Watch now: The inaugural Tony and Yohanni Johns lecture by Greg Fealy

Restoring religious and cultural complexity to the study of Southeast Asian Islam

In recent decades, scholarship on Southeast Asian Islam – as with Islam elsewhere – has become dominated by the fields of politics, international relations or security studies. These studies often characterise faith as something delineated, measurable and susceptible to state-directed change. Much of these analyses overlook the subtle variations in Islamic life, and the disjunctions between formal orthodoxy and everyday religious experience. How Muslims comprehend and express their faith ranges widely, crosses typological boundaries, and confounds many of the accepted categories applied to Islam.

Our speaker Greg Fealy is emeritus professor in the Department of Political and Social Change. He specialises in the study of Islamic politics and history, primarily in Indonesia, but also other Muslim-majority regions in Southeast Asia.

Hosted by the ANU Indonesia Institute, this annual lecture series honours both Tony and Yohanni’s enduring legacy at ANU, focussing on humanities studies across Nusantara and the Malay and Islamic worlds, as well as the examination of Austronesian identity.

Read the lecture below:

It is a privilege to be invited to give this inaugural address in honour of Tony and Yohanni Johns.  In the long and distinguished history of Southeast Asian studies at ANU, no other couple have made such a sustained and substantial contribution.  For more than three decades, Tony and Yohanni were the bedrock upon which studies of the region, and especially Indonesia, rested.  Over the next 40 minutes, I will be talking mainly about Tony’s remarkable academic achievements, because I have worked more closely with him than with Yohanni. But this endowment honours the work of both Yohanni and Tony, and they have indeed had an extraordinary and mutually supportive partnership.  Both shared in and contributed to the successes of the other and, when needed, they provided candid counsel to each other. The bond between them has been indissoluble and no account of the rise of Asian studies at ANU is complete without the story of Tony and Yohanni.  Having said that, I will be spending less time discussing Yohanni than Tony and for that, I apologise, Yohanni.  Hopefully this imbalance will be redressed in a later annual Johns’ lecture.

My talk is divided into three sections: first, I will outline the careers of Tony and Yohanni; second, I will examine in more detail Tony’s scholarship and teaching; and third, I will turn to the thematic part of my talk in which I will address the topic of “Restoring Religious and Cultural Complexity to the Study of Southeast Asian Islam”.

Tony and Yohanni’s Careers

Tony was born in England in 1928 and Yohanni a year later in the province of West Sumatra, IndonesiaIn Tony’s childhood he had come to know something of Islam by reading books such as T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he found in his grandfather’s library. He was conscripted into the British army in 1946 and sent to Singapore and Malaya the following year.  There he became bewitched with the Malay world and language, as well as with the rich Muslim life that he observed around him: the daily devotions, the design and function of the mosques, the role of the imam.  He later wrote:

A seed of understanding was sown when Malay friends in 1949 invited me to be present at the congregational prayer of the Idul Adha in the Abu Bakr mosque in Johor Baru.  For half an hour before the formal prayer began, I listened to the takbir, the congregational chanting of the phrase and prayer Allahu Akbar.  There was rhythm, movement, exultation in their voices that rolled like the swell of the sea.  It stayed in my mind and haunted my memory.  It was an introduction to the resonances of Arabic as a liturgical language.

After concluding military service, Tony returned to England and studied classical Malay language, culture and literature at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, eventually graduating with a PhD.  He yearned to return to Southeast Asia and got his chance in 1954 when the Ford Foundation employed him as an English-language teacher in Indonesia. He was very quickly swept up in the vibrancy of the country.  After the staidness of Malaya, he found Indonesia, to use his own words, ‘a mind-blowing experience!’  He was fascinated with the swirl of revolutionary fervour within the newly independent nation.  He listened to the soaring rhetoric of Sukarno and beheld the clamorous campaigning of the diverse array of politicians and parties contesting elections in the mid-1950s. He devoured the works of contemporary authors is they wrote of their hopes or despair about their nation’s direction.  A gifted musician himself, he also took in the diverse palette of music and arts that surrounded him, including learning to sing Javanese music.  After years of studying classical Malay texts from centuries past, he now found himself immersed in something immediate and brimming with passion – as he later wrote, he had found ‘something to relate to from the heart’.  Most of all he found that Indonesia presented a ‘gateway to the world of Islam’, with a far greater range of Muslim expression than he had encountered in Malaya.

It was also in West Sumatra, Indonesia, where Tony met and fell in love with Yohanni, a young in-service trainer in the Ford Foundation project in early 1955.  As their romance blossomed a large obstacle presented itself: she was from a strict Muslim family and he was a devout Catholic.  Interfaith marriages were (and indeed still are) frowned upon in Indonesia and often implacably rejected by families.  But Tony and Yohanni were not deterred and, in an early display of their combined resolve and resourcefulness, they were eventually married in Singapore in 1956.  They recently celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.  They represent a salutory example of how marriages across faiths can flourish, with the religiosity of each partner accepted and respected in a relationship underpinned by mutual love.

In 1958, Tony was appointed to what was then known as Canberra University College, soon to become ANU, to teach Malay and Indonesian studies.  The initial years of this Indonesian program were funded by the Indonesian government as part of a ‘reverse Colombo Plan’ for Australian students.  Tony soon put together a team which would make ANU one of the leading centres for studying Indonesian.  He recruited Soebardi and later Supomo from Indonesia, who would become dear colleagues, and employed many other Indonesians in the program in the ensuing years.

Yohanni, herself a skilled linguist and experienced teacher, became a tutor in 1961 and a few years later was appointed lecturer.  Over the next three decades, she became a central figure in the Indonesian program.  She wrote two very popular textbooks: Bahasa Indonesia: Introduction to Indonesian Language and Culture, volumes one and two, which became pretty much standard texts for secondary and tertiary students (including me!) across Australia. The books were reprinted many times and used in the Netherlands and the United States, and probably many other countries as well.  In the following years, Yohanni’s teaching left an indelible impression on the many hundreds of students who passed through ANU’s Indonesian program, not to mention the thousands of people across numerous countries who learned Indonesian through her textbooks.

Tony was promoted to professor in 1963 and served several terms as dean of the then Faculty of Oriental Studies (later to be the Faculty of Asian Studies).  The mid-1960s were watershed years for Tony, as he shifted the focus of his research more intently to Arabic and Islamic disciplines.  He took study leave in Egypt and various other parts of the Middle East, which initially he found deeply challenging.  He felt his Arabic was inadequate and it took intensive study for him to begin to use the kinds of texts that he regarded as essential to the next phase of his academic life.  His concentration on Arabic met with disapproval from some of his Southeast Asianist colleagues, who feared he would move away from the study of the region.  But in fact, his reason for becoming an Arabist was to better understand Indonesian Islam.  Deeper knowledge of Indonesian scholarship could only be gained by gaining first-hand access to the great texts and disciplines that Indonesian Islamic scholars themselves used, and this required high-level Arabic competency.

In the late 1960s, Tony began teaching Arabic at ANU.  He had a vision that Arabic should be located within Southeast Asian studies, a unique initiative that would, in later years, produce a string of excellent scholars, such as Tony Street, now Reader at Cambridge University, Fr Laurie Fitzgerald, who taught at ANU and The Australian Catholic University, Peter Riddell, who recently retired as professor at the Melbourne School of Theology, and Mike Laffan, who is professor of history at Princeton University.  Sadly, this novel integration of Southeast Asian, Arabic and Islamic Studies came to an end a little over 20 years ago and no similar program exists now, to my knowledge, outside of Southeast Asia. Tony retired in 1993 after 35 years of service to ANU; Yohanni retired as a senior lecturer two years later.

Tony’s Scholarship and Teaching

Tony’s scholarly output has been immense and I am pleased to note that it is still growing!  By my reckoning, he has published 78 articles in scholarly journals, 47 book chapters, 19 reviews and 10 books, and that is without mentioning his many entries in major reference works, such as his seven articles in Brill’s monumental Encyclopedia of Islam – a signal honour to be invited to write multiple contributions.

The broad arc of Tony’s work is as follows: he began in Southeast Asia studying Sufi Malay-language texts, then graduated to the study of the teachers of Indonesian Islamic scholars in the Middle East and the Arabic language foundational texts that they used, and ended with the study of the Qur’an.  Within this arc, the scope of his work was remarkable, including translations and commentaries on classical Malay Islamic texts, translations of modern Indonesian literature, descriptions and analysis of Islamic mysticism, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic theology and comparative theology, accounts of Australia’s Muslim community, interfaith relations, historical accounts of Islam’s coming to and influence upon Southeast Asia, and studies of prophets present in Islamic, Christian and Jewish scripture.  It is this later work on the prophets of which Tony is most proud.  Across these topics, Tony was capable of writing on highly specialised, narrow and sometimes obscure texts or issues, producing findings that were accessible to a small expert audience.  But he was equally capable of addressing big questions in the field and engaging in rigorous debate with other eminent scholars.

It is in his articles in scholarly journal articles, rather than in his books, where much of Tony’s finest work is to be found.  Many of these are the leading journals in their fields, such as: the Journal of Islamic Studies, the Journal of Asian Studies, the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, Archipel, the Journal of Southeast Asian History, the Review of Middle Eastern Studies and Hamdard Islamicus.  He even published pieces in the Australian literary journals Meanjin Quarterly and Quadrant, which indicated his desire to reach a much broader audience.

An example of Tony’s tackling of big issues was his article challenging the accepted view that it had been traders who were primarily responsible for the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia.  He did not dispute that merchants had played a role but he argued that the deeper penetration of Islam was due to learned men, mystics and Islamic scholars, rather than traders.  This was later often referred to as the Drewes-Johns debate, a reference to the Dutch Indologist, DWJ Drewes.  Tony later substantially revised his opinion on this but nonetheless it was a substantial contribution to scholarly debate.

What of the essence of Tony’s writings?  What hallmarks of his scholarship might we find within them? He recently wrote that ‘his concerns throughout his career were, and always have been, language, character and human responses to crises – of pain, joy and hope.’  So it is at once technical – to have a high command of the necessary languages to undertake this work – but also quintessentially human-focused.  Tony was ultimately concerned about people.  Linguistic, literary and historical skills were all means of gaining insight into the lives and motivations of individuals or communities.  And for him, Arabic was a sub-text behind vernacular writings showing how faith was understood.  Tony was always talking about layers; the task of the scholar was to explore what these layers contained.  The outward, superficial layer was perhaps at best a small part of the story.  One had to have the linguistic and disciplinary skills plus the imagination to delve further.  This subtle, sensitive exploration of sources and human feelings was present in all of Tony’s teaching and his writings.

He brought a similar sensibility to his teaching. In classes he was always urging students to feel within themselves the rhythm of Qur’anic phrases or feel the sounds of Indonesian or Arabic words.  He urged memorisation of at least some verses of the Qur’an because that way students could experience the words unfettered by the printed page.  There was nothing detached or mechanical about this method; one had to embrace the language and its culture wholeheartedly.  One also had to be precise and to show full respect to the original text, fully understanding words and how their meaning might change within sentences and different contexts.

In an Introduction to a forthcoming volume, Tony has written that his scholarly journey has been ‘as much one of unlearning as learning’.  This typifies his humility and constant introspection.  In his later work, he is frequently at pains to reflect back upon his earlier writings, diligently noting where there may have been errors in fact or interpretation. This sense of fallibility and striving for improvement is a feature of his scholarship.  I now want to turn to the thematic part of this address.

Restoring Religious and Cultural Complexity to the Study of Southeast Asian Islam

 Over the past 20-30 years, we have seen a change in the scholarly and policy discourse on Islam.  Whereas once this field gave prominence to scholars of religion and its culture and history, now social scientists, particularly political scientists and experts in international relations and security studies have come to dominate.  This is especially the case since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC in Sept 2001 – the 911 attacks.  With this catastrophic event, Islam suddenly leapt to being a paramount issue for governments, especially Western governments, and also, to some extent, the public.  There was urgent demand for expertise to help states and the public comprehend what had happened and what could be done to reduce the threat of further attacks.  Very soon, this discourse came to crystalise around what was often termed the ‘Islam problem’, that Islam contained within it radical tendencies that needed to be denounced, repressed or even expunged.  This became part of a broader discussion about Islam’s nature which was often cast in essentialising terms.   You will be very familiar with some of these: that Islam was ‘a religion of peace’, that Muslims were fundamentally irenic, that radicalism sprang from a misunderstanding or ‘deliberate distortion of Islam’s true teachings’.  And so the policy priorities that flowed from this were based on a need to identify who or what represented ‘true’ Islam, and how could these been helped, while, at the same time, identifying the deviant radicals.  Such policies were seen as not only preventing horrific terrorism but also restoring Islam to a benign and pristine form.  Counter-terrorism and anti-radicalisation programs were rolled out and projects to foster moderate, tolerant, pro-Western views were initiated.

Relatively few scholars involved in these policy processes were experts in religion per se, let alone Islam. Instead, it was political scientists, IR experts and security studies specialists who held sway, both in shaping public debate and in informing governments of policy options.  These social scientists brought very specific views and indeed assumptions to their work on religion.  They saw it as a distinct, generalisable component of social and political analysis; religion was something that stood apart from other factors, such as history, the economy and culture.  It was possible to understand Islam by itself, shorn of its local particularities and variations.  Especially for quantitative scholars, Islam was seen as something objectively measurable through surveys and big data sets.  Such approaches and analyses could produce universal theories and broadly applicable templates for action. They could measure the presence of radical or moderate attitudes and pinpoint opportunities for programmatic intervention.  Perhaps predictably, instant experts and think tanks and university centres quickly emerged that readily joined in the efforts to ‘fix’ Islam.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd in her excellent book Beyond Religious Freedom called the phenomenon ‘The Religious Reform Project’.  This referred to the efforts of Western governments to intervene in Islamic communities in ‘at risk’ nations in order to overcome Islam’s problems.  In fact, what was proposed was extensive state engineering of religious attitudes.  Islam became the object of government intervention, not just by Western governments, but very often by governments of Muslim-majority nations, many of which brought their own political and social agendas to the combatting radicalism and promoting moderation.  Few institutions better epitomised this thinking than the Tony Blair Foundation in Britain.  Blair held forth frequently about the ‘two faces of Islam’: the bad and the good. Let me quote:

There are two faces of faith in our world today.  One is seen not just in acts of religious extremism but also in the desire of religious people to wear their faith as a badge of identity in opposition to those who are different.  The other face is defined by extraordinary acts of sacrifice and compassion – for example in caring for the sick, disabled or destitute.  All over the world this battle between the two faces of faith is being played out.

Thus, all good resided on one side and all bad on another.  His foundation committed itself to repressing the bad and encouraging the good. It was generously funded and provided a high-profile, post-prime ministerial platform for Blair’s international activism.  The Blair Foundation is one of dozens of such institutions that seeks nothing less than to transform religion.  Hurd notes this Religious Reform agenda has almost replaced the secularist project: religion is no longer seen as a private, internal matter for communities; it is now essential to improving life in the public sphere.  In short, religion is an agent of public good.

So, what is problem with this model?  Could one not argue that it is commendable to assist Muslims in combatting militancy within their faith and promoting tolerance and peace? Would this not help to bring security and harmony to the world as well as to Muslim communities?  Well, the answer to these questions is that these Religious Reform agendas are far less successful than claimed and indeed may often be counter-productive.

First of all, the problem with religious interventions is the sheer shallowness of analysis and the failure to explore the assumptions that lie within.  To begin with, the social science assumption that religion is distinct, is deeply flawed.  Religion is not easily made a separate variable of analysis because it is inextricably linked to a range of other factors and cannot be easily disaggregated.  Religious Reform agendas actually carry secularist assumptions because they treat religion as something that autonomous and circumscribed.  Asef Bayat, the influential Iranian-American sociologist, dismissed attempts to isolate Islam from other domains:

Muslim societies’, he wrote, ‘are never monolithic as such, are never religious by definition, nor are their cultures confined to mere religion.  National cultures, historical experiences, political trajectories as well as class affiliation have all produced different cultures and sub-cultures of Islam, religious perceptions and practices across and within Muslim nations.

William T. Cavanaugh, who has written extensively (and it must be admitted controversially) on the folly of isolating religions as a cause of war or peace, argues that faith is socially constructed and is inextricably tied to a complex of other factors.

Second, the reductive binary categories are inimical to any nuanced understanding as to what is actually going on in Muslim communities.  To classify Muslims as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ makes no allowance of the range of views that Muslims might hold.  A Muslim might favour democracy and the rule of law, but also be opposed to gender equality, LGBT rights and inter-faith dialogue.  Does such a person fit into the good or bad box?  Governments like binaries because provide clear options, but in reality they are Procrustean: they just ignore or chop off the bits that do not neatly fit the category.  Binary approaches fail to do justice to subtle elements of political and religious life.

Let me give another example of Sufism and counter-terrorism.  There was a time in mid-2000s when various US think tanks became convinced that Islamic mysticism was the solution to radicalism – a proposal of astonishing gormlessness.  So, conferences and workshops were held and papers and articles published to this end.  Needless to say, the ‘initiative’ achieved little apart from directing funding to an array of Sufi leaders and counter-terrorism experts.  (When I told Tony about this at the time he burst out laughing and wondered how anyone could be so credulous!)

Third, the religious reform process produced harmful policies for Muslim communities.  One of the most notable was the ‘securitisation’ of state relations with Muslim communities. Muslims were seen first and foremost in terms of the supposed threat that they posed.

This, in itself, produced mistrust of government and resentment in Muslim communities because the faithful were only viewed through the narrow filter of radicalism.  It also distorts power relations within communities because government programs and money is being made available on the basis of whether they fit externally imposed criteria rather than the genuine needs of communities.   Certain groups privileged; others treated with prejudice.  The frequent result has been increased tensions within the Islamic community as favoured leaders and institutions reap the benefits of government support, while others miss out, regardless of their need.  We can see this currently in Indonesia where Nahdlatul Ulama is the recipient of Religious Reform largesse from various countries yet other major organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Persis are largely excluded.

There is a hubris here, a conceit that deeply embedded religious norms can be altered with a few years of aid programs or international initiatives.  States can repress certain types of Islam and foster others, but that is unlikely to greatly change what happens deep within society and its religious communities.  There are limits to what state-run or top-down religious agendas can achieve and most of these programs are usually top-down.  Expectation that Muslims will follow pre-ordained sets of behaviours.

My central argument here is that it is the absence of religious studies scholars from these global and domestic Religious Reform projects that undermines their effectiveness.  Lived religion, as any scholar of religion can tell you, is extraordinarily varied and mutable.  Great care is needed when generalising and typologising, particularly when concerned with predicting behaviour. The religion as set out by state religious authorities or by mainstream Islamic organisations is not necessarily rigidly adhered to by grassroots Muslims, even within those organisations. Prescriptions of orthopraxy might be followed only partially. Real religious life is often messy and contradictory; there are competing traditions and interests at play.  Muslims may aspire to a particular version of piety but not fulfil this.

So many on-the-ground studies have found enormous variety and behaviour that often confound the conventional categorisations of religious type. I could point to Chris Chaplin’s research on Salafis, for example.  This community is seen as culturally Arabised, ultra-puritanical and a threat to Indonesia’s pluralistic traditions.  But Chaplin shows significant indigenisation of their practices and considerable desire to compromise in order to expand their mainstream support and protect their educational and preaching activities.  Many assume that the term Salafist denotes one single, undifferentiated entity.  What is required is the close study of people and communities; what they say and write, the texts that influence them and how they communicate.  This needs language skills, patience and erudition.  Such skills are seldom found among quantitative social scientists or security studies experts.  This is not to disparage big data approaches.  They have the ability to tell us things that qualitative research cannot.  But to devise policies without scholarship on religious studies, without its care for details and an eye for nuance and variegation, is to risk miscomprehension and failure.  Religious studies scholars do not see faith as ‘clear cut’ and that is a sound starting point for policy formulation.

This brings me back to the work of Tony.  His concern to probe the layers of meaning in a text or a statement, his priority in reading what shapes the thinking of Indonesian Muslims – this is critical.  It means coming to Muslim communities not with a set of preconceived ideas or theories into which people can be sorted, but rather researching with an open mind.  Literature, social media discourses, preachers’ sermons, these are what needs studying.  we not assume that official Islam – that promulgated by governments or major Islamic organisations – is actually lived Islam.

Let me close on a personal note.  I must confess to having considerable apprehension in accepting this invitation to talk about Tony’s scholarship and contribution because I felt that I lacked the scholarly skills to do justice to what he has achieved.  I don’t speak Arabic, I’m not a scholar of the Qur’an and Islamic sciences.  I study Muslim politics, its doctrines and behaviour but I am not a scholar of Islam as such.  But I accepted the invitation because I am so deeply grateful for what Tony has provided to me and to so many other researchers on Southeast Asian Islam through his writings and his personal mentorship.  In my case, for thirty years Tony has encouraged me and with great patience, forbearance even, he has answered my many queries.  Tony never gave simple or obvious answers.  He would ponder the question for a moment before responding, often plucking apposite quotes from a bewildering array of sources that seemed to be forever circulating in his mind just waiting to be presented to a questioner.  These could be from the Bible or the Qur’an, from Shakespeare or Keats, or even from his favourite television satire, Yes Minister!  His answers often led to more questions, which would require more research and reflection on my part.  The thing about these answers was that they always opened vistas onto much broader fields of study and understanding.  I have a continuing sense of marvel at how Tony does this.

Let me return to where I started, by acknowledging the combined achievements of Tony and Yohanni, and thanking them for all the care and encouragement they have provided for students like me over so many years.  And for the wonderful example that they provide for us all, in their dedication to each other and to the fostering of Indonesian studies.  It is most fitting that so many people have gathered here this afternoon to celebrate these two wonderful careers.

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