History and Hostility


Christianity in Java

History is everything; everything can be explained by the events of the past.

The apparent uptick in “religious intolerance” in Indonesia of late is a disturbing development in a notably religiously diverse country (Indonesia’s founding fathers certainly understood the danger to a fragile national unity represented by politicised religion). But at times in recent months minor incidents in Java have seemed to suggest an almost comic paranoia and insecurity amongst the aggrieved party – that is, some sectarianist Muslims. A hysterical response to the appearance of an obviously Muslim woman on a billboard advertising a Christian university; an outbreak of moral panic when some Muslim ibu pose near a kitschy statue of Christ…

It suggests a way of thinking in which Christianity is some highly contagious disease, with an apparently innocent selfie near a very bad statue every bit as dangerous as jabbing yourself with a junkie’s used needle. Even in the parts of the world where the persecution of minorities is generally a more deadly business there rarely seems to be such an air of paranoia. So why this apparent sense of insecurity around Christianity amongst some Muslims in Java?

As always, history explains.

Red and White: The Religion of Java

In the middle of the 20th century, very nearly 100 percent of the indigenous population of Central and East Java was Muslim – nominally, at least. The only non-Muslims were the geographically isolated Tenggerese (whose religious identity was probably not so obviously distinct from that of their neighbours then as it is today), a tiny and proportionally stable smattering of Christians descended from 19th-century missionary converts, and the ethnically distinct Chinese and other immigrant populations.

Of course, that great mass of Javanese Muslims amounted to no monolith. Anthropologists liked to divide them cleanly between a minority (and it was a very small minority in many places) of orthodox Muslims known as “Santri” (or sometimes, historically, “Putihan”, “the white ones”), and a heterodox majority known as “Abangan” (“the red ones”), who still identified as Muslim but who generally had little time for standard Islamic practice. This blunt two-way division was, of course, a gross oversimplification, and both categories contained almost limitless diversity of their own. But it is nonetheless a useful shorthand.

But then, suddenly, something changed. In the second half of the 1960s the Christian population of Central Java grew at an astonishing rate of almost 30 percent a year. The growth was often particularly pronounced in urban areas: Surakarta ended up almost a quarter Christian in its denominational make-up. In other places, entire villages which had been notionally Muslim (albeit of the Abangan variety) for hundreds of years turned Christian in the blink of an eye. Although the ultimate Christian percentage of the overall Javanese population never got beyond low single digits, at specific times in specific places it really could seem as though Christianity was spreading like wildfire amongst erstwhile nominal Muslims. (Elsewhere, something even more peculiar happened, and Java went from having virtually no indigenous Hindus, to having around 170,000 of them in the space of just five years.)

The prompt for all this, if it’s not already obvious, was the astonishing slaughter that swept Java in late 1965/early 1966, the anti-communist pogrom precipitated by the so-called “30 September Movement”.

The Law of Unintended Consequences, or “Why Two Million Came to Christ”

In the aftermath of the killings, across Indonesia, there was a push for proper adherence to one of the country’s officially recognised religions (at that time, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism). To not offer a clear demonstration of religious affiliation was to risk the taint of communism. In Java, given that virtually everyone was already officially Muslim, the expected upshot might have been a universal uptick in Islamic praying, fasting and alms-giving. But it didn’t turn out as simply as that.

Very broadly speaking, association with the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was commonest in communities an anthropologist would have tagged “Abangan”, while some of the most vocal opposition to the PKI came from what that same anthropologist would have dubbed “Santris”. This, coupled with the direct participation in the killings by the youth wings of orthodox organisations such as the NU, gave orthodox, Santri-style Islam an unpalatable association with political violence for some of those Javanese (nominal Muslims still, remember) who had been on or close to its receiving end. For some of them it was so unpalatable that, under the new pressure for religious conformity, they turned elsewhere – to Christianity. (A trend in conversions to Christianity had actually begun before the killings – along the same lines of political polarisation and with ultimate origins in the earlier emergence of religious polarisation in the 19th century; but it was the slaughter of 1965-66 which turned it from a peripheral, statistically insignificant business into a bone fide phenomenon.)

Elsewhere, there were those – usually, though not always, in remote rural areas – who were particularly firmly committed to the syncretic traditional Javanese belief systems usually known as Kejawen, and who had long understood themselves to be a distinct counterpoint to the Santris, for all that they were technically Muslim themselves. For them a change to demonstrative mosque-going was equally unpalatable (it was from amongst this group that most of the Hindu conversions emerged, though these were always insignificant in overall number compared to the shift to Christianity).

The rate of the growth of Christianity tailed off after a few years, but in places it didn’t really stabilise until the 1980s. A delighted American Baptist missionary wrote a book about the episode called Indonesian Revival: Why Two Million Came to Christ

This, then, is surely the context when some zealots in the 21st century appear to be suffering from paranoid delusions and the belief that a passing housewife might spontaneously swoon into the arms of Jesus upon glancing at a cumbersome statue or glimpsing a photo of a jilbab-framed face amongst a beaming bunch of Christian scholars. The hypersensitivity seems likely to have its roots in the aggrieved memory of a moment when it really did seem as though an ascendant Christianity had remarkably contagious properties amongst a population of (sort of) Muslims. And the roots of that episode, like so much else in modern Indonesia, lie in the bloody abyss of the 1965-66 rainy season…


For far more detailed background on all of this – and much, much more pertaining to the current religious make-up of Java besides – it’s well worth hunting out M.C. Ricklefs’ Islamisation and its Opponents in Java. For the context of the context, including the formation of the Abangan-Santri dichotomy and the beginnings of the small 19th-century Christian community, see his earlier book, Polarising Javanese Society, and for the context of the context of the context, look for Mystic Synthesis in Java. These are all thoroughly academic books, but don’t let that put you off. Most people know Ricklefs’ big standard history, A History of Modern Indonesia, but it turns out that his far more specialised works on the history of religious identity in Java are generally much more engaging. They have room for colour and anecdote and a very lively writing style, which sometimes gets squeezed out in his more general history.

© Tim Hannigan 2017

2 thoughts on “History and Hostility

  1. Hi Tim, Zed from Singapore. I’m right now reading your book on the British Invasion of Java. Coming from Singapore, your book is really mind blowing. Really grateful to you for producing this masterpiece. Singaporeans tend to regard Raffles as some sort a saintly figure thanks to the Government naming many things after him Singapore. Love reading the part about John Leyden dressed as a pirate! Looking forward to reading your other books…May I suggest you look into the history of the British during their rule of Malaya. I’m sure there are lots interesting stuff for you write about. Forgive me for any grammar errors on my part. Good luck to u Tim.. Cheers


    • Hi Zed, Thanks so much for your message – I’m delighted to hear that you’re enjoying the Raffles book. Funnily enough, a lot of the most positive responses I’ve had about it have been from Singaporeans – maybe because they enjoy hearing a fresh angle on someone who’s always been presented as so boringly good!

      I’d love to write something about British-ruled Malaya at some point. There’d be lots of good source material I’m sure. I’m always a bit nervous of it, though, mainly because I just don’t have the deep historical background on Malaysian history in the way I do about Indonesia. I’ve been reading solidly about Indonesian history for 15 years – I’ve got a bit of catching up to do when it comes to Malaysia!

      Thanks again for your kind comment!


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