German Minds, Medina Hearts – University of Copenhagen

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German Minds, Medina Hearts

Muslim student activism, political culture and democratization in Indonesia

The project was financed by the Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen


PH.D. Thesis by Kristian Morville, Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies, 2007

Supervisors: Dr.phil Esther Fihl, Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies and PH.D. Cynthia Chou, Section of Asian Studies, both at Institute for Cross-cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen


This study is concerned with an exploration of Muslim student activism and processes of democratization in Indonesia. Whilst the political aspect of Muslim student activism is reasonably well known the extent to which Muslim student organizations are also home to a liberal and progressive political culture is not well understood. The study gives a detailed account of how debates on religion and politics are carried out on an everyday basis among Muslim university students in Indonesia, and it discusses the political functions and moral effects of associational life. The recruitment and mobilization of new members is described along with the basic training programmes and the political socialization of the organization, and the political culture of the organization is analyzed and exemplified by focusing on the open dialogues and eclectic intellectual debates of a small group of activists.

  In adopting a substantivist as opposed to a formalist perspective on Islam and democracy, I chose to focus on the direct experience with democracy, on how the cultivation of democratic norms and values takes place in practice, and I chose to see Islam as a cultural phenomenon that, in the case of most of my informants, were indistinguishable from a their daily practice, moral feelings and political outlook. Democracy, in my use of the term, is not something you learn from reading about its history and theories. It is something you learn from experience, something you gain an intuitive feeling for by taking part in it. It is through democracy that one become fit for democracy

  What student activists from HMI-MPO are doing and saying today is an aspect of a long and on-going process for Islamic renewal. I demonstrate how student activists find inspiration in Islam to become active in politics, and how they take on themselves to train the future generations of political leaders, to engage in a critical dialogue with the political power-holders and to continue a movement for renewal of Islam. I show that HMI-MPO is an organization that is religious through and through, yet challenges its members to experiment with their religious practices and encourage them to search for a religious truth of their own. The secularization of thought does not lead to a collapse of religion, and members of HMI-MPO come out, not as less faithful Muslims, but as innovative Muslims.

  The decision to do research on Islam and democracy in Indonesia originated in a desire to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the interaction between Islam and politics as it takes place in everyday lives of young people in a non-Arab country. Indonesia was selected for this study as it is the most populous Muslim country in the world; a Muslim-majority society with a long history of religious pluralism and religious tolerance. The study is based on ethnographic material that was collected through semi-structured interviews in Indonesian with student activists and through participant observation at conferences, seminars, training courses and informal discussion groups.