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Home arrow Religion arrow Islam and the making of the nation: Kartosuwiryo and Political Islam in 20th Century Indonesia


Despite the name and goals of the Darul Islam and despite Karto- suwiryo’s long career in the Islamic nationalist movement in the 1920s-1940s, scholars have failed to take seriously the role of Islam

  • - and more specifically, the project of an Islamic Indonesian state
  • - as the main motivation behind this movement’s activities. This dismissal, an approach dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, emerged from three considerations: first, that the Darul Islam emerged and gained strength because of the frustration of regional military commanders who were side-lined in the formation of a national army and because of popular discontent towards agrarian reforms and political centralization in Jakarta. Second, that Kartosuwiryo could not have been genuinely committed to the Islamic state ideal because he had not received religious training, and because he was a Sufi, thus his religious understanding must have been apolitical and incompatible with a formalistic view of Islam. And third, that Islam is intrinsically opposed to the idea of ‘nation-state’, as the concept of ‘unity of the Islamic brotherhood’ (ittihad al-ukhuwwa al-Islamiyya) is paramount over the creation of a territorially discrete entity.

This book intends to bring religion back into the analysis of the Darul Islam, taking Islam not just as a means for rallying popular support or as a rhetorical exercise for gaining legitimacy, but rather as the ideological foundation of Kartosuwiryo’s activities.

The first academic book on the Darul Islam, Cornelis Van Dijk’s Rebellion under the banner of Islam, is representative of the framework described above.[1] This breakthrough study gave Darul Islam the attention it deserved fifteen years after its disbandment by the army, reconstructing the roots of Kartosuwiryo’s endeavours while investigating the connections between the West Java Darul Islam and the regional rebellions that swept through the archipelago in the 1950s and 1960s. To the reader familiar with Van Dijk’s work, the congruencies and divergences between our two historical reconstructions will be apparent, and I have chosen not to repeatedly refer back to Van Dijk’s findings. However, it is evident that dramatically different approaches have informed our analyses. Two points have already been mentioned: Van Dijk places great emphasis on agrarian reforms and social struggles, as well as on arguing that Karto- suwiryo was closer to Sufism than to Islamic modernism and thus did not fit into the Sarekat Islam environment (this latter point is addressed in detail in Chapter 1). Because of the time at which the book was written, and the sources he used (limited to newspaper articles and official army publications), Van Dijk also ignores the impact of Kartosuwiryo and Darul Islam’s legacy on Indonesia’s political Islam.

Furthermore, in addressing Van Dijk’s broader approach to the Darul Islam, what most greatly differentiates our two works is that he analyses this movement as a rebellion and, perhaps more importantly, as a single movement with four or five different embodiments in those regions that wished to secede from Soekarno’s Republic. Van Dijk qualifies the limits to, and rationale behind, treating the Darul Islam as a single entity by stressing the importance of finding ‘common denominators’ and the evidence of contacts between regional leaders. Yet he also admits that the nature of the conflict varied from province to province.[2] The major implication of Van Dijk’s claim is thus thatjoining the Darul Islam-Negara Islam Indonesia project was an afterthought for the leaders of ongoing rebellions in Aceh, Sulawesi and Kalimantan. In this way, Van Dijk is able to consider Islam not as a ‘motivation’ (motivations were as diverse as the number of rebellions under study) but, rather, as merely a ‘justification’. The very title of the book suggests that Islam was used to legitimize the rebellion and to rally popular consensus, and even in his attempt to reassert Islam as a motivating force, the author places the Islamic state ideal back in the picture as a ‘rallying point for resistance’ rather than as a political project.[3] In my view, the root of Van Dijk’s confusion over the role of religion lies in his addressing the Darul Islam as a rebellion, thus removing its early development and goals from his analysis. This approach leads him to turn the question, ‘Why did people join the Darul Islam?’, into what ‘induced people to rise against the established government?’.[4]

Rebellions in the other regions of the archipelago had their roots in ‘the relation between the official Republican Army and the irregular guerrilla units, the expansion of Central government’s control [...], changes in landownership, and Islam’.[5] The Republican government’s increasing attempts to control the provinces and side-line local guerrilla commanders in favour of ‘regular’ officers certainly played a key role in fomenting dissent among regional leaders and inspiring a number of full-fledged separatist rebellions.

Van Dijk aptly describes Central Java’s rebellion as ‘an off-shoot’ of WestJava’s; South Sulawesi’s as the struggle of the ‘disaffected guerrillas’; South Kalimantan’s as that of ‘the oppressed’; and Aceh’s as the ‘rebellion of the Islamic scholars’. In so doing, Van Dijk is pointing to the rebels’ social revolution against local bearers of authority and their dedication to the Islamic state project. In this argument, Aceh stands out as the only province where the primary motive for rebelling against the Republic in the 1950s was religion.

Edward Aspinall’s Islam and nation is a new milestone in the literature on Islam and politics in the Indonesian archipelago. Aspinall describes the Acehnese rebellion as embedded in ethnic dynamics and separatist aspirations, yet he also recognizes the Islamic roots of the Darul Islam, the importance of the tensions between regional and national politics, and the complex ties connecting ethnicity, religion and historical circumstances.[6]

Despite the different forces motivating popular mobilizations in South Kalimantan, South Sulawesi, West Java and Aceh, the aura of Islam inspired many inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago to fight for independence from colonial domination alongside Sarekat Islam, Masyumi and the Darul Islam in name of religion. What is needed, though, is a deeper understanding of the appeal of an Islamic state project during this time. The nuances of this struggle, both in terms of the changing historical context (from colony to independence) and its shifting geographical scope (from nation to province) are crucial in understanding the position of Islam in Indonesian politics throughout the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

  • [1] Cornelis van Dijk, Rebellion under the banner of Islam: The Darul Islam in Indonesia, KITLV Ver-handelingen no. 94 (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981).
  • [2] Van Dijk, Rebellion under the banner of Islam, p. 340.
  • [3] Van Dijk, Rebellion under the banner of Islam, p. 391.
  • [4] Van Dijk, Rebellion under the banner of Islam, p. 340; emphasis in original.
  • [5] Van Dijk, Rebellion under the banner of Islam, p. 4.
  • [6] Edward Aspinall, Islam and nation: Separatist rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia (Singapore: NUSPress, 2009).
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