A Friendship, Some Mediated Imaginations, and Religiosity in Java/Elsewhere

Steve Ferzacca


Jumpa Lagi

I have been coming to Indonesia for over twenty years, and for twelve of those years I’ve been involved in research as a cultural anthropologist on the island of Java, in the city of Yogyakarta (Yogya). In summer 2002 I was back for another visit, and an old friend that I’ve known both professionally and personally stopped by the house on the southside of Yogya where my family and I were staying. Mas Yarto, an office worker who manages the payroll for a research project associated with a local university, was a data cruncher for a similar project back when I met him twelve years earlier. I was a graduate student then and had come with my partner, also a graduate student, to conduct research in this mostly Javanese city for our PhD dissertations in cultural anthropology.

Upon his arrival, we greeted each other enthusiastically with handshakes and a sniff of each other’s cheeks. After slipping off his shoes he entered the small front room of our portion of the house that led into a larger room for guests, blessed with a ceiling fan and elaborately decorated with Javanese antiques, textiles, and Indonesian modern art. In a corner of this marble-floored room hung an exquisite painting of an equally exquisite man, at least in the eyes of many Indonesians. In short sleeves and familiar black hat was a pastel portrait of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. As the fan gyrated into a pleasant hum, among these relics of various moments of modernity, we lit up our cigarettes together, the sweet smoke bonding our friendship and comradery as men.

It didn’t take long for our conversation to turn to the events of September 11. From behind a plume of clove-ripened smoke Mas Yarto’s eyes seemed to pierce through this veil as he posed both a theory and question about those tragic events. Looking me in the eye he asked and proposed, “isn’t it true that thousands of Yahudi [Jews] who worked in the World Trade Center knew in advance to take the day off from work,” thus escaping death, mayhem, and injury. Knowing this, one could only conclude, as his rhetorical question proceeded, that “Jews were flying the planes.”

Just then the call for evening prayer began to echo through the city. Mas Yarto, in what seemed to me a strategic gesture designed to add an exclamation point to his position on the attacks, politely asked to excuse himself to wash his hands, feet, and face, and returned to pray in a corner of the room while I continued to smoke in silence. Like Marc Perlman in his 1997 return visit to Solo, the other court town to the east of Yogya, I was struck by this “increase in personal religiosity” (Perlman 1999, 11). In all of our years, the only time Mas Yarto had prayed in my presence was at the office with the other staff in the small room designated for daily prayers. I’ve been an overnight guest at his house on several occasions, and we spent many an afternoon after our office work tooling around town on his motorcycle, catching a movie now and then, and visiting sites, warung (food and drink stalls), and other places in and around Yogya he thought I should see.

Our talk in those days was mostly politics and culture, Javanese culture, and of course, my interest at the time in pengobatan tradisional (traditional medicine). Even though he lives in a small town to the south of Yogya where former rulers and their family members of the court towns of Solo and Yogya are buried – grave sites considered supernaturally potent (angker) and holy (keramat) – we rarely spoke of the varieties of Javanese religions, except perhaps the role of Javanese mysticism (kebathinan) in medicine. Islam, and certainly Christianity, in my recollection, had never been a source of discussion.

Back in those early days of our relationship, Mas Yarto struck me as a man of modernity. A Sukarnoist, suspicious of the Suharto New Order, engaged in science even as a minion of the office hired to bersih data (clean data), now befriending somebody from a place, at that time, representing everything thoroughly modern – from technology to free sex. One afternoon we and several others from the office went to see a movie, Oliver Stone’s JFK. As its star, Kevin Costner, began to outline the conspiracies he proposed had coalesced in the assassination of John F. Kennedy in a coup d’ tat, I could see that Mas Yarto was tearing up. After the movie ended, he and the others agreed that JFK and Sukarno shared many qualities and that what had happened to Kennedy – at least in the movie – had also happened to Sukarno. A common interest in conspiracy theories aside, it was the critique of the modern nation-state and its governmental intents that gave us common ground – a heady sense of modernity indeed.

Here we were in 2002 discussing conspiracy theories again. His punctuated argument in that room as the evening call for prayer sounded in the air drew upon a tradition of sensing conspirators and provocateurs behind every turn of history, every thrust towards change and capricious event. Since the political and economic crises that began in 1997 – continuing with the fall of Suharto, violent uprisings in different parts of the archipelago, student demonstrations and the reform movement (Reformasi), bank scandals, the killings of practitioners of black magic, the rapes of Chinese and Chinese-Indonesian women, cannibalism and neo-headhunting in some so-called outer islands, and of course, the petty and not-so petty politics of the Parliament – newspapers and magazines have confirmed and fueled local knowledge and rumor that someone or some ones were behind it all.

Because of our long-standing friendship and my own feelings about his entry into modernity, it was with some amount of resolve that I explained to Mas Yarto that such a proposition was preposterous. The evidence was clear, I said without hesitation (or thinking), that members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization were behind the plots and had perpetrated the attacks.

As the summer passed, I became increasingly aware that an emerging global pattern of affect had entered my relationship with Mas Yarto. Since my arrival he had been keenly interested in directing my scholarly attention towards the particular history and character of Javanese Islam. He took it upon himself to arrange several interviews with people whom he and others from his small town considered to be well read, scholars of Islam. One meeting with an autodidact of Islamic knowledge and practice, a man of some local renown, was to take place in Mas Yarto’s town half an hour south of the city. He had invited friends from Yogya to attend our “interview,” and since the conversation was scheduled in the evening, it seemed logical to have his friends pick me up and drive me there. Waiting for them to arrive, I suddenly envisioned the newspaper photographs of executed reporter Daniel Pearl, tied up, sitting on the floor, head bowed, hair grabbed by some off-stage captor, gun and knife to his head. Embarrassingly, I became more frightened as I waited, so much so that I walked back to the house to tell my partner that she might be concerned if I didn’t return. Mas Yarto – and our existence in a mediated politics of identity turned extremely violent, a “plurality of realisms” I brought together into a work of my own imagination – had frightened me to the point of astonishment. 1

In all my years in Indonesia I had never felt frightened in this way. Moreover, these contemplations involved someone I called a friend and relative. We’ve worked together, eaten together, traveled together, played together, I supported his children through school, he has helped my partner with her work, we had as substantial a relationship as any I have had in Indonesia, perhaps beyond. This fear, this structure of feeling linked to global events that I experienced as I climbed into the mini-van, violated the long-standing, but always in-the-making emotional charge of our human relationship. I now wonder if I should have talked to Mas Yarto before I returned home about my fears that evening. Two years later (2004) we met again, once and briefly. We found we had little to say to one another, although he did bring me a gift that seems iconic of these times in Indonesia, in which, as Mote and Rutherford observe of Papua, “mass-mediated representations of violence [and other affairs] are a determining factor in the unfolding of events” (Mote and Rutherford 2001, 117). He brought me a book. And while it was not a representation of violence, it seemed to me to capture the multiple translations, (re)inscriptions, and virtual realities that charge imaginations in these times –  it was an Indonesian translation of an English-speaking western scholar’s interpretations of Qur’anic suras.


Since the political and economic crisis, the second Palestinian Intifada, the events of 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the hope of the international community for Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, is that its people and its politics remain “moderate.” It is generally understood among observers of Indonesia, professional and otherwise, that a persistent history of tolerance and flexibility in social identity and social life among peoples in the region is the source of a moderate politics of identity. In fact, this tolerance and fluidity in orientation and experience has been cited as a cultural trait in island Southeast Asia, and in the Indonesian archipelago in particular. O.W. Wolters, in explicating a “cultural matrix” characteristic of the region, cites from a nineteenth-century Javanese text what he sees as a shared aspect of personhood across social and cultural boundaries, in which a civilized person (wong praja) is described as a flexible one (lemesena) (1999, 161). 2 Ben Anderson remarked that, especially for the Javanese, “almost anything is tolerated, provided it can be adapted to or explained in terms of the Javanese way of life” (1996, 16). More recently, however, in a retrospective on times passed, Anderson noted a lessening of “the tolerance of the Javanese” and the appearance of a figurative, and in many cases literal, social architecture of “high forbidding walls between different social groups” (2002, 3).

Events in Indonesia before and since 9/11 suggest that tolerance and the ability of Javanese to “change places” in this culturally plural nation are being challenged (Beatty 2002). In particular, the long-standing “flexible citizenship,” so to speak, between religious affiliation and personhood appears to be undergoing change towards an all too familiar rigidity. 3 As Anderson lamented some forty years ago and again recently, global forces and the rise of nationalism among the Javanese have “clearly threatened the older moral pluralism,” “undermining the older, structurally conditioned tolerance” (1996, 42). Based on observations and conversations up close and from afar, I want to explore here the manner in which identity in Indonesia, especially religious identity, has been newly charged. While local conflicts in Maluku, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi – variously described as ethnic, religious, political, economic, or some combination thereof – are perhaps cogent enough examples of the appearance of less tolerant, more rigid identity formations, in the following I will consider some conversations I had with my long-standing friend and others while conducting fieldwork in and around Yogyakarta in 2002.

Notably, and for the first time in this familiar local context, I encountered the “Jew,” or Yahudi. As I began to pay more attention, it became clear that this global sign had salience not only as a particular interpretive sign for understanding 9/11 and other events in and outside Indonesia. It was receiving other semiotic loads as well that reflect shifting social forms and practices and polarities of identity formation in Indonesia. Given the small number of Jewish communities in Indonesia, it is likely that little experience-informed knowledge of the Yahudi exists among Indonesians. 4 Further, the few Jews remaining in the small community in Surarbaya have neither been targeted nor experienced recent discrimination. Muslim neighbors greet them with the “cry of Shalom,” kosher is maintained with meat from a Muslim halal butcher, and for over a decade a Muslim family has served as caretakers of the small synagogue there (see Graham 2004). This suggests that the global sign of the Jew in Indonesia resonates with other events and anxieties in and among Indonesians.

After the parliamentary election of Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, for example, Israeli and Palestinian violence began to be felt as a “mediated elsewhere” in the country. 5 It was at this time that the Yahudi as a political sign gained its present currency. Its visibility in the media is witnessed as reality, which gains deeper meaning within a visible context of other signs that profess equal insights into the really real of human events and affairs. Feldman  (2000) describes this politicized visibility as a “scopic regime” in which a “plurality” of so-called “realisms” come to shape human understanding of events (see Feldman 2000). Siegel notes that the “word ‘Jew’ in Indonesia indicates a menace,” but a menace without form (2001, 302). In some instances, as Siegel suggests, Jewish religious identity “merges into that of the Christian” (ibid., 272). Hasan sees the same merging in the circulating “Zionist-cum-Christian conspiracy theory” (2002, 163). Clearly, this is what the Bali bombers had in mind. During his trial, Amrozi, one of the convicted bombers, explained that the bombings were spurred by moral decline throughout the world started by Jews, the United States, and US allies. The secular good life of this axis of evil was, in his mind, competing with religion to bring about moral decay. He was consequently “proud of the attacks that killed white people, but sad about the Indonesian losses.”

Siegel maintains that the anti-Semitism associated with the “mediatic Jew” enters into the everyday politics of religious diversity in Indonesia through Indonesian media accounts of violence between Muslim and “Chinese” communities. Siegel argues that the “Chinese give the Jewish threat . . . a body and thus a place in Indonesia” (2001, 303). Reid cites evidence that the linking of Jews and Chinese has a history in Southeast Asia, as Chinese came to be known as “Jews-in-the-East” (1997, 55). And, as Chirot notes, “the analogy with Jews is not welcomed among Chinese intellectuals in Southeast Asia” and only serves to “antagonize Muslims” (1997, 5). In effect, the global sign of the Jew, an already heavily loaded racialized sign, mediates the social identity of the Chinese that is already a “racial category” in Indonesian society, so that social theories about Chinese Indonesians as Chinese, Indonesian, or any other marked identity operate as fulfilling prophecies. This is how racism works, and why it seems useful to so many for understanding social life and difference.

The global sign of the “Jew” mediated through the Indonesian media also fuels fear among Indonesian Muslims that Islam is undergoing a process of adulteration, a fear often expressed in a discourse of “blood.” In October 2000, protests in Malaysia directed at the presence of the Israeli cricket team on Malaysian soil spurred demonstrations in Jakarta. Indonesian protestors drenched Israeli flags in blood and demanded, “We want Jewish blood.” On another occasion, Alwi Shihab, Wahid’s minister of foreign affairs, argued before the Parliament that Indonesia needed the support of the “Jewish lobby” in its effort to block the establishment of an international East Timor tribunal to hear cases of alleged human rights violations and war crimes by Indonesian military personnel in the final days the occupation. Why the “Jewish lobby”? Because the American congress is controlled by Jews and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had Jewish blood in her veins.

Reid laments that today in Indonesia and Malaysia, “the crudest racial formulations of the demonology of modernization are directed against a ‘Jewish’ minority known only as a theoretical construct” (1997, 63). In elaborating on the “demonology of modernization,” Reid notes the Indonesian fascination with and loathing of modernisasi, westernisasi, and globalisasi – historical processes and conditions Indonesians often conflate as one. Suharto’s New Order had encouraged such conflation, packaging pembangunan (development) together with indigenous democracy, hierarchical social relations, and the flow of goods and services as the basis of a just and prosperous society, as well as the foundation of the Indonesian state. Reformasi unveiled Suharto’s dream of pembangunan to be based on collusion, corruption, and nepotism (Kolusi, Korupsi, Nepotisme, KKN). 6 Further, it appeared in direct contradiction with the principles of a gotong-royong state of mutual aid, family values, and reciprocity and exchange that Indonesians see as essential to social life. 7

But dreams can be hard to wake up from, and herein lies an irony. Another convicted Bali bomber, Ali Imron, stated that “the capabilities of our group as the sons of the Indonesian nation are worth being proud of.” This statement alludes to the 1928 Youth Oath heralding a nationalist “awakening” in Indonesia. 8 This awakening of national identity had as its aspiration entry into modernity of the nation-state kind. Under Sukarno’s Old Order and Guided Democracy, being a nation-state was semiotic of progress towards becoming a mature, advanced (maju) society. For Suharto’s New Order regime, however, simply being a nation-state was not enough; rather, the sign of modernity was the technocratically engineered, technologically developed condition of pembangunan. Thirty years of the pembangunan mentalité has had deep psychological, social, and cultural impacts on Indonesians, especially on the ways they see themselves, both among themselves and vis-a-vis the world of others. 9 Therefore, it was not surprising that Imron’s main source of pride was the technological capability of building and denoting bombs and the ability of poor village youth from a developing country to strike a blow against developed, modern powers like the US and Australia (see Fealy 2003). During a news conference in which he showed off the technology used in the 12 October 2002 bombing in Kuta Beach, Imron claimed he had learned to make bombs in Afghanistan and stated, “Our capabilities as Indonesians are something to be proud of, but they were used for a wrong purpose.” Linking the Indonesian nation with technological innovation has been a central urge of the ideology of developmentalism, pembangunan, of Suharto’s New Order regime.

The developmentalism that courses through the statements of the Bali bombers represents the economic and cultural consequences of New Order politics. During Suharto’s regime, globalization as Trouillot defines it – “changes in the composition and spatialization of capital” (2001, 128) – clearly took place in Indonesia, and was felt, I think it fair to say, at nearly all levels of society in some way or another. And while Trouillot notes that globalization is a fragmented process, he does identify the “planetary integration of the market for consumer goods,” linking peoples and places (like Indonesia) into a “web of consumption in which national ideals are becoming more similar even as the means to achieve them elude a growing majority” (ibid). The market and its mediatics – the media performances of the market in human life – embody and display the desire for the “good life” that the Bali bombers at once loathed and favored (ibid). 10 The conventional media of television, radio, and print remain dominantly influenced by others, namely the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, and India. 11 The mediations of a social imaginary of the good life achieved through the consumption of consumer goods is obvious both to newly arrived visitors and those of us who have spent some time in Indonesia. 12 Before the current anti-Americanism, this was the singular dominant image projected onto me by many Indonesians I met and came to know.

In some ways Mas Yarto’s position that early evening reflects similar sentiments. I sat before him, both object and subject within an emerging “scopic regime” in which multiple realities historically anchored in recent times invaded our lived histories as friends and co-workers. Gazing upon the contours of each other, we both, I believe, contemplated many “elsewheres” – the “mediated and mediatized elsewheres” Spyer characterizes as a “swirl of image, vocabularies, sound-bites, slogans, and vectors” that powerfully mediate the lived histories of local lives (2000, 28). 13 I can only suppose this was so for Mas Yarto, probably should have asked, but the effect on me, as indicated by my fear on one particular evening, was disturbing.


In similar ways, these “contemporary mediascapes” are also affecting the imagining of community, or more precisely, of communities in Indonesia today. 14 It is the convergence of so many events, images, activities, and associations that make these momentous times in Indonesia. Insiders and outsiders alike note the up and down side of Reformasi in the ability and freedoms Indonesians have to express their identities and thoughts in a multitude of ways. In terms of identity, Gerry van Klinken remarks that there is now “an exclusive discourse of ethnicity such as not been heard so publicly in Indonesia before” (2002, 68). Perhaps, but the desire for Jewish blood and the interpretation of blood as inherently fixed to religious affiliation is a disturbing sign of the times. While Siegel admits that the category “Chinese” is for some Indonesians a “racial category” (in the sense of inheritance of physical traits”), he says that Indonesians harbor a different sense of racism (1998, 83, 85). He sees a distinction between “European racists” and “Indonesian racists” in terms of embodiment and assimilation – the other for European racists are “intolerable” for the elements they embody that pose threats, whereas the Chinese pose a threat if they don’t try to become “better Indonesians” (ibid, 85).

Recently, however, the notion of intolerable elements embodied by individuals has become noticeably entrenched in ethnic-religious conflict. In a conference version of this essay, my partner, Janice Newberry, an anthropologist conducting fieldwork in the same urban kampung (village), recounted a brief conversation with a son of the family we have lived with on and off over the years. As she remembered,

I was talking to the oldest son of the family, a quiet man, who had worked long and hard in a pharmacy alongside his father to help support the family. He had finally married and had moved in with his wife’s family, although he continued to spend significant time in his mother’s home. Not given to talking much, his words always seemed to carry more weight as a consequence. He talked about how things had changed. “You know, Mbak, now it’s as if a child won’t even take money from my hand. Now I’m kafir.” The use of the word kafir was very striking. I had never heard it used before. And now a Catholic was contemplating how even young children would no longer want to touch him. It was a very troubling moment (Newberry and Ferzacca 2003).

The increased religiosity that Perlman and I experienced among our friends has come to mean – for some Indonesians – religious purity of bodies, rather than differences in custom, ritual, views of God, modes of prayer. This is evident in direct and indirect ways. Many of these newly emerging “definitive religious worldviews” in Indonesia are fueled by mediations, particularly the Internet (see Bräuchler 2003). And while bodies on all sides of the recent sectarian conflicts can be purified through assimilation (conversion), they are nonetheless targeted for the blood that runs in their veins. Ja’far Umar Thalib, the now retired leader of Laskar Jihad, an Islamic militia, remarked during a high point in Muslim-Christian conflict that “Laskar Jihad sees Muslim blood as very expensive. In fact the blood of Muslims is more noble because it comes from the Ka’bah and it is more noble because it’s from Arafah.” 15 On trial for his role in terrorist activities in Indonesia, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was quoted by the Prosecutor as saying in April 2001, “If their blood is halal (allowable under Islam), so are their belongings,” meaning the belongings of non-Muslims are available for the taking by Muslims. 16

Further, the linking of blood to religious affiliation is not a recent development. These linkages took on a thoroughly modern appearance in the years just before the Japanese occupation. With war looming, Sukarno, under house arrest by the Dutch in Bengkulu, wrote several articles responding to decisions made by religious scholars (ulama) belonging to the umbrella organization later to become the Muslim political party Masyumi (then the Majlis Islam A’laa Indonesia, MIAI). 17 In an editorial that appeared on 18 July 1941 in the daily Pemandangan, Insinyur (engineer) Sukarno, man of modernity, attempted to convince Muslim scholars of the benefits of blood transfusion (1959a and 1959b). Some ulama had expressed concern about the use of Muslim blood to save the lives of the enemy (musuh) and the use of non-Muslim blood to save Muslim lives. Sukarno argued for the donation of blood (mendermakan darah) and blood transfusions (bloedtransfusie) using “data” gathered from the Qur’an and events in Islamic history.

Doesn’t the Qur’an argue that the polytheist (orang Musyrikin) is filthy (najis)? It’s true that it says that, but filthy with what? A filthy body? Filthy blood? No! What is said in the Qur’an about najis it that their understanding is filthy, a defiling conviction (itikad), a defiled thinking, a defiled religion. Polytheists can suddenly be seen as not defiling if they accept the belief in one God – from a belief in more than one god (syirik) to Islam. And their blood that flows through their body is not defiling, unholy (tidak suci), as long as that blood does not become dirty (kotoran). Don’t forget that a Muslim can become filthy from the blood of a Muslim that is “dirty.” Dirty blood (darah kotor) like that is filthy (Sukarno 1959a, 505). 18

Sukarno makes a clear distinction between the notion of blood carrying identity because of links to religious affiliation (najis) and the biology of blood that can become pathologically dirty through biological processes (kotoran). In making this distinction, Sukarno not only hoped to draw upon the “tolerance” of the Javanese, but to show the fluidity between body and religious identity. By becoming Muslim, one’s blood becomes holy (yang tentu suci); therefore, biology is subject to history and not a fixed natural entity primordially tied to an equally fixed identity. This is the promise of modernity, after all, and the promise of Revolusi – that identity is made, engineered. Evoking the classic categories of Indonesian modernity, he called upon Muslims to enact an Islam that was not unrefined (mentah), primitive (primitief), uncivilized (biadad), and cruel (kejam), but a modern, wartime Islam (Oorlogsethiek Islam) filled with refined ideas (berisi budi yang halus) (ibid., 501), because the techniques and advancements of science made the blood received from donation not “dirty blood,” but “plasma that is clean and pure (murni)” (ibid., 506).

Errington points out that “in island Southeast Asia, . . . speculations about the reasons for differences between people (men and women, high and low, Javanese and non-Javanese) seldom put anatomy or physiology at the center” (1990, 57). In general this is true, but there are many examples in which the embodiment of identity has operated as a code of difference in and outside of Java. The shifting polarity in identity formations between fixity and tolerance is a constant in the history of social relations in this archipelago. Just as “being Indonesian was (and is) not something ‘natural’ or biological, but was (and is) something created by modern history” (Anderson 2002, 19), modern history has also had something to do with the association of Malay with Islam, Balinese with Hindu, Chinese with atheism, and so forth. 19

In my conversations with the religious expert in Mas Yarto’s town, the linkage of body, ethnicity, and religion were featured as a true explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. This autodidact produced such a narrative nightly, I was told, in a geography of syncretist Javanism – that peculiarly Javanese amalgam of Hindu-Buddhist-Islam mysticism that has fascinated insiders and outsiders alike for so long. In this kejawen (Javanism) stronghold south of Yogyakarta, our teacher identified the problem as a Jewish and Arab one, that is, a problem of ethnic identity that is biologically fixed, or at least genealogically continuous. He argued that the conflicts evidenced by recent events are not just religious conflicts writ large, and certainly not conflicts based in any Islamic ideology or theology. He cited events like 9/11 as having a genealogical history beginning with the original family feud between the descendents of Abraham that has since become entangled in the evolution of “modern” political organizations. He outlined a sequence that placed recent violence in a series of stages of social evolution, beginning with conflicts among families, followed by tribes, chiefdoms, and finally nation-states.

According to his proposal, it is within the context of the nation-state that the purity of the religious message has been captured and polluted by a modern politics of identity for the purpose of satisfying secular desires, neglecting the purity of the religious message that should stand outside the affairs of humans. Ja’far Umar Thalib agrees, and this was a common refrain I heard that summer and since. 20 It all begin as a blood feud, from his perspective, and continues as a problem of race (blood). In an eerily similar argument, when Bali bomber Amrozi received the death penalty while his younger brother Imron received a life sentence, Amrozi expressed contempt for Imron’s feelings of remorse: “Of course, we are different. I cannot recognize him. He dresses more and more like a lawyer. The eggs that we came from are different, aren’t they?”

Further evidence of the fixing of religious and ethnic identity can be found in some draft legislation which Indonesian activists fear will bring the state into the most intimate affairs of daily life under the banner of establishing and maintaining religious harmony. The desire on the part of some Muslim groups for the inclusion of the syariat (Shariah) into national legal code – or even the replacement of the code with syariat – is disturbing to Indonesians who wish to see the separation of religion and state maintained, Pancasila without the Jakarta Charter, as it is referred to. For these Indonesians, the problem with the Holy Law of syariat is not its affiliation to religion, but its claim to provide the one and only guide for behavior. In Arabic, syariat means the clear, well-trodden path to water. The spirit of the proposed change is an act of purification.

If passed, two legislative drafts – a revision to the Criminal Code (revisi Kitab Undang-Undang Hukum Pidana, KUHP) and a Legislative Plan for a Harmonious Religious Community (Rancangan Undang Udang tentang Kerukunan Umat Beragama) – would bring the state and the law into all sorts of interactions among Indonesians. Combined, the revision and the draft would affect marriage and blood transfusions between people of different faiths, preparations and methods of burial, methods of performing sex, sexual orientation, cohabitation, witchcraft, and other aspects of interpersonal relationships, with some special attention to those taking place between Muslims and non-Muslims. 21 Essentially, the legislation is about exchanges that take place between and among bodies with the intent of limiting bodily exchanges in order to palliate religious arguments (argumentasasi agama) and forestall, if not reverse, national disintegration (disintegrasi Bangsa).

This is not the first time efforts have been made to implement syariat as the basis of Javanese legal code. This was a fundamental reason for Dipanagara’s Holy War (perang sabil), the Java War of 1825-1830. Remarkably similar conditions and discourse existed then, at least on the surface. Peter Carey, in his translation and commentary on a version of the Babad Dipanagara, argues that it was the “religious factor” of the rebellion that distinguished it from previous struggles and conflicts among the peoples of Java. He identifies attitudes of Christian Europeans towards Muslim Javanese, their harassment of religious teachers, and legal reforms introduced by Raffles (continued later by Dutch officials), in addition to increased contact with the “heartland of the Islamic World in Arabia,” as framing the rebellion by Dipanagara as a Holy War against the European kafir (1981, 46). Carey cites Dipanagara: “The European authority in Java was a great misfortune for the Javanese people, because they have been taken away from the Holy Law of the Prophet and had been subjected to European laws” (ibid., 73 n. 241).

Some 200 years later, the same arguments are being made in the bureaucracy of the modern nation-state. The Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Prof. Dr. Yusril Ihza Mahendra, stated that changes to the Criminal Code were necessary because the Code had not been revised since its inception during the Dutch colonial period and did not reflect the values and laws of Islam. 22 In a recent statement to Kompas, Mahendra stated that the revisions resulted from a process of transformation of the legal norms (kaidah-kaidah) of Islamic law, customary law (hukum adat), imported Dutch law (hukum eks Belanda), and international law already in place in society. After this transformation takes place, a positive set of legal norms can become Indonesian national law. 23 At the time of writing the post-election Parliament was to take up discussion of the revisions beginning in October 2004 (currently underway) (ibid). 

Scapes of Feeling

The post-Suharto era is both an exciting and troubling time in terms of public religion and popular identity. Chinese and peranakan Chinese are now free to express and partake in images, activities, and associations that celebrate their ethnic identity. At the same time, the 1999 implementation of syariat in Aceh has led to “sweepings” and “Islamic dress inspections” in which the “physical symbols of Islam became the focus of various campaigns” resulting in a physicality of punition (Suraiya 2004). The demise of pela gandong, the peaceful co-existence among Christians and Muslims in Maluku, is just one horrific example of the recent convergence of internal forces –  regional autonomy, flows of people through the archipelago for economic and political reasons, national economic and political instability, and transition from a long period of disciplined rule – with equally broad global forces coursing through technologies of violence, communication, and transportion, to name a few mediums. The consequences can be – perhaps don’t have to be – the kind of “hyper-hermeneutics” Spyer observes in Ambon where once closely-tied people try to discern “just under the contours of your regular Ambonese face… its ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’ contours” (2000: 35-36). As Dwyer points out in a thoughtful and sensitive study of Balinese women’s recollections of the violence of 1965-66, at times when social relations become highly charged power relations, a symbol of affiliation can become “an indexical sign pointing to the instability of knowledge itself” (2004). Such symbols also destabilize “scopic regimes”of social structure and relations, making it difficult but at the same time imperative to know who’s who and what’s what.

The conflation of so many currents and changes in Indonesia today is having both intended and unintended consequences in terms of security and identity. The proposed revisions to the Criminal Code appear on the surface to be an example of tolerant syncreticism. But in the context of legislated regional autonomy (otonomi), 24 primordial imaginations fixing people and place (the masyarakat adat movement and legislation), local politicos asserting “native son” (putra daerah) status in struggles for control of local resources, the “freeing” of political space, the consequences of migrations and resettlement programs, witch hunts, ethnic cleansing (pembersihan etnik), and terrorism projected in religious terms, the proposed changes can be read more ominously. They at least potentially signal “coded ways of talking [and acting] about other differences” (Lutz and Collins 2002, 92), here on a national level emphasizing “a trope of the ultimate, irreducible difference” (Gates, 1985, 5). 25

My point is to illustrate in a small way – within an ongoing friendship some twelve years in the making – the significance that “globally traveling discourses of terror, war, economic rationality, or even human rights” can have at the very heart of human interpersonal relationships. 26 A challenge for anthropologists is to gain awareness of the confluence of history and identity formation within the ethnographic enclaves of the everyday – this goes without saying. Finessing an anthropology at a distance in both time and space with abrupt immersions into local knowledge and place is, at least for me, shaky business. Ethnographic work is always in medias res. But given the contingencies of my fieldwork practices since the early nineties, my periods of immersion are brief and limited at best – summertime ethnographic immersions further truncated by the necessary fulfillment of social proprieties. Given the ethnographic thinness of only one thickly lived relationship, based on punctuated encounters at that, I can only speculate how mediated imaginations play out as indexical signs when relationships are densely lived, when animosities and offenses as well as friendships and pleasures are allowed to build up. 27

Ethnography is further confounded when those we work with and learn from are experiencing this confluence at times of crisis or as a chronic condition of unstable affairs. Long-term fieldwork in a particular place, with attention to historically charged local knowledge, is crucial for providing relevant testimony, even when we are compelled to follow along through “multi-sited” scapes and “deterritorialized” activities in order to “examine the circulation” of ideas, media, things, people, and so forth (Appadurai 1991; Marcus 1998). Caution is necessary when considering the contemporary circumstances surrounding identity formation that is fueled from outside events and discourses, as well as what some describe as the chaotic and perhaps dangerously free new ground of Indonesia’s national politics. Yet, it is no exaggeration to note that the raw materials for identity building in Indonesia have long included those emphasizing fixity, as well as those implying tolerance and fluidity. This polarity of identity has changed for Indonesia, due to forces within and without. The Jew as a global sign enters into the specifics of this place – Indonesia – as Yahudi, domesticated again to serve and satisfy the anxieties and desires of people engaged in particular conflicts wrapped in the desire for a globally familiar good life. The image and actuality of the globally constituted good life that infuses the public sphere provides the ever emerging technologies of communication (TV, handphones, and the Internet) and combat (guns and explosives) that for some Indonesians serve as mediums of expression for long-established ill-feelings between followers of different religions and ethnicities.

As religion, blood, and global desire circulate as political signs, we must not forget the scapes of emotions these signs are charged with and course through. The emerging salience of the Jew in Indonesia as a politically charged touchstone is one of those expected and unexpected turns in local sentiment and sensibility that says as much about global mass-mediated politics as it does about populist social relations in a country faced with an unstable present and uncertain future. For Indonesians like Mas Yarto, the desire to participate in a perceived and real global modernity embodied in the globalized sign of the good life often challenges the foundations of spiritual life in Indonesia. The persistence of these and other received categories among former colonized peoples require all of us to pay attention to our complicity in these serious issues at the root of current discord and violence. Until we do, stories like Mas Yarto’s and mine will only grow in proportion and scope.

Steve Ferzacca
Steve Ferzacca is associate professor of anthropology at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6: Elections and Statesmen. March 2005  


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  1. I am referring here to Allen Feldman’s (2000, 49, 59) notion of “scopic regime,” which he defines as “an ensemble of practices and discourses that establish truth claims, typicality, and credibility of visual acts and objects and politically correct modes of seeing” in which a “plurality of realisms” come into play.
  2. The root lemes can mean non-rigid, flexible, but it also refers to a smooth and well-mannered, sociable comportment (luwes) and skillful (prigel) ability to work with and in a variety of situations and ways (bisa nyambut gawé warna-warna).
  3. Aihwa Ong’s (1999) notion of “flexible citizenship” refers to a fluid and opportunistic form of subjectivity that conforms to flexible capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement. My use of flexible citizenship in this case highlights the fluid and opportunistic subject but extends this character feature beyond a cultural logic of capitalism alone.
  4. Historical sources that tell the story of the Jewish diaspora in Indonesia and Southeast Asia are few and far between. Much of what is offered here is pieced together from what I learned from Southeast Asianists who are Jewish and have looked into the Jewish community in Surabaya while traveling, studying, or working in Indonesia, as well as from stories and accounts taken from internet sources, listserves, and other electronic media. There have been communities of Jews in Indonesia, albeit extremely few. In the seventeenth century, Jews of Dutch, German, and Iraqi origin arrived in the Netherlands East Indies as merchants to take part in the trade in spices. By the 1920s, Jewish communities had established themselves in Surabaya and in the colonial capital of Batavia (now Jakarta). Before World War II, Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism joined these communities, which grew into settlements of several thousand. Japanese occupation brought an end to this growth and began the emigration of Jews, until all that remains is one small community of thirty Jews in the coastal city of Surabaya that has a synagogue but no rabbi or teacher. (There is also possibly a small community in Medan, a coastal city in Sumatra).
  5. For a discussion of the ways in which “mediated elsewheres” have affected sectarian violence in Ambon, see Spyer 2000.
  6. Actually, cracks in Suharto’s architecture of rule were beginning to appear long before Reformasi. In the early 1990s, I noted an exuberant concern in local and national discourses with the increasing prevalence of diseases of development brought about by Indonesians’ adoption of a western lifestyle (gaya hidup barat). I was unaware at the time that in the mediated, national arena this discourse was perhaps a precursor to religious concerns with secularization and westernization. I did note, however, that it was a concern of many Muslim doctors I came to know, and that their therapeutics for diseases of development included high doses of Islam. See Ferzacca 2001.
  7. Suzanne Brenner notes that the “Islamic revival” in Indonesia is partly due to what is perceived, especially by the middle class, as the “blatant opportunism of government functionaries and [to] resentment of the elite’s unabashed displays of wealth and power” (1996, 677).
  8. n appropriating the Sumpah Pemuda, however, Imron omits the “daughters” included in the original oath.
  9. ee Heryanto’s fascinating study of pembangunan as metaphor, in which he outlines how it (along with several cohort semiotics) embodies “a new body of knowledge and epistemology, new values and world views, but more importantly a new awareness” (1995, 6).
  10. Robert Hefner also observes this irony in relation to religious rhetoric and experience, concluding, “Even as they profess their unique and unchanging truth, their actions confess they have tasted the forbidden fruit of a pervasive and porous pluralism” (1998, 100).
  11. Krishna Sen and David T. Hill write, “over half the television programs on Indonesia domestic channels are imported from the USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and India; half the music played on many radio stations is western music; books and magazines draw heavily on originals in other languages; and the traffic on the Internet defies any attempt to pin down a terrestrial location” (Sen and Hill 2000, 13).
  12. For an expansive consideration of economic developments and the growth of consumer markets during the New Order, see Hill and Mackie 1994. In particular, see Patrick Guiness’s essay in this volume, which examines consumerism among urban kampung (village) relations.
  13. n her article on the use of the jilbab (veil) among Javanese women, Suzanne Brenner illustrates the role a mediated global Islam has played in social practices and techniques of the self, reaching far into the intimacies of family life in Java (1996, 683).
  14. Kitely, commenting on the study of media, states, “in contemporary mediascapes we need to find a place in the thick of things and follow flows, people and media vectors” (Kitely 2002, 209).
  15. “Laskar Jihad ini memandang darahnya kaum muslimim demikian mahal. Bahkan darahnya kaum muslimim lebih mulia dari Ka’bah dan lebih mulia dari Arafah” (Ja’far Umar Thalib 2000, 19).
  16.  “Ba’asyir ‘told followers to kill Westerners.’” The Jakarta Post.com, October 30, 2004. http://www.thejakartapost.com/detailheadlines.asp?fileid=20041029.@01&irec=0. Accessed October 30, 2004.
  17. MIAI was founded in 1937 by K. H. M. Hasyim Asy’ari, who had founded Nadhatul Ulama (NU) in 1926. MIAI operated as a federation of Muslim organizations that sought cooperation between NU, Persatuan Islam, Muhammadiyah, and other Islamic factions (see Hefner and Horvatich 1997).
  18. I have replaced the older Indonesian spellings with contemporary spellings.
  19. I detect in Anderson’s statement a sense of regret that this crucial understanding of the relationship between history and identity in Indonesia is endangered among some Indonesians.
  20. “Maka kalau darah kaum muslimim tertumpah hanya untuk politik tertentu, atau demi tokoh tertentu, itu suatu kezaliman yang luar biasa” (So if Muslim blood is caused to be overflowed only for some political reason, or by some political person, this is an extraordinary cruelty) (Ja’far Umar Thalib 2000, 19). These comments all find common ground around the theme of separation. Imron and the autodidact are concerned with disunity after sharing a womb, and Laskar Jihad’s stated reason for sending its militia to Ambon was not to war against Christians, but to stop a Christian separatist movement.
  21. See Ahmad Baso, “Argumen Fikih Mengoreksi RUU KUB,” Kompas, 23 October 2003: 1; and “Revisi KUHP Berpotensi Lecut Kontoversi Horisontal,” Kompas, 1 October 2003.
  22. See “Yusril Bantah Revisi KUHP Mengadopsi Syariat Islam,” Sinar Harapan, 1 October 2003; and A’an Suryana, “Code Revision Says ‘No’ to Casual Sex, Sorcery,” The Jakarta Post, 12 November 2003.
  23. “Pembahasan KUHP Terhambat Pergantian DPR,” Kompas, 21 August 2004.
  24. See Undang-Undang (UU) Nomor 22 Tahun 1999 tentang Otonomi Daerah.
  25. The current proliferation of horrific descriptions in word and image of Indonesian violence, discrimination, and destruction, from scholarly sources to the cultural productions of everyday folk in and outside Indonesia are signs in and of themselves of the ongoing tragedy of humanity in which the desire to enact and witness mayhem continues its theatrical engagement on stages all around the world.
  26. Nandini Sundar asserts that anthropologists should in these times be more urgent in “exploring cultures refracted in the common light of globally traveling discourses” (2004, 146).
  27. What “ersatz aura” these mediations project onto the interpersonal relations in unstable times is far from clear. Anderson, in a lecture on “Long-Distance Nationalism,” comments upon the effect new technologies of transportation and communication are having on political participation at a distance “with its ersatz aura of drama, sacrifice, violence, speed, secrecy, heroism and conspiracy” which he believes leads to a politics “without responsibility or accountability” (1992, 11). One could say that similar conditions exist within the national boundaries of Indonesia today.