Japanese scholar Hisanori Kato has always been spellbound by the idiosyncrasies of life in Indonesia that he experienced living on and off in the country during an 18-year period between 1991 to 2009, an experience he recounted in his 2013 book “ Kangen Indonesia,” or “Missing Indonesia.”
Among the observations the Osaka-based Butsuryo University professor of sociology makes is the central role of religion in Indonesia, particularly Islam, which he contrasts with its almost peripheral status in his native Japan. Kato recalls his observations in his follow-up tome to “Kangen Indonesia,” “ Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang ,” or “Islam Through the Eyes of a Japanese Individual.”
Written in the same simple style as its predecessor, the casual tone in “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” belies the intensity of Kato’s efforts to understand Islam in the Indonesian psyche. This is reflected in the personalized approach of the book’s chapters, each of which are allocated for his sources, whether it be giving fundamentalist Muslims their full say as much as their more moderate counterparts.
Kato seeks to get beyond the rhetoric of fundamentalist Islam, which he tries to distinguish from terrorism. The 49-year-old manages to find the humanity behind this forbidding facade, as he befriend the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) militant Eka Jaya and firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Kato’s friendliness to Eka, who did time behind bars for attacking a Jakarta nightclub in 2005, gives him no illusions about the latter’s illegal actions. Nonetheless, he gleans the roles that poverty, a sense of marginalization in the wake of Jakarta’s development, and Islam have had in shaping Eka’s identity as a Betawi, or native Jakartan.
Kato doesn’t let controversy get in his way, as he reaches out to Bashir, a convicted terrorist. The cleric, the alleged spiritual leader of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, is shown to be an accommodating host to the scholar. Kato’s take on both men is sensitive and impartial. However, he has no qualms about referring to Bashir as hard-bitten, with a stiff take on Islamic principles.
At the other end of the spectrum, Kato reveals that Muslim moderates like Ulil Abshar Abdalla and Fadli Zon are varied in their outlook. He notes that the former is opposed to Islam’s role in politics, while the latter actively espouses it.
But the highlight of the book are his reminiscences of the late former Indonesian president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. Kato shows that Islam was central to Wahid’s moderate outlook, as he viewed religion to be a matter of individual conscience. The passage on Wahid also poignantly describes what turns out to be his last meeting with Kato.
More than anything, “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” shows Kato’s growing awareness of the religion, which is still largely misunderstood and viewed negatively in Japan. The book also reflects Kato’s unflinching yet sensitive approach to religious issues, characteristics which won him the Toynbee Talbutt Award for comparative cultural studies. “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” is also the culmination of Kato’s other works, namely “Agama dan Perabadan” (“Religion and Civilization”), “The Clash of Ijtihad,” and “Civilization Substantiality in the 21st Century.”
Kato’s dispassionate, outsider’s view of Islam in Indonesia is sharp and clear, and he balances this with his deft, tactful and guileless prose.
Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang
By Hisanori Kato
Kompas Publishing, 2014
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 22, 2014