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Proximity as Threat: Sectarianism in Indonesia

Sat, March 18, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 2nd Floor, Civic Ballroom North


Since the mid-2000s, Indonesia’s Ahmadiyah and Shi’a communities have experienced unprecedented levels of persecution. Several scholars have argued that this new phenomenon is attributable to the penetration of foreign religious ideas at a time of democratic politics, which has led to a “conservative turn.” In this paper, I challenge this “rosy” view of Indonesian Islam by tracing local intra-Muslim conflicts from 1925-2014, showing that the contemporary conflict is rooted in long-standing competition between local religious elites. The threat posed by other sects was potent due to the ambiguity of group boundaries, which made it easier for followers to be led astray. Theological proximity between modernists and Ahmadis in West Java and traditionalists and Shi’a in East Java produced anxieties on the part of the Sunni religious elites, as the threat of conversion is not only spiritual, but material. Conversion can threaten livelihoods as congregation or school enrollment numbers fall. The threat of proximity helps explain contemporary spatial patterns of sectarian targeting and suggests that the recent upsurge in anti-minority activity is a product of institutional changes that have made local religious leaders even more significant in the competition for political power. I close the article by applying the proximity argument to other cases in the Muslim world (e.g. Pakistan) to show how it can shed light on the dynamics of mobilization, the types of policy demands made, and state responses.


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