Books Review


By Greg Barton University of New South Wales Press Ltd Sydney, 2004 ISBN: 0868407593 Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

In any discussion of Islam today it is important to make a distinction between regional and global Muslim identity. Despite Samuel Huntington’s reductionist clash-of -civilization thesis which views Islam in monolithic terms, the regional identity of Muslims is a fact .Indonesia is one such country which, despite being the most populous Muslim nation in the world, rarely interests scholars of Islamic Studies possibly because of the specific regional identity of Muslims in this land. It has always appeared different from the Arab world, or, for that matter, from Pakistan.

However, the Bali Bombing suddenly brought Indonesia some unwelcome attention. It came to be known that the militant elements had a presence in Indonesia. Greg Barton’s short book tries to follow the growth of the radical Islam in Indonesia which poses some challenges before the state. Barton especially focuses on the Jihadi Islamism of Jemaah Islamiyah which was founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 1990s after they broke from Darul Islam.  Barton shows the importance of JI in Indonesian politics by comparing the results of the 1999 and 2004 elections in Indonesia. He has a fear that, like Pakistan, Indonesian politics might be hijacked by a small extremist minority because unlike the moderates it is very vocal, organized and aggressive.

The book showers praise on the investigators for solving the mystery of the Bali Bombing in a very efficient manner. Barton also praises the prosecution of the bombers which, he feels, could have been possible only in a liberal democracy. A very interesting aspect of the decision of the nine justices looking into the case was that they did not consider the Bombing an” extraordinary crime” as they thought it was “no more terrible than the loss of thousands of Muslim lives in communal violence over the past five years (24).”

Of late there has emerged a certain vocabulary, often very imprecise, to describe Muslims of various persuasions. The indiscriminate use of words like fundamentalist, militant and terrorist often reveals the bias of the commentators. Barton’s analysis of terms like Islamism, fundamentalism, radical Islamism, political Islam, and jihadi Islam makes interesting reading. Thus Islamism, which according to him is a response to modernity” and which covers a broad spectrum of convictions”, is a belief that “Islam can and should form the basis of political ideology (28).”He does not dismiss fundamentalism per se. Barton, however, has a problem with radical Islamism because” it seeks to impose a ‘tyranny’ of a minority over the majority and is unconcerned about trespassing on the rights of others (30).”To be fair to the author it must be said that he does not consider radical Islamism an essentially evil force. He rather dwells on its anti-liberal and anti-democratic character. He also refuses to identify it with terrorism because “terrorism is not an ideology but a means, an instrument, to achieve particular ideologically determined ends (31).”

The author considers  jihadi Islamists an entirely different category.He briefly discusses the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahab , Ibn Taymiyya, Hassan al-Banna, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida,  Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi  in his effort to trace the ancestry of extremist thoughts of Jihadi Islamists. He puts Abu Bakar Ba’syir,the founder of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, a radical Islamist organization, in the category of jihadi Islamists who do not mind  resorting to violence or mounting  pre-emptive strikes against those whom they view the enemies of Islam.

There is yet another category called political Islamists, represented by the likes of Hamzah Haz, who, according to the author, use religious sentiments to win elections. The author is disturbed to discover synergies between political Islam and jihadi Islam. In his opinion Ba’asyir’s MMI “represents a point of contact between jihadi Islamism and radical Islamism (66).”

The author discusses the influence of Jemaah Islamiyah in terms of both Indonesian political scenario and the rise of globalised radical Islamism in Southeast Asia. It is true that the influence of Afghanistan and Pakistan experience can partly explain the JI phenomenon, but it is not “simply an imported problem; rather it is, in part, a continuation of the Darul Islam struggle of the 1950s (77).”  They obliquely point to the support for JI in some sections of the military. Some mainstream political parties also extend support to JI. Thus Ba’asyir’s MMI has received patronage, Greg Barton laments, from human rights minister Yusril Izha Mahendra and vice president Hamzah Haz. Even Soeharto “actively courted Islamic support “in the final phase of his political career.

The book rejects Huntington’s clash -of- civilization thesis. The author warns against the “errors of reductionism and essentialism when talking about Islam and Muslim society (81).”However, Barton does not find faults with American excesses in Afghanistan and Iraq and its role in patronizing the oppressive policies of Israel. It can be argued that one very important reason for the rise of fundamentalist variety of Islam in recent years is the foreign policies of US particularly its active support for Israel.

The book does succeed in presenting some perspectives on Indonesian Islam.

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