Transregional Connections across the Indian Ocean: Muslim Identities in Indonesia and Beyond

Panel organizer

Mirjam Lücking (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)


Mirjam Lücking (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)


Claudia Derichs (HU Berlin)


Silvia Ilonka Wolf (Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies)
Ariff Hafizi (University of Hamburg)
Amanda tho Seeth (L’ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales, Paris)

Panel abstract

This panel explores Indonesia’s transregional connections across the Indian Ocean and their relevance for Muslim identity formations and local communities’ position in a globalized world.

Transregional mobility is incredibly important in identity formations among Southeast Asians. Mobile religious scholars and institutions are influential players in public, political, and economic life and the transregional connections by believers and clerics (re)define local communities’ position in a globalized world.

Historical and contemporary border crossing activities among Southeast Asians concern spiritual as well as economic, and in some cases ideological motivations. They are relevant among ordinary believers, religious experts, politicians and entrepreneurs.

People in the Malay-Indonesian world have been and continue to be inspired by multifarious connections across the Indian Ocean, in the spheres of trade, education, pilgrimage but also exile and forced migration. These movements are especially meaningful for peoples’ understanding of Muslim identities, as members of global and local religious communities. In this context, the movement of people, goods, knowledge, ideas, and views is not a one-way flow but a complex circulation, challenging conventional perceptions of center and periphery and the dynamics of nuanced and ambivalent ways defining fellow Muslims as ‘cultural Others’.

This panel explores three examples of interactions between the Malay-Indonesian world (mainly today’s Indonesia) and regions bordering the Indian Ocean, namely South Africa, the Middle East (in particular Palestine), and the Arabian Peninsula. Each paper addresses specific ways of interaction and discusses what these interactions mean for the formation of Muslim identities, senses of belonging and images of Selves and Others, with global, regional and local reference points. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the different examples seeks to facilitate a discussion on transregional knowledge exchange, the intertwinement of spiritual and economic activities and the creation religious authority.

Silvia Ilonka Wolf:  Learning Islam ‘ala Gaza’: Palestinian sheikhs and their newly acquired role as figures of religious authority among Indonesian Muslim communities

Religion has for many centuries served as a driving factor behind transnational mobility between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. As the birthplace of Islam, the Middle East is home to not only the major holy pilgrimage places but also to centuries-old centers of Islamic learning.

Traditionally, Southeast Asian Muslims who seek religious knowledge and training from Middle Eastern sources have been mostly oriented toward Saudi Arabia and Egypt, including toward scholars from those countries. In recent years, however, a variety of Palestine-themed activities have emerged in Indonesia that co-opt Palestinian sheikhs as new figures of religious authority and educators. During the annual fasting month, the sheikhs tour around the archipelago as part of a Safari Ramadhan, giving seminars about Islam with an emphasis on the religious significance of Palestine and the Al-Aqsa mosque. They teach workshops with themes such as how to memorize the Qur’an using the ‘Gaza method’ and ‘Qur’anic parenting’, whereby Palestinian families serve as role models for the pious Muslim family. As native ambassadors of the Palestinian liberation struggle, the sheikhs also appear as VIP guests at charity concerts and other Palestine solidarity events. What do these activities and the prominent role of Palestinian Islamic scholars in these activities suggest about new forms of religious authority and knowledge exchangebetween Southeast Asia and the Middle East? This is the question that I address in this paper, which is based on my ethnographic fieldwork as well as online research of Palestine solidarity activities in Indonesia. I suggest that the prominence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Indonesian society in general and among certain Indonesian Muslim communities in particular has led to a variety of Palestine-themed genres of activity which have prompted ‘Gaza’ and its scholars as new resources of Islamic learning.

Ariff Hafizi:  From Dutch East Indies to Cape Colony: Diasporic Lives and the Creation of a New Muslim Society at the Edge of the Indian Ocean

Located at the southern tip of the African continent, Cape Colony (presently known as Cape Town) is the intersection for European ships travelling from Europe to Asia and vice versa. Under Dutch colonial rule, the settlement in the Cape had become increasingly important for the Dutch colonial empire, and was in constant need of more labour force. Between 1695–1807, hundreds of individuals from the Dutch East Indies (presently known as Indonesia) were exiled to the Cape. The institution of forced migration to the Cape was meant to serve two purposes: first, to meet the demand of labour force in the Cape and second, to reduce any opposition to the Dutch consolidation of power in the Dutch East Indies. Most of the colonial exiles from the Dutch East Indies were Muslim and had been attributed to the spread of Islam in South Africa. This paper, which is a work in progress, discusses an unintended consequence of the practice of banishment to the Cape i.e. the creation of a Muslim society. Through oral history, biographical fragments and textual production of these exiles, this paper attempts to piece together the diasporic lives of several prominent colonial exiles from the Dutch East Indies in the Cape and their legacy in the formulation of the Islamic identity, practices and norms in the Cape. More broadly, this paper explores the possibilities of engaging with the Malay diaspora community in the Cape in understanding the way in which historical trans-regional mobility shapes a socio-cultural identity and sense of belonging beyond a nation-state.

Amanda tho Seeth: “The Indonesian Cosmopolitan Islamic Intellectual” Revisited

This paper critically assesses the in literature widely referred to – but blurry – idea of the “Indonesian cosmopolitan Islamic intellectual” (IcIi). It analyzes how the term has been used in different variations in the past and argues for a conceptual refinement of its meaning. Against the backdrop of a currently observable enlargement of the spectrum of the agency of IcIis in the global sphere, the paper proceeds to argue that also a conceptual update is necessary and suggests some new approaches and perspectives.