Reflective Essay Henry Luce Exchange Students Program 2014

Monday, September 29th, 2014, 09:20 WIB

Whitney Smitherman

Now that the LUCE fellowship program for the summer of 2014 has been completed, I have much to reflect on.  I went to Indonesia with the purpose of trying to better understand how Islam adapts to modernization and to study the different approaches taken by Indonesia Muslims in the modern world.  I was able to do this through the courses offered at Universitas GadjahMada, and also through interactions with Muslim students and citizens outside of class.  While I was pleased to explore this issue, the most beneficial parts of the LUCE exchange for me personally go well beyond this one research interest.  What started as a quest to learn about a specific manifestation of global Islam has turned into learning about how Islam and capitalism, discovering new research questions for my own work on Iranian Shi’ism, and gaining a deeper understanding of religious practices and beliefs outside of my research focus.

The conversation about how Islam in Indonesia responds to changes in society goes much further than I originally anticipated.  I enrolled in the Social Change in Southeast Asia class to explore how Santri and Abangan expressions of Islam in Java challenge each other and respond to modernity.  Class did indeed touch on this subject, but after doing more research I discovered a more interesting question is how do the changes in Islamic practices in Java reflect changing attitudes toward government?  That is a question that I only started to scratch the surface of, and will continue to research over time.  I did not realize how different expressions of Islam are related to changes in education, gender dynamics, citizenship, economics and subjectivity, but the ICRS course allowed me to begin to understand (in a small way) this complex relationship.

As my concentration at Arizona State University is Islam in a Global Context, it is important for me to learn about Islam outside of my specific regional focus (Iran).  The LUCE program allowed me to do this in a variety of ways.  Learning about Indonesian Islam in the classroom, from interactions with other students, and watching the practices of the Indonesian Muslims in our community allowed me to gain a whole new understanding of the varieties of Islamic beliefs and practices.  In our social change class, we discussed how gender and Islam intersect in Indonesian life.  Dr. Rohmaniyah was especially helpful in discussing this subject, and recommended many books on Islamic feminism that have already proven to be helpful in understanding discourse both within Indonesia and in the larger Islamic world.  We also discussed the impact that events in one part of the Islamic world have on other regions; for example, how the Iranian revolution changed much of the conversation across the Islamic world in regards to Islamic nationalism, and the influence of Saudi funded Wahabi movements in Indonesia.  These discussions made it especially clear to me that I need to be constantly aware that the world is interconnected when researching Islam.

The courses offered as a result of the LUCE program were extremely helpful, but I learned from so much more than just the coursework.  The university sponsored panel discussion that we were invited to attend was one event that was made possible by the program that I directly benefitted from.  Not only was I able to hear perspectives from all over the world on religious eschatology, but I was able to personally connect with scholars from a top Iranian university after they completed their panel presentations.  The professors were kind enough to take the time after the panel to have a lengthy discussion with me and to provide me with their e-mail addresses to continue assisting me with my research.  This is an opportunity that I have never had in the United States.

The cultural excursions planned by the LUCE program also provided me with ways to explore Indonesian religion and culture outside of the classroom.  Sunrise at Borobudur allowed me to physically experience Buddhist history in a way unlike anything I have ever seen or felt before.  I did not go to Indonesia to better understand Indonesian Buddhism or Hinduism, but I am extremely happy that I learned more about each of these traditions anyway.  Visiting the Buddhist and Hindu temples around Java basically served as an object lesson in Indonesia’s rich religious and cultural history.  It was also a great way to be introduced to the concept of Pancasila.  Hearing Muslim scholars proudly recommend that we all go see the Hindu epic portrayed in the Ramayana Ballet provided me with a concrete example of religious tolerance and shared cultural pride.  The Ramayana ballet itself taught me about the values of Hinduism, and the beautiful way that these values are preserved and expressed through performance. 

The freedom to explore the country that was made possible by the LUCE program also allowed me to see Hinduism in a whole new light during a brief trip to Bali.  Before this summer, I naively assumed Hinduism was relatively the same everywhere, but Balinese Hinduism is a complicated expression of Balinese culture, missionizing attempts, the monotheistic emphasis of Pancasila, and the creativity of the Balinese people.  The juxtaposition of a shrine to Ganesha placed inside a bar frequented by Western party-goers raised unlimited questions in my mind about the way that religious practices respond to global capitalism and impact the lives of individuals in a practical way.  The constant overlapping of images of worship and images of invasive Western capitalism raises way more questions that my summer in Indonesia can answer, but I think this is a very good thing.  These questions complicated the way that I approach religion and capitalism in my own research while at the same time making me a better teacher.  Teaching introductory level religion courses is a more dynamic activity now that I imagine religions of the world in a new way based on academic research and personal experience.  Overall, the LUCE program made me a better thinker, researcher, and instructor.