Many observers have said President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Indonesia in the second half of March 2010 will provide momentum to strengthen relations between the Muslim world and the United States.
In that context and in welcoming his visit, this article intends to look back on the relations between Indonesian Islam and the US in the academic sphere.
Geographically, Indonesia is not located at the center of the Muslim world. Indeed, it is on the periphery. In terms of religiosity, Indonesian Islam represents a different portrait of Islam in comparison to that found in the Middle East.
Because of its type and location, and also because of its history, which has no previous direct relationship with the US, American scholarship on Indonesian Islam came very late compared to European countries, particularly the Netherlands. American scholars used to rely on European sources when studying Indonesian Islam.
American scholarship on Indonesia in general began only after World War II. This scholarship was mainly carried out by three American universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the supervision of economist Benjamin Higgins, Yale University under the supervision of geographer Karl Pelzer, and Cornell University under the leadership of political scientist George McTurnan Kahin (Kahin 1989).
These three universities focused on different aspects of Indonesia. MIT was concerned with Indonesia’s economy, Yale with its peasant and plantation agriculture, and Cornell with government and politics. Among the three, Cornell was the most active in its research on Indonesia. Under the flag of Cornell’s Modern Indonesia Project (CMIP), the university not only sent scholars to do research on Indonesia, but also invited Indonesian scholars to conduct research in the US. The project also published the journal Indonesia for more than 40 years.
When a scholar comes to Indonesia and studies social issues and humanities, they would not be able to avoid speaking about Islam since this is the dominant religion of this country.
The question here is what kind of Islam became the focus and concern of early American scholars. The next question is why that kind of Islam was chosen.
Muhammadiyah Islam became the focus of early American research on Indonesian Islam. The projects of those three universities turned to studying Muhammadiyah for several possible reasons. It is said that one of these reasons was that their information on Indonesian Islam came from several modernist proponents such as M. Hatta.
However, this is really not an acceptable reason for a great scholar like Clifford Geertz, who did research on Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, to know the reason behind their activities, studying their works would be revealing.
One important feature of scholarship work on Muhammadiyah by early American scholars is that they regarded Muhammadiyah as an incarnation of “the Protestant ethic” in the Muslim world. Thus, this organization was often portrayed as a Calvinist movement in Islamic society. Just like the role of Protestantism in the rise of Western Capitalism, they envisioned that Muhammadiyah could play a Calvinist role in Indonesia.
In this regard, among the possible reasons for their interest in Muhammadiyah was the possibility the movement could develop economic growth in this new independent nation or, to quote Geertz’ phrase, the “New Indonesia”.
The first generation of American scholars on Muhammadiyah was identified by the influence of Weber on their works. Put differently, the shadow of Max Weber, particularly his Protestant Ethic, was very strong on the initial works on Muhammadiyah. When discerning this organization, it seems they were consciously or unconsciously steered into its role in politics and economic development.
Their study of Muhammadiyah was not intended as purely a descriptive account of the organization, but as an attempt to trace the socio-economic development of Indonesia.
Another characteristic of this first generation is the influence of Orientalist traditions. Implicitly, they believed Indonesia could only become a modern and prosperous country or achieve economic, social and political development by copying and following the development processes of the West.
As stated by Weber, the peculiarities of Western civilization were only possible because of modern capitalism. By studying Muhammadiyah, they likely wanted to show that this organization had the potential to become the backbone of Indonesian development. This movement had most of the requirements to become a foundation for Indonesian economic development. The spirit of modern capitalism could be derived from the ethic of this movement.
Besides Geertz, whose book The Religion of Java became a classic, other early American scholars on Indonesian Islam included Harry J. Benda and Lance Castles. Nowadays, American scholarship on Indonesian Islam is much more diverse. The focus is not only on Muhammadiyah, but also other organizations and movements.
However, in terms of quantity, it seems the number of professors concerned about Indonesian Islam is stagnant, if not decreasing. This indicates that Indonesian Islam is not interesting or unable to attract the curiosity of American scholars. Currently, a lot of the study on Islam in Indonesia has been carried out by Indonesian scholars who study in America.
Research on Muhammadiyah, for instance, has been conducted by Indonesians studying at American universities, such as Din Syamsuddin (at UCLA) and Alwi Shihab (Temple University).
With the spirit of Obama’s visit hopefully Indonesian Islam can attract the academic interest of many American professors. Not because of its negative image, but rather for its creativity, productivity and positive values. Just like Spanish Islam in the 11th to 14th centuries — also on the periphery of the Muslim world and yet played a major role in Islamic history — Indonesian Islam could play a similar role: Becoming a center from the periphery.
Ahmad Najib Burhani is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).