ideological links to figures such as fellow Sumatrans Hatta and Sjahrir who got him his first government appointment. Natsir also was one of the founding members of Masyumi, which became the largest Islamic political party in the early independence years. However, as an umbrella for a wide variety of Muslim organisations it was prone to internal divisions and rifts between traditionalists and radical literalists, with moderate reformists under Natsir trying to bridge these differences. Serving as minister of information during the revolutionary years, Natsir worked closely together with Hatta to try and restrain radical Muslim politicians such as Kartosuwirjo and his Darul Islam (DI). …

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