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New book sheds light on religion, politics and Islam


January 26, 2011

In his latest book “Java, Indonesia and Islam,” anthropologist Mark Woodward set out to present a traditional collection of essays on religious practice and identity in Indonesia, but what he ended up with is a central new work on political, religious and cultural change in the Muslim world.

“When I started the book, I saw it as a way to gather together a group of essays I had written over the last 25 years," says Woodward, an associate professor at ASU. "But witnessing the rise of Islam in global conflict during this same period, I realized that a new approach would be needed in order to understand the dynamics at work in Indonesia and elsewhere.”

Woodward, whose research specializations include religion and politics, and Islam in Southeast Asia, teaches in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and is an affiliate faculty member with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The result is a descriptively and theoretically rich book that, according to one reviewer, “deftly resolves some of the most difficult problems in the study of universalistic, or [as he calls them], ‘transcultural’ religions.”

What separates Woodward’s work from that of many anthropologists is that, in addition to detailed description, he provides a set of theoretical and conceptual tools with which to better understand the relationships between religion, culture, and politics and hence to better understand religion and conflict in the contemporary world.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is also a democracy. It is regarded by many as the site for some of the most creative thinking about Islam in the modern world, but too often it is ignored by those who assume Islam is a predominantly Middle Eastern phenomenon.

“This is why understanding the history and contemporary manifestations of Islam in Indonesian culture and politics is so important,” Woodward says. “It suggests a number of important possible futures for the relationship of Islam and the West, most of which are not a clash of civilizations.

“Part of what I have tried to do in this book is to document a very different sort of Muslim politics than that described in most of the current literature on ‘Political Islam.’  I prefer the term ‘Muslim politics’ because it is politics conducted on the basis of assumptions derived from a local Muslim cultural tradition, in this case Javanese Muslim culture. For the most part, and for most of the political actors I am writing about, this is second nature, and it is probably also true in most parts of the Muslim world.”

Woodward also looks to challenge the contemporary norms regarding Islam and Islamic Studies present in a lot of media discourse today.

“I think that in the current political and academic climate it is especially important to steer clear of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ of the sort advocated by Samuel Huntington and others who want to find a uniquely Islamic cause for violence committed in the name of Islam,” Woodward said. “I think that they should read the history of the Protestant Reformation in Europe to gain some perspective on this.”

“Java, Indonesia and Islam” presents a collection of essays concerning Islamic texts, rituals and sacred space, situated in Javanese and Indonesian political contexts. With a number of new essays as well as significantly revised versions of previous essays, this book makes a significant contribution at a time when understanding the political significance of religious and cultural change may be more important than ever.

Woodward also heads a multimillion dollar research project for the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict examining counter-radical discourse across the Muslim world.

Written by Richard Ricketts