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The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics. The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism, Jamie S. Davidson & David Henley (eds)

London & New York: Routledge, Contemporary Southeast Asia Series, 2007, 377 p.
Stephen C. Headley
p. 234-237
Référence(s) :

Jamie S. Davidson & David Henley (eds), The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics. The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism, London & New York: Routledge, Contemporary Southeast Asia Series, 2007, 377 p.

Texte intégral

1The title of this book immediately gives an idea of its bread of perspective and the approach adopted by its editors. In March, 2004, the Singapore-based Asian Research Institute (ARI) organized on the island of Batam a workshop, “Adat revivalism in Indonesia’s democratic transition,” that gave rise to this publication. It is a most timely and useful collection bringing into focus different strands of the debate about the relevance of adat (customary law), and this in a variety of perspectives encouraged by the editors. In fifteen chapters, they have succeeded in covering the diversity of Indonesia, even if they regret (p. 37) not having devoted a chapter to Java, the relationship between Islam and adat, or the role of adat in contemporary Papuan politics. Chapters 2-5 (Cees Fasseur & Peter Burns; David Henley & David Bourchier) treat the historical and modern forces that have shaped the role of adat. The other nine chapters treat the revival of customary law: ch. 7, the “return of the sultans” (Gerry van Klinken); ch. 8 & 9, the revival of adat among the Balinese and Minangkabau (Carol Warren, Renske Biezeveld); ch. 10-15 deal with the marginalized masyarakat adat among “indigenous” groups, in Kalimantan (Jamie Davidson); “post-tribal” Catholics on Flores (Maribeth Erb); the pan-Indonesian adat movement (Sandra Moniaga); while chapters 13-15 take up the role of adat in central Sulawesi (Greg Acciaioli, Arianto Sangaji, Tania Li). These chapters show us the full variety of regional settings and historical contexts of adat, as well as the various dynamics of local movements for adat revival.

2The editors focus nearly completely on the political dimensions, trying to balance between a critique of its instrumentalism and a critical analysis of adat discourses as political competition, while bypassing the authenticity of many of these revival movements in terms of their local perspectives. Nevertheless, for anyone not aware of the revival of adat in Indonesia since 1998, the editors’ intro-duction (p. 1-49) provides an ample and thought-provoking overview. Given that custom and tradition, for the editors, mean “sedate order and consensus,” they are obliged to explain how since 1998 adat has come to connote activism, protest, and violent conflict. This approach clearly reflects concern for the conflicts of local populations with Bugis immigrants in Kalimantan and Sulawesi. But the editors hasten to show that the issues are much broader. The Jakarta-based organization, AMAN (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara), in its first congress in 1999, stated pointedly: “If the state will not acknowledge us, then we will not acknowledge the state.” This is only comprehensible, of course, in the context of the “decentralisation and dis-mantling of the authoritarian state,” after Soeharto’s fall in May, 1998. In fact, this book is aimed at contributing to this enquiry via an examination of adat, as the title of its introductory chapter, “Radical conservatism: the protean politics of adat,” shows. Now, although the editors admit (p.  3) that “[t]oday much of the way societies are organized, rights allocated, and disputes resolved in Indonesia still has little to do with the state or its laws,” they nonetheless define adat as (1) “a complex of rights and obligations” tying together history, land, and law in a specifically Indonesian way; and (2) a formulation of an ideal society. And they add immediately thereafter (p. 3): “Neither our concentration in this book on power politics nor our use […] of the term ‘deployment’ should be taken to imply that political manifestation of adat necessarily reflect the cynical manipulation of tradition by self-interested actors.” But why must one defend AMAN or any other group from instrumentalism, if one tries to provide a “nuanced and critical” (p. 4) assessment of the way in which AMAN uses adat to redress basic injustices? The very nature of sociability should be the focus of the evaluation.

3Much of the editors’ inquiry is concerned with the scruples that they themselves experienced in proving that the recent Indonesian adoption of adat as empowerment brings along with it “inherent restrictions and dangers.” Having tried to circumvent “Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt and ineffective formal legal system” (p. 4), the adopting of adat is surely questionable, comparatively speaking. So the editors ask, how often is adat a justification for ethnic violence? aren’t individual interests really being subordinated to communities dominated by traditional elites? This rush to evaluate leads them to worry (p. 4-5) that as a political ideology adat is just a subject to political manipulation because it is informal, uncodified, and idealized stability and order. But is such a comparative politics approach, preoccupied as it is by the topics of democratization, legal reform, and ethnic violence, not a straightjacket to under-standing the different sociabilities set in motion by the revival of adat?

4To address this issue, the editors’ introductory chapter takes up the following reasons for adat revival. Four factors are presented as explaining the nature and causes of revival: (1) support from international organizations; (2) oppression of the New Order regime; (3) the opportunities of Reformasi; and (4) role of adat in the nationalistic political imagination. Is it true, as the cynical observers of indigenous identity believe (p. 6), that “indigenous” is defined not so much by ancestry, culture, or marginality, and more by recuperation of the international discourse on indigenous rights? While the editors realize that this is an extreme view, they tend to refuse any final coherence to culture because of their horror at its instru-mentalism. What is not instrumentalized? What of the unending lies that the practice of democracy is forced to project? So what if, for some, indigenism is nothing more than a “handy tool” in the struggle against globalization, as long as it serves local interests. The editors show that the second cause of the revival of adat (p. 9) is the disenfranchisement, the refusal of any political rights. Under Soeharto, cultural difference and ethnic identity went unrecognized and were brutally punished if declared in the public sphere. After his fall (1998), the reaction in areas of transmigration was one of renewed self-organization of the indigenous populations and, more rarely, pogroms towards immigrants. The state likewise directly administered religions via the Pancasila state ideology, which was touted as promoting “tolerance,” i.e., normalization for those areas “lacking” real “religion” (agama). Once the top of the pressure cooker of the Soeharto decades was off, the Reformasi era provided of course positive opportunities (p. 14) “[…] to find bases for political order other than the bureaucratic hierarchy, economic patronage, state propaganda, and the military force of the New Order. The difficulty of creating new democratic institutions at the local level, the weakness of the existing legal system, and the threat of violence and disorder inclined people in many places to look to tradition as a course of both consensus and justice.” This revival of adat in certain areas, like Lombok and West Sumatra (ch. 9), could be seen as a secular complement to Islam rather than having any ultimate cosmological reference.

5One of the editors’ main concerns (p. 23-28) is to distinguish between protection through and domination by adat “politics.” Tania Li, in the final chapter (p. 365-366), claims that both on the local and national levels, appeals to adat “tend to privilege elites, especially senior men, who are empowered to speak on behalf of a presumed whole.” Worse still, the link between ethnic rights and ethnic cleansing seems to the editors to evoke the Blut und Boden of Nazi Germany. Clearly, there are limits to the usefulness of an empowerment so locally focused as, inter alia, Warren shows (p. 191, n. 4). But local micro-holisms are nonetheless real social groups, and an improvement on the anarchy that the New Order left behind. If everything is treated as a question of empowerment, then there is no need to speak of any hierarchy of values, for power is the only value that characterizes social relations.

6The editors, however, defend another thesis (p. 31), namely, that in Indonesia Islam has historically provided the most “effective bridge between local cultures.” For if one is looking to create civility “in the Enlightenment sense of toleration and restraint with respect to differences in culture, opinion, and faith,” then it is possible to claim that Islam “plays a kind of civilizing role in Indonesian political life.” This is not true every-where for, as the editors write (pp. 32-33), “[t]he current adat revival, not coincidentally, is concen-trated either in areas where the progress of Islamic conversion is blocked by Christianity or Hinduism, or in areas where Islamic conversion has taken place but pre-Islamic elements remain unusually important in social life […].”

7The editors’ ultimate critique of adat arises from their belief that adat is almost always an expression of some wishful thinking about the ways things ought to be rather than how they are. Nor has adat, historically speaking, fulfilled its promise and therefore (p. 33), “adat as a guarantee of peace and harmony is misleading not only as a prescription for the future but also as an interpretation of the past.” Can’t the same thing be said of democracy, that hope-filled renaissance of sociability that always profiles itself on a yet further horizon? The editors seem to me to have provided a rich empirical collection of data that they would like to denigrate. But what do they have to put in its place. The credibility of the concept of “civil society” has had a short shelf life in eastern Europe (see Hann 2006), where the secular transcendence of nationalism is strongly linked to identifications of forms of eastern and western Christianity. The most universal of religions can be provincialized. But then, is civility to be defined by trust in and the recognition of individual agency in complex societies? If that is the case, then masyarakat adat communities had better be dissolved in order to attain a more complete reign of the ideology of individualism where a “principled conception of the individual upon which rights and duties and obligations of a civil polity and society” (Seligman 2000: 75) can be brought to center stage. That way, we could slowly evacuate (p. 35) “[…] the adat-based claim to preferential rights on the basis of historical precedence, cultural identity, and territorial possession, a claim which challenges the principles of equality and legal impartiality on which Indonesian (and most other modern) citizenship, at least in theory, is based.”

8Having subjected adat to such a severe critique, the editors finally recognize (p. 38) that adat is a “specifically Indonesian ideological tradition in which land community and custom […] provide the normative reference points for political struggles.” Secondly, that (p. 41) “[f]irm legal acknowledge-ment of customary land rights, together with restitution of already alienated adat land […], are matters of simple justice.” But the revival of community trust is no simple matter of justice if one adopts the point of view of the community, unless one speaks in the most abstract legal terms. And the editors recognize this (p. 40): “[…] national legislation is increasingly irrelevant to local developments, and adat has been caught up [in] a profusion of local conflict and contestation which for the moment is largely beyond legal and institutional control.” So is adat just a “tool of ethno-politics,” as Li in the concluding chapter suggests? Each reader will have to make up his mind on the basis of the richness of the descriptive chapters and by taking advantage of the sharpness of the analysis provided by the authors, whose distance from their topic only reflects the human dramas that have thrown up on the shores of social science such a sensitive and important topic.

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Hann, Chris, & the ‘Civil Religion’ Group, 2006, The Postsocialist Religious Question. Faith and Power in Central Asia and East-central Europe, Berlin: LIT, Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle Studies in the Anthropology of Eurasia.

Seligman, A., 2000, “Trust, confidence and the problem of civility,” in Civility, L. Romer (ed.), Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 65-77.

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Stephen C. Headley, « The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics. The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism, Jamie S. Davidson & David Henley (eds) », Moussons, 11 | 2007, 234-237.

Référence électronique

Stephen C. Headley, « The Revival of Tradition in Indonesian Politics. The Deployment of Adat from Colonialism to Indigenism, Jamie S. Davidson & David Henley (eds) », Moussons [En ligne], 11 | 2007, mis en ligne le 22 mars 2013, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL :

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Stephen C. Headley


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