Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Greg Fealy and Virginia Hooker (eds)

Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia:
A Contemporary Sourcebook

Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
2006, li + 596 pp., List price $US59.00
ISBN-10: 9812303685; ISBN-13: 978-9812303684 (pbk);

reviewed by Victor Sensenig

  1. This volume provides a valuable and much needed source for understanding the contemporary character of Islam in Southeast Asia, where more than 200 million of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world live. The editors' main purpose is 'to reflect accurately the diversity and richness of the vernacular "Islams" in Southeast Asia' by presenting their interpretations of Islam 'in their own words and images' (pp. 2-3). The book consists of introductory essays and close to two hundred thematically-organised extracts drawn from interviews, articles, books and websites that are translated into English. Scholars, religious leaders and politicians are represented, but the voices of farmers, accountants, pharmacists and artists are also included. The project is an ambitious one, but the resulting volume is remarkably balanced in the serious attempt to present multiple viewpoints on various issues from jihad to gender. None but the most dedicated will read the book from cover to cover, but the book is useful both as an introduction to the topic and as a treasure trove of primary sources. Indonesia, with 189 million Muslims, has 88 percent of Southeast Asia's Muslims and so claims by far the most attention in this compilation.
  2. The book begins with country overviews, written by a range of scholars, of the nine major Southeast Asian nations (excluding the estimated 400-strong Muslim population of Laos). The Indonesian overview will be invaluable for the beginning student with its pithy account of the standard abangan-santri dichotomy and the traditionalist and modernist santri division as outlined by Clifford Geertz: 'a sense of "tradition," both classical Islamic and local is at the heart of [the traditionalist] stream' while modernists argue that 'the way to revive Islam and make it relevant to the contemporary world is to cleanse the faith of its later impurities and return to the pristine teachings found in the Qur'an' (p. 40). The overview outlines the post-independence developments of political, cultural and radical Islam, concluding that the traditionalist–modernist division explains the failure of the Islamic movement to challenge the secular nationalists and also that 'the moderate mainstream within the Islamic community rejects and marginalizes radical groups and reasserts the irenic and tolerant values found within the faith' (p. 50).
  3. The extracts follow in six thematic chapters. The first chapter, 'Personal Expressions of Faith,' addresses the recent growth of religiosity in the region and its relation to increased prosperity and global communication. Unlike many regions in the West, a deepening of faith has coincided with modernisation in the region. The chapter includes warnings about the encroachment of non-Islamic influences, including Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, and diatribes against the 'culture of lust,' in addition to individual professions of the meaning of prayer, fasting, and other ritual practices.
  4. The second and third chapters concern the related themes of 'Sharia' and 'Islam, State, and Governance.' Front and center are substantial extracts from the Jakarta Charter and the Aceh Qanun. The Qanun is a code of Sharia Law that became official law for Aceh following the province's attainment of special regional status in 2001. The sourcebook outlines the contents of the Qanun and includes the section that establishes the Wilayatul Hisbah, or 'sharia police,' as well as the moral and pecuniary justification of public caning, which 'is meant as a measure of education and guidance…[Caning] also reduces the expense that must be paid by the government in comparison with other types of punishment' (p. 191). The introduction lays out the classic interpretation of Sharia and then gives examples of how national and local Southeast Asian governments have made accommodations between state laws and Islamic laws. The Jakarta Charter was drafted in June 1945 with a seven-word line regarding the 'obligation' of Muslim citizens to adhere to Sharia. The founders of the Indonesian state removed these seven words before using the charter as the preamble of the August 1945 constitution. Those hoping for an Islamic state decried this decision as a betrayal. An extract from influential modernist Hamka argues that the state ideology of Pancasila is an attempt to replace Islam, which he sees as the nation's 'original background' (p. 218).
  5. The debates are numerous and heated. Should Islamic law be fully implemented? What is the relation between the eternal principles of the Qur'an and socio-historical conditions? Perspectives include the Council of Indonesian Mujahideen's assertion that 'the firm and clear guarantees of sharia can never by matched by secular laws' (p. 169) and the Liberation Party of Indonesia's claim that 'Islamic law was conferred not only for Muslims but for all humankind' (p. 163). Most unsettling is the 2001 address by the commander of militant Laskar Jihad before the stoning of a member found in adultery: 'Almighty God has commanded us to uphold this law and, in truth, this law should be carried out by a Muslim government. But regrettably the government of Indonesia is led by a head of state who is an apostate and infidel who belittles and humiliates Islamic law' (p. 171). The liberal end of the spectrum is amply represented by scholars with historical and hermeneutical arguments against comprehensive implementation of Islamic law. Prominent reformist Nurcholish Majid warns that political Islam becomes fossilised and obsolete, and former NU chair and Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid argues that the concept of the Islamic state fails to clarify whether this means basic values, formal norms or institutions.
  6. One of the most useful chapters of the sourcebook will be 'Gender and the Family.' Indonesia has both a well developed gender discourse and a deeply engrained social conservatism with the family perceived as the foundation of the community and many groups are pushing for stricter social controls. An extract from a handbook from a girls' pesantren in Solo has both the general and specific injunctions that a woman 'surrenders all the affairs of her life to the law and sharia of God' and 'remains mainly in the home, in accordance with her nature and duties' (pp. 276-77). Material from an Islamic College for Women Teachers outlines the differences Islam prescribes between men and women, including the equivalence of two female witnesses to one male witness, the right of a man to take up to four wives, and the need for a woman to cover her whole body while a man must cover from navel to knee. These notions of gender are contended by a vocal minority, and a number of extracts advance contextualist approaches to the Qur'an, specifically the verse in the fourth surat that establishes male authority. Other extracts deal with head covering, abortion and family planning, and polygamy, including interviews with three of the wives of Puspo Wardoyo, owner of the chain of Wong Solo restaurants and part-time polygamy lobbyist. Noticeably absent, however, are any discussions of homosexual and transgender issues, a small but by no means unimportant aspect of Southeast Asian Islamic cultures.
  7. The final two chapters—'Jihad' and 'Interactions: Global and Local Islam; Muslims and Non-Muslims'—relate to Southeast Asian Muslims' dealings with other nations, lifestyles and faiths. The final chapter includes discussions of Western cultural influences, conversion, interfaith marriage and religious pluralism. In the chapter on jihad, the editors have chosen to use the less loaded term 'Salafi jihadist' instead of 'Islamic terrorist', but the sourcebook devotes a great deal of space to the writings of several of the men and organisations implicated in violent operations. The book's genesis may explain the extensive inclusion of jihadist writings; the project was heavily funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in an effort to expand understanding of the region following the October 2002 Bali bombing. Most of these extracts have been translated into English for the first time, including manifestos by Jemaah Islamiyah leaders Imam Samudra and Mukhlas and JI's 'General Struggle Guidelines', obtained in a 2002 police raid on a command post. These remarkable documents shed much light on the kind of demonisation necessary to carry out such an attack. Among JI's ten principles is the assertion that 'OUR ENEMY IS SATAN IN THE FORM OF SPIRITS AND IN THE FORM OF HUMAN BEINGS' (emphasis in original). A passage from Imam Samudra's I Fight Terrorists gives a sense of the whole: 'On 12 October 2002, praise be to God, there was the next attack on Uncle SAM (stupid and moron) and his gang in Bali' (p. 375). More moderate understandings of jihad are also included. As Fealy explains in his introduction,

      Jihad can take a wide variety of forms. It can mean the personal struggle to make oneself a better Muslim through prayer and fasting, and by acquiring a deeper knowledge of the faith. It can mean a broader exertion to improve society through charitable works, religious teaching, political activity, economic initiative and social leadership. It can also mean fighting against injustice, ignorance and oppression through preaching and writing. Finally, it can mean armed struggle or holy war, particularly against enemies of the faith (p. 353).

  8. Fealy and Hooker's sourcebook can be recommended on several counts: the fine balance of moderate and radical viewpoints, the attention to detailed context, and the eminently readable and searchable format, including an exhaustive index, timeline, and glossary. Although several of the chapters, especially those concerned with political Islam, deal almost exclusively with male perspectives, one of the greatest strengths of the book is the extensive inclusion of extracts not about Muslim women but by and for Muslim women. The weakness of this sourcebook—and perhaps sourcebooks in general—is the limited space given to a handful of the extracts, leaving the reader to wonder if a longer portion would make the argument more coherent. In addition, the text would benefit from the inclusion of more visual materials—political cartoons, comics or film stills. The editors also choose not to broach any of the academic debates of the field, preferring rather to limit the text to the perspectives of local Muslims. Nevertheless, Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia is indispensable, serving not as a corrective to an imbalance of perception, but as the means to encounter firsthand, authentic accounts from all corners of the Southeast Asian Islamic world.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
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