Paper on Secularization of religion in Indonesia, by Stephen Headley

Secularization of religion in Indonesia:

From Custom to Pancasila and back to adat

Stephen C. Headley (CNRS)

[Version 3 Nov., 2008]

A full version of this paper can be downloaded here: From Custom to Pancasila and back to adat _Naples

Introduction: Why would anyone want to promote or accept a move to normalization of religion? Why are village rituals considered superstition while Islam is not? What is dangerous about such cultic diversity?

These are the basic questions which we are asking in this paper. After independence in 1949, the standardization of religion in the Republic of Indonesia was animated by a preoccupation with “unity in diversity”. All citizens were to be monotheists, for monotheism reflected more perfectly the unity of the new republic than did the great variety of cosmologies deployed in the animistic cults. Initially the legal term secularization in European countries (i.e., England and France circa 1600-1800) meant confiscations of church property. Only later in sociology of religion did the word secularization come to designate lesser attendance to church services. It also involved a deep shift in the epistemological framework. It redefined what it meant to be a person (Milbank, 1990). Anthropology in societies where religion and the state are separate is very different than an anthropology where the rulers and the religion agree about man’s destiny. This means that in each distinct cultural secularization will take a different form depending on the anthropology conveyed by its historically dominant religion expression. For example, the French republic has no cosmology referring to heaven and earth; its genealogical amnesia concerning the Christian origins of the Merovingian and Carolingian kingdoms is deliberate for, the universality of the values of the republic were to liberate its citizens from public obedience to Catholicism. Man, having become the measure of all things, permits humanism to gradually dominate the traditional cathedral-centered polis where a partially religious hierarchy of values had once been enthroned. Henceforth the person was increasingly defined as  citizen of the republic. Outside of Western Europe, even in Eastern Europe where papo-caesarism was unknown, this inversion never took place (cf. G. Dagron, Empereur et prêtre, 1996).

What sort of “secular” state is the Indonesian Republic with its five recognized religions, yet where Islam overshadows all others (Irfan Ahmad 2006)? In any case it is not unique as the institution of a similar system in the Russian Federation during the 1990’s shows us.  More specifically this took the form of a shift: monotheism à la Pancasila and not Islam would be the basis of citizenship. Naturally, Islam seems the common denominator to many inhabitants of the archipelago. The anti-colonial, nationalist movement had already shown that ethnic labels could be removed from groups when they worked towards “unity in diversity”. A disenchanted cosmology provides a secular (i.e., this century) space where nature can be manipulated. In the past, Indonesians wouldn’t sell their rice because it was a gift from the goddess Sri. In the twentieth century this was understood to make for poor citizens (Asad 2003:27). The domestication of “religions” to the norms of a republican social morphology required secularizing those horizons of transcendence which risked to contradict the pretensions of the new republic to being the greater “whole”. Cultural diversity, too many cults and customs with their strong public norms and values, challenged the secular structure of the republic which proposes citizenship instead of tribal collective identities.

Only Islam was in a position to oppose such a ground shift, such a politicizing of the vision of what it meant to be a person, for only Islam, having organized itself into political parties in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was able to operate on the level of statehood. For more than ten years, starting in 1949, S.W. Kartosuwirjo’s regional rebellion Darul Islam challenged the new republic as would-be founders of an Islamic state appeared. Since the suppression of the Darul Islam, other models of re-establishments of Islamic states have been imported from abroad, such as Hizbut Tahrir[1]. Radical groups such as the Solonese branch of this movement give gentle titles to their public meetings in order to obtain permission to hold them. They implicitly recognize that nowadays encouraging violence is frowned upon. In 1945, Muslim demands that shariah be obligatory for all Muslims was not incorporated into the constitution. The so-called Jakarta charter was premised on the belief  that acculturations represented by regional custom or adat-based religion presented an unwanted imbeddedness, i.e. to a local, insular Islam. For different reasons Muslims agreed about this latter diversity and from 1949 till 1955 the insistence on this piagam Jakarta was abandoned. Once the Soeharto regime came to power (1967+), military-imposed unity was strengthened, and openly declared as the “raison d’État”, and eventually was the pretext for suspension of modern legal procedures that destabilized local adat. Can regional custom be eliminated by a republic in the name of the rule of law, by claiming it does not qualify as religion? Successive Indonesian governments and Islam have seen society through such a prism of uniformity. For Islam, Allah’s sovereignty is reflected in the mirror of mosque-based prayer, while for the republican government political control and surveillance were activities which the Javanese, and their pre-eminent kingdoms, placed above the laws of God. Such in brief is the Indonesian republic’s vision of secularization until recently.

This paper considers the post Reformasi (1998+) demand for an application of shariah to all Muslims. Such a move could neutralize the diversity of local adat which implicitly had been admitted by normal Pancasila “plurality”[2]. This chapter is less a political or ethnographic study than a general reflection on Javanese adat. My stepping off point is the following: Javanese culture presupposes that differences create spaces for communication. Political strategies for accumulating identity hinders the creation of such spaces. When difference is treated as division, as in the Soeharto period (1967-98) the relations that bridge the differences are destroyed. The “other” becomes a danger and the different parties can be easily instrumentalized. Difference is “good” as long as the cultural and religious groups have kept each other in focus. For that to be so, above and beyond their differences, some common “higher” values must motivate them to remain in contact. Following Louis Dumont, I have called this “encompassment”[3], a concept he used in his description of the articulation beyond the diversity of the Indian castes.

Adat as Javanese village custom was traditionally “encompassed” by, but not separated, from the law of the palace. Especially in settling village disputes over land tenure, the authority of the founding fathers and spirits of the village was expressed in local cults and adjucations. Adat was an indigenous anthropology, a religious and administrative synthesis for local use. It was rendered redundant by the arrival of direct colonial administration. I am deliberately opposing state-sponsored Pancasila management to spontaneous religious praxis, because I consider that Soeharto’s approach to this normalization imposes it as a norm, not so much of religion, as of secularization. This included the obligatory study of the Ordre Baru’s own version of Pancasila ideology[4], the substitution of New Order sovereignty above and beyond Allah. The political regime protected, “umbrella”-ed (dipayungaké) and overshadowed the more traditional, “normal” wholeness of the Godhead, the tauhid of Allah. Endemic local insecurity in the reformasi period encouraged the re-emergence of older notions of sociability which permitted the creation of local micro-holisms, each cultural area possessing its own character[5]. Sometimes, as on the north coast of Java, the outbreaks were orchestrated by outside dhalang (manipulators) but in southern Borneo or central Celebes, the results of tensions resulting from immigration (so called “transmigrasi”) had produced much deeper roots of local conflict[6]. The return to local adat-based administration sometimes reduced the levels of intolerance provoked by the top-to-bottom Pancasila approaches to local religious diversity. To conceptualize the diversity of adat revivals outside of Java, we will first bring in the most recent data collected on this topic.


[1] – In Arabic Hizb ut-Tahrir, this “Party of Liberation” boasts itself to be the vanguard of the Sunni. Its aim is to join all Muslim states into a caliphate ruled by an elected caliph. Its founder, Taqiuddin al-Nabahani, a court judge (qadi) from Haifa, began his movement in 1953; it is now present in some forty countries, with some one million adherents, and is especially active in Western Europe. Cf. Matringe, Denis, 2005.

[2] – I am referring to Pancasila’s as propagated under Soeharto’s New Order. I am not referring to 2006 Pancasila’s re-packaging as the indispensable national foundation (dasar negara) of the republic by such distinguished figures as Azyumardi Azra which is dealt with in Francois Raillon’s paper.

[3] – Cf. Louis Dumont, Essais sur l’individualisme. Une perspective anthropologique sur l’idéologie moderne. Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1983.

[4] – On the debates between 1945 and 1978 on the content and way in which Pancasila should be studied cf. Marcel Bonneff, et al, Pantjasila, trente années de débats politiques en Indonésie. Paris, Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1980.

[5] – Among the new approaches to kinship, the term sociability is used in different ways. Cf. Janet Carsten (ed.), Cultures of Relatedness. New Approaches to the Study of Kinship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

[6] – Over the last few years, inter-religious violence has been provoked in Tasikmalaya (Institut Studi Arus Informasi, 1998), Situbondo (in east Java, Hariyanto 1997), southern Borneo (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia, 1997); Aceh, Maluku and Riau (Tim Peneliti LIPI, 2001).


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