‘Indonesia’s Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam’ by Greg Barton and ‘Beginning to Remember: The Past in the Indonesian Present’, edited by Mary S. Zurbuchen

Reviewed by Jean Gelman Taylor

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Few days go by without Indonesia making headlines in Australia’s media. Two recent publications therefore provide timely reading. Greg Barton’sIndonesia’s Struggle focuses on radical Muslim movements. The opening chapter of this short book details how Indonesian and Australian police found, amidst the bomb debris in Bali in October 2002, vital clues leading to the rapid identification, capture, trials and gaoling of the conspirators to murder. The rest of Barton’s book seeks causes for this and subsequent bombings by men claiming Islam as their motivation and guide. He rejects the claim that terrorism is “un-Indonesian” and that terrorist attacks in Indonesia are the work of foreign radicals. Barton argues that assaults on non-Muslim Indonesia grow out of the indigenous Dakwah (religious revival) movement established in 1967. He warns that small radical groups can have enormous impact on societies that are economically and politically unstable, and that their gains or advances are difficult to roll back.

Barton’s targeted audiences are policy makers in Indonesia and Australia. Mary Zurbuchen’s edited collection, on the other hand, is addressed to Indonesia specialists. The genesis of Beginning to Remember was a conference at the University of California-Los Angeles in April 2001 on the theme of history and memory. Its purpose was to consider how Indonesians – academics, politicians, ordinary people – reflect, since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, on the mass murders of 1965-66 that his administration orchestrated. For all of Suharto’s thirty-two years in power, the coup that toppled the government of President Sukarno was attributed to Indonesia’s Communist Party. Leftists were labelled traitors. Public rituals, monuments, museum displays, newspaper coverage and school history textbooks commemorate the deaths of seven senior military men at the hands of the coup leaders, but suppress memory of the killing of up to one million alleged communists and the gaoling without trial of thousands.

Contributors to Beginning to Remember, however, venture further afield from this Java-centric history. Gerry van Klinken and Andi F. Bakti examine how the disaffected in Indonesia’s other regions of Sulawesi, Aceh, Papua and Maluku rewrite history to protest a Javanese imperialism depicted as succeeding the Dutch colonial state. This section of the book includes a strong indictment of Professor Nugroho Notosusanto, official historian of the armed forces, as contributing to the militarisation of Indonesian society. Hendrik Maier discusses the problem of certainty in establishing “history” by comparing the precise tenses characteristic of English with the ambiguities of tense and pronouns that characterise Malay-Indonesian and its reliance on context for ascertaining meaning. Laurie Sears’s sensitive explication of Goenawan Mohamad’s dramatic poem, Kali, illustrates the problems confronting translators of allusive performance literature.

Daniel Lev urges a re-examination of Indonesia’s first years of independence when political parties were allowed to campaign directly, even stridently, for voters. He argues that, while electioneering sharpened the public’s awareness of Indonesia’s ethnic, regional and religious cleavages, such competition steered conflict into the civil domain and away from the battleground. Suppression of active political life by both Presidents Sukarno and Suharto bought time but could not resolve conflicts that, in 1965 and again in 1998, burst out in nation-wide violence.

I found Karen Strassler’s chapter an insightful examination of contemporary Indonesian political culture. She considers exhibitions of photographs of the street protests mounted by university students that contributed to Suharto’s resignation. Her observation of reactions of student viewers and scrutiny of their comments in exhibition visitors’ books lead her to argue that viewers perceived the photos as “authentic proof” and “witness to history”, but they failed to grasp that photographer and exhibitor exercised selection over images, or recognise the manipulation of the visual record in Indonesian political life. Suharto, for instance, was swept to power amid similar student demonstrations in 1965 and subsequently claimed photographs of that student action as evidence of popular support for his seizure of government. Strassler also describes how the state now inserts the 1998 photographs into a political narrative in which university students are classified as a moral force driving change, but one that conveniently disappears from the political stage as soon as “proper” political authority is constituted.

Degung Santikarma reflects on memorials to the foreign dead in Bali, on the state’s televised funeral rites for them, and on international reporting of the bombing as tragedy imposed on peaceful Bali by Muslim Javanese outsiders (the terrorists of Barton’s Indonesia). Bali’s image has been fabricated as distinct from Indonesia, a place of respite for foreign tourists and middle class Indonesians alike. This construction divorces Bali from its own politics, its divisions over feudalism and land distribution, its militias and its history of massacre in 1966 (the highest per capita killings in all of Indonesia). Santikarma asks why it is that Indonesia and the world can mourn 202 foreigners killed in Bali in 2002 and ignore the 100,000 Balinese killed in 1966 and answers his own question: such recognition would show that Balinese are murderers as well as artists, and thus harm Bali’s tourist economy.

Books born of conferences take years to come to publication, and much has happened since April 2001. But many of the chapters in Beginning to Remember were worked on in the months following October 2002, so it is odd that so little is said in this book about Indonesian Islam that is the subject of Barton’s book. The state-directed massacres of 1965-66 were committed by sections of the armed forces, but also by members of civilian Islamic and Catholic youth organizations. Lev urges inspiration from democratic politics, but, according to Barton, important Islamic parties participate in elections in order to win power and replace democracy with theocracy. Schreiner discusses the proposal of the Foundation for Research on Victims of 1965 to reclaim remains from mass graves for dignified reburial, but he does not record that the plan was given up, its organisers threatened with death bythe Front for the Defence of Islam whose members still perceive communists as enemies of Indonesia and of G-d. The student protest movement on campuses has died down since 1999, but activists have taken politics to bloody confrontation in fighting between Muslims and Christians in Maluku and Sulawesi, and thousands of Indonesians are refugees in their own country, victims of “sweeping” (Indonesia’s term for “ethnic cleansing”). Barton overlooks local causes for local conflicts and argues that the root cause lies in the impossibility of reconciling demands for a religiously tolerant state with demands for a state based on Islamic law.

Both books call for an Australian readership, especially now that Indonesian language and history studies are dying in Australia’s universities. Students’ distaste for learning about our most important neighbour needs to be counteracted by engagement with issues that dominate the lives of our neighbours. The Barton book speaks directly to our fears, while Zurbuchen’s authors more subtly probe the complex history of the Republic of Indonesia and the debates and conflicts preoccupying its citizens.


Indonesia’s Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam by Greg Barton, was published in Sydney by University of New South Wales Press, 2004, (89pp).

Beginning to Remember: The Past in the Indonesian Present, edited by Mary S. Zurbuchen, was published in Singapore: by Singapore University Press, 2005, (xvii & 342pp).

Associate Professor Jean Gelman Taylor teaches modern Southeast Asian and Islamic history in the School of History, University of New South Wales. Her latest book is Indonesia: Peoples and Histories (2003).

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