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Reza Idria is an Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at the Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Ar-Raniry (Ar-Raniry State Islamic University) in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. He holds an MA and Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University as well as an MA in Islamic Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Born and raised in Aceh, the only province adopting Sharia Law in Indonesia, Reza’s research interests are at the intersection of legal anthropology and Islamic law. 

Idria is the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia at APARC for the 2023 winter quarter. The fellowship, which is hosted jointly by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program (SeAP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, raises the visibility, extent, and quality of scholarship on contemporary Southeast Asia.

During his LKC NUS-Stanford fellowship, he will turn his doctoral dissertation, “Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia,” into a book manuscript. This work is an anthropological study that examines a wide range of social and political responses that have emerged with the state implementation of Islamic law. The empirical data for this research project has been gathered in Aceh, the only Indonesian province that has adopted Sharia. Dr. Idria is also embarking on a new research project that focuses on the legal and socio-economic consequences of the local regulation on Islamic banking.

This interview originally appeared on the website of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore.

What sparked your interest in studying the social and political responses to the state implementation of Sharia law in Aceh, Indonesia?

There are some puzzling conditions in Aceh that sparked my interest to conduct this study. I grew up immersed in Acehnese Muslim culture and have lived through the historical and political transformation of the region since the period of armed conflict. In my view, the government’s efforts to translate Sharia into positive law in Aceh was motivated largely by political needs, rather than the religious ones. Islam has indeed a pronounced role in Aceh society since pre-colonial time, and the province is often called “Verandah of Mecca”, but it was only in 1999 the central government decided to impose Sharia law in the province in an attempt to quell the Free Aceh Movement rebellion.

In fact, it was the tsunami of 2004 that actually helped stop the war and led to the signing of peace agreement. However, it did not prevent the government to apply more aggressive Sharia law in the post-conflict and post-tsunami Aceh. While many Acehnese appeared supportive to the implementation of Sharia, I was also troubled with the impression created by many media outlets that all Acehnese accept Sharia law without question. Despite the aggressive enforcement directed by the state, my study found some elements of Acehnese society have passionately contested and challenged the official understanding of Sharia.

What challenges did you encounter when carrying out your fieldwork in Aceh for your upcoming monograph, Tales of the Unexpected: Contesting Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia?

I began gathering considerable data for this study in 2011 when I was involved in a joint research project on the Indonesian experience of Islam and politics after the fall of Suharto. Given the sensitivity of this topic conducting fieldwork was challenging. Some people were suspicious of my academic inquiry. People were mostly reluctant to speak on anything related to Sharia Law. Even those who have engaged in activism against Sharia law did not want to be seen as openly antagonistic to it. Many would say that they are not resisting Sharia as such, rather seeking to rescue Sharia from associations with fundamentalism. I think it is because the Acehnese perceived that their identity is deeply entwined with Islam, therefore critical voices to the state-led Sharia implementation are often subdued due to the fear of being labeled anti-Islam. It’s a dangerous stigma and I think no one could survive in Aceh with that stigma. Such condition contributes to people’s ambiguous and ambivalent reactions toward Sharia. To me this also explains why resistance to Sharia has eventually taken many forms and is often performed in unconventional manners. Sometimes so subtle that they might not seem like resistance at all.

How have the diverse range of local groups who have engaged in activism against Sharia law enforcement in Aceh cooperated with each other?

There was some cooperation and mutual support among local groups who share dissenting views concerning the state interpretations of Sharia. For example, in responding to the provisions of Islamic Criminal Code of 2009 (referred locally as Qanun Jinayah), intellectuals from several local universities, cultural activists, and dozens of civil society organizations worked together to criticize many controversial aspects of the proposed law. They formed an advocacy network called Jaringan Masyarakat Sipil Peduli Syariat (the Civil Society’s Network concerning Sharia). JMSPS activists used various strategies, from lobbying to organizing a series of demonstrations. They went to the Aceh Parliament condemning members of the parliament and the governor of Aceh had they not stopped proposing the law. The movement was relatively successful as the Sharia Criminal Code of 2009 was postponed because Governor Irwandi Yusuf eventually refused to sign it. However, conditions have changed in the following years, especially after Irwandi lost the gubernatorial election in 2012. His successor signed the Qanun draft and passed the Sharia criminal law in 2014.

How has Komunitas Tikar Pandan, the cultural organization you co-founded in Aceh in 2002, played a role in the responses to Sharia law implementation?

Komunitas Tikar Pandan continues to organize various culturally oriented activities such as creating writing workshops, painting exhibitions, film screenings and discussions. The organization’s mission from the very beginning is to generate critical awareness, especially for the young, about the dangers of cultural hegemony and structural oppression in the name of identity politics and religion. One example, in responding to the absence of public cinema in Banda Aceh which has been considered by Aceh’s Ulama Council incompatible to the spirit of Sharia, Komunitas Tikar Pandan provides a mini-cinema and hosts a series of film screenings and discussions as a rebuke. Tikar Pandan’s office occasionally became sanctuary for some members of marginalized groups in Banda Aceh.

How do activist groups based outside of Aceh provide assistance to local Aceh activists whose resistance to Sharia law enforcement has met with opposition from local authorities?

For some cases such as the anti-punk crackdown in 2011 and the persecution of Aceh queers in 2018, support and assistance from people outside Aceh were helpful and forceful imposing pressure upon the Sharia authorities to evaluate their actions. Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) from Jakarta offered legal assistance to release the arrested punks. International expressions support for Aceh’s punks also took place across the globe, from Moscow to San Francisco, under the slogan “Punk is Not Crime” condemning the crackdown. Some international human rights organizations also provided aid advocacy and financial support to LGBTQ activists in Aceh.

How has local public opinion of Sharia law changed since it was implemented in Aceh, and what factors have been most influential in shaping this change?

At the beginning, there was a tremendous hope that the Sharia law would restore justice in the region affected by decades of bloody armed conflict. The conflict period was the period of profound lawlessness for the Acehnese. They were killed, tortured, and raped but no perpetrators had been brought to trial. That’s why I think people in Aceh were enthusiasts when the central government offered Sharia law to the province in 1999. Gradually the implementation has given rise to its own issues and resulted in the creation of multiple injustice and many forms of violence too. I think there are two factors that have been most influential in shaping and creating the negative image of the current Sharia implementation in the province, first morality policing through the special unit known as Sharia police. Second, the enactment of spectacle punishment, namely hukum cambuk (public caning). While Sharia promises to be a comprehensive guidance in all aspects of life, the Aceh government has been criticized by many ordinary Acehnese to focus merely on symbolic aspects of Islam, while neglecting what they viewed as more “substantial” concerns.

What developments do you anticipate happening in Aceh’s political and social scene in the near future that could affect the enforcement of Sharia law?

Aceh has been the poorest province in Sumatra within the last five years according to official survey. Despite receiving tremendous financial assistances from international agencies during the tsunami recovery and from the central government (so far more than $7.9 billion) Aceh’s economic growth continues to be the lowest in Sumatra. Following the Helsinki peace accord, the Aceh province is entitled to receive special autonomy funds from its central government for twenty years, from 2008 to 2027. So, it is only a few years left and with the rampant corruption and lack of interest from investors it is hard to imagine any changes for a better condition will occur in Aceh. I think poor and disempowered Acehnese Muslims will likely continue to see more perplexing regulations in the region promulgated in the name of Sharia.

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In this interview, Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia Reza Idria discusses his research into Syari’ah Law in Aceh, Indonesia, and the forthcoming book manuscript based on his doctoral dissertation.

Shorenstein APARC

Encina Hall E301

Stanford University

Visiting Scholar at APARC, 2022-23
Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia, 2022-23

Reza Idria joins the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) as Visiting Scholar and 2022-23 Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia for the winter and spring quarter of 2023. Idria currently serves as Assistant Professor at the Universitas Islam Negeri Ar-Raniry, Banda Aceh, Indonesia. While at APARC, he will be conducting research on the wide range of social and political responses that have emerged with the state implementation of Sharia (Islamic Law) in Indonesia.

Michael Breger
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As reports of leveled mosques, detention camps, and destroyed cultural and religious sites in China's Xinjiang province emerged in the mid-to-late 2010s, the world took notice of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) flagrant oppression of Uighur Muslims and other minorities. Under the Xi Jinping administration, the Xinjiang region in northwestern China has experienced what is perhaps the greatest period of cultural assimilation since the Cultural Revolution. This massive state repression represents a primary research focus for Dr. James Millward, Professor of Inter-societal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, who joined both APARC's China Program and the Stanford History Department as a visiting scholar for winter quarter 2022.

Millward's specialties include the Qing empire, the silk road, and historical and contemporary Xinjiang. In addition to his numerous academic publications on these topics, he follows and comments on current issues regarding Xinjiang, the Uyghurs and other Xinjiang indigenous peoples, PRC ethnicity policy, and Chinese politics more generally. We caught up with Millward to discuss his work and experience at Stanford this past winter quarter. Listen to the conversation: 

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Aggressive Assimilating Thrust

Millward emphasizes the importance of documenting the scope and scale of the crisis in Xinjiang. "What's happened in the last four or five years in Xinjiang is of great global importance and interest to people," he says, and although it is still early to write the history of this period of repression, "it's important at least to try and get an organized draft of it down and to try to begin to interpret rather than just narrate the litany of things going on: the camps, the digital surveillance, forced labor, birth depressions, and try and put it all into some kind of framework where we can understand it." 

China’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang is part of aggressive intolerance of cultural and political diversity that is emerging as a central feature of Xi Jinping’s tenure, explains Millward. The shift in the CCP's assimilationist policies constitutes a complete "reversal of what had been an earlier approach to diversity in China," which allowed for 56 different nationalities to have regional autonomy. His aim is to "point out a really aggressive assimilating thrust under the Xi Jinping regime [...] and then also to look more clearly at settler colonialism in Xinjiang."

To learn more about the historical context of current events in Xinjiang and how to understand them against contemporary Chinese politics, tune in to Millward's public lecture of February 2, 2022, “The Crisis in Xinjiang: What’s Happening Now and What Does It Mean?

In this talk, Millward explains how PRC assimilationist policies, if most extreme in Xinjiang, are related to the broader Zhonghua-izing campaign against religion and non-Mandarin language and perhaps even to intensified control over Hong Kong and efforts to intimidate Taiwan.

U.S.-China Cooperation Amid Strained Ties

The Xinjiang crisis has affected how the United States views China, bringing an unexpected unity to the usually-polarized American foreign policy arena. "The Xinjiang issue has contributed to the broad-spectrum feeling in the American political sphere that engagement with China has failed," notes Millward. The parallels between China's repression of minorities and some of the worst events in the 20th century in Europe "have brought together the political sides in America and rallied them around a much stronger anti-China stance," he says.

From Millward's perspective, however, it is not only possible but also necessary for the United States to act on Xinjiang and press China on its human rights record while cooperating with China on other issues. "This is the art of diplomacy, you have to compartmentalize and deal with different issues, particularly with two countries as large as the United States and China." In Millward's view, areas pertinent to U.S.-China collaboration are varied and transcend global challenges such as climate change or pandemics. Those are simplistic dichotomies," he says. "We have 300,000 Chinese students in our universities and we welcome them and learn a lot from them [...] We benefit from Chinese expertise in all sorts of ways."

Millward spent a productive winter quarter at APARC. Returning to Stanford as a visiting scholar provided him a unique opportunity to reconnect with his past on The Farm and survey all that has changed in the years since he completed his doctorate under the tutelage of the late Professor Harold Kahn. "The trailer park where I lived as a first-year graduate student is no more, and I couldn't even find the footprint of where it was."

Portrait of James Millward

James Millward

Visiting Scholar at APARC
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From top left, clockwise: Lauren Hansen Restrepo, James Millward, Darren Byler and Gardner Bovingdon speaking at a panel at APARC.

The Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

The Human Rights Crisis in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
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APARC Visiting Scholar James Millward discusses PRC ethnicity policy, China's crackdown on Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang province, and the implications of the Xinjiang crisis for U.S. China strategy and China's international relations.


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Policies implemented by the CCP in Xinjiang since c. 2016 have become a central issue in PRC international relations, leading to international determinations that those policies constitute genocide; scrutiny of global supply chains for Xinjiang cotton, textiles and polysilicon; US sanctions on companies and individuals and Congressional inquiries directed at Airbnb and other multinationals operating in Xinjiang; and diplomatic boycotts of the Olympics. The assimilationist policies, if most extreme in Xinjiang, are related to the broader Zhonghua-izing campaign against religion and non-Mandarin language and perhaps even to intensified control over Hong Kong and efforts to intimidate Taiwan—an aggressive intolerance of cultural and political diversity that is emerging as a central feature of Xi Jinping’s tenure. This talk will review the Xinjiang crisis to date and suggest how we should understand these events and trends.

Portrait of James Millward
James Millward is Professor of Inter-societal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, teaching Chinese, Central Asian and world history. He joins the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) as visiting scholar with the China Program for the 2022 winter quarter. He is also an affiliated professor in the Máster Oficial en Estudios de Asia Oriental at the University of Granada, Spain. His specialties include Qing empire; the silk road; Eurasian lutes and music in history; and historical and contemporary Xinjiang. He follows and comments on current issues regarding the Uyghurs and PRC ethnicity policy. Millward has served on the boards of the Association for Asian Studies (China and Inner Asia Council) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society, and was president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in 2010. He edits the ''Silk Roads'' series for University of Chicago Press. His publications include The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013), Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (2007), New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde (2004), and Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity and Empire in Qing Central Asia (1998). His articles and op-eds on contemporary China appear in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Review of Books and other media.  

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James Millward Visiting Scholar, APARC, Stanford University; Professor of Inter-societal History, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
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Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! Will you understand, Winston, that no one whom we bring to this place ever leaves our hands uncured? We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them. – George Orwell, 1984

Shorenstein APARC convened a multidisciplinary panel of experts on October 24, 2019, to provide historical context and critical social science analysis to the unfolding horrors in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Displaying the above quote from George Orwell’s 1984, Gardner Bovingdon, associate professor in the Central Eurasian Studies Department at Indiana University, characterized the mass detentions in XUAR as “one of the great, state-engineered human rights disasters of our time” and proceeded to describe the camps in Xinjiang as both “Orwellian and Kafkaesque.”

Over ten million Muslim minorities in the region are under lock-down control, and over one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have allegedly disappeared into internment camps. Beijing has characterized the camps as vocational training centers to fight Islamic extremism and recently claimed that most of the detainees have been released. Recent New York Times exposé based on an unprecedented leak of over 400-pages of internal Party documents made clear, however, that the camps are anything but job-training centers.

Broad Assault on Non-Han Culture

James Millward, professor of inter-societal history at Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, gave a quick overview of the worsening political situation in the XUAR, especially since 2009, when violent race riots broke out in Urumqi, ignited by a conflict between Uyghur and Han workers in Guangdong. The bloody incident marked a major turning point in Han-Uyghur relations, and Beijing’s own recalibration of its own policies towards the Uyghurs. When in early 2010 and, again, in 2013-2015, jihadist-style terrorist acts broke out in XUAR, Beijing’s response in 2014 was to launch an all-out “strike hard campaign.”

That same year, Xi Jinping also called an important Central Ethnic Work Conference where the leadership adopted a new approach to ethnic dissent in the XUAR. Instead of relying, as before, on material improvements and economic developments to placate the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the XUAR, Xi Jinping now also prescribed the need for “spiritual or psychological” means (jingshenshangde (精神上的)) to manage ethnic strife. What followed, Millward described, were new national security laws and national counterterrorism laws with vague, broad language that allowed all types of measures to be implemented. Then, in 2016, Chen Quanguo, former Party Secretary in Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011-2016, was transferred to the XUAR to apply the same draconian securitization and surveillance system he had put in place in Tibet. Millward described 2016 as a “watershed moment,” a turning point in the crack-down on ethnic dissent in XUAR. The number of criminal prosecutions in Xinjiang suddenly skyrocketed over thirteen-fold from just 27,000 to 363,000 cases between 2016-2018. The number of new security facilities, including camps, prisons and even kindergartens, also spiked in the XUAR during the same period.

In addition to such judicial and extra-judicial methods of repression in the XUAR, this all-encompassing campaign also included draconian assaults on non-Han, Islamic culture. Beginning in the early 2000s, that assault has included the razing of old Kashgar; the illegalizing of any Islamic symbols such as women’s headgear, men’s beards; prayer, and fasting on Ramadan. What earlier started as official discouragement “turned into de facto laws,” he explained: “[Y]ou get locked up in a camp for this kind of behavior.” This “broad, broad attack” on the “symbols and central aspects of Uyghur culture” has also included the erasure of Uyghur script in public places; the disappearance of Uyghur intellectual and cultural leaders, including Rahile Dawut, a renowned anthropologist; and Tashpolat Tiyip, an internationally-recognized geographer and former President of Xinjiang University. One million Han Party members and officials have also been sent to southern Xinjiang to stay in Uyghur homes to spot signs of “extremism,” such as copies of the Quran, religious DVDs, etc.

Totalitarian Politics of Land

Lauren Hansen Restrepo, assistant professor in growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr College and an expert on urbanization in Xinjiang next spoke from the panel. She used the lens of urban planning to describe two significant shifts in Beijing’s techniques of governance over the Uyghur population in the XUAR. From 2000-2009, before the Urumqi riots, the guiding principle for spatial development in Urumqi was that of a “dual-centered city” (shuangzhongxin; 双中心) – a relatively balanced vision with one development center located in the Uyghur heartland (Tianshan) and the other, in the Han super-majority region (Xinshi). This dual model of growth for Urumqi was abandoned in 2010, however, and a new spatial development policy called nankongbeikuo 南控北扩 or “control the south, develop the north” took its place. Construction halted in southern Urumqi where Uyghurs make up a majority of the population, and all resources were basically channeled to the northern part of the city.

In the wake of the 2014 Central Ethnic Work Conference, however, the “logic of total security” took over and there began a precipitous move towards what Restrepo called “a totalitarian politics of land.” The central government took control and began to more directly govern how development worked in XUAR. “Regional planning has broken every logic of urban planning in China,” she stated, resulting in the isolation and even greater marginalization of Uyghur-dominated urban centers. According to Restrepo, cities and larger regions in XUAR are being reconfigured to come under the direct management of central ministry-level powers and quasi-military entities called the bingtuan, respectively.

Open Air Prisons

Next, Darren Byler, an anthropologist who had recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, focused on Uyghur dispossession and “terror capitalism” in the city of Urumqi. He first described the mass migration of Han people in the 1990’s into the XUAR, which caused increasing tensions with the Uyghurs.

With economic development, however, also came communications infrastructure, and in 2010, with the installment of 3G networks in Xinjiang, smartphone use began to spread. By 2012, nearly 40-50 percent of XUAR’s population were also on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app. Uyghurs formed a vibrant, virtual public sphere on WeChat where they often formed networks centered on their religious identity. According to Byler, Uyghurs mainly focused on personal piety, rather than on political/radical forms of Islam. But after the violent jihadi-style attacks in 2013-2015, the Chinese state increasingly collapsed Islamism with radicalism extremism and equated visible signs of religiosity like beards on men, women’s veils and regular prayer with pre-terrorist tendencies. The impetus for this intense politicization of Islamism by the authorities, Byler also explained, originated with the U.S.’ war on terror.

The XUAR is a key zone of the Belt and Road Initiative and a region rich in natural resources, Byler pointed out, and control over this Northwestern area is essential to Xi Jinping’s ambitions. Byler described extensive use of cameras, digital media and biometric checkpoints, prisons, internment camps and, more recently, coerced labor to accomplish tight control over the Uyghurs. Byler also explained how, since the spring of 2017, the local police instituted a point-based ranking system for Uyghurs that assessed, for example, whether he or she owned religious tracts, his/her daily prayer practices, and ties to foreign countries.

In the internment camps themselves, the detainees undergo boot camp-style ideological and Chinese language training in conditions akin to medium security prisons. Pictures of blindfolded captives with their hands tied behind their backs, guards with tasers and weapons, all belied the Chinese government’s characterization of these camps as benign, vocational training centers. And, now, Byler described, in factories, such as textile factories, associated with these camps, detainees are coerced to provide low-cost labor at a time when average labor costs in China are rising. In a grim conclusion, Byler stated, “what's being built through this is . . . open air prisons. The whole space [of XUAR] is prison, it’s camps all the way down . . . . You can't move . . . without showing your I.D. and having your face scanned, and so it's just impossible to escape.”

State-engineered Human Rights Disaster

Indiana University’s Gardner Bovingdon, whose research focuses on politics in contemporary Xinjiang and the region’s modern history, was the last panelist to speak at the event. He first situated this “great, state-engineered human rights disaster[ ]” within the CCP’s framework of “minzu regional autonomy,” which the Party-state had established after 1949. Minzu being variously translated as “nationality” or “ethnicity,” the framework formally recognized and accorded some measure of political autonomy to people who are culturally different. In fact, however, communist ideology, Bovingdon noted, has always faced tensions between (i) “the goal of respecting and protecting cultural difference” and (ii) “the goal of integrating the land and the peoples into a unified polity.”

According to Bovingdon, prior to 2009, commercialization of Uyghur culture through tourism and consumption seemed to be the Party’s preferred way of dealing with the securitization problem in the XUAR. But the CCP’s ever-shifting attitude towards the nation’s multi-ethnicity issue went all the way back to the Soviet collapse in 1991. The paramount concern of the Chinese Communist Party ever since has been to avert the outcome that had felled their erstwhile communist neighbor and preserve the Party and the nation. Scholarly responses to the Soviet collapse in the 1990’s included an analysis that exhorted the government to “weaken the concept of minzu and minzu consciousness”; lessen “minzu centrism” and vitiate the notion of minzu independence. Exhortations to “de-politicize and culturalize” the problem of ethnic minorities continued into the 2000’s. Then, more recently, scholars have proposed moving away from policies that mimic those of the former Soviet Union and adopting “second generation minzu policies” that promote “fusion and collective flourishing” of the various peoples.

Regardless of the official academic discourse, however, Bovingdon asserted that the best explanation for policy changes in the XUAR remained the transfer of Chen Quanguo as Party Secretary from Tibet to Xinjiang in 2016. Under him, the Chinese Communist Party transported and scaled-up a set of policies that had previously been applied to the unrest in Tibet. These policies do not “weaken” minzu consciousness, Bovingdon suggested, but rather intensifies them. These policies are, in fact, “signs of a flailing, terrified Party,” Bovingdon asserted, “that doesn’t know what to do with the Uyghurs, but also feels no constraints from the international community on its behavior. And so the biggest problem now is to find a way to put constraints on a system that has operated untrammeled with devastating consequences.”

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Donald K. Emmerson
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Indonesia’s latest and current experiment with democracy is twenty years old. The fifth national election to be held during that period is set to occur on 17 April 2019. More than 190 million Indonesians are eligible to vote. Those who do will elect the country’s president and vice-president and legislators at four different levels—national, provincial, district, and municipal. Since the collapse of General Suharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998, there have been no coups, and the process of campaigning and balloting every five years has proven to be peaceful with remarkably few and small exceptions.  So far so good. 

Regarding the top slot, this fifth election is a re-run of the fourth.  In 2014, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) ran for president against Prabowo Subianto and won.  The two men face each other again.  For the 2019 race, Jokowi picked Mar’uf Amin to be his vice-president; Prabowo picked Sandiaga Uno to be his.  All four men are Muslims.

Compared with Prabowo, Jokowi is a man of the people.  Jokowi is the first-ever Indonesian president with a non-elite background.  His first career was not in politics, and not in Indonesia’s megalopolis and capital, Jakarta, but in small business in Central Java.  He made and sold wood furniture in Surakarta, a city a fraction of Jakarta’s size.  He benefited from having begun his political career as Surakarta’s first directly elected mayor.  That post afforded him face-to-face contact with his constituents and gained him popularity based on his success in reforming governance, reducing corruption, and improving public services. 

Jokowi burnished that reputation as the elected governor of Jakarta.  Among his accomplishments on that larger scale were socioeconomic betterment and attention to public transportation.  Construction of Indonesia’s very first subway system began in Jakarta on Jokowi’s watch.  To his political advantage, the project’s first phase—ten miles of underground and elevated track—was completed and opened to the public in March 2019 mere weeks before the national election in April.

Prabowo’s father was a leading figure in Indonesia’s economy, diplomacy, and politics.  Prabowo was schooled in Europe before returning to Indonesia to embark upon a 24-year career in the army.  He rose to the rank of a lieutenant general, but his record was marred by association with violence and insubordination.  Especially brutal were his roles in crushing movements for independence from coercive Indonesian rule in East Timor and Papua and in the abusive repression of democracy activists during riots in Jakarta in 1998. When Indonesia transitioned to democratic rule later that year, he was, in effect, dishonorably discharged.  In 2000 he was denied an American visa, apparently on human rights grounds.  Upon leaving the military, Prabowo began a lucrative career in business. He lost the 2014 presidential election to Jokowi, 47-to-53 percent.

ndonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses to his supporters at the Kridosono stadium during election campaign rally on April 8, 2019 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto addresses to his supporters at the Kridosono stadium during election campaign rally on April 8, 2019 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Muslims account for an estimated 87 percent of the 269 million people who live in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and the third largest democracy after India and America.  It is mathematically understandable that majoritarian Muslim faith and sentiment might drive the country’s politics.  But Indonesia is not an Islamic state.  Its leaders have, more or less effectively, curated an ethno-religiously plural national identity that legitimates not only Islam but, in theory, Buddhist, Catholic, Confucian, Hindu, and Protestant beliefs as well. 

When Jokowi ran for governor of Jakarta in 2012, his running mate was Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian Indonesian better known by his nickname “Ahok.”  When the ticket won, Ahok became vice-governor.  A man of probity and candor with a background in business and science, Ahok quickly earned kudos for his efforts to curb poverty, corruption, and traffic congestion, among other ills of the metropolis.  In 2014, when Jokowi took a leave of absence to run for president, Ahok replaced him as the acting governor of Jakarta. When Jokowi defeated Pabowo to become president later that year, Ahok became governor in his own right—the first-ever ethnic Chinese and the first non-Muslim in half a century to fill that position. Sinophobia has a long history in Indonesia. In the context of the economic and political crises that obliged Suharto to resign in 1998, for example, anti-Chinese mobs ran riot in Jakarta.  Prabowo, Suharto’s son-in-law at the time, may have been at least indirectly involved in that outbreak of racial violence.

In a speech in September 2016, Ahok made an unscripted reference to the possibility that, were he to run again, some Muslims might not vote for him.  But all he said was that voters should not believe those who intentionally lie about—misinterpret—verse 51 in Al-Ma’idah, a chapter in the Qur’an that seems to advise Muslims against becoming allies of Jews and Christians.  Some Islamists had indeed glossed that verse as an obligation for Muslims not to vote for a non-Muslim to occupy public office.  An edited version of the video made it sound as though Ahok were not accusing some people of lying about what the verse meant, but was instead blaming the falsehood on the Qur’an itself—Allah’s own words.

The altered video went viral. Extreme Islamist organizations pressed for Ahok’s arrest and imprisonment for having violated Indonesia’s law on the Misuse and Insult of Religion.  He was tried, sentenced, and incarcerated in May 2017.

A man is draped with a flag showing the images of Indonesian President Joao Widodo and his Vice Presidential running mate Ma'ruf Amin at a concert and political rally for President Joko Widodo.
A man is draped with a flag showing the images of Indonesian President Joao Widodo and his Vice Presidential running mate Ma'ruf Amin at a concert and political rally for President Joko Widodo. Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Ahok regained his freedom in January 2019. When he was released, Jokowi’s and Prabowo’s presidential campaigns had already begun. Six months before, Jokowi’s partisan allies, knowing how closely associated with Ahok their candidate had been, had persuaded him to strengthen his Islamic appeal by choosing Mar’uf Amin to fill the vice-presidential slot on his ticket.  At the time, Amin chaired Indonesia’s if not the world’s largest independent Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Amin also headed a state-supported Indonesian Ulama Council that issues rulings ( fatwa ) on Islamic matters.  Under Amin’s leadership in November 2016, the Council had gone so far as to insist, in a statement he signed on the Council’s behalf, that verse 51 in Al-Ma’idah really does forbid Jews and Christians from becoming leaders and does obligate Muslims to choose to be led only by Muslims—and that to deny this is to insult the Qur’an, the ulama, and the Muslim community.  Yet there is nothing in Indonesia’s constitution or its laws that endorses, let alone requires, prejudicial voting—ballot-box communalism—of this kind.

Beyond boosting Jokowi’s image in the eyes of illiberal Muslims, Amin was an attractive choice for two other reasons as well:  NU’s demographic strength, notably in the heavily populated provinces of East and Central Java; and the hoped-for gravitas of Amin’s age and wisdom that some voters might read into his being 76 years old on election day—seventeen more than Jokowi’s 58.

In choosing Sandiago (“Sandi”) Uno for the vice-presidential slot on his ticket, Prabowo may also have taken age into account, but in the reverse direction.  Sixty-seven years old on election day, Prabowo may have chosen his running mate hoping to benefit from the image of relatively youthful energy and savvy modernity that Sandi, eighteen years younger, might evoke in voters’ minds.  Not to mention Sandi’s money.  Forbes Magazine ranked him 27 th among the 40 richest Indonesians in 2010, although he has since fallen off that list.  Sandi’s proven ability to attract support, having been elected vice-governor of Jakarta in 2017, likely also favored his selection. 

Sandi has an MBA from George Washington University. Whatever he learned about good business practices while there, however, did not prevent his name from surfacing in the “Paradise Papers” and in research by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, sources that linked him to shell companies registered in Panama, the British Virgin Islands, and other tax-haven locations.

Sandiaga Uno, Vice-Presidential candidate and running mate of Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto Waves to supporters
Sandiaga Uno, Vice-Presidential candidate and running mate of Indonesian Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto Waves to supporters after giving a speech at the National Stadium on April 7, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images.

Prabowo did not excel in his televised debates with Jokowi.  The many polls conducted again and again during the campaign showed Jokowi ahead of Prabowo in the public’s opinion by as much as twenty percent.  As election day neared, the gap between the two men may have narrowed.  But that evidence may have been tainted by unreliable polls that Prabowo’s camp may have incentivized to exaggerate his support. [1]

Prabowo has in the past cultivated relations with Islamist figures and groups. A question to be settled on 17 April is whether Jokowi’s supporters among softer-line, mainstream Muslims and their associations will outvote the harder-line Islamist and more Sinophobic voters to whom Prabowo has appealed.  Relevant, too, is the credulity of voters regarding fake news on social media, including hoaxes designed to stoke fears of Chinese immigration.  One viral claim blamed Jokowi for welcoming investments from China to the point of making Indonesians compete for jobs with an influx of as many as ten million China-born workers. If official Indonesian data are accurate, of 95,335 foreign workers in the country in 2018, only 32,000 were from China. [2]

In the past, Indonesia has been lauded for exemplifying the compatibility of Islam and democracy and for cultivating ethnic tolerance as well.  For democracy to survive and succeed, however, as Americans are learning, it must be continually safeguarded and reconfirmed.  One of the concepts that will crucially affect the further institutionalization of democracy in Indonesia is the extent to which its large and ethnically Malay Muslim majority will be accountable to the country as a whole and not be demagogued into violating minority rights and freedoms.  A populist who inflames his partisan base should not enjoy immunity from oversight. Crucial, too, is the notion of a loyal opposition whose leader is willing and able to reaffirm allegiance to a system in which it has just lost an election fairly.  Additionally essential to the implementation of these core ideas, as polarized Americans are being reminded, is the empathy necessary to bridge identity-based cleavages by imagining oneself in the shoes or sandals of “the other.” 

In any event, one can hope for the best: that the fifth electoral testing of Indonesia’s two-decades-long experiment with democratic rule in 2019, and the 59th American presidential election in 2020, including their respective aftermaths, will reinvigorate the purpose and power of democratic principles as inoculations against the risks, in both countries, of authoritarian division from within.

Donald K. Emmerson last visited Indonesia in December 2018 to speak at the 11th  Bali Democracy Forum.  Without implicating them in the above, he is grateful to Bill Liddle, Wayne Forrest, and Lisa Lee for helpful comments on its first draft.

[1] Compare Seth Soderberg, “Indonesia: How the Polls are Performing,” 15 April 2019, New Mandala , , with Malvyandie Haryadi, “Hasil Survei Pilpres Terbaru: 7 Lembaga Survei Menangkan Jokowi, 4 Lembaga Unggulkan Prabowo,” (Latest Presidential Election Surveys: 7 Surveyers Show Jokowi Winning, 4 Surveyers Put Prabowo on Top), , 10 April 2019, .

[2] Amy Chew, “‘Let’s Copy Malaysia’: Fake News Stokes Fears for Chinese Indonesians,” South China Morning Post , 7 April 2019, .


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Lisa Griswold
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China is encountering a religious resurgence. Its revival symbolizes tension between the past and the present, as people search for purpose in a country that’s been shaken by expansive reforms and modernization efforts over the past four decades.

That was the message shared by veteran journalist Ian Johnson, the 2016 winner of the Shorenstein Journalism Award, who gave a keynote speech followed by panel discussion titled “Religion after Mao,” part of the Award’s 15th anniversary ceremony at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center on Monday.

Johnson, who has spent 30 years as a journalist, has written extensively about Chinese history, religion and culture, and is also a teacher and published author, most recently releasing the book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.

“Ian is maybe one of the most remarkable awardees we’ve had in recent years,” said Daniel Sneider, Shorenstein APARC associate director for research, who introduced the event by talking about Johnson’s distinguished career, which has included writing for the New York TimesWall Street Journal and New York Review of Books and led to a Pulitzer Prize win in 2001.

Xueguang Zhou, a Stanford professor of sociology and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, and Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, joined Johnson on the panel, while Sneider moderated the discussion.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the panelists discussed the varied history of religion in Chinese society during the 20th and 21st centuries, offering stories of their experiences living and working in China.

According to Johnson, religious persecution in China is often thought to be associated with the anti-religious campaigns of Mao Zedong following the Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of power in 1949, but in reality, it existed decades before and has lingered in national memory.

Into the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese government remained superstitious of religion, trying to redefine religious groups as “culture” alone, under the assumption that religion could be desensitized enough to eventually disappear, Johnson said.

But that did not happen, he said, and instead an opposite trend did. Reaching a high point in the 2000s, China’s economic reforms – both sweeping and fast-paced – brought growing angst and anxiety and prompted people across every socioeconomic background to turn to religion as an outlet.

Johnson, who has spent weeks at a time living among religious groups, noted a shift from the time he was in China in the mid-1980s to the past decade, where now “the government sees that religious groups can provide some sort of moral framework for some people.”

shorenstein journalism award panel discussion

Chinese people today are searching for meaning, the panelists said, and are driven to join religious groups amid resource competition and mass migration that has usurped traditional family structures and disquieted many people who have moved from close-knit rural towns to alienating urban centers.

“Everybody is out there…trying to reify that part of life which isn’t filled by bread alone, by commerce alone,” said Schell, who has written about China since the 1970s as an author and journalist. “It’s a pretty chaotic quest and it’s very hard to know where it will all end.”

At the moment, religious groups in China remain heterogeneous and fragmented, Zhou said, but cohesion is growing in some regions and participation of local government leaders has drawn greater attention to the practice of faith.

“In grassroots China, religion, spiritual life and the Party, really go hand-in-hand – they’re intertwined,” said Zhou, whose research focuses on Chinese bureaucracy and economic development. “Local elites are involved both in the spiritual world and the Party world, and they shift back and forth simultaneously.”

However, the future of the relationship between religion and the government remains to be seen, according to the panelists.

Religious groups could fracture, or the government could continue to favor “native” religious groups, which if exacerbated over time, could lead to quasi-state religions, Johnson said. (Today, China recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism).

While religious groups increasingly provide a service to some people, the Chinese government continues to be wary of them as an alternative source of knowledge and values, Johnson said, which hold the potential to coalesce into a nascent civil society.

“Every dynasty in China knows that one way dynasties usually ended was with some millenarian movement,” Schell added of the government’s apprehension. “They are afraid of religious movements because they do bespeak of higher values, higher loyalties and different organizational structures that don’t owe fealty to the Party.”

A video of the keynote speech is posted at this link.

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Lisa Griswold
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Ian Johnson, a veteran journalist with a focus on Chinese society, religion and history, is the 2016 recipient of the Shorenstein Journalism Award. The award, given annually by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, is conferred to a journalist who produces outstanding reporting on Asia and has contributed to greater understanding of the complexities of Asia. He will deliver a keynote speech and participate in a panel discussion on May 1, 2017, at Stanford.

“Ian Johnson is one of those rare writers who has not only watched China’s evolution over the long haul, but who is also deeply steeped in the culture and politic of both Europe and the United States as well,” said Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director at the Asia Society of New York’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and jury member for the award. “This cross-cultural grounding has imbued his work on China with a humanistic core that, because it is always implicit rather than explicit, is all the more persuasive.”

Ian Buruma, the Paul W. Williams Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College and jury member for the award, added further praise, “Ian Johnson is one of the finest journalists in the English language. He writes about China with extraordinary insight, deep historical knowledge and a critical spirit tempered by rare human sympathy. His work on China is further enriched by wider interests, such as the problems of Islamist extremism in the West, specifically Germany, where he lives when he is not writing from China.”

The Shorenstein award, now in its 15th year, originally in partnership with the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, was created to honor American journalists who through their writing have helped Americans better understand Asia. In 2011, the award was broadened to encompass Asian journalists who pave the way for press freedom, and have aided in the growth of mutual understanding across the Pacific. Recent recipients of the award include Yoichi Funabashi, former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun; Jacob Schlesinger of the Wall Street Journal; and Aung Zaw, founder of the Irrawaddy, a Burmese publication.

Johnson has spent over half of the past 30 years in the Greater China region, first as a student in Beijing from 1984-85, and then in Taipei from 1986-88. He later worked as a newspaper correspondent in China, from 1994-96 with Baltimore's The Sun, and then from 1997-2001 with the Wall Street Journal, covering macroeconomics, China’s social issues and World Trade Organization accession.

Johnson returned to China in 2009, where he now lives and writes for the New York Times and freelances for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and National Geographic. He also teaches and leads a fellowship program at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.

Johnson has also worked in Germany, serving as the Wall Street Journal’s Germany bureau chief and senior writer. Early on in his career, he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification, and later returned to head coverage on areas including the introduction of the euro and Islamist terrorism.

Johnson has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won in 2001 for his coverage of the Chinese government’s suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and its implications of that campaign for the future. He is also the author of two books, Wild Grass (Pantheon, 2004) which examines China’s civil society and grassroots protest, and A Mosque in Munich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). His next book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao (Pantheon, April 2017) explores the resurgence of religion and value systems in China.

Additional details about the panel discussion and the award are listed below.

About the Panel Discussion and Award Ceremony

A keynote speech will be delivered by Shorenstein Journalism Award winner Ian Johnson, followed by a panel discussion with Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director at the Asia Society of New York’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, and Xueguang Zhou, professor of sociology at Stanford; moderated by Daniel C. Sneider, associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC.

May 1, 2017, from 12:00 – 1:30 p.m. (PDT)

Bechtel Conference Center, Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street, Stanford, CA 94305

The keynote speech and panel discussion are open to the public. The award ceremony will take place in the evening for a private audience.

To RSVP for the panel discussion, please visit this page.

About the Shorenstein Journalism Award

The Shorenstein Journalism Award honors a journalist not only for excellence in their field of reporting on Asia, but also for their promotion of a free, vibrant media and for the future of relations between Asia and the United States. Originally created to identify American and Western journalists for their work in and on Asia, the award now also recognizes Asian journalists who have contributed significantly to the development of independent media in Asia. The award is presented annually and includes a prize of $10,000.

The award is named after Walter H. Shorenstein, the philanthropist, activist and businessman who endowed two institutions that are focused respectively on Asia and the press - the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Past recipients of the award include: Yoichi Funabashi, formerly of the Asahi Shimbun (2015); Jacob Schlesinger of the Wall Street Journal (2014), Aung Zaw of the Irrawaddy (2013), Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times (2012), Caixin Media of China (2011), Barbara Crossette of the New York Times (2010), Seth Mydans of the New York Times (2009), Ian Buruma (2008), John Pomfret of the Washington Post (2007), Melinda Liu of Newsweek (2006), Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review (2005), Don Oberdofer of the Washington Post (2004), Orville Schell (2003), and Stanley Karnow (2002).

A jury selects the award winner. The 2016 jury comprised of:

Ian Buruma, the Paul W. Williams Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, is a noted Asia expert who frequently contributes to publications including the New York Times, the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. He is a recipient of the Shorenstein Journalism Award and the international Erasmus Prize (both in 2008).

Nayan Chanda is the director of publications and the editor of YaleGlobal Online Magazine at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. For nearly thirty years, Chanda was at the Hong Kong-based magazine, Far Eastern Economic Review. He writes the ‘Bound Together’ column in India’s Business World and is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warrior Shaped Globalization. Chanda received the Shorenstein Journalism Award in 2005.

Susan Chira is a senior correspondent and editor on gender issues and former deputy executive editor and foreign editor at the New York Times. Chira has extensive experience in Asia, including serving as Japan correspondent for the Times in the 1980s. During her tenure as foreign editor, the Times won the Pulitzer Prize four times for international reporting on Afghanistan, Russia, Africa and China.

Donald K. Emmerson is a well-respected Indonesia scholar and director of Shorenstein APARC’s Southeast Asia Program and a research fellow for the National Asia Research Program. Frequently cited in international media, Emmerson also contributes to leading publications, such as Asia Times and International Business Times.

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director at the Asia Society of New York’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and former jury member for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Schell has written extensively on China and was awarded the 1997 George Peabody Award for producing the groundbreaking documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace. He received the Shorenstein Journalism Award in 2003.

Daniel C. Sneider is the associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC, writing on Asian security issues, wartime historical memory and U.S policy in Asia. He also frequently contributes to publications such as Foreign Policy, Asia Policy and Slate. Sneider had three decades of experience as a foreign correspondent serving in India, Japan and Russia for the Christian Science Monitor and as the national and foreign editor of the San Jose Mercury News and a syndicated columnist on foreign affairs for Knight-Ridder.

For more information about the award, please visit this page.

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Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar, known affectionately by Indonesians as "Aa Gym" (elder brother Gym), rose to fame via nationally televised sermons, best-selling books, and corporate training seminars. In Rebranding Islam James B. Hoesterey draws on two years' study of this charismatic leader and his message of Sufi ideas blended with Western pop psychology and management theory to examine new trends in the religious and economic desires of an aspiring middle class, the political predicaments bridging self and state, and the broader themes of religious authority, economic globalization, and the end(s) of political Islam. 

At Gymnastiar's Islamic school, television studios, and MQ Training complex, Hoesterey observed this charismatic preacher developing a training regimen called Manajemen Qolbu into Indonesia's leading self-help program via nationally televised sermons, best-selling books, and corporate training seminars. Hoesterey's analysis explains how Gymnastiar articulated and mobilized Islamic idioms of ethics and affect as a way to offer self-help solutions for Indonesia's moral, economic, and political problems. Hoesterey then shows how, after Aa Gym's fall, the former celebrity guru was eclipsed by other television preachers in what is the ever-changing mosaic of Islam in Indonesia. Although Rebranding Islam tells the story of one man, it is also an anthropology of Islamic psychology.

This book is part of the Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center series at Stanford University Press.

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