Student Activism in Indonesia


A review of Living for the Caliphate: Hizbut Tahrir Student Activism in Indonesia, by Claudia Nef Saluz.

Claudia Nef Saluz’s dissertation makes an important contribution to our understanding of student activists linked to the highly secretive movement, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. Nef seeks to understand the interplay between religious revival and economic globalization through the study of HTI’s student activists. The key argument of the dissertation is that Islamic piety movements, such as Hizbut Tahrir, are not a refuge from globalization nor a way of resisting it. Rather, religion is analysed as an integral part of globalization and neo-liberalism. She demonstrates this through five themes: the meaning of learning and necessity of learning to establish religious authority; the process of appropriating the ideas of An-Nabhani (HT’s founder) in presenting arguments for the re-establishment of the Caliphate; consumption patterns, and piety. Although deeply engaged with the anthropological method – this dissertation stemming from several years of field work – Nef does not limit herself to anthropological theories alone, but also borrows from the fields of sociology and political science. The dissertation consists of six chapters together with an introduction and epilogue.

Chapter 1 sets out with great clarity the key arguments, structure, methodology and theoretical framework of the thesis. Engaging the literature on HT in general and HTI in particular (including that produced in Indonesia), Nef’s critical analysis of the works of alarmist authors such as Zeyno Baran and Ariel Cohen is presented with an intriguing flair. Nef’s analysis of HTI is set in the milieu of the 1980s-1990s emergence of Islamic groups at Gadjah Majah University, in Yogyakarta (Central Java), and Chapter 2 thus provides a comprehensive analysis of the historical and sociological context in which Nabhani’s ideas spread across the student body, as well as an overview of the different political actors involved in student and national politics.

Chapter 3 addresses one of the core questions of the dissertation, investigating how HTI student activists acquire their knowledge of Islamic subjects. Most notably, this chapter suggests that students do not simply acquire Islamic knowledge but contribute back to the concept of Islam as a living tradition by constantly relating the founding texts of Islam to contemporary challenges they themselves face. In doing so, Nef argues, these activists are themselves creating new Islamic knowledge, a process of learning much pertinent for a successful struggle towards the establishment of the Caliphate. Offering interesting insights and new empirical data, Nef investigates the sites and structures of authority where HTI students learn to successfully call for the Caliphate.

Digging deeper in the the practice of da’wah, Chapter 4 examines the different styles of “arguing” employed by HTI activists to win new supporters for the Caliphate and thus revive the ideas of An-Nabhani. Focusing on both men and women activists, Nef dedicates much attention to the organization’s ideology as a means of criticizing the status quo and imagining a better future (p. 152). Offering several examples of how students affiliated with HTI articulate their opposition to capitalism and democracy while proposing alternatives to these systems in the form of An-Nabhani’s conception of Islamic economic and political systems, particular attention is dedicated to a study of these activists’ views on the need for the state to provide free education and health care. In the current political context of Indonesia, with elections scheduled to take place in 2014, the discussion on HT’s attitude towards democracy and the 2009 election emerges as particularly important (p. 165) as at the time the HT’s leadership remained ambiguous on whether its members should vote. This is further interesting given that HT’s central leadership has constantly advocated against voting in a system that is un-Islamic, with the  only exception being the 1954 election in Jordan where members succeeded in electing Sheikh Ahmad Ad-Daur as an independent. As such, this could actually be a case of HTI departing from HT’s original position on the issue. Chapter 4 is also of broader relevance as here Nef covers criticisms of HT, opening a window on the intra-Islamic competition between HT and other Muslim organizations.

Chapter 5 examines consumption choices and its implication for moral critique, revealing the complex entanglements between consumption and competing understandings of Islam (p. 186), as preferences can be categorized as either expressing “consumption” or “abstinence.” And so it is that in order to show the complexities between patterns of consumption and piety, Nef offers cases from a wider range of Islamic groups rather than limiting herself to HTI. One example is worth mentioning: the chapter opens with the captivating illustration of the dilemmas faced by HTI student activists when discovering that the prize (pop-corn) won at a Muslimat HTI quiz-contest had been produced in America and was thus seen as an un-Islamic product.

Chapter 6 addresses the question of whether the call for the establishment of the Caliphate under Islamic law constitutes perceptions of ‘proper’ Islamic conduct and piety. Analyzing public debates over sexual morality (p. 210), and focusing on issues such as standards of proper interaction with the opposite sex, the selection of marriage partners, polygamy, child marriage, and proper Islamic dressing, this chapter proves to be an important contribution to understanding the role of women in neo-conservative groups like HT.

Chapter 7 is the best chapter of the dissertation. Here Nef brings forward the suggestion that new media technologies have facilitated the emergence of new and dynamic structures of mobilization. Through the (very apt) case study of she shows how these dynamics are now less hierarchical and more prone to producing fluid networks that are more open and inclusive.

Summing up, Nef’s dissertation is well argued and very interesting, offering new theoretical insights in analyzing Indonesia’s branch of the Hizbut Tahrir, a movement which still proves difficult to research.

Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman
S Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Nanyang Techonology University

Primary Sources

Literature produced by Hizbut Tahrir and other activists
Over seventy open interviews with both men and women student activists, members of various Islamic organizations at Gadjah Mada University
Regular meetings with activists during the production of an edited book as well as a documentary film
Participation in a large number of conferences, small workshops and discussion rounds organized by the various groups on a broad spectrum of topics

Dissertation Information

University of Zurich. 2012. 296 pp. Primary Advisor: Shalini Randeria.

Image: Islamic student activists at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. Photo by author.

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