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


Within the first four months of beginning to contribute to Fadjar Asia, Kartosuwiryo had already addressed the major topics that would constitute his ideology: criticism of colonial policies, socioeconomic injustice, abuse of power by police, governmental interference in religious matters, religious and political neutrality, the internal nationalist debate, Islam’s modernity and the international dimensions of the nationalist struggle.

Kartosuwiryo’s articles appeared in Fadjar Asia between April 1928 and May 1930 and show a coherent, if somewhat fragmented, picture of how he viewed the state of the indigenous population and its relation both to the colonial administration and to the international anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements. In April 1929 Kartosuwiryo lamented that

in politics, economics, but also society, the world still searches and gropes in the dark. The strong ones inevitably rule, and the weak are governed, the rich accumulate material things and the poor fail to do so, and every day the burden to be carried increases. Hundreds of thousands of traders and businessmen fail in their trades. Hundreds of thousands are the old farmers who don’t own any land anymore because it has been bought off by someone else, and they are now transformed into labourers, [dragged] deep into slavery and humiliation.[1]

Kartosuwiryo applied his understanding of socio-economic oppression, which emerged from his direct experience in Java, to similar situations across the world and history. The examples he produced were from Russia, China, and France, but his heart and mind were in Sukabumi, where taxes and the cost of living had increased to the point that local farmers were forced to sell their land to pay current expenses, and then to rent back smaller pieces of their own sawah paddy field to sustain their families.

The absence of, and quest for, justice is at the centre of more than twenty articles, in which socio-economic injustice takes several different forms in various aspects of the indigenous population’s life. In addition to focusing on the constant economic harassment by the colonial administration at the local and national levels, Kartosuwiryo dedicates considerable attention to police intrusions at political activities and religious gatherings. Sarekat Islam party members were jailed, party cadres questioned and prayer sessions broken up with little apparent reason other than creating difficulties for the gerakan, in the rural areas as much as in Batavia.

Such occurrences were lessons Kartosuwiryo would use to enlighten his readership on the party’s political strategy and on the reasons Islamic nationalism offered a more solid foundation upon which to build an anti-colonial movement than did secular nationalism, which professed neutrality towards religion.

The very first article Kartosuwiryo wrote for Fadjar Asia was titled ‘Religion and politics’, and it imagines a fictional debate between a ‘modern’ Muslim, and a pious ‘conservative’ Muslim.[2] The figures are opposed to explain how being pious does not mean being ‘traditional’, but rather means looking at the socio-political prob?lems of the Indies’ through the lens of religion. The pious man addresses the modern man, saying,

Maybe, then, you don’t know that religion embodies rules, rules for this world and the hereafter. Hence, religion is political. Aren’t you aware that in the history of Islam there are Islamic empires, Islamic wars, and so forth? Colonial politics itself is founded on religion, especially the Christian religion; there is a policy named Kersteningspolitiek, aimed at Christianizing the Indonesian population. Hence, religion is an important factor in colonial politics.

Upon hearing this statement, the modern Muslim, who works for the Dutch administration, is easily convinced and sets aside the common, secular understanding of religion as a private matter. He replies: ‘If that is so, Islam is also political.’[3]

Throughout Kartosuwiryo’s writings, the focus is on the need to obtain freedom, independence, merdeka. Achieving independence, however, is not important for its own sake, but rather for the sake of creating an environment favourable to the implementation of Islamic laws and the establishment of a government based on Islam.[4] In this understanding, the way out of oppression and poverty is religion:

Hold on to the ties connecting the Islamic ummah! Hold on to Islam truly! Follow the orders of Allah, and stay away from that which He forbids. Clearly this is the noble way to obtain freedom for the people and the motherland in a more encompassing and true sense, liberated from all forms of slavery, humiliation and subjugation, which are still now affecting us Indonesians in general and Muslims in particular.[1]

But these are notjust empty words of propaganda, aimed at rallying the support of disenchanted peasants; this is a political platform, in which ‘Islam’ and ‘the orders of Allah’ are to be translated into a free, independent, sovereign Islamic state:

We must prioritize and put our deepest efforts into establishing and building such [Islamic] government, so that we can succeed in becoming one ummah, holding its laws, implementing such laws independently, and having sovereignity over our own land. In short:

[we have to do this] so that we can follow Islamic sharia law in its most perfect and complete way, in all matters.[6]

Such a bold statement, made in May 1930, must be seen in relation to the repeated intrusions of the colonial government in the activities of the Sarekat Islam Party and in its religious gatherings in Malangbong. His claim should be read in light of the debate on the government’s supposed ‘neutrality’ towards religion, a stand that, according to Kartosuwiryo, had been broken when the government requested that each mosque obtain official permission to hold congregational prayers on Fridays.[7]

This concept of being ‘neutral’ towards religion was first formulated by Snouck Hurgronje, who, according to Kartosuwiryo, had suggested that

the government must be careful on matters relating to Islam. On Islamic understanding, the government must be neutraal. Never make a comment on the Caliphate question, especially on pan- Islamism [...], educate Indonesian children, and give them classes on all subjects but religion [...], seek friendship between Holland and Indonesia on matters of politics and nationalism, but do not envisage friendship in religion.

This effort towards establishing ‘neutral education’ is defined by Kartosuwiryo as ‘associationist’ and an attempt to westernize not just education but, ultimately, the Indies’ population by stripping it of its nationalist sentiment.[8]

Himself the product of Dutch schooling, Kartosuwiryo felt that the imposition of higher education in the language of the colonial administration was part of the Dutch policy to ‘divide and rule’, ultimately aimed at fragmenting the unity of the Indonesian people. It is along these lines that Kartosuwiryo argued in favour of the use of Malay for intellectuals and nationalist leaders.[9]

Neutrality soon became the core issue of the debate within the nationalist movement. However, the exact meaning of ‘neutrality’ was far from clear. Secular nationalists took it to mean a rejection of religion as a political ideology in favour of ‘nationalism’. For many religious organizations, including Muhammadiyah, ‘neutrality’ entailed safeguarding their own survival by stepping out of the political arena entirely, and concerning themselves only with social activities without opposing those organizations that involved themselves with it. For Kartosuwiryo, neither attitude made sense, nor could either lead to success.

In another fictional conversation, Kartosuwiryo presents the ‘modern’ man as employed in the colonial bureaucracy and convinced that only by being ‘neutral’ can he keep his position. For him, neutrality means ‘not mixing with Indonesian political organizations’, especially Sarekat Islam.[10] It was this very audience, the Indonesians employed in the colonial administration and fearful of political-religious involvement, that Kartosuwiryo targeted when explaining that it is impossible to be neutral. To those who argued that the principle behind their organizations is ‘only Indonesian nationalism’ - as did Jong Java and Pemoeda Indonesia - Kartosuwiryo answered that the ‘neutral effort’ was an ‘empty effort’: ‘Our measures are the Qur’an and the hadith [prophetic traditions]. Instead they have... science, intelligence, and whatever else. But most people would admit that science changes and expands, depending on theories; in a word, science is not constant’.[11]

To Kartosuwiryo, those who based their nationalism solely on their love of the motherland without recognizing any higher unchanging principle were doomed to become political ‘chameleons’.[4] Similarly, when commenting on the nationalist anthem, Indonesia Raya, which refers to the motherland as Ibu and Dewi, Kartosuwiryo deplored this form of nationalism as ‘chauvinistic’ and easy to ‘turn into capitalism and imperialism’.[13]

Where Kartosuwiryo interpreted the Dutch ‘divide and rule’ approach as an attempt to fragment indigenous society and one that might have been countered, for example, by using the Malay language, Soekarno instead saw it as the ideological fragmentation of the anti-colonial front from within, which could only be overcome through internal collaboration. Following on his early attempt to merge the nationalist, religious and socialist movements into one, which he expressed in his 1926 Islamisme, nasionalisme, dan Marxisme pamphlet, in 1927 Soekarno succeeded in establishing the Permoefakatan Perhimpoenan Politik Kebangsaan Indonesia (PPPKI, Agreement of Indonesian People’s Political Associations).

This federation was the outcome of the collaborative efforts of Soekarno, Tjokroaminoto and Salim, and was an attempt at unifying the nationalist front.

For the first two years Sarekat Islam argued that PPPKI was just a federation of parties and not a union (persatuan), and therefore allowed participating organizations to maintain their autonomy. In March 1929, however, Sarekat Islam took a stronger position against PPPKI and its attitude of cooperation with the colonial authorities (a point further discussed in the next chapter), and it gradually distanced itself from the federation. As several branches of PSII had not obtained permission from the party’s executive committee to participate in the August 1929 PPPKI congress, a rumour began circulating in secular circles that Kartosuwiryo had influenced the decision to exclude these groups in support of his anti-cooperation- ist approach. Fadjar Asia responded to this accusation by explaining that the decision had been made on financial grounds. To this official response, Kartosuwiryo added his personal perspective on the issue of ‘unity’, stating that a true and genuine union can only be based on Islam, as any other form of persatuan would only be based on fear of the enemy.[14]

Kartosuwiryo took the idea that genuine unity could only be obtained within the frame of Islamic groups and extended it to the international dimensions of the anti-colonial struggle. As Tjokroaminoto had already pointed out in his Islam dan sosialisme, socialism and Islamism both relied on international networks for the achievement of their socio-political goals. However, where Tjokroaminoto and Soekarno had used this commonality to bridge differences, Kartosuwiryo used it to prove Islam’s superiority over secular ideologies.

Even though it might appear to conflict with the nationalist objectives of the Sarekat Islam party, what follows shows that the shifts between Islamic nationalism and pan-Islamic transnationalism cannot be understood apart from their historical contingencies, an approach that I also apply to understanding this same phenomenon in the 1930s-1950s period.[15]

Kartosuwiryo first raised the issue of Islamic transnationalism in July 1928. Arguing for the primacy of Islam, Kartosuwiryo pointed to the socio-political dimensions of the hajj pilgrimage as a physical manifestation of Islamic brotherhood, crossing boundaries of ethnicity, language and nationality.[16] [17]

The term pan-Islamism appears for the first time in late September 1928. When commenting on the colonial authorities’ mismanagement of justice, Kartosuwiryo calls for Indonesian Muslims to ‘wake up’ and join the one organization, PSII, that defends the people and is ready to sacrifice itself to ensure its top priority, pan-Islamism: ‘Our movement dedicates each and every bone of its body to pan-Islamisme.’9i At this point in time Kartosuwiryo saw pan-Islamism not as a goal per se, but rather as a political tool, an orientation that became clearer in subsequent articles.

I am not suggesting that Sarekat Islam was instrumentalizing pan-Islamism as an element of its political propaganda, but rather that the idea of a global community united by the same religious beliefs and striving for the same freedom from foreign domination was considered a powerful rallying point for political action. It would only be in the 1950s that Kartosuwiryo developed a vision of pan-Islamism as the final goal of his struggle. This he would represent as the creation of a transnational political entity, namely, a state based on Islamic laws that unified the ummah worldwide. Despite the existence of several secular political parties that claimed to be inter-Asiatic, Kartosuwiryo believed that only Islam called for pure and genuine cooperation across borders, untainted by political opportunism.

Showing how difficult it was to balance nationalism and pan- Islamism intellectually, Kartosuwiryo added that an additional function of Islamic internationalism - which he also referred to as inter-Islamism - was the creation of a network of Islamic countries that desired to cooperate with one another on the road to nationalism.[18] This apparent contradiction, which recalls the ideological shift in the Indian Khilafat movement, soon attracted the attention of the Chinese-Malay newspaper Keng Po. In November 1928 its lead article argued that, ‘In Islam there is neither nationalism nor internationalism’. But this polemic, instead of harming the Islamic faction, became an ideal platform for Fadjar Asia to further enlighten its readership about the political duties of Muslims.

Kartosuwiryo’s argument was twofold. On the one hand he demonstrated Islam’s commitment to nationalism by invoking the Prophet’s alleged saying, ‘Love for the homeland is a part of faith’. On the other hand, he identified the struggle to become one unified Muslim nation as the political implication of the religious concept of ummah, and pointed to the duty to perform pilgrimage as the ‘broadest, purest, and holiest’ manifestation of this struggle. Kartosuwiryo thus concluded that secular nationalists did not fully understand the complexity of Islamic nationalism, which was aimed not at the freedom and promotion of one people, one race or one kingdom, but was instead pursued for the prosperity of ‘the One God, One belief, One Prophet, One flag’ of Islam.[19]

Kartosuwiryo’s articles published in 1929 focused on domestic politics, but as the debate among indigenous parties intensified, Kartosuwiryo offered his reflections on the different characteristics of nationalist ideologies in the Indies. In ‘Islam dan nasionalisme’, Kartosuwiryo succeeded in balancing his warnings that national pride might result in international confrontations together with his effort to preserve the notion that one should love the motherland. To avoid this potentially ‘deviationist attitude’, Kartosuwiryo argued that patriotism should follow the model of monotheism, and thus should be directed towards what he called ‘ Mono-Hoeman- isme’, a term here used to described ‘the unity of the human race to become one ummah’ (persatoean manoesia mendjadi satoe Oemmat).

Islam is ‘not just a way to establish relations between humans and God’, but it can guide relations between humans and organizations. As such, it can help shape a wider concept of nationality (kebangsaan) that is not limited to its ‘usual understanding’.[20] A couple of months later Kartosuwiryo explained these differences, contributing to the vigorous public debate over how nationhood should be perceived under colonial rule. For Boedi Oetomo, nationalism is ‘Javanese nationalism’; for Soekarno’s PNI, it is ‘pan- Asianism’. But for Kartosuwiryo and the PSII, kebangsaan was not to be linked to worldly desires nor was it limited by any territorial boundary. It was wide and broad, and connected only to religious affiliation and to the unity of Islam: Islamic nationalism was solely committed to the prosperity of God.[21]

  • [1] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Keber’atan ra’iat’, Fadjar Asia, 27 April 1929.
  • [2] This debate between kaum muda and kaum kolot (or kaum tua) was also often featured inTaman Pewarta; however, here the modernized man works within the framework of the colonialpolicy, whilst the ‘traditional’ man is the one that fears the loss of his Javaneseness because of theDutch-ification of customs, rather than his religious values. See Paul Tickell, ‘Taman Pewarta:Malay medium-Indonesian message’, in The Indonesian press: Its past, its people, its problems, PaulTickell (ed.), Annual Indonesian Lecture Series (Melbourne: Monash University, 1987).
  • [3] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Bertoekar fikiran: Agama dan politiek’, Fadjar Asia, 3 April 1928.
  • [4] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Faham koeno dan faham moeda’, Fadjar Asia, 12 September 1928.
  • [5] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Keber’atan ra’iat’, Fadjar Asia, 27 April 1929.
  • [6] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Lagi tentang oelil amri’, Fadjar Asia, 24 May 1930.
  • [7] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Boepati dan agama Islam’, Fadjar Asia, 21 April 1930.
  • [8] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Politiek djadjahan dan igama IV’, Fadjar Asia, 14 June 1928.
  • [9] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Bangsa dan bahasa’, Fadjar Asia, 8 May 1928, and Kartosuwiryo, ‘Politiekdjadjahan dan igama V’, Fadjar Asia, 16 June 1928.
  • [10] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Pertjakapan di dalam kereta api’, Fadjar Asia, 15 May 1928.
  • [11] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Sambil laloe: Soeara baroe! Model lama’, Fadjar Asia, 4 May 1929.
  • [12] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Faham koeno dan faham moeda’, Fadjar Asia, 12 September 1928.
  • [13] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Indonesia Raja dan. kerbau’, Fadjar Asia, 6 August 1929.
  • [14] On PSI and PPPKI see Kartosuwiryo, ‘Sambil laloe: Lagi tentang persatoean’, Fadjar Asia,12 March 1929; ‘Sambil laloe: Lagi tentang persatoean II’, Fadjar Asia, 15 March 1929; ‘KongresP3KI kedoea’, Fadjar Asia, 10 August 1929; ‘Liga, Perhimpoenan Indonesia dan kita’, Fadjar Asia,31 August 1929; ‘Boekan merintangi, melainkan tidak toeroet’, Fadjar Asia, 4 September 1929;‘Sambil laloe: Pikiran sehat’, Fadjar Asia, 7 September 1929; ‘Soe’al persatoean’, Fadjar Asia, 10September 1929; ‘Warta bagi pers’, Fa,dja,r Asia, 13 September 1929. See also PPO, August 1929,p. 177.
  • [15] An earlier draft of this section has been published in Formichi, ‘Pan-Islam and religiousnationalism’.
  • [16] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Perdjalanan ketanah soetji’, Fadjar Asia, 20 July 1928.
  • [17] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Aniajaan dan siksaan’, Fadjar Asia, 26 September 1928.
  • [18] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Pertjaja kepada diri sendiri dan ...’, Fadjar Asia, 31 October 1928.
  • [19] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Islamisme, nasionalisme dan internasionalisme I’, Fadjar Asia, 3 November1928, and ‘Islamisme, nasionalisme dan internasionalisme II’, Fadjar Asia, 7 November 1928.Quote from KengPo and Qur’anic verse (in Indonesian) included in: Kartosuwiryo, ‘Islamisme,nasionalisme dan internasionalisme I’.
  • [20] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Islam dan nasionalisme’, Fadjar Asia, 24 May 1929.
  • [21] Kartosuwiryo, ‘Berekor pandjang (pers dan politiek)’, Fadjar Asia, 2 July 1929.
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