People

Martin van Bruinessen:
Dedicating life to perpetual
research into Islam

(JP/Novia D. Rulistia)

The relationship between the Dutch Professor Martin van Bruinessen and Indonesia began incidentally 30 years ago.

After completing his PhD in anthropology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, van Bruinessen was jobless and intensively searching for a vacancy that matched his interests.

When he learned that the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies was looking for someone with a postdoctoral degree to do research on Islam in Indonesia, he applied but without high expectations, but he was accepted.

 “It was a coincidence that I came here, not because I’m Dutch and our countries have a historical background that I decided to come and spend years here,” he said in fluent Indonesian during a visit to Jakarta recently.

In the early 1980s, he relocated to Indonesia and decided to stay in Bandung, West Java, as he was interested in the radicalism that existed in the city during that time.

He stayed in a poor slum in Bandung for a year to verify whether the hypothesis that radicalism was fueled by deprivation was true or not.

The theory speculated that because poor people from the regions could not get decent jobs in the city and could not adapt to the city’s life, one of their reactions was to think that life in the city was sinful, he said.

“The theory is that this alienation is what makes many people radical. To verify it I chose not to do the research on radical people, I chose the deprived instead,” he said.

“It’s not true. They’re too poor to be radical. Being radical is a privilege that only people from the middle class can afford I discovered.”

After completing his Bandung research, he joined a research project at Indonesia’s Institute of Sciences (LIPI), focusing on Indonesia’s ulema.

“I traveled many places, interviewed ulema and visited pesantren [Islamic boarding schools]. I found that Islam in Indonesia is colorful and that there are many types of ulema in the country; the loose ones, accommodative ones, opportunists and those who are close to politics,” he said.

He added that those types of ulema in Indonesia could also be found a lot in countries in the Middle East.

“From all the places I have been, I understand that there are many ulema who hold cultural values closely, becoming a core for their religious values. It is the culture that colors the religion,” he said.

Traveling the cities and meeting ulema were not the only pleasures he enjoyed during his research with LIPI. His meetings with the nation’s prominent figures in pluralism, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid, made his stay in Indonesia memorable.

“I was so lucky to know them. I even got the chance to travel with Gus Dur. Thanks to him, if I want to visit those pesantren again nowadays, they just accept me because they know I’m Gus Dur’s friend,” he said.

From his four-year research project with LIPI, he has published several books: Tarekat Naqsabandiyah di Indonesia, NU: Tradisi, Relasi-relasi Kuasa, Pencarian Wacana Baru and Kitab Kuning, Pesantren dan Tarekat: Tradisi-tradisi Islam in Indonesia.

Apart from conductng research on Islam, he also worked as a lecturer at the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN) Sunan Kalijaga, now UIN, in Yogyakarta for three years.

“At first I went to Indonesia just because I had to. But slowly, I loved being here,” he said, adding that his love for the country grew stronger after he met his better half here.

Although he has never thought of Indonesia as the focus of his research, van Bruinessen always comes back for more work and research.  

During his recent visit to Indonesia, he also visited Yogyakarta and Cirebon to promote his new book that he wrote with four local researchers: Muhammad Wildan, Moch. Nur Ichwan, Mujiburrahman and Ahmad Najib Burhani.

In Contemporary Developments in Indonesian Islam: Explaining the “Conservative Turn”, they try to explore what has changed in Indonesia.

“Back then, the dominant discourse in Indonesia was about tolerance; everything seemed to be just fine and people saw Islam here with a friendly face. But today, many feel it has an angry expression,” van Bruinessen said.

He said there were many cases of religious intolerance that occurred in the country, in and around 2004-2005 the discourse about tolerance seemed to be drowned out amid the voices that were trying to right wrongs.

The book seeks to explain whether breaking point is really there, and whether the conservative movement now dominates the society, or if there are other elements.   

Before van Bruinessen explored Indonesia, he first fulfilled his interests in traveling, politics, history and philology in the Middle East. In 1974, he did two years of extensive fieldwork in the Kurdish-inhabited parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria to study social organization and social change among the Kurds.

His adventures continued in Afghanistan when he worked for a village development project.

Van Bruinessen then went back to the Netherlands to teach at the Department of Turkish Studies of Utrecht University, and did research in Ottoman history the results of which were published as part of the single major source on Kurdish society in the 17th century, Evliya Celebi’s Seyahatname.

His research on Islam has brought him to several universities as a lecturer. He has taught, and conducted research, at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden and the Aga Khan University in London.

Currently, he is a senior visiting research fellow for religion and globalization at the National University of Singapore.

His research has been published in several publications: Kurdish ethno-nationalism versus nation-building states; The Madrasa in Asia: Political Activism and Transnational Linkages; Islam and Modernity: Key Issues and Debates; and Producing Islamic Knowledge.

All in all, van Bruinessen seems to always be swamped with his work and research, even on holiday.

“Most of the time I’m working and thinking about working. I’m fortunate that my work is my hobby, so I’m just doing my hobby, I couldn’t call it my work,” he said, laughing.

Paper Edition | Page: 28

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