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Sanwar was a young girl of sixteen when she married Anwar Jalil, a teacher of exegesis at a local Islamic school in the nearby town of Padang Panjang. She remembered it as the first day of Ramadan – the Muslim fasting month – in the year 1364 on the Islamic calendar; that was August 9, 1945 on the Western calendar. After the small village wedding, her husband kept commuting by foot to the school. A few weeks after they were married, on Ramadan 17 (August 25) “he came home from Padang Panjang and said maybe we were free. We had no radio. No one trusted the newspapers. We trusted what the leader of the school said.”1 The world’s largest Muslim country had thrown off the burden of non-Muslim rule. This news of independence came to Sanwar on the authority of an Islamic scholar, at the holiest time of the year for Muslims.
When thinking about a fight in the name of Islam to establish an Islamic polity in Indonesia during the revolution (and afterward), many Indonesians would automatically think of the so-called Darul Islam rebellion in West Java, led by a man called S. M. Kartosuwirjo. This case is well known, both because it grew as a rebellion throughout the 1950s and spread to other areas of Indonesia,1 and because it birthed or inspired the radical Islamists engaged in violent actions against the Indonesian state and non-Muslim groups since the 1990s.2 The ongoing impact of this movement after the revolution has brought it attention of all kinds – military, political, academic, social – so that it has been conceived of as an exceptional case and a cautionary tale about the dangers of Islamic struggle. The idea that this negative example was the epitome of Islamic struggle in the Indonesian Revolution has framed national discourse to suggest that all Islamic struggle was bad and opposed to the Indonesian state.3
The doctor and politician Abu Hanifah, writing in Sukabumi, West Java, roughly six months after the proclamation of independence, made a very optimistic prediction: “The Indonesian nation, as a nation that believes in the justice and truth of God, will not have all the sharp and vicious ideological clashes between ourselves of a social revolution, not like France or Russia.”1 In fact, not only did belief in God not preserve Indonesia from the internal upheaval of a social revolution, but in some cases religious faith was used as an element of instigating or heightening social conflict. The understanding that the Indonesian revolution was about promoting the Islamic faith was among the many incendiary ingredients fueling horizontal conflict and social violence in the worst of Indonesia’s so-called social revolution, a loose category that was applied, sometimes retroactively, to various conflicts between Indonesians. At the very least, Islam was often used as a cover for attacks by Indonesians on other Indonesians.
Harsono Tjokroaminoto, heir to the leading family in Islamic politics and a major national player himself, reflected in an interview 35 years after the revolution about what independence meant for Indonesia. He warned young Indonesians, who had not lived through the revolution, “not to ascribe any meaning to our independence other than the original hope, from the time when the nation … fought for our independence.” He feared that a new generation could come along and turn the country in a direction “that was different from or even opposed to the nation and country as imagined by our Founding Fathers in the past.”1
There was one area in which the uncoordinated scramble of elite politicking and the religious fervor of pious Muslims to support the revolution in Islamic ways intersected with major consequences for Indonesia’s revolutionary success: diplomacy. Because the new state had no infrastructure abroad to promote its case to other countries, this gap was filled initially by Indonesians who happened to find themselves overseas when the revolution broke out. In the Middle East, where thousands of Indonesians were living in the 1940s, this led to the emergence of a kind of Islamic diplomacy by students and Muslim scholars. This Islamic diplomacy was so successful that it led to Indonesia’s first de jure recognition by a foreign state and helped to elevate the country’s dispute with the Netherlands to the United Nations. Thus, although diplomacy was a crucial part of the political revolution to achieve Indonesia’s sovereignty, it took on the characteristics of the grassroots Islamic struggle in the war of independence.
Indonesia today is the world’s fourth most populous country and the country with more Muslims than any other. As of the 2010 census, Muslims made up roughly 87 percent of Indonesia’s population,1 and national leaders estimated a similar percentage of Muslims around the time of independence.2 Muslims have been present in the archipelago for centuries, and Islamic sultanates were established on Sumatra as early as the thirteenth century of the common era,3 but the early twentieth century was a time of particularly important and particularly rapid change for the Muslim community. In part, this was because they were all under the colonialism of the Netherlands and then (briefly) Japan, tying together thousands of islands in a way they had not been politically united before. In other ways, the religious changes in Indonesia in the decades before the Indonesian revolution were the result of transnational forces within Islam, leading to theological reform and modernization, new ways of organizing the Muslim community, and new ideas about the future of that community.
The most prominent leader of Islamic politics after the war was Mohammad Natsir, who became the first prime minister of united, postrevolutionary Indonesia in August 1950. And yet, as the 1951 book Who’s Who stated in his profile, “Before the war not many people knew who he was.… Moh. Natsir was not someone who stood out at the forefront of things; not someone who drew one’s attention.”1 Although he was the head of a party by 1949 and head of government in 1950, he had neither been in organizational leadership nor even in the parliament at the moment of proclamation in 1945. How was it, then, that Natsir and several other young leaders like him – Western educated, and with a particular ideology of governance – rose so quickly to the top of Islamic politics and government in the short span of the revolution?
Just three days after the Japanese surrender in World War II, the future president and vice-president of Indonesia proclaimed their country’s independence on August 17, 1945. Although the proclamation has functioned as a bright, clear line marking the start of the national revolution in the modern Indonesian narrative, some of the most “revolutionary” moments of Indonesia’s transition to independence occurred before that date.1
Saifulkan Angai was sixteen years old when the Dutch came back to South Kalimantan in 1946 as part of their efforts to reclaim their colony. Faced with revolution, he joined the Muhammadiyah Islamic organization and enlisted in the organization’s local militia for the struggle against the colonizers and their troops. Crucial to his involvement in the militia were the exhortations from the local religious leader in the rural town of Marabahan, a man named H. Mahyuni. This learned scholar encouraged Muslim men to join in fighting the Dutch, promised them that this was a holy war, that anyone who died on Indonesia’s side in the war would be a martyr, and that these martyrs would receive rewards from God in the afterlife. According to Saifulkan Angai, “For the Muslims, they were seen as martyrs that liberated the faith, liberated us, so we could put [Islam] into practice.” As he recalled sixty years later, this made the Indonesian side much more enthusiastic and vigorous in their defense of the homeland, and it brought more fighters to join their struggle.1
While divisions grew at the center of politics between old and new guard, traditionalist and reformist, or political versus theological, a different split emerged regionally. Although Masjumi intended to be the sole representative of Islamic interests in the political sphere, its growth across the archipelago was not entirely smooth. Where it was unable to spread because of wartime conditions, or where Masjumi leaders engendered hostility from other Islamic leaders, other groups soon emerged. These groups reflect not only the regional diversity of Indonesia but also the inability of certain regions to communicate with one another and coordinate their programs throughout the revolution.
Syekh Buya Ungku Saliah, usually called Tuanku Saliah, was a key religious leader near Lubuk Alung, West Sumatra. He was well known in the region for being particularly harsh on moral laxity, for leading a branch of the Shattariyah Sufi brotherhood, and for his ability in making and undoing magic. A particular specialty was using Qur’anic verses to break pakasiah, spells that made women fall in love with someone in particular, or kabaji, spells to create hatred between husband and wife. During the Indonesian revolution, Tuanku Saliah was already elderly, in his sixties, so he did not participate in the fighting directly. He did, however, play a key role in protecting Lubuk Alung. One market day, when the market was full of vendors, traders, and customers doing their business for the week, Tuanku Saliah had a vision and told everyone to clear out before heavy rain. This was unusual, considering it was not the rainy season, but people cleared the market anyhow in deference to this stern religious leader. No more than two hours later, the Dutch conducted an air assault on Lubuk Alung and leveled the market.1
If the political party Masjumi was the most important institution of politics during the revolution, then the Ministry of Religion is the most important institution that has lasted until today. It was not able to accomplish much in its first few years, but it has grown into a bulwark for Islamic interests in the Indonesian government. Today, the creation of this separate ministry might seem to have been natural or unavoidable in Indonesian politics, but in the early days of the Republic the establishment of this ministry was a very contentious issue.