Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Don Emmerson, Part Two

Yesterday we started our chat with Don Emmerson, Stanford professor and renowned Indonesia expert. Today Everything Indonesia continues the conversation, on the subjects of Indonesian Islam, present and future; being a Westerner who speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia; and his favorite memories, of a country that has defined his life's work.

EI: What tensions do you see developing in Indonesian Islam ... the traditional values of tolerance, versus the more strident forms we're seeing worldwide?

DE: This topic is too complex to warrant a brief answer. Insofar as democracy implies majority rule, it follows that to some extent and in some ways Indonesian democracy will naturally express Muslim-majority-rule. A scale from tolerance to stridency is too one-dimensional to capture the diversities, subtleties, and dynamics involved in the interaction of ostensibly religious with political identities and actions in Indonesia. Indonesia is not on the verge of becomine an "Islamic state," whatever that elastic designation might actually. Yet the syncretic version of Islam that Clifford Geertz conveyed in The Religion of Java (1960) is today far harder to find.

Some observers worry over the possibly freedom-squeezing implications of a bottom-up syariah-ization process unloosed by decentralization, as local communities adopt this or that aspect of "Islamic law." But on closer inspection, this trend seems more often tied to an ethical inspiration than to a legalistic ambition. In view of the ubiquity and cost of corruption in Indonesia, this is not an altogether bad thing. (If a local government bans alcohol, how much should a liberal object?)

That said, the relative impunity of hotheads who use intimidation to enforce a cramped and prejudicial understanding of Islam certainly merits ongoing concern. The status of women, including their freedom of choice, is to varying extents at risk in parts of the country where orthodox interpretations have gained in prominence and popularity. The Council of Indonesian Ulamas (MUI), a Suharto-era creation, has taken on a rather aggressively illiberal life of its own. Indonesia remains, nevertheless, a "not-Malaysia" in the sense that Jakarta has not sought to coopt Islamism to the point of ensconcing illiberal Islam inside the state itself. At the same time, Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, whose influence should not be exaggerated, remain more venturesome and more willing to challenge and reconsider orthdoxy compared to their counterparts across the Malacca Strait. Indonesians remain fortunate that Islam in their country is still nowhere nearly as racialized or bureaucratized as it is in Malaysia. By comparison, in Indonesia, the cross-cutting cleavages of religion and ethnicity noted by Geertz half a century ago also, still, exercise a moderating effect.

EI: Are Indonesians surprised when they encounter a Westerner like yourself who's so fluent in Bahasa Indonesia?

DE: When I first went to Indonesia, after studying the language at Cornell and Yale, I was told, "You speak our language better than we do." This, of course, was not true. The subtext was: "You speak our language formally, correctly, based on your having learned the words and the rules in a classroom. You speak book Indonesian, not street Indonesian." A distinctly back-handed compliment! I no longer get that response, nor are Indonesians whom I meet now for the first time surprised that I speak Indonesian tolerably well. And this is most encouraging. If native-speakers of English take for granted the ability of foreigners to speak their language, why shouldn't Indonesians take for granted the ability (and the courtesy) of foreigners who speak theirs? This stance seems to me all the more reasonable in view of how easy it is to learn Indonesian as compared to, say, learning Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Chinese, or Japanese.

EI: What are your favorite memories of travelling in Indonesia?
DE: Too many to recount. Among them, here's just one: the peaceful contemplation of the flat central Javanese plain and a train crossing it, shrunk to the size of a toy by the distance from my perch on the edge of a cassava patch a short walk up from what little is left of the small temple of Ratu Baka not far from Prambanan, a deeply tranquil sight enhanced by the fact that while droves of camera-toters explored the latter, the former was still quite untouristed the last time I was there.

Many thanks to Don Emmerson for his time and insights. He's welcome back anytime!


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1 comment:

johnorford said...

really enjoyed the 2 posts chris!