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Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

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Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, canned peas, apple juice, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Morocco

A response to “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia: An Interview with Robert Hefner”

By John Thibdeau

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Muslim NGOs and civil society in Indonesia

Religion and NGOs

Produced by R. Michael Feener

While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, in others they compete with state services and in still others service delivery by religious NGOs is associated with political parties and forms part of their electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, then, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol, and subvert the state institutions – while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his research on Muslim NGOs in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, and what his findings can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apples, oranges, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia

Podcast with Robert Hefner (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Hefner_-_Muslim_NGOs_and_Civil_Society_in_Indonesia

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the first instalment in our series on Religions and NGOs. First of all, one or two words on this series. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among policy-makers in the academy into the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs or faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutions of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect – and how these engagements result in changes in our understandings of the concepts of religion and development.

CS: While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, others compete with state services, and still others are seen as deploying service delivery in ways that build up support for political parties in electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol and subvert state institutions, while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his ongoing research on Muslim NGOs in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta, we will talk with him about his findings and what they can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary South East Asia. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. Speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Robert Hefner. He is the Director of the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University. While Professor Hefner is an anthropologist long-involved in the study of Muslim South East Asia – more specifically Muslim politics, ethics and law – he is also an interdisciplinary scholar and comparativist who carried out research on Christianity, Hinduism and political secularism. He directed over a dozen research projects, and among his numerous publications figure Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in India, published in 2000; Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, published in 2009; and most recently, Shari’a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics, published last year. A leading scholar of Islam, civil movements and democratisation, with an extensive field experience in Indonesia, we are glad to have Professor Hefner with us today to talk more specifically about the place of development among Indonesian Muslim NGOS. Thank you for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you.

CS: Giuseppe, do you want to start with our first question?

GB: With pleasure. In your introduction to Civil Islam, you explain how your research on Islam and democracy has been partly prompted by Indonesian colleagues and Muslim lecturers. And you relate how a member of a Muslim youth organisation, who had read one of your books, confronted you with the unexpected question of whether you thought Muslims can create a civil society. All of this contributed to your decision to enquire more thoroughly into these and related questions. How do you see our role as researchers in writing and communicating about such highly complex and sensitive issues, not only in the academic arena but also on the ground, with the people at the centre of our studies?

RH: Thank you. One of the fascinating things about Indonesia is that – well there’s two things actually – is that it has undergone some of the most extraordinary political and cultural changes anywhere in the Muslim world. Over the span of the last thirty-five years, the country has gone from being a very authoritarian developmentalist state to being – not a perfect – but a well-functioning electoral democracy, with a free press and a variety of other institutions that we associate with democracy. But the change has happened so rapidly, I think, that many people don’t quite understand the role that Muslims and Muslim NGOs played in it. Going back, briefly, to my encounter in the early 1990s – it was  actually 1991 – when I began my research in Jakarta. Prior to that time in fact, in the late 1970s and then again in 1985, I worked in East Java in an area which was majority Muslim, and where a very large . . .  the largest Muslim social welfare organisation in the world, called Nahdlatul Ulama [NU], had its base. It was a very, very strong but moderately conservative – not extremely conservative – moderately conservative Islamic social welfare organisation. And it was a region which, in 1965-66 at the dawn of the authoritarian regime that ruled Indonesia from 1966 to1998, and who had played the central role in the destruction, and in fact massacre – mass killings – of members of the Communist Party, many of whom were Muslim in background, but not particularly observant. So I had this experience from earlier when I went to Jakarta in 1991, and I had already published a book about – among other things – the political change that led up to the great changes of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. But I had written a good deal, too, about the role of NU in the killings. So when I went to this meeting, at the invitation of some Muslim youth members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, I went there with a little bit of reservation, knowing that other people in the Muslim community had criticised some of my comments on the events of ’65-66. And to my surprise, the first gentleman who asked me a question raised his hand, and he was almost trembling with intense purpose and at first I thought he was angry, but his question was: “Professor Hefner, on the basis of NU’s involvement in the killing of Communists in 1965-66, do you really think Muslims can possibly create a civil society?” And I was shocked – I was astonished. And there were, in the course of the next hour-and-a-half that I spoke with them, there were strong expressions of concern and self-critique of the role of Muslims about, what these NU youth said, was buttressing, really, the authoritarian regime of the New Order. So this was my first exposure, in what would become in the period from 1991 to1999, a long series of engagements with Muslim NGOs, both NU, Mohammadiyah and also some smaller independent organisations. And I learned from that that, actually, Jakarta – but also Indonesia generally – was the home of some of the most vibrant Muslim civil society organisations, anywhere in the Muslim world. In fact I would, today, in the retrospect of more than thirty years of working in Indonesia, say that Indonesia has the largest Muslim – as well as non-Muslim – but the largest Muslim NGO and Muslim civil society organisational structure and network of associations of anywhere in the Muslim world. A rather extraordinary story. In any case, I then – from 1991-99 – spent those years working with a series of NGOs including one called LP3ES, which was a kind of amalgam of Muslims from a relatively conservative – but still pro-democracy – social welfare organisation, and then Muslims who had earlier been associated with Indonesia’s social democratic party. So I watched the way in which they grappled with a whole slew of issues, including: the question of religious tolerance; the question of how one engages matters of religious freedom; and another issue, which was very hot already in the 1990s and has remained so until this day, which is the question of women’s equality. So it was the beginning – that first meeting in 1991 was the first . . . it was the beginning of a kind of re-education, on my part, of my understanding of this huge organisation that I had originally met in the countryside in East Java, in villages, meeting with relatively conservative, but very decent Muslims, that this organisation had somehow given birth to a remarkable social welfare movement and that a wing of it had become a pillar – arguably their most important pillar – in Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement. A movement which – in combination with a great variety of social organisations, including secular nationalists but also including Christians and Hindus – would in May of 1998 succeed in, if you will, pushing President Soeharto from power and initiating an inauguration to a new electoral democracy in Indonesia. One which, during its first three years in particular, saw outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, but which the country weathered. And though there are still problems like questions of religious tolerance, today it stands as the most successful – one of the most successful – democracies anywhere in the global south, and certainly, certainly, by far the most successful Muslim majority democracy. And those Muslim NGOs that I first sort-of encountered in the countryside, but most dramatically in the critical decade of the 1990s, are a major part of the story of how this Muslim majority country became democratic.

CS: Thank you, that is a fascinating story. That leads me to ask you, how have particular organisations that you have been following, in Yogyakarta, been shaped by the political legal context in which they are working and how have they contributed to shape it more specifically? And you have already introduced elements of this, but if you can explain some further?

RH: Yes. After 1999, Indonesia’s transition returned to electoral democracy and I decided that I would put my Jakarta research phase behind me and return to working, not in the countryside, in this instance, but working in a non-capital region. So I chose Yogyakarta in part because I had university affiliation there, but also because Yogyakarta had a reputation of being – even though it’s a relatively small city by Indonesian standards, it’s a half million – it’s a kind of intellectual centre. It’s also a cultural centre and I love Javanese culture, so for me – and now I had children – it seemed like a good place to position ourselves. But the other reason – and the more serious reason that I decided to sort-of shift back to a non-capital region, to Yogyakarta in particular, is that I had come to realise that one of the major challenges that the democracy movement – and all efforts of kind-of social reform in Indonesia were confronting – was the question of how to devise Islamic rationales for things like gender equality, things like democracy and things like religious pluralism. And as I sat, during the first years of this great transition back from 32 years of authoritarian rule, there were serious outbreaks of violence across Indonesia. Some 10,000 people died, primarily in violence between Christians and Muslims although the dynamic wasn’t by any means exclusively, and in some instances even primarily about religion. But the question of how to, if you will, disseminate this idea, this new institution. Muslim support for this new institution of democracy loomed much more centrally in the aftermath of the sudden and, for many people, unexpected return to democracy. So I began working in Jogya. I sort of stumbled onto a group of some people who told me about it, when I was still working in Jakarta in the ’90s. And it was a group of mid-twenties Muslim youths, graduates of the State Islamic University. Most of them had spent their youth in madrasas – the Indonesian equivalent of madrasas which are known as [ audio unclear] pesantren. So they came from a kind of archetypical Nahdlatul Ulama background and had not had a kind-of secular education or things like that. But after graduating the equivalent of their first degree – BA in Islamic Studies – they had established an NGO whose purpose was really to address this issue of working within the Islamic tradition – and in particular within the jurisprudential tradition which is known as fiqh in Islamic tradition. Working within that to, if you will, invite people – they couldn’t do it themselves, they had to make this a kind of national collaborative effort, to invite people – to rethink collectively, together, the grounds for justifying things like representative democracy, gender equality and – the thorniest of all, actually – is the question of religious tolerance. Because there are, within the fiqh tradition, major precedents for identifying non-Muslims in a way that makes modern notions of equal citizenship difficult. So here were these mid-twenties, young guys – mid-twenties to early thirties – and I began working with them. And it was another one of these transformative moments for me. Because I followed them out to the countryside, out to the Indonesian madrasas, the pesantaren where they gave courses. But they weren’t in a position, because they were young – even though they were quite smart and they knew the jurisprudential tradition – but they couldn’t just sort of arrive and say, “Well, here’s what we need to do.” They had to work in a very collaborative way, in a way that was respectful of established religious scholars and, if you will, opened a dialogue that really would then continue over many years. And again, this was happening . . . they were part of a network. They were a key node, because they were also a publishing house. The group I’m referring to is called Al KIS, which is the Institute for the Study of Islam in Society, if you translate it. And they were a publishing house as well, so they were one very critical node in what was from the mid 1990s even before the return to democracy, to today. A node, a network of Muslim activists who were kind-of, who were trying to work from within the tradition and work with scholars – some were quite conservative – to bring about a kind of cultural shift. And this has proved to be a much more serious challenge than many people might have hoped. It didn’t surprise me. There were counter-currents. There are, particularly since 2005, there’s been a kind-of an upsurge in some conservative currents in Indonesia – some very conservative. But these efforts continue and once again they were part of, they are part of the Indonesian story. And part of the reason that you meet in Indonesia today – however much certain issues are still under debate – questions of, for example, democracy, the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers. These ideas are now very much received by the Muslim mainstream in these countries. So again, I witnessed their efforts, I participated in some of their meetings with religious scholars and above all, I learned a lot about the importance of this new breed, this new species of Islamic NGO that had, at this critical moment in the democratic transition, jumped forward to, if you will, work on what it referred to sometimes, to do the “normative” work for justifying what is a significant kind of readjustment in Islamic legal and political thought.

GB: Thank you so much Professor Hefner. Your work on Indonesia is really, really meaningful. Even from a comparative perspective. Your work in Indonesia over the years has highlighted the dynamic nature of discourses on democratisation, pluralism and religious freedom. What would you highlight as the major points that your long-term experience in Indonesia could contribute to a broader conversation on the role of religion in civil society in a global context?

RH: There’s so much there, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. But the first thing I would say is something that I say when I am invited by Muslim colleagues and friends to go – particularly when I’m not speaking with Muslim academics or Indonesian academics . . . . But I’m invited to go out into the countryside and meet with people whose lives have changed so dramatically, both because of the political changes, but also because there’s been an educational revolution in Indonesia. Everywhere in the countryside you find children who’ve graduated from high school. When I first began my work in Indonesia, the average Indonesian had about a fourth grade education. Today it’s just short of a high school education. So there’s all sorts of changes that have taken place. But, when I go to the kind-of ordinary Indonesian settings, one of the points that I try to make is something that I’ve learned from my Muslim friends and which I also convey when I travel through . . . for example, I’ve been invited to give lectures in places like Turkey or Egypt or India, where there’s not great interest in Indonesia but a little. And one of the messages that I make in those countries, but also more significantly within Indonesia, has always been that, you know, democracy is not a . . . . It may have achieved an earlier development in Western, parts of the Western world, but it’s very much an instrument, a tool, a social tool for dealing with difference, negotiating difference, of all of humanity. It’s therefore a kind of generalised . . . it isn’t a kind of made-in-the-West institution. Indeed, even in the West, democracy takes different forms because it has to accommodate itself to different social, political, legal and ethical environments. We shouldn’t be surprised – in fact we should very much expect – that that would be the case in the Muslim world as well, within certain limits. You can’t – there has to be family resemblance – there has to be some kind of institutional and ethical core. And I think there is. But the idea that some conservative Islamists, who reject democracy and pluralism and things like that, the idea that they promote is that, “No, no. Democracy is a Western value and Western institution.” And my point – and it’s a point that isn’t my idea, it’s the idea that I’ve learned from speaking with my friends in NU and Muhommadiyah and other major Muslim social organisations in Indonesia – is that, no, democracy – particularly in it’s modern form – is an invention of humankind, to deal with certain kinds of challenges of living together in the world that we inhabit. So democratisation is not Westernisation. It is something that builds on, and must build on and have roots in, the ethical, legal and cultural traditions of each society in which it takes root. So that’s my first point, and I don’t think that’s particularly original or insightful . . . .

CS: But important.

RH: It’s one that I learned above all, from that, beginning with that meeting in ‘91, when that young earnest, decent man reflecting on the trauma of the Nahdlatul Ulama‘s involvement, and feeling ashamed – those were the words he used – for what had happened. And that was the beginning of my re-education into the culture, politics and ethics of Muslim Indonesia. And I think that basic lesson is very much generalisable to other parts of the world.

GB: We could speak with Professor Hefner for hours but our time is over. So thank you very much for joining us, Professor, at the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you very much, It’s been an honour and a pleasure. Thank you.

CS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Hefner, Robert, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-ngos-and-civil-society-in-indonesia/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Podcasts

Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

Read more

Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, canned peas, apple juice, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Morocco

A response to “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia: An Interview with Robert Hefner”

By John Thibdeau

Read more

Muslim NGOs and civil society in Indonesia

Religion and NGOs

Produced by R. Michael Feener

While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, in others they compete with state services and in still others service delivery by religious NGOs is associated with political parties and forms part of their electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, then, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol, and subvert the state institutions – while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his research on Muslim NGOs in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, and what his findings can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apples, oranges, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia

Podcast with Robert Hefner (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Hefner_-_Muslim_NGOs_and_Civil_Society_in_Indonesia

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the first instalment in our series on Religions and NGOs. First of all, one or two words on this series. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among policy-makers in the academy into the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs or faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutions of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect – and how these engagements result in changes in our understandings of the concepts of religion and development.

CS: While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, others compete with state services, and still others are seen as deploying service delivery in ways that build up support for political parties in electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol and subvert state institutions, while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his ongoing research on Muslim NGOs in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta, we will talk with him about his findings and what they can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary South East Asia. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. Speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Robert Hefner. He is the Director of the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University. While Professor Hefner is an anthropologist long-involved in the study of Muslim South East Asia – more specifically Muslim politics, ethics and law – he is also an interdisciplinary scholar and comparativist who carried out research on Christianity, Hinduism and political secularism. He directed over a dozen research projects, and among his numerous publications figure Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in India, published in 2000; Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, published in 2009; and most recently, Shari’a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics, published last year. A leading scholar of Islam, civil movements and democratisation, with an extensive field experience in Indonesia, we are glad to have Professor Hefner with us today to talk more specifically about the place of development among Indonesian Muslim NGOS. Thank you for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you.

CS: Giuseppe, do you want to start with our first question?

GB: With pleasure. In your introduction to Civil Islam, you explain how your research on Islam and democracy has been partly prompted by Indonesian colleagues and Muslim lecturers. And you relate how a member of a Muslim youth organisation, who had read one of your books, confronted you with the unexpected question of whether you thought Muslims can create a civil society. All of this contributed to your decision to enquire more thoroughly into these and related questions. How do you see our role as researchers in writing and communicating about such highly complex and sensitive issues, not only in the academic arena but also on the ground, with the people at the centre of our studies?

RH: Thank you. One of the fascinating things about Indonesia is that – well there’s two things actually – is that it has undergone some of the most extraordinary political and cultural changes anywhere in the Muslim world. Over the span of the last thirty-five years, the country has gone from being a very authoritarian developmentalist state to being – not a perfect – but a well-functioning electoral democracy, with a free press and a variety of other institutions that we associate with democracy. But the change has happened so rapidly, I think, that many people don’t quite understand the role that Muslims and Muslim NGOs played in it. Going back, briefly, to my encounter in the early 1990s – it was  actually 1991 – when I began my research in Jakarta. Prior to that time in fact, in the late 1970s and then again in 1985, I worked in East Java in an area which was majority Muslim, and where a very large . . .  the largest Muslim social welfare organisation in the world, called Nahdlatul Ulama [NU], had its base. It was a very, very strong but moderately conservative – not extremely conservative – moderately conservative Islamic social welfare organisation. And it was a region which, in 1965-66 at the dawn of the authoritarian regime that ruled Indonesia from 1966 to1998, and who had played the central role in the destruction, and in fact massacre – mass killings – of members of the Communist Party, many of whom were Muslim in background, but not particularly observant. So I had this experience from earlier when I went to Jakarta in 1991, and I had already published a book about – among other things – the political change that led up to the great changes of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. But I had written a good deal, too, about the role of NU in the killings. So when I went to this meeting, at the invitation of some Muslim youth members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, I went there with a little bit of reservation, knowing that other people in the Muslim community had criticised some of my comments on the events of ’65-66. And to my surprise, the first gentleman who asked me a question raised his hand, and he was almost trembling with intense purpose and at first I thought he was angry, but his question was: “Professor Hefner, on the basis of NU’s involvement in the killing of Communists in 1965-66, do you really think Muslims can possibly create a civil society?” And I was shocked – I was astonished. And there were, in the course of the next hour-and-a-half that I spoke with them, there were strong expressions of concern and self-critique of the role of Muslims about, what these NU youth said, was buttressing, really, the authoritarian regime of the New Order. So this was my first exposure, in what would become in the period from 1991 to1999, a long series of engagements with Muslim NGOs, both NU, Mohammadiyah and also some smaller independent organisations. And I learned from that that, actually, Jakarta – but also Indonesia generally – was the home of some of the most vibrant Muslim civil society organisations, anywhere in the Muslim world. In fact I would, today, in the retrospect of more than thirty years of working in Indonesia, say that Indonesia has the largest Muslim – as well as non-Muslim – but the largest Muslim NGO and Muslim civil society organisational structure and network of associations of anywhere in the Muslim world. A rather extraordinary story. In any case, I then – from 1991-99 – spent those years working with a series of NGOs including one called LP3ES, which was a kind of amalgam of Muslims from a relatively conservative – but still pro-democracy – social welfare organisation, and then Muslims who had earlier been associated with Indonesia’s social democratic party. So I watched the way in which they grappled with a whole slew of issues, including: the question of religious tolerance; the question of how one engages matters of religious freedom; and another issue, which was very hot already in the 1990s and has remained so until this day, which is the question of women’s equality. So it was the beginning – that first meeting in 1991 was the first . . . it was the beginning of a kind of re-education, on my part, of my understanding of this huge organisation that I had originally met in the countryside in East Java, in villages, meeting with relatively conservative, but very decent Muslims, that this organisation had somehow given birth to a remarkable social welfare movement and that a wing of it had become a pillar – arguably their most important pillar – in Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement. A movement which – in combination with a great variety of social organisations, including secular nationalists but also including Christians and Hindus – would in May of 1998 succeed in, if you will, pushing President Soeharto from power and initiating an inauguration to a new electoral democracy in Indonesia. One which, during its first three years in particular, saw outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, but which the country weathered. And though there are still problems like questions of religious tolerance, today it stands as the most successful – one of the most successful – democracies anywhere in the global south, and certainly, certainly, by far the most successful Muslim majority democracy. And those Muslim NGOs that I first sort-of encountered in the countryside, but most dramatically in the critical decade of the 1990s, are a major part of the story of how this Muslim majority country became democratic.

CS: Thank you, that is a fascinating story. That leads me to ask you, how have particular organisations that you have been following, in Yogyakarta, been shaped by the political legal context in which they are working and how have they contributed to shape it more specifically? And you have already introduced elements of this, but if you can explain some further?

RH: Yes. After 1999, Indonesia’s transition returned to electoral democracy and I decided that I would put my Jakarta research phase behind me and return to working, not in the countryside, in this instance, but working in a non-capital region. So I chose Yogyakarta in part because I had university affiliation there, but also because Yogyakarta had a reputation of being – even though it’s a relatively small city by Indonesian standards, it’s a half million – it’s a kind of intellectual centre. It’s also a cultural centre and I love Javanese culture, so for me – and now I had children – it seemed like a good place to position ourselves. But the other reason – and the more serious reason that I decided to sort-of shift back to a non-capital region, to Yogyakarta in particular, is that I had come to realise that one of the major challenges that the democracy movement – and all efforts of kind-of social reform in Indonesia were confronting – was the question of how to devise Islamic rationales for things like gender equality, things like democracy and things like religious pluralism. And as I sat, during the first years of this great transition back from 32 years of authoritarian rule, there were serious outbreaks of violence across Indonesia. Some 10,000 people died, primarily in violence between Christians and Muslims although the dynamic wasn’t by any means exclusively, and in some instances even primarily about religion. But the question of how to, if you will, disseminate this idea, this new institution. Muslim support for this new institution of democracy loomed much more centrally in the aftermath of the sudden and, for many people, unexpected return to democracy. So I began working in Jogya. I sort of stumbled onto a group of some people who told me about it, when I was still working in Jakarta in the ’90s. And it was a group of mid-twenties Muslim youths, graduates of the State Islamic University. Most of them had spent their youth in madrasas – the Indonesian equivalent of madrasas which are known as [ audio unclear] pesantren. So they came from a kind of archetypical Nahdlatul Ulama background and had not had a kind-of secular education or things like that. But after graduating the equivalent of their first degree – BA in Islamic Studies – they had established an NGO whose purpose was really to address this issue of working within the Islamic tradition – and in particular within the jurisprudential tradition which is known as fiqh in Islamic tradition. Working within that to, if you will, invite people – they couldn’t do it themselves, they had to make this a kind of national collaborative effort, to invite people – to rethink collectively, together, the grounds for justifying things like representative democracy, gender equality and – the thorniest of all, actually – is the question of religious tolerance. Because there are, within the fiqh tradition, major precedents for identifying non-Muslims in a way that makes modern notions of equal citizenship difficult. So here were these mid-twenties, young guys – mid-twenties to early thirties – and I began working with them. And it was another one of these transformative moments for me. Because I followed them out to the countryside, out to the Indonesian madrasas, the pesantaren where they gave courses. But they weren’t in a position, because they were young – even though they were quite smart and they knew the jurisprudential tradition – but they couldn’t just sort of arrive and say, “Well, here’s what we need to do.” They had to work in a very collaborative way, in a way that was respectful of established religious scholars and, if you will, opened a dialogue that really would then continue over many years. And again, this was happening . . . they were part of a network. They were a key node, because they were also a publishing house. The group I’m referring to is called Al KIS, which is the Institute for the Study of Islam in Society, if you translate it. And they were a publishing house as well, so they were one very critical node in what was from the mid 1990s even before the return to democracy, to today. A node, a network of Muslim activists who were kind-of, who were trying to work from within the tradition and work with scholars – some were quite conservative – to bring about a kind of cultural shift. And this has proved to be a much more serious challenge than many people might have hoped. It didn’t surprise me. There were counter-currents. There are, particularly since 2005, there’s been a kind-of an upsurge in some conservative currents in Indonesia – some very conservative. But these efforts continue and once again they were part of, they are part of the Indonesian story. And part of the reason that you meet in Indonesia today – however much certain issues are still under debate – questions of, for example, democracy, the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers. These ideas are now very much received by the Muslim mainstream in these countries. So again, I witnessed their efforts, I participated in some of their meetings with religious scholars and above all, I learned a lot about the importance of this new breed, this new species of Islamic NGO that had, at this critical moment in the democratic transition, jumped forward to, if you will, work on what it referred to sometimes, to do the “normative” work for justifying what is a significant kind of readjustment in Islamic legal and political thought.

GB: Thank you so much Professor Hefner. Your work on Indonesia is really, really meaningful. Even from a comparative perspective. Your work in Indonesia over the years has highlighted the dynamic nature of discourses on democratisation, pluralism and religious freedom. What would you highlight as the major points that your long-term experience in Indonesia could contribute to a broader conversation on the role of religion in civil society in a global context?

RH: There’s so much there, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. But the first thing I would say is something that I say when I am invited by Muslim colleagues and friends to go – particularly when I’m not speaking with Muslim academics or Indonesian academics . . . . But I’m invited to go out into the countryside and meet with people whose lives have changed so dramatically, both because of the political changes, but also because there’s been an educational revolution in Indonesia. Everywhere in the countryside you find children who’ve graduated from high school. When I first began my work in Indonesia, the average Indonesian had about a fourth grade education. Today it’s just short of a high school education. So there’s all sorts of changes that have taken place. But, when I go to the kind-of ordinary Indonesian settings, one of the points that I try to make is something that I’ve learned from my Muslim friends and which I also convey when I travel through . . . for example, I’ve been invited to give lectures in places like Turkey or Egypt or India, where there’s not great interest in Indonesia but a little. And one of the messages that I make in those countries, but also more significantly within Indonesia, has always been that, you know, democracy is not a . . . . It may have achieved an earlier development in Western, parts of the Western world, but it’s very much an instrument, a tool, a social tool for dealing with difference, negotiating difference, of all of humanity. It’s therefore a kind of generalised . . . it isn’t a kind of made-in-the-West institution. Indeed, even in the West, democracy takes different forms because it has to accommodate itself to different social, political, legal and ethical environments. We shouldn’t be surprised – in fact we should very much expect – that that would be the case in the Muslim world as well, within certain limits. You can’t – there has to be family resemblance – there has to be some kind of institutional and ethical core. And I think there is. But the idea that some conservative Islamists, who reject democracy and pluralism and things like that, the idea that they promote is that, “No, no. Democracy is a Western value and Western institution.” And my point – and it’s a point that isn’t my idea, it’s the idea that I’ve learned from speaking with my friends in NU and Muhommadiyah and other major Muslim social organisations in Indonesia – is that, no, democracy – particularly in it’s modern form – is an invention of humankind, to deal with certain kinds of challenges of living together in the world that we inhabit. So democratisation is not Westernisation. It is something that builds on, and must build on and have roots in, the ethical, legal and cultural traditions of each society in which it takes root. So that’s my first point, and I don’t think that’s particularly original or insightful . . . .

CS: But important.

RH: It’s one that I learned above all, from that, beginning with that meeting in ‘91, when that young earnest, decent man reflecting on the trauma of the Nahdlatul Ulama‘s involvement, and feeling ashamed – those were the words he used – for what had happened. And that was the beginning of my re-education into the culture, politics and ethics of Muslim Indonesia. And I think that basic lesson is very much generalisable to other parts of the world.

GB: We could speak with Professor Hefner for hours but our time is over. So thank you very much for joining us, Professor, at the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you very much, It’s been an honour and a pleasure. Thank you.

CS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Hefner, Robert, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-ngos-and-civil-society-in-indonesia/

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