AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 735

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Session 735: Violence, Displacement, and Islamic Movements in Southeast Asia, 19th-20th Centuries

Organizer: Francis R Bradley, Pratt Institute, USA

Discussant: Imtiyaz Yusuf, Independent Scholar, Thailand

This panel focuses upon the effects of violence and forced displacement in the construction of Islamic discourses and reformist movements in Southeast Asia from the mid-colonial to early independence periods. In recent years, scholars have paid great attention to the role of Islam in the formation of nationalist movements and how Islamic leaders forged spaces for resistance to colonial power and interference. The unsettling of the fabric of these societies via colonial violence, warfare, exile or other forced displacement, and political subversion remains a lucrative area for research. Islamic movements often came in the wake of such great changes or were intimately tied to attempts at resistance and rejuvenation. Through these processes, Islamic leaders asserted themselves as cultural custodians who were well-situated to harness religious or political reform. Francis Bradley analyzes how the Malay pondok became meeting places for numerous diasporas who traced their origins from across much of Islamic Southeast Asia in the period 1870-1910. Amrita Malhi illustrates how one movement employed global symbols of the Islamic community to legitimize their claims to land and provided a rallying point for further political activity. Joshua Gedacht’s paper examines how colonial authorities in Aceh and Mindanao manipulated Islamic concepts of perang sabil to de-legitimatize local resistance, employ disproportionate violence, and consolidate control at the edge of empire. Kevin Fogg’s paper explores Islamic understandings of the Indonesian revolution, both as it was going on and as remembered in the 1950s, to find the roots of regional Muslim politics in the independence era.

A Home for the Dispossessed: Warfare, Diaspora, and the Rise of the Pondok, 1870-1910
Francis R Bradley, Pratt Institute, USA

During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, the pondok (Islamic schools) became some of the most influential sites for cultural production and synthesis in Malay-speaking regions of Southeast Asia. The rising importance of Islamic educational institutions occurred against a backdrop of imperialism and colonialism that resulted in the formation of numerous diasporas. Few existing studies have examined the early pondok and their influence in fusing Islamic practice with other Malay cultural traditions. During this critical phase of rapid cultural evolution and change, diasporic groups such as the Patani, Mandailings, Minangs, Bugis, and others played a central role in developing and spreading Islamic discourses. The pondok thus became both a meeting place of various displaced groups as well as a site for members of these groups to open dialogue with landed communities. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the pondok had become central nodes for the diffusion of an evolving Islamic discourse to thousands of students from across much of Malaya, Borneo, and southern Siam.

Colonised Lands and Caliphal Longing in 1920s Malaya: Terengganu’s Turkish Lodestar
Amrita Malhi, University of South Australia, Australia

In 1928, a small forest uprising in Terengganu, on the Malay Peninsula’s East Coast, became a holy war (perang sabil). The rebels—shifting cultivators from the Terengganu hinterland—grouped behind a leadership of Islamist rubber smallholders, hajis and mosque functionaries. All were disciples of Haji Drahman, a Mecca-returned Islamic scholar with great spiritual authority around the Terengganu River system. These rebels were displaced from their swiddens by colonial regulations aimed at appropriating the forest for the state and subjecting the hinterland’s landscape and population to technocratic government. Aggrieved cultivators defied the regulations and attacked forest guards and police officers, accusing them of being kafir—unbelievers. Then, on 21 May 1928, rebels occupied a police station in Kuala Berang, a regional administrative centre, and the uprising began. Yet the rebel movement was not content to assert a localised claim to land and forests, based on custom, ethnicity or nationalism. Instead its claim was translated into a radical vision for sovereignty for the umat—the global Muslim community—which would be achieved by holy war in Terengganu. Raising the red flag of the Ottoman Caliphate as their symbol, rebels created an environmental subjectivity, and a discourse of political community and sovereign territory, around the umat. In Terengganu’s intensely Islam-inflected political climate, the rebels rejected emerging colonial political and territorial identities, negating them with their de-territorialised, Caliphate-centred, political vision.

Holy War Across Empires: Perang Sabil as Colonial Discourse in the Netherlands East Indies and the Philippines
Joshua S. Gedacht, National University of Singapore, Singapore

The idea of perang sabil, a hybrid Malay/Arabic term roughly translated as the religious way of war, has proven to be an enduring staple of the popular and academic literature on resistance to colonial rule in Aceh and Mindanao. The majority of writers recounting the Dutch, Spanish, and American wars of conquest at the outskirts of empire often invoke the Islamic injunction to struggle against their “kafir” or non-Muslim enemies, folding in lurid accounts of religiously-motivated suicide attackers who rush at colonial soldiers with jagged knives. Yet, while many writers make mention of such sensationalized instances of Islamic resistance in passing, few subject the phenomenon to serious scrutiny. Although local ulama did generate an epic literature on perang sabil, colonial authorities also appropriated the term for their own purposes, deploying it as a catch-all signifier for Muslim fanaticism and treachery. This paper will analyze how a variety of colonial rulers used the term to de-legitimatize local resistance, employ disproportionate violence, and eventually install their regimes of colonial modernity. Moreover, this paper will also problematize the specifically Islamic content of perang sabil. In particular, placing these discourses in comparative perspective across the Netherlands East Indies and Philippines will help demonstrate how perang sabil owed less to any specifically Muslim characteristics than to the imperatives of colonial control that cut across religion, ethnicity, and place.

Same Fight, Different Reasons: Islamic Narratives of the Indonesian Revolution
Kevin W. Fogg, Oxford University, United Kingdom

The Indonesian Revolution from 1945-49 won the country her independence, and since that time it has stood as a constant reference for national unity and purpose. However, the experience of the national revolution on the ground—even for soldiers fighting on the same side—differed widely depending on region and especially on religion. In some areas religious leaders played key roles in the regular forces, and in other regions pious Indonesian Muslims joined together in several specifically Islamic militias, imbuing their experience and understanding of the revolution with uniquely Islamic ideas. Many of these ideas had already been in circulation in Islamic nationalist movements, but the war solidified certain narratives (such as martyrdom and religious militancy) that led to direct clashes with secular national (and socialist) visions for Indonesia. In all cases the narratives rejected local or ethnic labels and claimed to be universal for all Indonesians, or at least all Indonesian Muslims. Later, secular parties seized on the revolution to provide political legitimacy, marginalizing unorthodox memories; pious Muslims struggled against a more general marginality in politics by fighting for recognition of their contribution and alternative understanding. This paper explores the Islamic narratives of the Indonesian revolution to find the roots of regional Muslim politics in the independence era.