Interviews:

Change over time: A conversation with Robert W. Hefner

posted by David Kyuman Kim

In this installment of the Rites and Responsibilities dialogue series, I met with the Boston University anthropologist and scholar of Islam Robert W. Hefner. A world renowned expert on Muslim culture, politics, and education in Southeast Asia and beyond, Hefner is the author or co-editor of more than a dozen books, including Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia and Shari‘a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World. Hefner has led numerous research projects globally, ranging from examinations of sharia law and citizenship to assessing the social resources for civility and civic participation in plural societies such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Recipient of many prestigious grants and fellowships, including serving as the Lee Kong Chian Senior Fellow for a joint project between Stanford University and the National University of Singapore and the Carnegie Scholar in Islam for the Carnegie Corporation, Hefner is professor of anthropology and the director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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DKK: If we consider concepts like “Muslim democrats” or “Muslim democratic formation”—I don’t know if you use that phrase—it seems clear that these concepts have either been under-acknowledged or under-recognized. Given these conditions, can you give us an example of democratic formation in a Muslim-majority country that would be an instructive example to and for the West? An example that says, “Here is a vibrant form of democratic life, and it took place or is taking place within the Islamic world, not despite Islam.” I think one of the bad-faith narratives about Islam says that democracy happens in the Muslim world despite Islam, despite what Islam wants for itself.

RH: Well, I think there are two striking examples. And then there are a number of still important but, for a variety of reasons, less salient examples. But the two most striking examples of Muslim democracies today are Indonesia and Turkey. People will point out that the Turkish state was until recently Kemalist, and was therefore a largely laicist state. On these grounds some would say that the Turkish case is too exceptional to figure in any discussion of Islam and democracy. But since the 1970s Turkey has experienced an Islamic resurgence comparable to that which we’ve seen across most of the Muslim world. In Turkey, as the political scientist Ahmet Kuru has so insightfully argued, the state structure that was put in place during most of the twentieth century was more aggressively secularist than that in the great majority of Muslim societies around the world. Inevitably, then, Turkey’s democratization shows some path-dependent contingencies and imperfections, not least of all with regard to ethnic minorities like the Kurds or religious minorities like the Alevis. That said, the continuing relaxation of military controls, the growing openness of electoral competition, and the preference among observant Muslims for an ethicalized profession of Islam rather than a woodenly formalistic implementation of sharia codes—all this bespeaks a political development of global importance.

The path-dependent nature and imperfection of democratization in Indonesia is somewhat different. Indonesia is sometimes described as a secular-nationalist state, but the reality is more complex. The country’s constitutional framework is a multi-confessional, “confessionalized” state, in the sense that the state is actively committed to the promotion of religion as a public good.

But the way in which this confessional commitment has been realized has varied over time, in a manner that both expressed and influenced Indonesian politics. From ‘65-‘66 until 1998, Indonesia was ruled by an authoritarian and, at first, conservative, nationalist ruler, President Suharto. However, in the last fifteen years of Suharto’s New Order government, the country witnessed an unprecedented resurgence of Islamic observance in society. Although, in the last five years of his rule, Suharto attempted to deflect the growing opposition to his rule by cultivating ties to anti-democratic Islamists, in the 1990s the country nonetheless developed a lively pro-democracy movement at the forefront of which were Muslim activists and intellectuals. Since Suharto’s fall, conservative Islamists have been consistently rebuffed in national elections. But small alliances of radical Islamist militias have taken advantage of the post-Suharto spring to press, sometimes violently, for curbs on Christian church-building as well as non-conformist Muslim groupings like the Ahmadiyah. So yes, there are path-dependent peculiarities and imperfections to democratization in Indonesia, as in Turkey, but this is par for the course in the democratization game, including here in the West. Democratization is always characterized by heightened levels of public participation, and at times this participation may result in massification that undermines rather than strengthens citizen rights and democratic institutions.

DKK: By massification, I assume you mean, not just popularization, but a sort of populism that can infuse democratic systems. As you know, there is an anxiety even among democratic theorists that thoroughgoing democracy—not quite radical democracy—in that sense, isn’t necessarily a good thing, insofar as there are popular formations that are primarily concerned to establish the authority of a particular mindset.

RH: That’s right. Indeed, I use the term to refer to a situation in which one sees, in whatever sphere—be it religion, politics, cultural life, the economy, etc.—heightened rates of popular participation, but without that participation necessarily being regulated or regularized by democratic or pluralism-embracing norms. So, massification can lead in some instances to democratization, but it need not: it can team up with highly uncivil and anti-pluralist movements or imaginaries. The challenge in any modern democratic system, then, is to take that heightened mobility and mobilization that characterize so much of modern society and canalize them in ways that reinforce a culture of democratic proceduralism and citizen rights for all. The history of mass politics in the mid-twentieth century West reminds us that the outcome of efforts like these is never a foregone conclusion.

DKK: You have written that Suharto had, at one point, sought out either moderate or even liberal Muslim leaders as he was trying to re-think what Indonesia was as a nation. And then he moved away from these moderates and liberals toward more conservative, traditionalist, and dogmatic figures. How do you explain this move? Would you ascribe Suharto’s shift in policy to anxiety about massification, and the anxieties about the loss of control?

RH: There were issues related to massification, but Suharto, actually, was a fairly effective administrator and, more importantly, a brilliant if at times ruthless tactician, a master of selective mobilization, which in many instances took the form of “divide and conquer.” As the Islamic resurgence gained momentum, in the mid-1980s, he realized that it posed a threat to his rule. Indeed, as one of his advisers told me in 1992, he looked at what had happened in Iran, and he realized that, for tactical reasons, he’d better engage the organized Muslim community more effectively. But his first tack, as you said, was to reach out to Muslim moderates, if you will—indeed, even Muslim liberals, such as a dear friend and teacher of mine, Nurcholish Madjid, who died a few years ago, and who was really one of the great thinkers of late twentieth-century Islam. So, Suharto first reached out to Madjid, as well as to other Muslim reformers who were linked to mass organizations, thinking that intellectuals and leaders of Muslim mass organizations would allow him to co-opt and control the Muslim community.

DKK: Normatively speaking, in terms of these moderate or liberal Muslim political theorists, what were they telling Suharto, particularly in contrast to the conservative views he sought out later on? I’m curious about that difference.

RH: What those leaders told Suharto is that he had to take steps to contain corruption, including that of his children, and to transition to a democratic political order. Nurcholish Madjid was quite explicit about this in his speeches and writings, though he was not a vociferous, street-fighting opponent of Suharto—other people, like Abdurrahman Wahid, the now-deceased head of Nahdlatul Ulama, and the man who was president of Indonesia from late 1998 to 2001, played a more complex and mass-politics game. Both men, however, spoke of the importance of free elections, a deepening of citizen rights, religious freedom, and civil society, and both too saw parallels between Indonesia and the earlier processes of democratization in Taiwan and Korea.

DKK: “Five Tigers.” That sort of rhetoric.

RH: That’s right. Indonesia has always been unusual in that, although it is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, on matters of politics and economics many in the political class have looked as readily to East Asia as they have the Middle East for political and economic lessons.

In any case, because Madjid, Wahid, and others continued to press for democratic reforms, from about 1994 to 1998 President Suharto reached out to hardline Islamists who had earlier been his critics, and he succeeded in winning them to his cause by alleging that the democracy movement was really a kind of Christian-influenced organization, and that democracy itself was antithetical to Islam. But the great majority of Muslim leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s had already concluded that constitutionalism and democracy were not merely compatible with Islam but required by the circumstances of modern life and politics.

To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).—ed.

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