Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam, with Tom Pepinksy

Mar 22, 2018

Are there differences in political, social, and economic attitudes among Indonesians--and Indonesian Muslims in particular--based on their levels of religious piety? Intriguingly, Tom Pepinsky and his fellow researchers found that the answer is no; piety is not the deciding factor. Pepinsky also examines Indonesia's approach toward minority rights, which he defines as tolerance for group rights but not for individual rights.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Tom Pepinsky. He is an associate professor at Cornell University, and he is author of a brand-new book called Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam.

Tom, thanks for speaking with us today.

TOM PEPINSKY: Thanks very much for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book with a couple other co-authors just came out recently. First, can you just give me a broad overview of what the research question was? Also, in the title Piety and Public Opinion, I understand you take a moment to define what piety is.

TOM PEPINSKY: Sure thing. The basic question that we answer in our book is whether or not there are differences in the political and other social and economic attitudes among Indonesians based on their level of religious piety. In particular, we are interested in piety among Indonesian Muslims.

The basic thing we do is collect a large amount of data from surveys of Indonesians, and we use that to do two things. First, we try to develop a conceptualization of piety that we can measure using survey data. What does it mean, for example, for one Indonesian to be more pious than another? What are the things that would go into that definition?

Then we show how to construct a measure of piety in our survey data. Then we see how that relates to other things that they care about, things like political opinions, attitudes about Islamic finance, views about the United States, and so on and so forth.

What we find, perhaps surprisingly, is that, while it is very clear that there are big differences across Indonesian Muslims in the level of their piety, that piety doesn't really seem to correlate with anything that we care about.

The question then, that we don't answer in the book but which follows from our discussion, is how we are to understand the origins of the more conspicuously Muslim brand of politics. If it's not because Indonesians are more pious, then what is it all about?

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any theories about what is the current direction?

TOM PEPINSKY: To be clear, we don't try to answer this question directly in the book. It's more a series of speculations in the conclusion.

Speaking for myself and not my co-authors, I think it has to do with strategies that elite politicians take in order to appeal to certain types of voters. I believe that claims about Islam as an identity remain quite strong, but these are not claims about a normative version of what it means to be a pious Muslim that has implications for what people actually do. Rather, it is a sort of classification of oneself as a Muslim versus something else.

DEVIN STEWART: It seems like your conclusions are connecting piousness or religious feelings with much broader trends, like what it means to live in a democracy, what it means to live in a globalized market, and what it means to live in the modern world. Is that the direction of your findings, in that realm?

TOM PEPINSKY: Yeah. What we are finding is that, for example, pious Indonesian Muslims are no more or less likely to favor democracy as the form of government for Indonesia than are less pious Muslims.

You might look at Indonesia and observe an increase in things like women wearing the headscarf or jilbab. Or you might see people praying more frequently than they used to, or adopting certain manners of dress, or certain ways of de-emphasizing the more syncretic Hindu and Buddhist elements of their religious life which are traditionally found in many parts of Indonesia.

You might conclude that this has implications not just for their religious lives but also for their political and economic lives. For example, if you are a pious Muslim, perhaps you are less likely to use conventional banks. You might prefer to use Sharia banks.

We are interested in the question of whether or not this change in religious orientations has implications or effects, or at least correlations, that we can uncover with the things that people do in the rest of their lives. We just don't find that that is the case at all.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a trend over time in Indonesia in the average Indonesian's relationship with religion?

TOM PEPINSKY: We don't have great long-term data on this, certainly not great long-term quantitative data. But I think it is fair to say that the general impression of anybody who has spent decades watching Indonesian politics is that there is what Greg Fealy and Sally White called "revivalism" in Indonesian Islam. There is a more conspicuous and expressive version of piety than there might have been previously.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that many Indonesia watchers, without much historical context, may think that Indonesians didn't used to really be Muslim, or that their Islam from the 19th century or early 20th century was somehow hollow or shallow or not real Islam. I think that is completely wrong. What we are seeing here is a more explicit and expressive representation of piety in one's public life rather than just as a matter of personal choice.

The way that we conceptualize and measure piety tries to take both of these into account. To be clear, we can't go back in time to compare piety now to piety 50 or 100 years ago. But what we can do is examine differences across individuals today, and that is where we are able to find there is really no relationship between how pious you are and the things you do and believe.

DEVIN STEWART: How does Indonesia compare to other Muslim countries?

TOM PEPINSKY: That is a great question. It is important for marketing purposes for our book but also for purposes of helping us to understand what we learn from it.

Indonesia is obviously the world's largest Muslim country, so it's atypical. It is also located in Southeast Asia, so it's atypical that way. It is also ethnically quite heterogeneous, which makes it different than many other parts of the Muslim world, which are primarily Arab, Turkish, or Persian. So, in a number of ways, Indonesia is quite distinct.

What we try to do in the book is make the case that Indonesia is different on some dimensions but not different on other dimensions and, as a result, it is not right to think of it as completely distinct and atypical across all the types of things we might care about. For example, you can compare Indonesia and other countries based on its population. You can also compare Indonesia to other Muslim countries based on its literacy rate, GDP per capita, or things like this.

When you take across all the things that might differentiate countries from one another, it turns out that Indonesia is not that different from other countries on average. There are some areas in which Indonesia is quite obviously distinct, but there are more in which Indonesia is relatively typical.

So we make the argument that of course you have to understand the local context of Islamic practice and Islamic meaning. Ours is a book about Indonesia by two Indonesianists and one Indonesian, so we clearly are making a good effort to make sure that it is legible on its own terms.

We also do the best that we can to argue that even if you don't care explicitly about Indonesia itself, or even if you are not an expert in Indonesia who is interested in Indonesia for its own sake, you can still learn things about the Muslim world more generally by the methods that we use, the approaches we take, and also, we think, some of the conclusions that we draw. We think, for example, that it is a good question whether or not, if you have a more sophisticated measure of piety that is sensitive to the ways in which the Egyptian, Pakistani, or Chechen Muslims understand their own religious lives, it would be interesting to ask whether or not a measure developed using our method for those countries would yield the same results that we find here.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense that that would be the case, that you can have a pious country that might not necessarily vote the way one would expect a pious country to vote?

TOM PEPINSKY: I think that is exactly right. The work we do is really about conceptual brush clearing. Many people want to study piety in the Muslim world. There are not a lot of great measures of piety. What researchers will often do is take something very simple and coarse, like whether or not one fasts during Ramadan, and use that as the sole indicator of how pious somebody is; or, alternatively, whether or not one believes that Sharia law must be the law of the land, which for us is not even a measure of piety even in a narrow sense; it's an expression of political preferences. People will use these measures because they are available simplistically for lots of countries around the world, and they will try to study how piety differs across countries, and the findings are what the findings are.

Our approach encourages us to stop and conceptualize piety more fully first. So we don't think that any single variable, like the ones I just mentioned, is a great measure of piety, nor do we think you can understand piety without understanding the national context in which piety is practiced. There are particularly Indonesian ways of being religious that I think are probably different than particular Chechen, Egyptian, Moroccan, Nigerian, Senegalese, and so on and so forth, ways of being Muslim.

To build a measure of piety that captures what you want it to capture, you have to work a lot harder to get the right data, and to know what data to look to in the first place, you have to be aware of the national context. And so, at the very least, an implication of our work is that we know a lot less than we think we do because we have not done similar work to the types of work that we have done in Indonesia in other parts of the world.

DEVIN STEWART: What is so special about piety in Indonesia? Can you give me some examples?

TOM PEPINSKY: Some particular things are communal study sessions, Quranic study sessions, like pengajian would be the local term for these. This is a term that makes sense to an Indonesian when you ask him or her whether or not he or she participates in it. It is not clear that that concept of what it means to participate in Quranic study sessions would have the same kind of social or religious meaning in a place like Oman or Chechnya. I am just not sure that that concept translates. We need that type of concept to make sense of the Indonesian case, and we might need some other type of concept to make sense of another national case. That shows you the type of specificity that we are looking for.

Another example is ritual prayers for the dead are tahlilan in Bahasa Indonesia. That is something which, in the opinions of many Muslim thinkers, is actually not even Islamic at all. It is a holdover from pre-Muslim types of religious and spiritual practices. For Indonesians, that makes sense. For a Burkinabe or Somali or Turkmenistani Muslim, that concept is probably vacuous.

So we want to make sure that we have terms that make sense in the context that we are studying them. That applies for our study of Indonesia just as much as it applies elsewhere in the world as well.

DEVIN STEWART: What do your findings say about understanding Indonesian Islam? Also, what do they say about understanding Indonesian democracy?

TOM PEPINSKY: The core finding in our book is a null finding. Most of the things that people think piety predicts it does not predict. Or, put more precisely, most of the things people think piety predicts are better predicted by something like class or some other set of beliefs about cosmopolitanism and things like this.

The very core point of our book is that one must not associate by assumption religious belief with religious politics. I think that is a headline finding that we want to really hammer home for students of Indonesian politics.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. That is a big finding.

TOM PEPINSKY: Just because people act or believe religious things does not mean they believe that their politics is defined by that. We want to be at least as sensitive to the sociological and economic concerns that they have as they are to their religious beliefs on their own. This is not to underplay the importance of religion but to put it in its proper context and understand what it does matter for and what it doesn't matter for.

I think that has implications for Indonesian democracy because, as I mentioned before, I think that the thing that explains the increase in—say, if you look in their early 2000s—religious regulations at the provincial and district level, the whole debate about the anti-pornography bill, contemporary debates about whether or not someone like Ahok can be governor of Jakarta—these things are not really about religious piety, but they are rather about religious identification.

The strategies that politicians are using may be wrapped up in a portrayal of oneself as pious. Our work would suggest that they appeal to voters not because of their specific religious contents but rather because of how they conceptualize Indonesians falling into a set of identity categories. Understanding religion is an identity just as much as it is a set of beliefs and practices and worldviews I think tells us how we ought to conceptualize what religion means in Indonesian politics.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you get a sense that those identity categories are more predictive of voting behaviors?

TOM PEPINSKY: Yes, but not from our own work in this book. We don't turn much of our attention to that.

But what I would say is that I have been convinced by some research by scholars at the Australian National University about, for example, the most recent gubernatorial election in Jakarta, which shows that knowing the religious identity of a voter tells you quite a lot about whether or not they are willing to vote for Anies Baswedan or his opponent, Ahok. This is true even if the voter supports and is satisfied with the work of Ahok. It is the identity of that voter as a Muslim holding a belief about the correct person who is allowed to rule over other Muslims. That tells us quite a bit about how people actually go about making choices in Indonesia's democracy.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you think of the current state of what I would call maybe pluralism or tolerance in Indonesian society, especially as it relates to minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and others?

TOM PEPINSKY: This is something that I find hard to talk about in generalities, so I will do the best that I can.

My sense is that we are learning about Indonesian politics. There is a form of what Jeremy Menchik calls "tolerance without liberalism." That is a view which I think is hard for people who grew up in liberal democracies, such as the United States, to understand. This is one in which the right of a minority group to exist is not questioned insofar as that group's activities don't impinge on the group rights of another.

The challenge that I see with the Ahmadi in Indonesia, for example, is not so much that they differ but that they claim to be Muslim. It is that belief that they can speak for what Islam is that puts them at risk vis-à-vis the Indonesia Sunni majority. The same goes for the Shia in Indonesia as well. It's not just that they are minorities that is the problem, it is that they are minorities that don't accept an ordering of Indonesian society which runs counter to what they perceive the ordering to be.

For Christians, I think a similar story can be told. I don't see much evidence that anybody thinks that it is a problem if the governor of North Sulawesi is Christian, because it's a majority non-Muslim province. But, as soon as we think about a Christian being a governor of a Muslim-majority place, then it becomes problematic.

There is a kind of tolerance for groups that doesn't extend to the liberal position in which one's identity should not matter to one's politics. It is a different form of tolerance. If you are a liberal, or perhaps a social democrat who rejects identity politics of any form, you would find this problematic, but I do think it is consistent with the Indonesian way of understanding what it means to be tolerant.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. So it is tolerance without the liberal value of equality? What aspect of liberalism is missing?

TOM PEPINSKY: I will refer you to Jeremy Menchik's book, which actually carries the subtitle Tolerance Without Liberalism, for the definitive statement of what this is.

The way I conceptualize it, in shorthand, is as tolerance for group rights but not for individual rights.

DEVIN STEWART: Makes sense.

Is there some value to that? From a communitarian perspective, there might be some merit to giving groups some weight, no?

TOM PEPINSKY: Right. This is an old question in democratic politics: To what extent do the rights of the majority contravene the rights of the minority, and what is the way that we best protect the rights of the minority? Is it by erasing the minority/majority distinction and pretending it doesn't exist and cannot be the subject for differential policymaking, or is it by identifying the minority as a protected class and then making it a subject of policymaking?

The Indonesian model, I think, is remarkably successful in terms of providing communal stability in an incredibly diverse country. I don't want to overstate this because we can think of any number of areas in which the rights of Indonesia's minorities have suffered under the rights of the majority. And, as I have mentioned before, it is not a liberal understanding of rights.

But if the goal is to maintain communal stability, the idea that Christians as a class have a right to be Christians and Catholics have a right to be Catholics and Hindus and Buddhists have rights to be Hindus and Buddhists and that Confucians now do as well, even if that does not extend to the rights of any Christian to do anything that a Christian wants, it does extend to the right of the group to exist. The fact that Indonesia is a multi-religious as well as multi-ethnic country I think is viewed as unquestionably true by the vast majority of Indonesians in ways that I don't think would be true in a place like Iraq or Syria.

DEVIN STEWART: Beyond the group-versus-individual-rights question, though, have you found any discussions about the actual value or utility of the group in fostering things like belonging, a sense of community, a sense of solidarity, or cohesiveness?

TOM PEPINSKY: You know, I haven't, and that is a great question. I think that is an area in which there is a lot of research left to be done.

The way that I would interpret your really perceptive question is, what are the trade-offs between recognizing rights for groups rather than recognizing rights for individuals? Does that enforce a group mentality that otherwise would not have to be there, or does it force people to simplify their social role in ways that neglect its complexity?

What is the most important feature of former Governor Ahok in Jakarta? Is it that he is Chinese and Christian or is it that he was an effective governor? It could be that the very act of fostering tolerance at the group level and valuing rights to groups prevents Ahok from being anything other than Christian and Chinese.

DEVIN STEWART: I think that liberals might have to contend with this issue sooner or later anyway. This gets to the zeitgeist of liberals all around the world, that maybe we have put a little bit too much emphasis on the sanctity or the unity of the individual and forgotten about the value of groups.

TOM PEPINSKY: I think that is right. Multiculturalism is a great challenge for liberal political theory and for liberal democracies in general. I won't pretend to have the solution to this. I am enough of an American to understand my own preference is not to accord rights to groups qua groups unless there is a really compelling reason to do so, to right some sort of historical wrong.

I think the tension that we find in Indonesia is for communal-stability-group-based recognition may be valuable, if the alternative is genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, or something along those lines. But if the goal is to enable minorities to escape their minority in all spheres of their lives, I think that the group-based tolerance model really enforces a sort of hierarchy.

In this model, I don't see how it is possible for a Christian to be president of Indonesia, for example. America seems to be unable to have a woman be the president, but it is not because there is a set of rights and responsibilities that have been accorded to women that constitutionally put them at second-class status.

DEVIN STEWART: Tom, this has been very interesting. Before we go, a couple more quick questions.

I am curious. Did you find anything surprising about Indonesian public opinion in your data?

TOM PEPINSKY: The one thing that I found surprising—and I am not sure how big of a deal to make of this—is most of our data comes from 2008, and it is striking how popular and how widely believed the concept of Pancasila is among survey respondents. This idea, which many Western observers may view as infinitely flexible and therefore vacuous in its implementation, this idea that there is a concept of Pancasila which un-problematically applies to Indonesia, is really widely shared.

DEVIN STEWART: For our listeners, can you explain Pancasila?

TOM PEPINSKY: Pancasila I think you would call something like a national ideology or founding set of principles that was articulated first in the period immediately preceding independence in the 1940s. It holds, more or less, that Indonesia is a multi-religious country, but religious not secular, that Indonesians value consensus, harmony, social justice, and material progress. Pancasila literally means "five principles," and there are five separate things that are articulated. It is roughly a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, communally based tolerant system of understanding what it means to be Indonesian and what the proper form of Indonesian politics should take.

One thing it emphasizes that I think perhaps is meaningful for non-Indonesians is the idea that democracy is achieved through deliberations which result in consensus rather than 50 percent plus one vote. The idea is that the Indonesian understanding of politics is designed toward reaching social consensus rather than some alternative.

That idea, as potentially vacuous as it is, is very popular. It is also the case that Indonesians believe that is quite compatible with democracy in general and that it is roughly compatible with Islam. This is evidence that among Indonesians this idea of what it means to be "properly Indonesian" in the political sense does not have to be inconsistent with their religious identities as well. I found that very surprising.

Another surprising thing we found, I would say, is that—and we are not sure what to make of this—the concept of Santri, abangan, priyayi—the three streams, as Geertz used to call them, of Indonesian Islam: the more syncretic, the more modernist, and the more courtly identities—those are descriptions of Islam in Java, and yet they have resonance throughout Indonesia as well. People answered that question, even when they weren't being interviewed in Java. I think that is interesting because it tells us something about this conceptualization of Islam in Indonesia. The terminology, while drawn from Java, seems to have resonance elsewhere as well.

Our concern was that people wouldn't be able to answer that question—if you are, say, an Acehnese Muslim, there is no indigenous Acehnese concept of abangan or Santri. It turns out that people interpret their religious world using those terms as well.

DEVIN STEWART: So, like all around the world, people can hold multiple if sometimes conflicting identities.

TOM PEPINSKY: That is exactly right.

DEVIN STEWART: Last question, Tom: Your null hypothesis here, what does it mean for your next research project?

TOM PEPINSKY: There are a couple of things it means. One is that I have exhausted for myself any interest in trying to figure out why Indonesians are as pious as they are, as if that would explain something about politics. It is interesting to understand the rise of expressed piety as a sociological phenomenon, but I am not so interested in that anymore as a political phenomenon.

I am much more interested now in the politics of Indonesian democracy. What are the claims that are used to mobilize winning coalitions to pass policy? In what ways do elites set the agenda and communicate ideas that win the votes, rather than to what extent do individual preferences aggregate up to produce some sort of Indonesian politics? For understanding Indonesia, I have convinced myself that just public opinion is not going to tell us the answer for why and how religion matters for Indonesian public life.

It has also encouraged me to think more generally about the ways in which religious identities crosscut with other identities. Some of my research now takes me out of Indonesia alone to look at Malaysia and to look at the ways in which religious identities become part and parcel of one's ethnic identity.

Famously in Malaysia, one of the defining features of what it mains to be a Malay is one must be Muslim. That is written actually in the Malaysian constitution. So what is the work that religion does in a situation like that? It is as much telling you what your ethnicity is as telling what your religious beliefs are supposed to be.

I think that is an area which I am going to try to work on, the parts of Sumatra that have large Malay populations as well, to see if there is some difference between the way that religion works in a place like Malaysia where it is constitutionally defined and in a place like Indonesia where that is not so much the case.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Pepinsky is author of Piety and Public Opinion: Understanding Indonesian Islam.

Great to speak with you today, Tom. Thank you.

TOM PEPINSKY: Thank you so much.

You may also like

During the Asia Dialogues site visit, Pacific Delegates discuss findings with Pacific Fellow Dicky Sofjan in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, October 18, 2017. CREDIT: Devin Stewart

FEB 9, 2018 Article

Articles Resulting from Carnegie Council Religion and Tolerance Research Delegation to Indonesia, October 2017

In October 2017, Carnegie Council's Asia Dialogues program led a group of 12 Pacific Delegates from seven countries and a diverse set of professional backgrounds to Indonesia. ...

The Act of Killing

AUG 26, 2013 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Act of Killing"

It is not hyperbole to call this documentary an epochal film. It brings viewers into the minds of mass murderers, illuminates a horrific piece of ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation