Anthropologist Julian Millie presents himself as a humble man who does not brag, even though his impressive work on Islam within the culture of West Java would entitle him to do so.
He may be the only researcher from Australia who is an expert in this particular subject. He has been researching this topic for more than a decade and his engagement with the local culture has enabled him to master not only the Indonesian language but also Sundanese (a local language from Central Java), a skill that not all Australian anthropologists possess. One of his Indonesian colleagues from Monash University, where he is a lecturer, says that Millie is more Sundanese than Sundanese due to his fluency in the language. His Indonesian students also share the same opinion about the man.
However, Millie rejects this description, saying that he still needs to learn even though his latest work involving the translation of a 1,000-word article written in Sundanese into English proves that his proficiency in the local language is undeniable.
“Reading is always easier than ngomong (speaking) but probably in about five years, I’ll be better at speaking,” he said in a recent interview.
Millie says learning languages had always been a passion of his since a young age. Apart from mastering Sundanese, the man can also understand Arabic, and even has a degree in the subject.
Such skills have become vital for his research on Islamic rituals in West Java.
Millie said that his work on Indonesian culture began when he was doing literature studies on ancient Islamic romance for his master’s degree. His research was published in a book in 2004.
After years of delving into the subject, Millie discovered later that conducting a literature study was not enough to explore a topic. Therefore, he decided to take an anthropological approach for his dissertation project.
“I realized that I really wanted to conduct a different form of research by engrossing myself within a community to study its culture. When you do literature studies, sometimes you don’t get a chance to engage with the people from a culture,” he explains.
Under the supervision of Henk Maier and Nico Kaptein at Leiden University, Millie studied a ritual among West Javanese Muslims, in which they seek intercession to a popular saint called Abdul Qadir Al-Jaelani, buried in Baghdad, Iraq.
Millie conducted a field study in Bandung between 2002 and 2003 to explain how the locals translate hagiographic texts in their religious practices.
Millie later explains that his choice of West Java as the focus for his research was purely a practical choice.
“I had a lot of friends at the University Pendidikan Indonesia [formerly IKIP Bandung Teaching Institute]…I knew that I had some people that I could rely on to get help and so it made sense to me to choose Bandung as a location because I already had institutional support there,” he says.
His research on the Islamic rituals of West Javanese Muslims also enabled him to form new friendships. During his research projects in West Java, Millie forged close bonds with local Muslim scholars, including Dadang Kahmad, Asep Saeful Muhtadi and Agus Ahmad Safei from State Islamic University, Sunan Gunung Jati and other Sundanese culture experts like Hawe Setiawan. These individuals have played an important role in Millie’s work about West Java, where 97 percent of the region’s population of 35 million is Muslim.
Millie’s work in the region spans from rituals of West Javanese Muslims in the past to contemporary
His latest research deals with the trend of Islamic preachers in the region that recruit thousands of people. Based on his observations since 2007, he found out that despite the popularity of this religious practice, Muslim intellectuals are mostly against it.
“There is skepticism among progressive Muslims about the value of rhetoric as means of religious influence and its consequence for the development of Indonesia as a progressive state,” he says.
Another interesting part of his research is his discovery of a higher participation of women compared to men in these rituals. His research asserts that moral reasons are not the only explanation for this phenomenon. He concludes that women seek pleasure from such activities, which allows them to go on group trips to attend sermons. Millie says that these findings will be published in a book titled The Laughing, Crying and Thinking Islamic Oratory in an Indonesian region this year.
Despite his expert knowledge about Islam, he unfortunately refuses to discuss the insurgence of Muslim fundamentalists in Indonesia, a hot topic in media.
“I am not in the conversation. I don’t want to say anything negative, because I have a professional role [and] it doesn’t help me if I say anything negative,” he reasoned.
His attitude seems to mirror the opinions of his Muslim scholar friends from Bandung, who have also refused to take sides when discussing the topic because of their need to maintain good relations with different Islam groups
Perhaps, Millie doesn’t see finger pointing as being part of his big mission to create better understanding among Australians toward Indonesians. He has concerns about his country’s ignorance about its neighboring country.
“There is a lack of desire from Australians to become informed about Indonesia,” he says.
Among his efforts to increase awareness about Indonesia is his role on the editorial board of Inside Indonesia, a quarterly magazine on Indonesia.
“The magazine’s mission is about trying to generate good accessible information about Indonesia here in Australia,” he said of the magazine.
Through the publication and his research that reveals different faces of Muslims in Indonesia, it seems that Millie tries to correct Australians’ misperceptions about Indonesia, which include the assumption that all Indonesian Muslims are linked to terrorism.
In another smaller scope, Millie tries to build similar cultural understanding about Australia among his Indonesian students.
The general opinion about Millie among his students is that he is nice and helpful. When he talks with them, he frequently slips Indonesian words into the conversation and occasionally Sundanese words as well.
Yet, despite his closeness to the language and culture, Indonesia apparently only relates to work for him. Millie says that he travels once or twice a year to Indonesia but all for job-related purposes. Thanks to his Indonesian friends, Millie has the chance to experience the fun part of Indonesia during his research work.
“I went to Surabaya and my friend Mochamad Yahya and Kawakib took me to this place that sells this martabak telur [a thick omelette filled with spices and minced meat]. It is delicious,” he says about his latest culinary experience.
Apart from work and traveling here and there for research and conferences, Millie says he is just a typical family guy, who likes to spend weekends his wife and two children.
“Look, I am not really great person to focus on. Nothing is interesting about my life,” the 45-year old says a couple of times during the interview.
In conclusion about Millie, it is not what he says, but what he does that makes him worth writing about.
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