South East Asia Program Publications (SEAP)

Ambivalent Representations of the Arab World in Indonesia

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In November 2020, one of Indonesia’s most well-known Islamist public figures, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, returned from exile in Saudi Arabia to his home country, Indonesia.

Arab Influence in Indonesia?

As founder and leader of the Islamist group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI, Front Pembela Islam) Rizieq Shihab has been accused of threatening Indonesia’s constitutional commitment to interreligious pluralism and for inciting violence. Following criminal charges for spreading pornographic images, Rizieq Shihab fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2017.

His alleged alliances with Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, his ideology and appearance lead to claims saying that “Arab influence” shaped Rizieq Shihab. Moreover, the fact that he is of Hadhrami-Arab descent nourishes the perception of radical Arab-Islamic influence in Indonesia.

However, being Hadhrami or of any other ethnicity does not allow conclusions about a persons’ ideological orientation and seminal studies on the Hadhrami in Southeast Asia reveal the complexities of the ethnic minorities’ engagement with “Arabness.” Furthermore, Rizieq Shihab might mobilize the masses, but many of his followers appear to be first and foremost attracted by the eventful character of his protests.

Arabization and Arab-Phobia

Also among ordinary Indonesians, increasingly prevalent Islamic religiosity in private and public life has been associated with outward influence and is sometimes labeled as “Arabization.” Even though several studies have shown that a turn towards more conservatism in Indonesia is related to domestic social and political changes, the popular perception of Arab influence remains. Globalized Islamophobia manifests as “Arab-phobia” among some Indonesians and international observers. Yet, at the same time, Arab culture and heritage, do have historical and contemporary significance in Islam beyond a specific ideology, in particular Arabic language as the sacred language of the Qur’an.

In my new book Indonesians and Their Arab World, I show that the experiences of Indonesians who physically travel to Arab countries complicate these ambivalent representations of the Arab World even more.

The most important reason for Indonesians’ overseas travels is the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, to the holy land of Islam, gaining spiritual fulfillment and—given the high expenses of the hajj—also an economic achievement. A sharp contrast to this is the mobility of women from Indonesia’s rural areas who migrate to the Gulf in search of higher incomes, working mainly as domestic workers in private homes. Reports about the abuse and exploitation of migrant women create a rather gloomy image of the Arab World.

Labor Migrants and Mecca Pilgrims

On the airplanes from Indonesia to the Middle East, labor migrants and Mecca pilgrims sit next to each other, although in many regions in Indonesia their worlds barely overlap in terms of social class and economic status.

When returning home, labor migrants and Mecca pilgrims seek to make sense of their experiences. Interestingly, their representations of the Arab World often relate much more to moral values in their home context rather than to actual experiences abroad. Personal relationships, public discourse, and matters of religious self-understanding guide migrants and pilgrims in becoming physically mobile and making their mobility meaningful.

The return connects migrants’ and pilgrims’ representations of the Arab World to their home context. This includes references to more famous returns from Arabia, such as the one of Rizieq Shihab who stands for an image of the Arab World that works within Indonesia’s internal public debates. Migrants and pilgrims refer to such representations, affirming or neglecting them, to express their position within Indonesia’s religious landscape. Yet, these expressions and representations are not proof of “Arab influence” in Indonesia. They are rather symbolic markers of social divisions within Indonesia.

Meanwhile, Rizieq Shihab remains in police custody. This time, because of violating COVID-19 health protocols while holding mass gatherings in Jakarta and his organization, FPI, has been banned.

*Featured image: People on the way to the mosque, Madura island, April 2014. Photo credit: Khotim Ubaidillah.

Read more about this book.

Mirjam Lücking is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Martin Buber Society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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