Greg Fealy:

Fundamentalists Use Women for the Contestation of Piety

Associate Professor Gregory Fealy, BA (Hons), Ph.D. (Monash) or better known as Greg Fealy was on duty in Jakarta a few days ago. Luckily, Swara Rahima was able to meet with an Indonesianist who for the past 5 years has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Political Change at the Australian National University (ANU) in Melbourne, Australia.

Recently, he did a lot of research on the radical groups known as Jihadists; but the main theme is about Indonesian Politics where he also examines several organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Who would have thought, Greg who previously worked as an analyst about Indonesia for the Australian government was a classical music teacher. The husband of a wife and father of 2 children has various hobbies such as music, reading, and “bushwalking” sports which is a sport that only exists in Australia.

What is the common definition of fundamentalism?

Scientifically, the term fundamentalism has a quite interesting history, which if used correctly does not have a negative connotation. Indeed, this word is often used with a negative connotation. So, if one is called or labeled as a fundamentalist, he/she would feel discredited. Initially, the term fundamentalism was used in the history of Social Sciences in the United States (US) to refer to, describe or label the very literal or puritanical American Christian group. This group considers that what is mentioned or written in the scripture must be carried out literally, cannot be interpreted too much and must be obeyed according to the existing guidelines. Context is not considered important and a compromise attitude is considered to be less pious. The most pious are those who are very obedient to the words of God) delivered in the scripture. But lately, this term is more often used to refer to Muslim people who have a very bigoted attitude.

Although there are many values that can be included in that term, but if we go back to the initial academic meaning, then it is still useful to use the term fundamentalism. If we say that certain groups or certain religious figures are fundamentalists, it does not mean that it is always a negative thing, but it further explains their attitude or approach to scripture. 

Why is the term fundamentalism often associated with religion?

Because at first it was indeed used to refer to religious groups. Actually, the term is also used by other groups, but it is more often associated with religious groups because in religion there is always a tension between those who are scripturalists and those who are contextualists. So, fundamentalism is a term to describe groups that are more literal in nature.

Why does the term fundamentalism now seem close to Islam?

I think it is because of the developments in the contemporary world such as the issue of terrorism. Since the 1960s, the issue has often been associated with Muslims or Islamic groups in the Middle East, in Indonesia or elsewhere. It also reflects the anxiety of many observers in the West towards the emergence of hardline Islamic groups. Then they look for terms to explain, but also to discredit groups called fundamentalists. In addition, terrorist activities in the world have mostly been carried out by Islamic groups. Not all but mostly, like Al Qaeda, ISIS, ISIL and so on. In addition, Western media that strongly control the news and the view that fundamentalism is synonymous with violence perpetrated by Islamic groups also dominate the mindset of government people in these Western countries. Therefore, it is the term fundamentalism that is used to explain terrorism.

Actually, I regret that tendency very much; because there could be a religious fundamentalist, but disagree with violence. Thus, the use of the term fundamentalism, in my opinion, has been too broad. In fact, it should only be used to explain theological problems and the like.

As an Indonesianist, how do you see the symptoms of the rise of fundamentalism in Indonesia?

I think this phenomenon has a history that is almost as long as Indonesian history. And it began since the late 1940s. Although it was always oppressed by both the government of Soekarno and Soeharto, It almost always existed, though underground. For example Darul Islam (DI), which, at one point, was not a fundamentalist group. However, after the reformation era came with freedom of association and so on, more groups emerged that took advantage of the situation and were also willing to use violence. They also advocated a very literal perspective on religion. It is actually acceptable in a democracy. All groups can emerge, provided they do not violate the law. So, I think this is one of the phenomena of the political process in Indonesia, which must also be linked to the developments of Islam in the world. This also happened because of the impact of globalization, for example, the impact of socio-economic changes that were so rapid in Indonesia, so that identity problems emerged. And for the Islamic fundamentalists, these issues can be their capital to attract the interest of people who are not satisfied with their lives.

It is also important to note that in Indonesia fundamentalism among Christians is also very developed (although its identification is not as easy as identifying Islamic fundamentalism), but now there are also many Evangelical churches that are growing rapidly and with many followers.

What characteristics can be used to identify the symptoms of fundamentalism?

There is too much debate about this among the experts of religion and sociology of religion, both in Indonesia and in Western countries. There are a psychological approach, socioeconomic approach, and also a theological approach. So, this really depends on the background of the researcher who is studying the issue. For most cases, it usually does not start from a religious matter. There are issues of psychology, family, economy that can be primary factors. Ideological factors or religious factors are secondary factors. So for example, there are people who have an identity crisis because maybe they are not feeling satisfied in the family, or in school and so on, and they do not know which direction they will choose. When they look for identities that are considered appropriate for themselves, they will be very vulnerable to accepting an ideology that seems to make them find all the answers to what they are looking for. Therefore they are willing to accept fundamentalist notions.

But I guess, we cannot focus only on one factor. We must examine each case because each case must have its own dynamics. Therefore, we should not start from the issue of religion or the problem of ideology, instead, we must see it from the factors that influence the thinking of fundamentalists, before they become fundamentalists. So this process is not sudden and there are many reasons.

What religious doctrines usually develop among fundamentalists?

Usually, it is a doctrine that provides an answer to the various problems faced by the people or clerics. One answer makes them deny or reject other interpretations and teachings. The most famous groups in this regard, for example, is the Salafi communities. The Salafi communities are actually not-so-big groups, but in themselves, there are competing claims to become the ‘most correct’ group. If there is a difference, even if for a small matter in a hadith issue for example, then that small difference could lead them to condemn other Salafi communities; and consider themselves to be the only true ones. So it’s like there is a rivalry of piety among the groups.

In addition, usually, the groups do not welcome discussion or critical thinking about its teachings. They want their followers to accept and implement it and must obey the teachings. They consider it wrong or sinful if someone is questioning their teachings. In all fundamentalist groups, there is often a kind of piety rivalry among them. Both in the Christian and Islamic communities. They have no critical attitude because they cannot question the knowledge of the group leaders and so on.

How do these fundamentalist groups see the phenomenon of pluralism occurring in society?

They regard it as a threat because they often misunderstand about the meaning of pluralism and its practices. For example, if you look at the MUI Fatwa (edict of The Indonesian Ulema Council) No. 25 concerning Secularism, Pluralism, and Liberalism (Sipilis), the definition is utterly wrong. That definition comes from a very old dictionary that belongs to KH. Ma’ruf Amin. Pluralism does not mean that all religions are equally true. What is important in Pluralism is tolerance or recognition of other teachings.

For anti-plural Islamic groups, they usually assume that if they recognize that other religions are as true as their religion, it might lead to apostasy. Often there is a basis for an understanding of anti-pluralism found in Islamic groups. And indeed the threat perception in Islamic fundamentalist groups is a big issue for them because it deals with Christianization (missionary) and so on. That is actually a mere paranoia. But that is the concept. If there is something that is considered to weaken their integrity, surely they will immediately reject it.

How does this fundamentalism affect the fate of women?

Often the impact is very negative on women, especially on women’s rights. In both Christian and Islam fundamentalist groups, women are considered to be very subordinate. They must follow the orders or desires of their husbands or men in the family. Women are also considered to have a very limited role in religious teachings, in society, and so on. As a result, I think the impact is very bad for women.

Christian fundamentalists, for example, are also very narrow-minded on issues such as marriage, abortion, domestic violence and so on. They want to leave it to men to solve the problems. And I think that is detrimental to the position of women. And in my opinion, this problem occurs because of their very radical religious understanding.

So, can we say that fundamentalist characteristics include anti-pluralism, anti-gender equality, and permissiveness to violence?

Not necessarily. Very often fundamentalists assume that they live in a world that is very dirty, full of immorality, and so on. They feel very threatened, their identity is also threatened, and especially if they live in a big city. There are so many temptations, there are so many foreign media, so they feel very depressed. Therefore they seek certainty. And often religions – whether Christianity, Islam, or other religions – provide a kind of certainty if they have fundamental doctrine and understanding, which does not discuss too much about this or that verse.

What is written in those verses are absolutely implemented. Not using hermeneutics, but a simple reading. And, if the approach is black and white, they are very content. They do not want to speculate about interpretations and so on to get immediate certainty in themselves. So, globalization and rapid change can be the factors that influence the emergence of fundamentalist attitudes, besides the matter of personal factors.

Nowadays, there are many discriminatory regulations that emerge on the basis of religious understanding, for example about the prohibition of prostitution, whose formulation clearly discredits women, as well as the rules for dressing. How do you see these? Is it related to fundamentalist understanding? What if this kind of understanding infiltrates the State? 

If we look at Sharia regional regulations (Perda), it is as if fundamentalist men want to use women as a symbol of their piety. And all costs or regulations that are very strict are experienced by women rather than men. And I think they want to reverse the responsibility for behavior that is less moral, which in English is termed blame shifting or transferred to women. I think it is very dangerous if it goes into the territory of the state.


Actually, women often become victims of the fundamentalist process of Islamization. In addition, the problem of prostitution cannot be fixed with regulations dealing with women’s clothing or curfews and so on. Ironically, this can be seen everywhere, in cities that have Sharia regulations such as in Tasikmalaya, Tangerang, and others.

Why are there fundamentalist groups which tend to use violent methods?

I think the answer is a little complicated. Sometimes they are desperate with the police regarding the morality of people around them. The apparatus do not act, do not uphold nor implement the law. So they feel they have to act alone, because if not then the morality of society cannot be safeguarded. Besides, there are psychological factors too. Many people who join fundamentalist groups are temperament people. They are not satisfied with the situation, feel threatened, or there is instability in their identity. So it can easily lead to violence.

In addition, it is also due to their very black and white understanding of religion. So, they assume there is a big enemy that they have to fight. They do not want to try to understand the problem more deeply for why prostitution or gambling exist. By examining it further, maybe they can understand it, but they don’t want to go in that direction. According to them, this is something wrong according to the Quran, so they must immediately stop it, not to mention by attacking. And that is the problem, their way or pattern of thinking is very simplistic.

Is there a connection between fundamentalism and transnational movements?

Yes, obviously. For example, with groups such as HTI, Jama’ah Tabligh, Salafism, PKS, and the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a lot of fundamentalist understandings that entered Indonesia in the last 40 years. Even though I need to underline that only a few of them use violence, but now these fundamentalist understandings are very salable in Indonesia. I think this phenomenon is influenced by the economic, socio-economic, and political system. So there are various factors. I think the situation now is like there is a religion market where everyone can search for any religion either through the internet, through preachers (da’i), also in churches (for Christians). There are a lot of variations of religion in Indonesia. I think in a society that is quite free and democratic, I can welcome this process, I mean, everyone can be free to seek the religion that they want. Be it pluralist or fundamentalist.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia, there is a restriction regarding the number of religions or sects recognized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. A religion that is not recognized by the state cannot carry out its activities. Let us go back to the issue, is it acceptable that the government intervenes religious matter if it does not disturb other people? In my opinion, this is one aspect of religious life in Indonesia that is questionable. Hopefully, the new government will be more tolerant.

What efforts can be made by individuals, societies, and country to anticipate fundamentalism?

I think for the country, it is not their job to persuade the public not to have fundamentalist attitude. For non-fundamentalist religious groups they can debate, exchange opinions, and provide a very good example when, say, they find there is a violation of the law, then the police can intervene.

In my opinion, the system needs to be more open and free. So, the task of the government is to create a system that is more open. If the government has a preference to develop a more moderate understanding of religion, they can convey arguments to support that understanding. Don’t just condemn people who have fundamentalist understanding. For example, if the Minister of Religious Affairs provides an understanding and explains why he disagrees with the Salafi groups who condemn Yasinan, it clearly creates tension and attacks other people’s understanding of religion. Instead of attacking people’s understanding or throwing wild ideas that will worry many people later; it is better to let it be. I don’t think it will cause a lot of harm in Indonesian society.

So, related to government intervention in religious affairs, they should not interfere too much even though that is what happens for almost 50 years now. It is better, in principle, there is religious freedom in Indonesia. The government only intervenes if there are things that threaten order or violate the law. That is all. {} AD. Kusumaningtyas


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