Blog: The Danger of Labels. Islam and Salafi Activism in Indonesia

Chris Chaplin reflects on recent debates about radical Islam in Indonesia and warns against the use of simplistic labels.
Islam in Indonesia has recently been in media headlines for all the wrong reasons, as the grim attacks in Jakarta have evoked a number of reactions. Some warn us of a new wave of Islamic State inspired violence, others of a rising tide of Wahabi colonialism. Yet, even others have previously noted the ‘foreignness’ of such an ideology to Indonesia’s own ‘brand’ of Islam. These allude to the variety of Islamic practices across Indonesia; but labels such as ‘Islam Nusantara’ (Islam as practiced in archipelagic Southeast Asia) or ‘foreign’ Wahabism are difficult to truly define beyond essentialist terminology, often creating more confusion than clarification.

Practices and interpretations
Islam – as a set of social as well as religious values – is never static or monolithic, and so consideration of the political and historical forces at play is needed to truly understand Islamic expressions.

Even amongst interpretations that are most notoriously perceived as foreign, such as Salafism, there is local adaptation and accommodation. Often confused with Wahabism given its linkages to Saudi Arabia, Indonesian Salafists follow a rigid idea of Islam that they believe emulates the first three generations of Muslims (the Sahabah, Tabi’un and Tabi’ al-Tabi’in) through the scrutiny of Hadith (ways and sayings of the Prophet). In so doing they mark themselves out as visibly different from the vast majority of practicing Muslims.

Local not Foreign Agents
But Salafists too interpret the finer details of their social existence in ways privy to a local context and are not exempt from internal rifts and ruptures. My research amongst Salafi followers in Yogyakarta has shown a wide adaptation by activists to specifically Indonesian ideas of modernity, class and identity.

The magazine Pengusaha Muslim (Muslim Businessman), for instance, promotes specific ideas of Islamic entrepreneurship that aligns with a growing ‘market’ of religiously inspired commodities. Its editors firmly believe in Salafi doctrine, but the magazine makes no explicit mention of the Salafi movement (although plenty of advertisements and scholastic references to it remain).

This omission, according to one of its founders I interviewed, is intentional, as they understand association to Salafism may dissuade potential readers. Its articles also deal with contemporary debates such as whether Islamic punishments would provide a solution for corruption. Interestingly in this case the author stressed this not to be necessary as the country has a functioning legal system that must be respected. Their doctrine may thus be promoted as a ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’ religious truth, but it remains sensitive to a time, place and audience.

Debatable labels
This implies that Islamic debate remains alive and well, but also that it will continue to be difficult to differentiate precisely what is foreign, home-grown, tolerant or fundamentalist. Such labels are simplistic and Indonesia is home to a number of disparate religious actors. Some may more tolerant than others, but essentialist categorizations diminish attention to the fact that all religious actors must interact and evolve within socio-political, cultural and historical developments in a particular locale.

(Chris Chaplin is a postdoc researcher at KITLV focusing on the study of conservative Islamic movements in Indonesian society and their influence on ideas of citizenship and class.)

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