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Book Club: A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java

February 13, 2010

Less than a few chapters into Andrew Beatty’s ethnographic travel memoir A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java the two Big Bads in the book emerge:  The State & Reformist Islam. Through efficient descriptive vignettes about the people in a mountainside village just outside of Banyuwangi in East Java where Beatty and his family lived for several years, these twin threats to village harmony are quickly boiled down to singular referents. To evoke state violence, Beatty needs only to mention the haunting specter of “1965,” while the ultimate symbol of intrusive Islamic orthodoxy is the blaring “megaphone” on village mosques and prayer houses.  It’s a tidy and effective narrative strategy, but troubling in its over-simplification.

In the mid-1990s when Beatty did his fieldwork, the memories of 1965 have sedimented, leaving its mark on village social organization, and ensuring at least a superficial stability. State violence has receded to an implicit threat, but remains no less effective as the primary instrument of governance at the height of Soeharto’s “benevolent” military dictatorship. All political ideologies were banned beneath the state ideology of Pancasila, and that included political Islam. Some historians and political scientists argue that the Soeharto regime’s increasing accommodation of Islam within the state apparatus signaled one of the first stages of its disintegration. Beatty doesn’t get into the national level macro-politics that preceded Soeharto’s fall, but that may partially explain the (authorized) emergence of a more strident and pious brand of Islam in “Bayu,” the pseudonymously named village where he did his research.

Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty

I’ve been living and working in Indonesia since 1989, so I know how this story ends, and it’s ugly. I cringed and winced as insults and threats accumulate against well-intentioned leaders and ordinary villagers in Bayu because I know that the climax here is the horrific so-called “ninja killings” of hundreds of suspected “sorcerers” throughout East Java in the late 1990s. In many ways, the twin figures of State Violence and Islamic Orthodoxy richly deserve Beatty’s partisan critique. (A fair criticism of Beatty’s bias against religious orthodoxy in this book can be found in Nicholas Herriman’s review, so I won’t dwell on this any further.) He unabashedly favors Bayu’s intensely local and tolerant continuum of religious practices so richly and warmly described in the book. Quite frankly, so do I. The stories from Bayu echo the experiences I had during my first year in Yogyakarta in 1989-1990, which have brought me back to Indonesia again and again.

I pursue anthropology and stand by its methods because the practice and writing of ethnography and the social theories that come out of it are capable of helping us better understand how and why these things happen. After reading Beatty’s book, I was reminded of two excellent examples. The first is Clifford Geertz’s A Social History of an Indonesian Town, which takes the more abstract and encyclopedic descriptions from his Religion of Java and shows how they play out socially and politically in an actual time and place: a small Javanese market town during Indonesia’s first experiment in representative party politics during the 1950s. Geertz identified internal rifts within loosely delineated social groups (the now overly-reified abangan, santri, and priyayi categories) driven by the post-colonial forces of nationalism, political organization, bureaucratization, and so on. Modernizing factions within each of these communities appeared increasingly organized along ideological platforms rather than the more traditional geographic and social bonds that typically served to smooth over political and religious differences. Formerly “simple indexes of received practice” became “emblems of consciously adopted and vigorously defended ideological positions.” Custom became doctrine, the concrete became abstract, the specific became general, and the unquestioned grew apologetic. The experiment was short-lived; Soekarno’s “Guided Democracy” and then Soeharto’s “New Order” governments justified their dictatorships on the premise that the masses couldn’t handle democracy and politics. Post-1965 Java submitted to the New Order’s version of Pancasila Democracy, and for 32 years that was the end of openly expressed political differences based on ideology.

The second example from anthropology comes from John Pemberton’s On the Subject of “Java.” If Geertz argued that an understanding of local culture is necessary to make sense of the seemingly chaotic events (such as a local election) unfolding in Java, then Pemberton’s book, in careful historiographic and ethnographic detail, reverses this assumption and instead discerns a “culture effect” wrought by history upon the Javanese people that goes back to Dutch colonialism but remains alive and well in Soeharto’s New Order Indonesia. European concepts such as “ritual,” “culture” and “tradition” have a discursive effect that royalty, bureaucrats, and villagers in Java internalize and reproduce eagerly to an extent that everyday practice assumes a customary reality. But New Order cultural discourse, in its relentless effort to recuperate and preserve traditional “Java,” is always and necessarily left with a residual trace or a fleeting sense of absence. Part of Pemberton’s description of the “culture effect” entails the abstraction of specific religious practices into an overarching set of Javanese traditions and rituals. When a village guardian spirit named Tangled Whiskers may once have been satisfied with an offering of gin and cigars, the cultural discourse on “Java” effaces intensely local idiosyncrasies. Villagers make general offerings in the name of “tradition” but remain uncertain of any outcome. It’s never enough, never quite satisfies.

Fast-forward now to mid-late 1990s when Beatty is doing his fieldwork. He laments the rise of Islamic orthodoxy and the majority of moderate villagers in Bayu who don’t like it but do nothing to stop it. Bayu’s own idiosyncratic guardian spirit is a were-tiger named Buyut that resides in the wild forests to the south. But as Beatty documents in the chapter titled “The Sanctuary,” a consultation with Buyut leaves one of the villagers with doubt, more questions than answers. At the moment when political Islam was authorized in the late New Order regime, suddenly there was an ideological alternative to the ossified Pancasila and its empty generic discourse on culture. Say what you like about political Islam, but if modern Islamic orthodoxy offers anything at all it’s certainty in an uncertain world. Relativistic and tolerant varieties of Javanese religion, drained of the local and idiosyncratic details that gave its practice meaning and its own kind of certainty, surrender in the face of such unwavering faith, firstly in the name of compromise and local harmony, and then perhaps secondly due to lack of any convincing alternatives. But make no mistake: when dogma trumps custom, the effects are disruptive… and deadly.

The book ends with a brief description of the ninja killings in East Java, and a mere suggestion of how state actors and radical Islamists may have come together to perpetrate riots, church burnings, and the massacre of hundreds of supposed “sorcerers” (many of whom were known to be mentally disabled village idiots). We learn that the religious fanatics in Bayu steal away at night to a distant location and study magic-inflected martial arts with a mysterious trainer. The village head has survived an attempted administrative coup against his leadership perpetrated by these same fanatics, but the once affable secular nationalist ends up a depressed and broken man after bearing witness to the changes in Bayu. It’s thoroughly depressing.

The other day I had a chat with another American friend of mine based here in Aceh (so far from Java!). He was feeling down about Indonesia and asked me why we keep coming back. What did we fall in love with in this country that brings us back to work here again and again? Bearing this book in mind, I recalled all those special things about my first few years coming to Indonesia. Most of that is gone; Indonesia has changed irrevocably (and to be fair, so have I). I think this book was so painful for me to read because it reminds me of all that is lost, yang sudah hilang. But that doesn’t mean I think Indonesia is worse off now than it was twenty years ago. Far from it. The undeniably horrific spasms of violence that wracked Indonesia in the years immediately after the fall of the New Order have subsided, and the Indonesia that emerged from the wreckage is now a semi-competent democracy with a resurgent economy. In retrospect, all those magical days and enchanting nights of my late teens and early twenties in places like Yogyakarta, Klaten, and Parangtritis now seem like rich mystifications, seductive “culture effects” encouraged and reinforced in broad strokes by an insufferably repressive regime.

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