Southeast Asia Program SEAP

Indonesia in the Context of the Arab World

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Despite being home to the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia exists on the periphery of an Islamic world centered around the Arabian Peninsula. By considering the ways personal relationships, public discourse, and matters of religious self-understanding guide two groups of Indonesians who actually travel to the Arabian Peninsula—labor migrants and Mecca pilgrims, Indonesians and Their Arab World explores the ways contemporary Indonesians understand their relationship to the Arab world.

In this Q&A, author Mirjam Lücking discusses how her assumptions about the Arab world were challenged throughout the process of writing this book.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

As part of my research on imaginations of the Arab World, I wanted to know more about everyday products that are labelled as ‘Arab’ in Indonesia. It was especially religious paraphernalia, like prayer bracelets, carpets and a specific attire that my interlocutors described as ‘Arab’ even though joking themselves that many of these products are ‘made in China’. Engaging with material culture led to lively interactions and insights about what people see as foreign, religious, blaspheme, traditional, modern, Indonesian, Arab and so on. It became clear that ‘Arabness’ is an ambivalent and broad label for what seemed to be Islamic. Most interestingly, my research partner Ubed raised my awareness for the music of a Lebanese singer who is popular among Madurese Muslims who like the Arabic music and who are unaware of the fact that the singer is a Lebanese Christian.

Another situation concerns clothing and what is perceived as polite-Muslim dress code. Once my hosts and I coincidentally met a Kyai (a religious authority) and it struck me with surprise that one of the men apologized in front of the Kyai for wearing pants. Through this situation I understood that pants are being considered too modern among some Muslims in Madura with preference for the sarong (a skirt like cloth). Among other Madurese Muslims however, like in some Qur’anic schools, pants were part of the school uniform. Thus, slowly I understood that there is no simple answer to what is a ‘proper Muslim dress code.’ An example from women’s dress codes are different styles of wearing a headscarf. One of my friends, a young student from the public University in Bangkalan, explained that she was wearing her new long headscarf with hesitation. It covered not only her head but also the upper part of the body. She explained that this style is very different from the common headscarf style in her village, where women tie a short piece of cloth in the nape of the neck, covering the head but not the neck. She said that this style is more practical when working on the fields and markets, whereas for her as a University student it would not be appropriate.  

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

I wish I had known that features of so-called ‘Arabness’ are for many Indonesians interchangeable with other features, like ‘Chineseness’ or ‘Indonesianness’. In the beginning of my research, I thought I could draw conclusions from a persons’ outward appearance or rhetoric and was too quick with some research assumptions. Only after several months of research and after getting to know research participants better, I realized how such trends change and that a certain rhetoric or style can be a phase in a person’s life and does not necessarily reveal much about deeper values and worldviews.

Something I still don’t know—but I wish I had known—are the Javanese and Madurese languages. A proficiency in Bahasa Indonesia is sufficient for most research activities and in average Indonesians feel comfortable to express themselves in Indonesian. However, in both of my research areas, in rural Central Java and on Madura Island, the Javanese and Madurese languages were important for my hosts, friends and interlocutors. Some nuances can only be expressed in the mother tongue and many daily interactions, humor and etiquette are not translatable to Indonesian.

3. How do you wish you could change the field of Anthropology?

I wish I could change the structural inequality between anthropologists who are educated in leading Western Universities and my colleagues in Indonesia and the Middle East. Many of my colleagues in Indonesia and the Middle East do “Anthropology at Home” and they collaborate with me and other anthropologists who did not grow up in the research area and who have an outsiders’ perspective, which can be enriching. Likewise, it would be very enriching if they could also contribute their perspective on my lifeworld. I wish there were more research funds for anthropologists from the ‘Global South’ to do research in Europe and North America, as it can be truly eye-opening to exchange perspectives on differences and commonalities between societies.

*Featured photo by Ibrahim Uz.


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

See all books by this author.

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