Ruby Saha '14: Encountering ‘Islam Nusantara’

Ruby Saha was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow at Gadjah Mada University. This is her second year narrative. 

I first visited the city of Banda Aceh in the spring of 2009. As I stepped out of the airport and drove into town, I was greeted by a quiet Indonesian city framed by a gorgeous vista of mountains to the south, glittering coastline in the north, and tranquil rice paddies in between. Smooth, wide roads and fresh-faced buildings were the most telling signs of the city’s destruction at the hands of the 2004 tsunami and the investment that flowed into Aceh in its wake. The hotel where I stayed displayed photos of boats that had crashed into houses miles away from shore, some of which remain in situ today as memorials and tourist attractions. But it was hard to map these images of debris and desolation onto the clean, quiet little space I traversed between the hotel and the public school where I taught for a week.

At sixteen, I knew little about Aceh apart from its destructive encounter with the tsunami. Although I was born in Indonesia and lived in Jakarta for the first six years of my life, Aceh was geographically, culturally and politically as far removed as any other country. Until 2005, the region had been embroiled in a bloody conflict between the Indonesian military and the separatist Free Aceh Movement; at the time, travel to Aceh was rare and required special permits. Growing up in metropolitan cities where headscarves were rare and the vast majority of Indonesians I knew were from the island of Java, Aceh was something we only heard about on the news in relation to sharia law and ongoing violence. Looking back, I went to Aceh with an image not dissimilar to the one most Americans have of the Middle East, or Indians of Kashmir: Islamic fundamentalism and destruction.

Upon actually arriving in Banda Aceh, I felt a little foolish for being surprised, half-expecting to be accosted by the sharia police at every corner. While all the Indonesian women wore jilbabs (headscarves), I was never made to feel uncomfortable for leaving my frizzy nest of hair exposed. If anything, in a city more accustomed to Western NGO-workers, my face and arms were of interest mainly in order to determine whether I was possibly related to any Bollywood stars (specifically: Kajol; answer: I wish). Like many cities in Indonesia, there are mosques on every street, and I enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and sizes, from simple neighbourhood masjids to the toweringly beautiful Baiturrahman Grand Mosque. At prayer time, the entire city, warungs and all, would shut down, often leaving us to order room service nasi goreng or head to the lone Pizza Hut where we would sip on bottles of Coca Cola and wait it out.

In other words, my prevailing impression of Banda Aceh was of a quiet, conservative, and surprisingly lovely Muslim city populated by Indonesians just as friendly, curious and warmly hospitable as any other I’ve met. Later, upon reflection, I realised that as a visiting foreigner it was easy to glance over the strict policing of moral codes when I wasn’t the target. I never crossed the sharia police in their khaki uniforms, prowling the streets in pick-up trucks and lying in wait at roadblocks in search of unmarried Indonesian couples and uncovered Muslim women. After reading more about the region’s turbulent history, I came to appreciate that I had barely scratched at the surface layer of a city grappling with the process of constructing a contemporary social and political Islamic identity. The after-effects of a natural disaster popularly viewed as a punishment from Allah for decades of civil war had etched themselves far more deeply in the Acehnese psyche than I could have shallowly perceived.

Although I was born in, come from, and grew up in countries with significant Muslim populations, this was in many ways my first conscious confrontation with the blurred convergences between the Islam I saw in the media and what I observed on the ground. At times it can feel like staring at a double-exposure, trying to figure out where one image ends and the other begins. Looking back, although I wouldn’t have said it at the time, many of the decisions I made over the next six years—learning Arabic, studying Islamic culture and politics, writing my senior thesis on the post-9/11 display of Islamic art in Western museums, and ultimately coming back to Indonesia as a Shansi Fellow—could potentially be traced back to this first encounter with contemporary Islam and the questions it sparked in my mind about the representations and realities of Muslims around the world.

When I was first offered the Jogja fellowship in November 2013, I was deep in the process of writing my senior thesis, which was in part a critique of the Islamic art field for its exclusion of most non-Middle Eastern Islamic cultures. Having grown out of European colonial paradigms of Islam, the Middle East and Asia, what we call “Islamic art” is largely limited to the art and architecture of the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and India. Islam first arrived in Southeast Asia through trade as early as the 12th century, and today the region makes up a quarter of the world’s Muslim population. It’s also one of many areas that are conspicuously absent from introductory textbooks, museum displays and courses of Islamic art. Specifically in the case of Indonesia, this too can be traced back to the impact of Dutch colonial scholarship, which focused on the archipelago’s Hindu and Buddhist heritage at the expense of its contemporary Islamic culture—partly as a way to delegitimize local Islamic resistance groups. Over time it became an accepted truth that Islamic cultures outside of the European-defined Orient were simply a corruption of the “real” Islam.

In a post-9/11 context where the international image of Islam is largely informed by the puritanical Wahhabism propagated by Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist extremism carried out by ISIS, I argued in my thesis that the inclusion and visibility of Islamic culture from traditionally peripheral regions like Southeast Asia in displays and discussions of Islamic culture would help challenge the common misconception of a singular Islam located solely in the Middle East. At 200 million and counting, Indonesia has the single largest population of Muslims in the world, and yet most people would struggle to find it on a map. The Islamic culture that developed and spread here in the 15th and 16th centuries is certainly different and more syncretic in character due to its intermixing with pre-existing Hindu and Buddhist religions of the time. But to me this speaks more to the diversity of Islam across the world than the predominance of a single, “original” interpretation that has come to dictate the mainstream international discourse.

Jogja, as the heartland of Javanese culture and the seat of the last major Muslim kingdom in Java, with a majority-Muslim population and a thriving contemporary art scene, presented what seemed like a perfect opportunity to test the ideas I had put forward in my thesis. Despite having grown up in Southeast Asia, I still knew shamefully little about its history of Islamic culture, and I was about to spend two years in the heart of it all. This time, I wanted to come prepared with questions that would frame my thoughts and conversations here.

In the last 15 years, it seems that Indonesia has undergone a sharp Islamic revival, particularly among the younger middle-class generation. When my family left in 1999, it was still relatively rare to see women wearing jilbabs; indeed, for decades, the government had actively discouraged it as a threat to the pluralism that is enshrined in Indonesia’s political doctrine. These days, it’s uncommon for Muslim women not to wear one. Everyone I spoke to in the weeks leading up to my departure, from professors to old family friends, warned of increasing Muslim conservatism, even in a relatively liberal university town like Jogja. I was sharply reminded of my pre-Aceh expectations and the lessons I had learned since, but nonetheless packed a few scarves just in case.

The truth, as always, is a little more complicated. Islam here is certainly more visible than it has ever been. Schools are increasingly adopting policies that emphasise Islamic religious practices and uniforms, even in public universities. In any of my classes, out of roughly twenty-five students it’s rare to see more than two girls without a jilbab. According to a Muslim feminist activist I met a few months ago, this is a marked change from the Suharto era, when jilbabs were banned on school grounds and students and teachers alike could be expelled for wearing one. Wearing a jilbab in the Suharto days, it seems, became a form of symbolic resistance to the regime.

And yet, for many of the young Muslims I meet in Jogja, overt religious piety seems to function more as a public uniform that marks their identity and allows them to fit in. I still remember meeting my friend Imma at a café late one night, who turned out to be a student at the graduate school where I teach. Dressed in a chic powder-pink blouse, she wore her hair uncovered in a pretty shoulder-length bob. Upon discovering that I worked on the same campus as her, she grinned conspiratorially at me and said, “You probably won’t recognise me at school because I usually wear a jilbab.” When I responded with a confused blink, she laughed, explaining that she views the jilbab as a formal uniform for campus the way we wear blazers and heels to work in the West. As a Muslim woman she exercises her right to choose to cover up without compromising her beliefs. For her and her female Muslim friends, choosing not to wear the jilbab has become the new form of public resistance.

It was easy for me to think of Imma and her friends as an exception to the rule. Yet over the past two years I’ve met so many young Indonesians with their own approaches to the way they practice Islam, ranging from Muslims who cover their hair to those who sport chic haircuts; Muslims who identify as queer, gay and transgender; Muslims who have ringtones reminding them to pray during the day yet still drink alcohol at night. As I’ve come to know these people over extended karaoke sessions and late night café hangouts, it’s become clear that the way they practice their faith also constitutes a rejection of the idea of a single interpretation of Islamic law and culture.

A few months ago, Indonesia attracted international attention when it was featured in a New York Times article that described a film made by Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, which denounces the actions of ISIS and promotes tolerance—or, as the author Joe Cochrane puts it, “a relentless, religious repudiation of the Islamic State and the opening salvo in a global campaign by the world’s largest Muslim group to challenge its ideology head-on.” The film is designed to introduce the world to NU and Islam Nusantara, or Indonesian Islam, as a tolerant and moderate alternative to fundamentalism and Wahhabist orthodoxy, rooted in traditionalist Javanese approaches.

Islam in Indonesia certainly can provide a model for tolerance and pluralism within a global Islamic framework. And like any other religious society, it also has its own tensions and fault lines. In Jogja it’s common for pro-LGBT and feminist events and film screenings to be shut down or cancelled by threats from radical groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Front Jihad Islam (FJI). Many of these communities have been forced underground, and news is most often spread by word of mouth for fear of retaliation. My friends have been threatened and beaten at parties where the police have stood by and watched as FPI thugs lay waste to the venue. Just a few months ago, the city was plastered with anti-LGBT propaganda, and Pondok Pesantren Waria Al Fatah, an Islamic school for transgender Muslims, was forced to shut down amidst waves of extremist-led homophobic rallies.

In discussions about Islam and extremism, I often hear non-Muslim friends, family and colleagues calling upon Muslim communities to reject Islamic fundamentalism. That it is the responsibility of the moderate Muslims of the world to provide proof that they exist, to drown out the noise of radicalism that has dominated the airwaves. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this idea because it ignores the fact that Muslims themselves are already the single largest victim of fundamentalist violence and oppression. For every beating, cancelled event and anti-progressive demonstration, there are Indonesian Muslims fighting back on the ground and on social media, rejecting the actions of these groups as un-Islamic—a word that continues to shift its meaning every time it is used.

Last December, I went back to Aceh to visit the Shansi fellows there. In many ways it was like being there for the first time; there was so much more to see and learn about beyond my limited initial experience. This time, armed with a motorbike, friends on the ground, and the ability to speak Indonesian again, I could finally start to fill in the outlines sketched in my mind six years ago with colour and complexity. One thing I didn’t notice the first time was the absence of cinemas, which were banned across Aceh under post-tsunami sharia law; men and women are not allowed to sit together in dark spaces, and foreign films are considered too promiscuous for Muslim audiences. The nearest movie theatre is in Medan, a fourteen-hour bus ride south.

Yet Acehnese film culture is far from dying. One night while we were staying in Banda Aceh, my co-fellow Leila was asked to judge a few short documentaries made by local filmmakers. We drove to a small studio tucked away on in a quiet street corner, where a group of young Muslim men greeted us with salak fruit and bottles of water. The corridor outside the screening room was lined with posters of short films and documentaries that, it turned out, had been organised and often produced by the same group. They provide resources for young filmmakers, run workshops, and organise screenings and programs like the Aceh Film Festival, which features short films and documentaries from Aceh, Indonesia and abroad. When I asked about the ban on cinemas, they expressed frustration at being unable to screen their films in a local theatre, but it hasn’t deterred them. If anything, the indie film scene has flourished in the wake of conservatism both in quantity and quality; Acehnese films are increasingly gaining recognition at national and international festivals.

In the six years I’ve spent studying Islamic culture and politics, I’ve learned that every one of these seeming contradictions constitutes a small part of the fascinating picture of the global religious, political and cultural phenomenon of Islam. When we allow the rich variety of opinions, practices and traditions across Islam’s broad geographic spread to be reduced to a single interpretation, we lose the shades of variation between depths and shallows, beauty and ugliness, tolerance and extremism. These last few months in particular—revisiting Aceh, travelling to Kashmir for the first time, and witnessing Jogja struggle visibly with surges of intolerance—have served to reinforce the importance of experiencing the broad spectrum of Islam firsthand. And the Islam I encounter in Jogja is as different from Acehnese Islam as it is from Kashmiri Islam, or Saudi Arabian Islam, or Iranian Islam.

I came to Indonesia with so many questions about Islam, and I will almost certainly leave it with just as many. But living here, witnessing the different facets of Islam Nusantara everyday has forced me to continuously confront my conceptions of Islam in a way that simply studying it from afar never could. Learning to recognise, understand and embrace these distinctions, contradictions and complexities has been a defining theme not only of my fellowship, but my entire understanding of contemporary Islam. Wherever my life takes me after Shansi, I hope I can continue to encounter Islam in all its various, beautiful, troubling, complex forms.















Somehow I got roped into dancing at the CRCS 15th Anniversary Party

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The Indonesia Fellows reunited in Banda Aceh

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At the hip new cafe in town, Banda Aceh

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Climbing the coconut tree, Banda Aceh

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