Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia

Article excerpt

Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia. By David Kloos. Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2018. Softcover: 212pp; Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia. By Hew Wai Weng. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press, 2018. Softcover: 305pp.

Indonesian Islam has earned something of a bad reputation in recent times. Amid reports of rising intolerance against religious minorities, terror attacks, high-profile blasphemy cases and the growing political influence of hardline Muslim groups, it is easy to take an alarmist stance and assume that Indonesia's approximately 225 million Muslims are heading down the path of puritanism. Indeed, even seasoned analysts of Indonesia often forget that Indonesian Islam is heterogeneous, and that the everyday experiences of Muslims from different socio-cultural backgrounds are extremely diverse. This is why Hew Wai Weng's and David Kloos' respective books are much-needed additions to contemporary scholarship on Islam in Indonesia.

In Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia, Hew sheds light on the little-known community of Chinese Muslims in Indonesia. Drawing on ethnographic accounts accumulated over years of field research across Indonesia, Hew examines the formation and negotiation of Chinese Muslim cultural identities in everyday settings. In Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethnical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia, Kloos offers a detailed analysis of religious life in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia to apply Sharia laws in full. Focusing particularly on the processes of individual ethical formation, Kloos examines how ordinary Acehnese Muslims negotiate increasingly pervasive Islamic norms set by the institutions of the state and religion.

The two books are vastly different in their focus, scope and theoretical underpinnings. For one, Hew is predominantly interested in public manifestations of ethnic and religious identity politics at the national level. Kloos, on the other hand, frames his study around themes of personal piety and religious experiences at the local level. However, both authors are clearly intent on breaking existing stereotypes about the respective Muslim communities they studied.

In Kloos' case, Aceh (nicknamed the "veranda of Mecca") has a longstanding reputation of being home to the most devout and puritanical Muslims in Indonesia. Furthermore, one of Kloos' primary field sites, the Aceh Besar regency, is known for being a "hotbed" for radical militants. Here, conservative public mores reign supreme, the inhabitants adhere to a strict interpretation of Sharia, and a new generation of young people are displaying heightened religiosity. Yet, through detailed ethnographic descriptions, Kloos shows how Islamic scripturalism is much less pervasive in the daily religious practice of ordinary Acehnese than stereotypically assumed.

Examining Aceh within the context of post-disaster (the 2004 earthquake and tsunami) and post-conflict (the Aceh separatist insurgency) rebuilding efforts, Kloos also shows that the growing religiosity of individuals is shaped by a complex web of economic, social and political circumstances. In a similar vein, Kloos argues that the relationship between religious leaders (the ulama) and ordinary villagers are much more complicated than commonly thought. For instance, in chapter three, Kloos discusses how the interference of ulamas in the daily affairs of villagers are perceived in different ways. Here, Kloos argues that age, life phase and past experiences of local political upheavals constitute major and underestimated aspects that underpin ordinary Acehnese's approach to state and religious authority.

Like Kloos, Hew also faced an uphill task of demonstrating the internal diversities of his subjects of study. Representing a mere 3.6 per cent of all Chinese Indonesians (who themselves only comprise 3-4 per cent of the country's total population), Chinese Muslims occupy the peculiar space of being an in-group religious minority when they are in fact part of the majority at the national level. …

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