13 June 2004

Naipaul on Imaduddin, a Sumatran Fundamentalist

In his book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), V.S. Naipaul profiles an Islamic fundamentalist from Sumatra. The profile concludes thus:
Near the end of our talk that Sunday morning I asked him again about his outspokenness in the late 1970s and his troubles then with the government.

He said, expanding on what he had learnt in jail in 1978 and 1979 from the former foreign minister, Subandrio, "Never criticize Suharto. He's a Javanese. Young people shouldn't criticize older people, especially big people." For Imaduddin--not so young in 1977: forty-six to President Suharto's fifty-six--this went against the grain. "I was trained in the Dutch way and then in the American way, where criticism is O.K. And I was born in Sumatra: I can argue with my father. I had to learn the Javanese way."

The Sumatran way, which came naturally to Imaduddin, was the forthright, religious way, the fundamentalist way. For Imaduddin it had historically been a source of Sumatran strength.

He had told me earlier, "The Dutch when they came could conquer Java relatively easily, but they couldn't conquer Aceh and Sulawesi because the people were very religious."

Mr. Wahid had spoken of the new steamship travel that had from the thirties of the nineteenth century made Mecca more accessible for pilgrimage and study. Out of this there had developed, in colonized Java, the new Islamic village schools, like the one run by Mr. Wahid's grandfather.

In the independent kingdoms or sultanates of Sumatra, however, the effect of these journeys to Mecca had been more violent. Just as one hundred and fifty or sixty years later colonial students, often the first in their families to travel abroad for university degrees, were to go back home with borrowed ideas of revolution; so these Sumatran students and pilgrims in Mecca, influenced by Wahabi fundamentalism, and a little vain of their new knowledge, were to go back home determined to make the faith in Sumatra equal to the Wahabi faith in Mecca. They were determined to erase local errors, all the customs and ceremonies and earth reverences that carried the taint of the religions that had gone before: animism, Hinduism, Buddhism. There had followed religious wars for much of the century; it was what had drawn the Dutch in, at first to mediate or assist, and then to rule.

This was the missionary faith that lmaduddin had inherited. Java, rather than Sumatra, was rich in the monuments of the pagan past. But nothing outside or before the faith was to be acknowledged, not even a great Buddhist monument like Borobudur, one of the wonders of the world. One of Imaduddin's criticisms of the government in 1979 was that the Indonesian embassy in Canberra looked like a Hindu building. As for Borobudur, that was for the international community to look after.

I asked him about that. He said--like a man whose position now required him to be more statesmanlike--that I had misunderstood. What he had said or meant to say was that money that could be used to feed "hungry Muslims" shouldn't be used on Borobudur.

In spite of the statesmanlike softening intention, the old Sumatran unforgivingness showed through. For the new fundamentalists of Indonesia the greatest war was to be made on their own past, and everything that linked them to their own earth.

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