Why Are There No New Major Religions?


The story of one imprisoned prophet illustrates the difficulties of getting a “baby religion” off the ground.

Cipinang prison stands like a huge fortress in East Jakarta, its massive walls and guard towers separating the city’s bustling traffic from the criminals held within its gates. I visited in March, sitting at a noisy mess hall filled with hardened, tattooed Indonesian prisoners who greeted their wives and children with hugs and pats on the head. The prison is known for housing many of the country’s most notorious drug criminals and convicted terrorists. But across from me sat a trio of prisoners in bright orange fatigues charged with a different crime entirely: daring to start a new religious movement.

The leader of the group, Ahmad Mushaddeq, a broad-shouldered man with bright gray eyes and a winning smile, is a former national badminton coach turned preacher. In the late 1990s, he said, it was revealed to him that he was the son of God. His followers proclaimed him to be the prophet to succeed Muhammad, sparking a new religious movement based on his teachings, which was eventually called Millah Abraham. The new faith was adopted mainly by disenchanted Muslims. It spread quickly across Indonesia and Malaysia to more than 50,000 followers, according to the group. Mushaddeq’s followers also established a parallel back-to-the-land social movement, called Gafatar, which promoted organic farming and agricultural self-sufficiency, considered by Millah Abraham to be two of the real-life applications of their vaguely New-Age faith.

As strange as Millah Abraham’s beliefs may seem, scholars of religion say the group is simply in the early stages of a process nearly as old as humanity: starting a new religion.

“Often cults are seen as aberrations, or a psychological phenomenon. Psychologists would see cult leaders as having delusions of grandeur. But I see them as something different—as baby religions,” said Susan Palmer, a sociologist and scholar of new religions at Concordia University in Montreal. “I think people are unaware how many of them there are, how constant they are.”

Al Makin, an Indonesian scholar of new religions, estimates that Indonesia alone has seen over 600 new religious movements in its modern history. In this regard the archipelago is hardly unique: New religions spring up regularly in the United States, Canada,Russia—everywhere government authorities are flexible enough to allow them.

And like many other new religious movements, Millah Abraham is dreaming big, with hopes to supersede Christianity and Islam as the dominant Abrahamic faith. Millah Abraham’s followers believe that every Abrahamic faith, from Judaism onward, is fated to lose its way, becoming corrupt and power-hungry, until eventually it is succeeded by a new prophet who will restore the original Abrahamic relationship to God. Followers of Millah Abraham believe that the near-constant wars in the Middle East are just one indication that Islam has fallen and it is Mushaddeq’s turn to continue the eternal cycle and establish the next iteration of Abrahamic faith. In the same way that Judaism was succeeded by Christianity, and Christianity by Islam, Islam is to be succeeded by Millah Abraham.

Though its prophet is in prison, it’s still possible Millah Abraham will succeed in becoming a globally influential faith. There have, after all, been unexpected successes before. “If we had been observers of the religious scene in the year 50 AD, I wonder if we would have bet on that small religious group in the corner of the Roman empire,” said Jean-François Mayer, a Swiss scholar of new religious movements, referring to ancient Christianity. Still, he acknowledges that the odds appear to be very much against Millah Abraham, even without persecution from the Indonesian government.

Not since the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad in a cave around 610 AD, informing him that he is God’s prophet, has there been a new globally influential religion with hundreds of millions of followers. Though the world’s religions are very dynamic, and major faiths continue to shift and evolve in ritual and doctrine, the world today is dominated by the same four faiths that dominated the globe a millennium ago: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a 2012 Pew study, 92 percent of religiously affiliated people around the globe belong to one of these four faiths.

While some relatively recent faiths have succeeded in recruiting millions of followers—such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Scientology, and Baha’i—their numbers of adherents are dwarfed in scale by these earlier four. The Baha’i, for example, are a relatively numerous recent faith with an estimated 7 million adherents. That sounds impressive, but it still means that just 0.1 percent of humanity has joined Baha’ism—and the faith has been around for 150 years (since 1863).

Faiths, of course, don’t have to be numerous to deliver spiritual sustenance to their followers, or even to be influential, as Judaism (a religion of 14 million) shows. Still, the small scale of new faiths over the past 1,500 years since Islam raises a question: Why, if creating new faiths is an inextinguishable feature of the human condition, have new religions had such limited recent success?

* * *

Dwi Adiyanto, an Indonesian marketing professional in his mid-30s living in central Java, told me that when he first encountered Millah Abraham’s teachings in a local study group, it gave him a sense of purpose and clarity about his life’s mission that Islam had never provided. The group’s religious teachings, which posited a continuous pattern of faiths rising and falling as they strayed from Abrahamic teachings, resonated with Dwi, as did the sense of social purpose he gained from joining a farming community. “It offered a source of faith that could really be trusted,” he told me, “a path that was clearly correct.” Dwi sold all his belongings in late 2015, and moved to rural Borneo, along with around 7,000 members of Millah Abraham.

Though Indonesia’s constitution promises citizens religious freedom, starting a new religion here is illegal, and a crackdown quickly followed. Indonesia has just six legal religions—Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—and sects that split off from Muslim orthodoxy are punished with blasphemy charges. After Gafatar branches throughout the Indonesian archipelago began running into trouble with local authorities, the organization’s authorities encouraged adherents like Dwi to sell all their possessions and use the money to buy land in remote Indonesian Borneo, where they hoped state authority would be lax enough to allow them to farm in peace. The goal was to establish a Zion, similar in concept to the one Mormons founded one and a half centuries ago in Utah—a faraway community where followers could live according to their faith without being challenged by outsiders. The young faith was rapidly evolving, and as followers moved out to Borneo it took on an increasingly ecological bent, with Millah Abraham leaders arguing that cities were corrupting and alienating, and the best way to worship the Lord was to till land in harmony with nature.

But the utopian effort would not last long. Just a week after the national government formally banned Gafatar in January 2016, local mobs stormed the group’s compound in West Borneo and burned their farms to the ground. “There were around a thousand men who brought clubs and daggers. They burned our homes in front of our eyes,” Dwi recounted to me. “There was no respect for human rights, although police were right there.” Indonesian police officers then forcibly returned around 7,000 Gafatar members to their home provinces—on waiting planes and boats. After being returned home, Gafatar members were given classes on Indonesian nationalist doctrine by soldiers; evaluated by psychologists, and encouraged to return to their old faith, which was generally Islam.

“They have their own system, they have their own country—in my opinion it is dangerous for Indonesia,” Koentjoro Soeparno, a professor of social psychology who evaluated Gafatar members after they were returned home from Borneo, told me in an interview. He said that de-radicalization was necessary. “Gafatar has a lot of similarities with what happened in the United States with Jim Jones,” he added, referring to the American cult leader who persuaded hundreds of followers to follow him to the remote jungles of Guyana to participate in a giant agricultural project, before conducting a mass suicide that killed around 900.

But followers I spoke with said there had been no coercion, and Gafatar members had moved to West Borneo to live communally and worship freely, not to challenge the Indonesian state or conduct mass suicide. They “never had that desire, to create a new country,” Yudhistra Arif Rahman, a lawyer who represented Mushaddeq, told me. In total, more than 25 members of Gafatar were convicted of blasphemy around the archipelago, with around a dozen spending time in prison. Human Rights Watch called the Indonesian government’s treatment of Gafatar one of the worst examples of religious persecution since Indonesia began transitioning to democracy in 1998.

Members of the faith insist they will soldier on; their persecution, after all, is in keeping with prophesy. “We were prepared for this mentally,” Farah Meifira, a Millah Abraham adherent, told me. But it’s far from clear whether the faith will be able to carry on effectively, given the Indonesian state’s apparent determination to stamp it out.

State persecution, aided by religious authorities, is in fact a major reason why new faiths fail in parts of the world where government polices religious doctrine. “New religions have always existed; they are an organic phenomenon like weeds in a garden. In some societies they are considered weeds and will be uprooted; in other societies they will be allowed to grow and take root and become plants,” said Palmer, the scholar of new religion. To the Indonesian government, Millah Abraham is a weed.

* * *

Even new faiths originating in countries with tolerant and non-repressive governments have a difficult time gaining significant traction. Palmer wrote a book on Raëlism, a religious movement founded in France in the mid 1970s by Claude Vorilhon, a former French race car driver whose faith held that humans were “scientifically” created by aliens millennia ago. The religion states that the aliens have decided to leave human beings to their own devices, but that once “embassies” are built to welcome back the aliens, the aliens will help advance human technology and even contribute to human immortality. Raëlism has gone international, with active membership in North America, Europe, and Japan, but it’s only a minor faith, with followers numbered in the thousands rather than the millions.

Scientology, another faith that believes aliens had a deep influence on the human condition (they deposited their humanity-haunting souls here after a hydrogen-bomb powered volcanic explosion 75 million years ago) has claimed to have around 10 million members worldwide. But Scientology has struggled recently, as former high-level members of the faith described the immense sums of moneyrequired to advance within the Church hierarchy, as well as threatening actions the Church takes against dissenters. The faith’s founder, science fiction writer Ron L. Hubbard, aggressively recruited Hollywood celebrities to promote the faith in a successful bid to generate publicity. But despite all the glitz and glam, many celebrities once linked to Scientology have disavowed it. All signs point to a declining membership, and today the faith is independently estimated to have as few as 50,000 members worldwide.

Not all new faiths fall flat on their faces, however. Santa Muerte—Our Lady of Holy Death—is the rare example of a new religious movement that appears to be steadily gaining followers in the Americas. The Lady, represented as a female skeleton, is believed to have power over life and death. She’s become popular among people living in parts of Latin America and North America ravaged by drug violence, who can pray to her for things that it would be inappropriate to request of Jesus—such as revenge, or that a drug shipment arrives safely. Andrew Chestnut, an author who has written a book about the vibrant new faith, suggests that as many as 10 million people may worship Santa Muerte, though as with most new religious movements numbers are difficult to verify, and other scholars I spoke with said that figure may be inflated. “It’s a very informal religious movement, it’s not institutionalized,” said Stefano Bigliardi, an assistant professor at Akhawayn University in Morocco, who spent years researching Santa Muerte in Mexico. Still, the faith has only been above-ground since 2001, suggesting a rapid gain in influence.

Santa Muerte raises another question that comes up in relation to many other new religious movements: How far off from an established religion does a new movement have to veer before it’s considered its own separate religion? Many worshippers of Santa Muerte still attend Mass and consider themselves Catholic, merely praying to Santa Muerte as they might to another saint. Some priests and nuns grudgingly accept their parishioners’ decisions to make offerings to Santa Muerte, but others harshly condemn it. It’s quite clear that the Catholic Church is alarmed by the rise of Santa Muerte, with the Vatican’s representatives condemning worship of her as “blasphemous.” So is Santa Muerte distinct enough from mainstream Catholicism that it should be considered a new religious movement?

For scholars of new religions, there is no easy way to answer this question. Mayer grappled with it in a paper in 2000, when he asked how best to classify Mormons, who say they received new, distinct revelations in the Book of Mormon, but worship Jesus and identify as Christian: “Is it an autonomous new religion, or rather a new tradition within the wider Christian fold? Did it really depart from traditional Christianity as much as Christianity departed from Judaism?” Ultimately, Mayer concluded that there is no foolproof way to determine whether a new movement should be classified as distinct from the old faith tradition, though certain moves, like developing new sets of scripture or radically changing ritual practices, indicate that a new religious movement is making a radical break from the past.

Regardless of how scholars classify it, efforts to stamp out Santa Muerte—the Mexican government has been bulldozing roadside shrines, perhaps out of concern over the faith’s association with narco culture—haven’t been enough to keep it from acquiring a following among marginalized communities in the Americas. Still, even with Santa Muerte’s relative success, 10 million followers is a pittance relative to any of the big four faiths.

I asked Palmer if a reason why new faiths typically struggle to gain adherents is that we tend to laugh when we hear claims about fantastic and miraculous events that occur in the present day—such as when Vorilhon, the founder of Raëlism, claimed he learned about humanity’s origins after being abducted by aliens. “This is true,” she said. “We’re capable of accepting Muhammad’s claims of hearing God and Jesus’s claims of being the son of God, because it happened 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. The mist of time lends its authenticity. If someone today says these things, we’ll say he used to be a vacuum salesman or something.”

But the religion scholars I spoke with said that perhaps the biggest reason that new faiths like Scientology, Raëlism or Millah Abraham have failed to take off is the lack of state sponsorship. A major turning point for classical Christianity was when Constantine the Great decided to halt the persecution of Christians in the Empire, instead embracing elements of the faith. Over the next few centuries Christianity became the dominant religion in the Empire. Christianity wasn’t the only major religion to be boosted this way: Islam also spread by the sword, with armies sweeping forth to conquer and convert North Africa and Spain in the centuries after Muhammad’s death. Throughout their history both Buddhism and Hinduism have been powerfully lifted by state patronage.

Today, though, it is difficult to imagine that any new faith movement will get the boost of having a powerful state patronize the religion and fund its spread. In large part that’s because global norms have changed and—with the exception of a country like Saudi Arabia—few powerful states see it as their role to sponsor any faith, let alone a new faith. It’s also because there’s much less conquest today, meaning it would be unlikely that even a powerful country that adopted a new faith would be able to spread it by force. But, in an alternate reality, we can see how useful it would be for Millah Abraham if Indonesia’s government were to turn around and support Millah Abraham to the exclusion of other faiths, and proceed to conquer neighboring nations. Then there would be the possibility of its widespread adoption, at least in the region.

But even though state conquest does not offer the possibility to spread faiths quickly anymore, prophets today have more ways than ever to spread their teachings abroad. In a Singapore airport, I met with three Malaysian members of Millah Abraham who joined the faith after watching a Youtube video of Mushaddeq preaching. But this era of accessibility also comes with a downside for a new faith: There are so many religions on offer in most countries that it’s hard for any new religion to gain a critical mass.

“It’s a paradox of the current world that at the same time there is unprecedented opportunity for religious groups to spread but it also offers unprecedented competition in the religious field,” said Mayer, the Swiss historian of religion. “Even if you start with a very evangelistic intention, the likelihood is you might find a tiny percentage of the people interested in your offer.”

Mayer’s analysis uses the metaphor of the market, treating new religions as products that have to distinguish themselves from their competition in order to gain adherents. Early Christianity, for example, distinguished itself from many pagan beliefs with its intense focus on the afterlife, and the possibility of eternal salvation and heaven. “This was something that was really powerful for people, making people even willing to sacrifice their lives and believe it was worth doing,” Mayer said.

Looked at this way, any new religion, to be successful, would have to present millions of believers with an offer they couldn’t refuse. What would that look like?

“It must offer meaning, meaning to your life and your death that gives real answers that sound convincing,” said Mayer, adding that it would also have to offer a sense of community, and would benefit from being reasonably compatible with a scientific understanding of the world, given that we live in an era when many people treat scientific claims with respect. But he said that no new religion he is aware of currently qualifies.

Instead most of the dynamism is happening within existing faith traditions, as religious entrepreneurs within established traditions adapt their faiths to the needs of 21st-century parishioners, leading to trends like the major growth of Pentecostalism among former Catholics in Latin America and the rise of puritan strains of Islam around the Muslim world.

Mayer said that a few years ago he was asked to contribute an academic article assessing the possibility that a new, major religion would rise in the next 30 years. One plausible scenario he came up with was that a Chinese preacher might meld elements of Christianity with a “universalist message of inner harmony” and gain millions of followers.

The point is to never say never. “If something really meaningful is to be offered,” he said, “it cannot be completely ruled out” that it will become a new, globally influential religion.

Just don’t tell that to the Indonesian government.



Date : August 6, 2017
By : Jon Emont
Source : The Atlantic

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Religion, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Why China May Never Democratize


Will China ever become democratic? That question has been a staple of geopolitical discussion since the 1990s, and at times many commentators thought a democratic China was not so far away.

Today, as restrictions on political speech and opposition increase, hardly anyone thinks this is a realistic scenario. Yet it’s still worth asking why China might never democratize, and what that can teach us about our own political dilemmas.

The argument that China will become democratic rested on observations of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, all nearby countries that became democratic or sustained a democracy once they were sufficiently wealthy. The middle classes in these countries wanted accountable government, and ultimately the autocracies were willing to step aside and support democratic transitions, albeit with the Japanese path being more closely linked to the American postwar settlement and occupation. Much of Eastern Europe and Latin America became democratic too, and so it seemed plausible that China might be next in line.

Conversely, there are two powerful arguments that China will not become democratic. First, China never has been democratic in thousands of years of history, and perhaps that history simply will continue.

Second, the middle to upper middle class is still a minority in China, and will stay so for a long time. A smaller country can build up in percentage terms a larger middle class, by exporting, than can a very large and populous country. There’s just not enough demand in global markets to elevate all or even most of the Chinese people, and so Chinese inequality likely will stay high, to the detriment of democratic forces.

In essence, many of the wealthier Chinese trust the Communist Party to look after their interests more than they trust elections. Furthermore, the current political performance of the West is not in every way the ideal exemplar for democracy.

Those who predict Chinese democratization typically reply that the regime will need some new source of legitimization as economic growth slows down, as it inevitably must. Winning a democratic election is one way a government can show to a people that it represents their interests.

Yet this argument now looks weaker, in part because of what we are learning about countries other than China, namely that nationalism is often a stronger political motivator than democracy; just look at either Turkey or Brexit or some of the currents within the Trump administration.

So China will grow richer, as the number of democracies in the world (sadly) declines. With global growth continuing at roughly 4 percent a year, the link between income and democracy isn’t actually so strong these days.

Indeed, nationalistic currents in China are strong. Whether we like it or not, the Han Chinese often see themselves as an ethnically special group of people who have a destiny to “make China great again.”

Before judging this too harshly, keep in mind that truly cosmopolitan attitudes are not common in history, and a lot of observed cosmopolitanism is often faux cosmopolitanism, serving as a veil for particular cultural or economic interests on trade or immigration. The common American belief in American exceptionalism seems self-aggrandizing to many Chinese, just as we might object to their philosophy.

On top of all that, Chinese nationalism, whatever its drawbacks, has in fact served as an ideology to … make China great again.

Another argument for predicting Chinese democratization is the claim that autocratic rule is highly unstable and tends to move to either tyranny or democracy. Even if that is true, these days it hardly seems a surprising insight that stability is never guaranteed.

Studying Chinese history, with its ongoing struggles between central rule and chaos in the peripheries, might be a better predictive guide to global futures than the philosophy of Western liberal triumphalism, however dear the latter may be to our hearts. In other words, the Chinese notion of cyclical history might apply to much of the rest of the world.

The best argument for the possibility of Chinese democratization is that China has served up big surprises in the past, including conquest by the various external parties (for example, the Manchus), the Taiping rebellion, and the Communist revolution and subsequent Cultural Revolution, as well as the reforms starting in 1979.

The chance of Chinese democratization may be a somewhat underrated prospect for this reason, even if the short-run signs appear to be pointing in the opposite direction.

Still, the best bet is that China will remain non-democratic for the foreseeable future and that political history does not consist of a series of linear improvements.

It is again time for the West to learn from China. The emotional force of nationalism is stronger than we had thought, stability is not guaranteed, and the Western democratic status quo ex ante is less of a strong attractor than many of us had believed or at least hoped for.

In other words, we have our work cut out for us.


 Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”


Date : July 11, 2017
By : Tyler Cowen
Source : Bloomberg

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Book Review: “Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico”


Title: Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico

Author : Prakash Kashwan

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Date: 2017

In an era of free market globalisation, in which environmental conservation and extractive industries take priority over indigenous claims to ancestral lands, Prakash Kashwan’s Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico is an opportune and timely book for scholars studying the social justice aspects of nature conservation within democratic contexts. It offers a valuable contribution to debates around forest regions occurring on every continent, which range from dispossession of indigenous peoples’ lands to tensions between conservation and economic development. Following Kashwan’s firm belief that environmental conservation and social justice are the two most important issues of our times, the book gives prominence to the inclusion of social justice within narratives of nature conservation and positions human rights within a political morality that is often missing in these discussions.

Kashwan uses social justice as a lens through which to examine environmental and conservation policies in the context of land rights claims by indigenous forest peoples. Kashwan analyses the political institutions and policy processes that shaped environmental policies and land reforms during the 1990s and 2000s in India, Tanzania and Mexico. Using country-specific comparisons of tensions between political elites and peasant mobilisations over land rights, the book examines the resulting dichotomies between social justice and environmental conservation. It focuses on the politically mediated interactions between states and citizens, which have led to different forms of ‘transformational institutional change’ (117) in the three contexts. This comparative multi-country analysis is a key strength of the book.

Kashwan’s three country-specific case studies also trace the historical trajectories of unfolding forest rights, and the socio-political landscapes underpinning transformational institutional changes. The case studies are therefore grounded in discussions of history, the politics of institutional change, public accountability and policymaking, which culminate in different realisations of social justice within nature conservation. The author outlines the political evolution of forest governance under colonial rule and post-independence as well as in contemporary periods, as a methodology for ‘separating out the effects of path dependence from contemporary institutional structures that shape policy making’ (213).

Democracy in the Woods maps the extent to which state-controlled forests and the colonial extractive exploitation of forest resources continue in contemporary forest policies in each context. India and Tanzania, where forests are state-controlled, offer a useful comparison to Mexico. The Mexican government’s large-scale land redistribution was implemented to counter the power of political elites after the revolution, which ensured an unprecedented control of forest lands for Mexican forest communities. This, Kashwan argues, has resulted in an alignment of community forestry with conservation programmes in Mexico, in stark contrast to conservation policies in India and Tanzania that have excluded forest communities.

The case studies also illuminate the centrality of political engagement in shaping historical and contemporary policies, and outline relations between peasant communities and political elites in the three countries. Tanzanian forest peoples are shown to have the least political clout, and ‘the task of steering it in the right direction is hampered by Tanzanian leaders’ single-minded focus on the goals of economic growth without ensuring that a majority of the country’s population acutally benefits from such economic growth’ (203). In India, forest communities have been a stronger mobilising force, and have also benefitted from a secure multi-party system. Mexico is shown to be the greatest success story, with the strength of peasant mobilisation coupled with ‘inter-elite competition’ fuelling a partnership with the government that has benefitted indigenous and peasant welfare. This, Kashwan contends, also has had lasting and positive implications for climate change policies. For example, the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, which the author refers to as the ‘strongest international environmental governance agreement ever’ (211), is attributed by Kashwan to it not having  taken domestic politics sufficiently into account. All three case studies nonetheless represent the conflict between redistributive policies and environmental protection.

A third strand of analysis illuminated by the case studies is how the international community influences domestic forest governmentality and vice versa. Kashwan concludes that ‘domestic policies in developing countries also greatly influence the outcomes of international conservation’.  An example cited are the ‘perverse incentives for state agencies to promote unsustainable and wasteful environmental policies and programs’, which normal domestic policies might constrain, but which could be created by global environmental governance (211). This significant analysis goes beyond the conventional perspective of the influence of international conventions on domestic policies. Instead, Kashwan argues that:

while the international environmental community has to engage with domestic political actors, such engagements should be broad-based engagements with a plurality of actors and voices, with the goal of fostering public demands for global environmental quality (211).

 The rich conclusions of the book are deliberately not based on a particular theory, but instead use the ‘political economy of institutions framework, comprised of conceptual tools drawn from historical institutionalism, institutional analysis, development studies and comparative politics’. Kashwan posits that eclectic frameworks such as this are more conducive to understanding institutional change in relation to environmental conservation and social justice, because of the ‘inherent diversity and complexity of the process’. Kashwan’s empirical study also uses a wide range of data on the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands based on extensive fieldwork. The book would nonetheless have benefitted from a better disaggregated and representative analysis of the inequalities which exist within indigenous communities themselves as well as the effects of land dispossession or successful land claims on these. Kashwan’s argument that institutions ‘reflect the intricate layers of social economic and political inequalities within a society’ could particularly have been deepened by exploring gender inequalities and comparing and contrasting social dynamics within the three forest communities (207).

Despite this, the book is thoroughly documented and comprehensively cited. The analysis is nuanced and contributes original findings, which challenge the conventional understanding of the conflict between the environment and economic development.  Kashwan posits that these might actually reinforce each other, as demonstrated by the argument that land conflicts and poverty alleviation need addressing in order to respond to the root causes of deforestation. Finally, he highlights the position of forest land rights between social justice and environmental conservation, arguing that they cannot be separated from forest policy reforms and sustainable development.

Democracy in the Woods is a powerful portrayal of the complexities of governance and justice contained in the issues of land displacement and environmental conservation, which can both contribute to widening livelihood and habitat insecurity. The trespassing on human rights creates an urgency to the debates explored in this book. Institutions reflect the dynamics in a society, and Kashwan argues that unequal access to natural resources, social justice and environmental power presents ‘a set of interconnected social dilemmas of the grandest scale’, here embodied in forest rights and the rationale for forest protection.


Indrani Sigamany has worked with social justice and poverty alleviation for more than 25 years. Specialising in civil society strengthening, gender and human rights, Indrani has straddling roles as both a practitioner and an academic, and has worked in more than fifteen countries in the field of international development. Indrani’s PhD, from the Centre for Applied Human Rights, York Law School, University of York, UK, focuses on mobile indigenous peoples, land displacement and forest rights legislation. Her Masters degrees are from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam; and from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Whitman College, WA, USA. Indrani lives in Oxford, England.


Source : The London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

Book Review: Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico by Prakash Kashwan

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

The End of This Road: The Decline of the Palestinian National Movement


Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi have been involved in Palestinian peace negotiations for three decades, and are senior associate members of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and co-authors of “A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine.” Agha most recently carried out backchannel negotiations during the Obama Administration’s failed effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

 As President Trump prepares for yet another attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the ground is shifting under his feet. While Israel’s willingness to offer an acceptable deal is increasingly open to question, with nothing to suggest that its terms are likely to soften with time, the Palestinians are sliding toward the unknown. With the slow but sure decay of the Palestinian political scene, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), represents the last slender chance for a negotiated settlement: he is the sole remaining national leader of his people with sufficient, if dwindling, authority to sign and ratify a deal. For President Trump and his team, as well as for all those seeking to end this century-plus-old conflict, there should be no doubt about the moment’s urgency. After Abbas, there will be no other truly weighty representative and legitimate Palestinian leadership, and no coherent national movement to sustain it for a long time to come.

Over six days in late November and early December, 2016, Fatah, the Palestinian national liberation movement, convened its seventh congress in Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the Palestinian Authority. Despite the lengthy speeches and festive air, the conference did little to dispel what had become unmistakable: the slow expiry of a once vibrant movement. Long on show and short on substance, the meeting hardly touched on any of the mounting political challenges facing the Palestinian people. The Congress was no more than a confirmation of the current order and a reaffirmation of its total and unprecedented control over Fatah, the P.A., and its ostensible parent, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The contemporary Palestinian national movement—founded and led by Yasser Arafat and embodied by the P.A., Fatah, and the P.L.O. over the past half century—is reaching its end. As its institutions wither and its leaders fade away, there is no obvious successor to take its place.

Looking back, the 1993 Oslo Accords marked the Palestinian national movement’s highest political accomplishment and the beginning of its slow decline. From then onward, the P.A. has been trapped between its original revolutionary mission as an agent for liberation and its new responsibilities as a proto-state, with its attendant civil, bureaucratic, and security establishments.

For a while, with its historic resistance leader at the helm, the national movement sought to reconcile its contradictory missions. But, with Arafat’s death, Fatah lost not only the forefather and leader of its foundational militant phase but its very raison d’être. Without “armed struggle,” the national movement had no clear ideology, no specific discourse, no distinctive experience or character. In the absence of a genuine and independent state, it was unable to transform itself into a ruling party, as, for example, the African National Congress did, in South Africa. It remained incomplete and suspended: a liberation movement not doing much liberating, locked in a fruitless negotiating process, and denied the means of government by a combination of Israeli obduracy and its own inadequacies.

With the passing of Arafat and most of his colleagues, Fatah’s ability to hold its fractured parts together waned. The social and political milieu of the West Bank and Gaza—steeped in clannish and personal influences—highlighted local fiefdoms and deep-rooted tensions. Severed from its history in the lands of exile, and without a rationale to supersede its original liberationist impulse, Fatah became mired in narrow and parochial turf wars. This was, in turn, compounded by its leaders’ failure to attract new blood. Unlike the experience of exile that formed a unifying Palestinian bond, that of the territories never managed to produce viable leaders who could forge a truly national enterprise out of highly localized components. The powerful pull of local ties made it almost impossible for a Hebronite to have a genuine popular base in Ramallah, or for a Gazan to have a credible say in the West Bank.

With no new leaders, no convincing evidence of validation, no marked success in government, no progress toward peace, fragile links to its original setting abroad, and a local environment buffeted by the crosswinds of petty quarrels and regional antagonisms, Fatah fundamentally disappeared as a real political agent.

The national movement was built on representation, activism, and achievement. It faithfully and energetically represented the broadest spectrum of Palestinian national sentiment, from the most visceral to the most rational, and it re-created the forgotten Palestinians as central players in their own drama and as a cause worthy of recognition across the world—epitomized by Arafat’s address to the U.N. General Assembly in 1974.

Today, none of these elements of success are evident. The all-encompassing P.L.O. has lost its representative status; the aging factions that still sit in its councils have little, if any, extensions inside or outside Palestine. The spirit of activism and dynamism has moved outside P.L.O. structures and onto the streets with no clear organization or political direction. And the P.A./P.L.O.’s achievements have been largely formalistic if not fake—a more advanced status as “observer state” at the U.N., but with no tangible improvement to the situation on the ground.

Arafat’s management was an integral element of the dynamism of the Palestinian national movement, and the transition from Arafat to Abbas passed smoothly because it was recognized as a continuation of the founding days of the national movement. Abbas may have needed formal elections to consolidate his position and gain acceptance in the international community, but, without his previous revolutionary credentials and association with Arafat, Abbas’s legitimacy would have been questioned from the start.

Abbas did not want, and could never occupy, Arafat’s place. His standing with his own people was deeply damaged by his persistent and infertile engagement with the peace process, his unwavering opposition to forceful struggle, and his fulsome dedication to security coöperation with Israel. As his tenure extended beyond his initial electoral mandate, the Palestinian political system developed many of the characteristics of a one-man Presidential regime, but without the élan of a popular leader. Later years witnessed a growing tendency toward unmitigated centralization, rule by decree, and the concentration of power. Other instruments of government were muted, and a determined effort was made to control what remains of Fatah’s decaying structures and to silence genuine political dissent. What used to be a vibrant if fractious political debate, nourished, tolerated, and often exploited by the leadership, has turned into a dull and dismal discourse, steered by political directives, and driven by fear of suppression and the loss of position inside an ever-swelling bureaucracy. A distinction between “President” and “leader” has emerged, and not necessarily in a manner that serves either.

Abbas’s years as President have not been without their share of achievements. His peace policy provided the P.A. with a formidable firewall against the kind of international pressure associated with the Palestinian national movement’s past violence, and added to a growing sense of unease at Israel’s occupation. For some, this by itself is a major national achievement. The P.A. has been sustained as a would-be state, and, since 1994, many of the day-to-day governing affairs of municipal, health, education, and other functions have been in Palestinian hands for the first time.

Abbas’s dedication to negotiations, diplomacy, and non-violence has shifted the burden onto the other side. While the current Israeli leadership’s peace credentials are widely disputed, Abbas’s international image as a man of peace remains largely intact. At the same time, he has managed to hold on to the historical and fundamental Palestinian demands; he has not wavered from the P.L.O.’s goals for a state along the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and a just resolution to the refugee problem. He put an end to the chaos of the second intifada. He has continued engaging with a broad range of Israeli opinions, and has assiduously sought to cultivate what remains of the Israeli peace camp and to engage with Jewish leaders and communities abroad. Perhaps most important, he has succeeded in insulating the Palestinian people from much of the violence and destruction of the “Arab Spring” and from the growth of Salafi and jihadist movements in the West Bank.

All in all, Abbas’s era has enhanced the Palestinians’ moral standing and lent traction to their cause and narrative. But these achievements are in danger of being overshadowed by new circumstances and challenges. Abbas may have helped to underpin the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, particularly in the West, but his approach has failed to demonstrate sufficient payoff in peace negotiations, changing the unacceptable status quo, or in attracting popular support to revive the movement’s declining fortunes. The thirteen years of his rule have produced no significant change in Israel’s stance; in fact, Israel’s terms for a final-status resolution on such issues as Jerusalem, security, and the extent of Palestinian sovereignty have notably hardened.

Furthermore, the Palestinians’ readiness to take the negotiating path to its logical conclusions was restrained by a perception that they were winning the moral and psychological high ground. The paradoxical effect was to make it harder to progress toward an agreement with Israel because it seemed that other influential parties might do the job.

The past decade has also witnessed a series of seemingly inconsistent and not well thought-out Palestinian diplomatic moves, including the welcoming of, and then backtracking on, the Goldstone Report, in 2011; on the 2008 Gaza war; the unconvincing threats by senior Palestinian officials to dismantle the P.A.; the overselling of the bid to create international facts by joining various U.N. bodies; the pursuit of desperate and futile initiatives such as the proposals, in 2016, by the former French President François Hollande for an international conference; and the failure to make diplomatic progress even in the shadow of a relatively friendly U.S. Administration. As a result, the entire notion of peace negotiations has been discredited and consigned to outright condemnation, deep disbelief, and profound apathy among Palestinians, further weakening the national movement’s political credibility and standing.

The growing public criticism of security coöperation might best encapsulate the P.A.’s dilemma. Security coöperation is meant to serve the national interest by preventing armed activities that threaten to elicit a disproportionate Israeli response. Yet coöperation ends up serving Israel by sustaining the occupation’s low cost and helping to perpetuate it. The primary function of any authority is to provide security to the people it represents. P.A. security forces can do very little to defend their own people both in the territories and abroad, where at least half of the estimated total of twelve million Palestinians reside, in the face of third-party threats, individual Israeli assaults, settler violence, or the organized actions of the Israel Defense Forces. Palestinians are consequently left vulnerable to overwhelming Israeli power and the hardening fist of their own security forces at the same time. Insofar as security coöperation is seen as an auxiliary function to the occupation, it has added to a sense of helplessness and loss of agency and has focussed popular anger and frustration away from the struggle for freedom and independence. Whether the Palestinians would be better served in raw contact with the occupation without the mediating influence of the P.A. is open to question, but the cumulative corrosive impact of the P.A.’s role as shield and security subcontractor to the occupation is undeniable—especially with no accompanying political returns.

The Palestinian loss of faith in a negotiated settlement reflects a loss of faith in the agencies that have sought to pursue it. To the extent that Fatah, the P.A., and the P.L.O. have been dedicated to a two-state solution, their failures—from liberation to governance to peacemaking—have lessened public support for the desirability or viability of the goal itself. Besides the bloated P.A. bureaucracy, almost all sectors of the Palestinian people have been alienated from the methods and practices of their representative bodies, and have largely lost any real sense of investment in their diplomacy. What was once seen as a national unifying program is now viewed with deep skepticism and indifference.

Of course, not all change has come from within. There is no doubt that the regional and international environment has shifted in unfavorable ways. A “Third World” moment—in which the Palestinian national struggle found a natural home within the liberationist and anti-colonial movements of Algeria and Vietnam, and was embraced by emerging Asian powers as part of their new sense of independence—no longer exists. The recent era has seen a move in the opposite direction; there may be greater understanding for the Palestinian cause in the West, but many of the Palestinians’ former Third World allies have chosen economic self-interest in place of ideological commitment. India’s wavering support for the Palestinians at the U.N. and China’s growing trade and military ties with Israel are examples.

The Arab environment has also clearly changed. Fatah was originally as much an assertion of Palestinian “independence of will” in the face of Arab hegemony as it was a revolt against Israel’s plunder of the homeland. Despite many political conflicts and bloody confrontations with numerous Arab states such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the P.L.O. continued to draw political and financial support from its hinterland, from the Gulf States, and from a popular base that was deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle. Fatah and the P.L.O. may have been largely dependent on Arab aid, but the multiplicity of sources and the constant rivalries among the Arabs themselves accorded the movement a wide margin of freedom. If one source of funding and support was severed, another was more than likely to appear. And, despite a high degree of financial dependency, the movement maintained political freedom of action: the P.L.O.’s dramatic support for a two-state solution in 1988 and the 1993 Oslo Accords were “independent” Palestinian decisions made without wider Arab consent, regardless of their wisdom at the time or since.

In the regional turmoil and violence of recent years, the Palestinians largely lost the skill of maneuvering among the Arab parties and their conflicting interests, and have become more dependent on other external support. As Arab financial aid shrinks, a new bloc of Arab states, comprising Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has a growing hold over the Arabs’ say on Palestine, further narrowing P.L.O. independence. Equally, the P.A. has become more and more reliant on the flow of funds from the U.S. and the European Union, and on Israel’s good will in dealing with the daily needs of the Palestinian population in the territories. Once a useful tool for maximizing freedom of action, multiple sources of outside support are now a means of leverage to further constrain Palestinian decision-making.

The post-Abbas era will launch an uncharted and unpredictable course. The founding fathers’ historical legacy and imprint of legitimacy is disappearing. The Palestinian refugees and the broader community in exile have no real agency, means of expression, or instruments to reflect their will. Fatah’s ongoing conflict with Hamas, the unrest in Gaza and the West Bank, and the institutional failures of the P.A. all point to an increasingly narrow and more tenuous form of leadership, one that is based more on formal elections, and, consequently and paradoxically, on less solid and genuinely representative grounds.

A leader elected on and by the West Bank, without continuity with the fading national movement, may not be openly rejected by the fractured components of the Palestinian people, but will, in the best of circumstances, have only limited national appeal and authority. Unlike a leader chosen by widespread acclaim, a narrowly elected leader, or one selected as a compromise among the different factions, cannot claim to represent those who lie outside his or her constituency, or to speak on their behalf. It is doubtful that such a leader will be able to rely on majority support or rally it, if and when decisions of national import are at stake. Abbas’s power derives from the fact that those who may otherwise criticize or reject a deal will abide by his terms. His signature not only imparts legitimacy to an agreement but absolves opponents from any responsibility for the concessions it may entail. Despite his limitations, Abbas may be the last Palestinian leader with the moral authority and political legitimacy to speak and act on behalf of the entire nation on vital existential issues such as a final agreement with Israel.

If the incoming Palestinian leadership is likely to be less representative than its predecessors, the degree to which it has a mandate to conclude and sustain a future agreement with Israel may be open to question. This will necessarily affect Israel’s own willingness to agree to a deal—already evident in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated insistence that Israel will “never” cede security control over the West Bank. It will also affect the role and posture of third parties, such as the U.S., in facilitating or pushing for a deal, and its possible content will be less likely to approximate Palestinian terms for a settlement. The recent spate of well-attended popular meetings hosted by Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and even France and Holland may inaugurate a new phase in which the P.L.O. faces growing pressure to defend its credentials as the “sole and legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people, with further limitations on its margin of maneuvers at home and abroad.

Twenty-four years after Oslo, the security establishment is perhaps the most enduring and powerful institution spawned by the P.A. Nourished and fortified by Israel, the U.S., and major European and Arab parties as part of the post-second-intifada reform process and designed to control violence and internal dissent, P.A. security forces have become the most efficient, visible, and functional arm of Palestinian governance. In the absence of countervailing legal and political institutions, organized popular movements, or capable representative bodies, there will be a strong temptation for the security forces to fill the vacuum of a frail national leadership, if only to avoid a comprehensive institutional collapse.

Even as Fatah has fallen apart, its popular base has remained in suspension instead of being pulled or driven toward other alternatives. More nationalist than Islamist in their political inclinations and outlook, the Palestinians have not been significantly drawn to Hamas. Hamas’s initial challenge emerged from its adoption of armed struggle at the moment when Fatah and the other factions had begun to discard it. But Hamas’s militant experiment has been no more successful than Fatah’s. Gaza’s history of resistance may have helped to convince Israel to evacuate the Strip, in 2005, but the subsequent suffering has not served as a model or source of inspiration for the rest of the Palestinians. Similarly, Hamas’s decade-long governance of Gaza has been marred by the same charges of corruption, incompetence, and heavy-handedness as its P.A. counterpart in Ramallah, but with the additional burdens of broad isolation and constant Israeli siege. On matters of armed struggle, diplomacy, and governance, those looking to Hamas as a replacement for Fatah would find it difficult to argue that the former has delivered where the latter has failed.

In its previous incarnation, Fatah succeeded in accommodating those of an Islamist bent by dissipating their influence within a wider national rubric. By incorporating a strong leftist current, it counteracted and neutralized Islamist tendencies. As Fatah took command of the P.L.O., it left a space for others to speak, act, and be heard. At present, a P.L.O. that included both Hamas and Fatah would be neither truly national nor genuinely Islamist but a forced arrangement between contradictory and competing forces pulling in different strategic directions. Besides the vexed question of leadership, it would be hard to sustain such a mixed and conflicted entity.

If the national movement’s initial phase arose from exile, and the second was focussed on the territories occupied in the Six-Day War, a budding third phase seems to be emerging from the combined effect of the diminishing prospects for a negotiated two-state settlement, and the increasingly blurred borders between Arabs and Jews in the territory. Israeli settlements may have all but erased the 1967 borders in one direction, but fifty years of occupation have helped to erase the border in the opposite direction as well. After decades of fraught relations between the Palestinians and Israel’s Palestinian citizens, the past few years have seen growing interaction between the political and intellectual élites across the borders.

The broader Palestinian public has slowly begun to recognize the national role and place of its brethren in Israel, and to seek means by which the tattered fabric of Palestinian identity may be mended. With the expiration of the national movement “outside” the West Bank and Gaza and with little prospect of self-regeneration from “inside,” Israel’s Palestinian citizens have inherited a new share of the struggle. They have proved to be politically resilient and flexible and have demonstrated a vitality and dynamism that may even point to something of a nationalist revival. In light of the sensitive conditions under which they operate, their comparatively small critical mass, their continuing isolation, and their tenuous connections with the other sectors of the Palestinian people, it may be too fanciful to believe that they could supplant the old national movement or assume its broader mantle or its more immediate functions. Yet, despite their personal and political differences, their bold leaders and their growing understanding of Israel’s democratic portico may position them to articulate with increasing confidence the traditional themes of Palestinian national aspirations and struggle. This would be a remarkable transformation.

Israeli right-wing politicians have often argued that the roots of the current conflict far predate 1967. The assertion that the origins of the conflict stretch back considerably further is not controversial or contestable. Oslo sought to trade 1967 against 1948—that is, to obscure the historical roots of the conflict in return for a political settlement that offered a partial redress that focussed solely on post-1967 realities. Current circumstances have begun to undo this suppression. Oslo could not bypass history, and its limitations have only highlighted the difficulty of ignoring the deeper roots of the struggle over Palestine.

This has become manifest in Israel’s gradual shift rightward, as well as in the growing encroachment of the national religious movement upon the levers of power and public discourse, the increasing influence and militancy of settler and fringe movements, and the sharpening tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations as marked by the rhetoric of both leaderships.

A similar process is tangible on the Palestinian side, in the growing backing for the right of return, and in moves to document and memorialize the nakba and the 1948 dispossession. The Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has solicited countermoves to reassert the Arab character of the land and reinforce the Palestinian historical narrative. Regardless of its distant and scattered parts, the experience of exile has not faded away. The Palestinians in exile may no longer have as confident and recognized a voice as that of the P.L.O. in its heyday, but the younger generation has shown no signs of historical amnesia or disengagement. The growing despair at the ineffectiveness of the peace process has reanimated their disparate parts and captured their imagination. While the near diaspora may be under siege and unprecedented pressure, particularly in Syria and Lebanon, many groups strewn across farther shores call for justice. The growing visibility and international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and the slow erosion of Israel’s political and moral standing, particularly in the West, have created a new, more open and welcoming environment for Palestinian activism, as apparent from the spreading support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement and various activist groups off and on campus.

The historic Palestinian national movement may have shattered and its successor may be neither discernible nor imminent. But the Palestinians will not simply disappear. The region may be engulfed in flames, and for the moment, at least, seemingly otherwise engaged, but Palestinian claims to justice and freedom have embedded themselves in the conscience of much of the world, just as Israel’s practices have eaten away at its avowed values.

The idea of one overarching, comprehensive, negotiated resolution that incorporates all the fundamental elements of the conflict may have slipped out of reach. What used to be called “the Palestine problem” might now be better redefined and restructured as a series of challenges, each requiring its own form of redress: the disappearing prospects for the original national project of self-determination, statehood, and return; the peoples’ alienation from their formal representatives; the realities of the Gaza–West Bank split; the continuing trials and tribulations of the diaspora; and the daily struggle for freedom from occupation and equal rights in Israel.

The future remains deeply uncertain. The two-state solution may win some belated and final reprieve as its prospects dwindle. Palestinian national aspirations may be brought back into the wider Arab fold, as they were before the current movement was established. Yet other possibilities abound. The Palestinians in Israel may be tempted to take the lead. The diaspora may yet explode in some radical and ill-defined manner. The malign energies of jihadism may be redirected toward a Muslim­-Jewish religious war, with Jerusalem as its focus. The conflict may be dragged back to its historical origins as a struggle over and across the entire Holy Land, reopening old wounds, inflicting new ones, and redefining how and if the conflict will be resolved.

The spark of patriotism may still coexist along with loathing of the occupation and a desire for a free and normal life. But a national movement requires genuine mass engagement in a political vision and a working project that cuts across boundaries of region, clan, and class, and a defined and acknowledged leadership with the legitimacy and representative standing that empowers it to act in its people’s name. This no longer holds for Fatah, the P.A., or the P.L.O.

Be that as it may, the Palestinians may need to acknowledge that yesteryear’s conventional nationalism and “national liberation” are no longer the best currency for political mobilization and expression in today’s world, and that they need to adapt their struggle and aspirations to new global realities. The bonds that link the Palestinian people together remain strong and hardy, but old-style nationalism and its worn-out ways may no longer be the vehicle for their empowerment. Because nationalism itself has changed, Palestinians need to search for new means of expressing their political identity and hopes in ways that do not and cannot replicate the past.



Date : August 6, 2017
By : Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalid
Source : The New Yorker

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment

In Indonesia, the peasant struggle of Kendeng


“We are ‘orang desa’ (country people), far from big cities. Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine that we work close to the earth, outside and sweating from morning until night.”

Mbak Gunarti, one of the women leaders of the peasant struggle of Kendeng came back last month to Indonesia, in the island of Java where she lives among her Samin people, after having spent several weeks in Germany. There she attended the May 1 protest holding the banner “Save Kendeng”. She also met with the executive committee of the multinational company HeidelbergCement – the world’s second-largest cement producer. It had claimed to be ready to build Donald Trump’s Mexico wall, before withdrawing the offer[1]. In Indonesia, it is part of the cement group, Indocement, which along with other on-going cement and mining projects has been destroying the region of Kendeng, located on the northern coast of central Java. Teeming with subterranean rivers, mineral springs and limestone, this region is a geological area, which supplies in water both the locals and the greater region of Java[2].

It is also where the Samin people live, a peasant community that has resisted state rule since the colonial era through civil disobedience, non-violence, and self-organization. Cultivating the land is part of their identity. They claim it allows them to be self sufficient, independent from the state or the system of exploitation. More than just work, peasantry is for them a spiritual practice that is aligned to a Javanese cosmology – according to which humans are responsible for constantly ensuring and readjusting an equilibrium between the world and the cosmos. By working the land with love, they thus interact with nature, ancestors, spirits and divinities. It is on such a basis that the Samin people have established themselves since the nineteenth century as an autonomous movement, free from state politics or ideologies[3].

“Save Kendeng”

For decades, they have faced serious discrimination for not sending their children to school or for refusing to adopt any monotheist religion imposed on people by the State. But today, the Kendeng movement has given their spirit a new political relevance, as they’ve organized peasants throughout the region, crosscutting through cultural differences on common grounds of peasants’ resistance. The Samin people started struggling against cement projects more than ten years ago, in 2006, when the national company Semen Gresik set up a plan to establish a factory in the district of Pati. They obtained a first victory in 2009, when the entrepreneurs finally decided to “postpone” their industrial project. But in 2014, the national company started building a new factory in Rembang, another district of Kendeng, under a new name – PT Semen Indonesia. That’s when the Rembang peasants joined the struggle.

It has since then attracted a great deal of attention for its self-managed organization and independence from NGOs. Artists, intellectuals, and activists from numerous backgrounds have come to support the movement while learning from the people who make it up. In the age of globalisation, this land struggle also became a cultural resistance that reinvented traditions and built new imaginaries through arts and spirituality. Punk musicians – such as the famous band Marjinal – started composing songs based on old Mother Earth prayers. Islam became reinvigorated by Javanese mysticism, allowing people to give new meanings to their religion that contest dominant frameworks. The Kendeng movement has thus become a kind of anti-capitalist ontology that renews Samin teachings in global times.

That’s also what the filmmaker Dandhy Laksono showed in his film “Samin versus Semen”, which was screened in 10 German towns during Mbak Gun’s visit in Europe. There, she campaigned alongside local activists to “Save Kendeng”. The screenings were accompanied by numerous protests, where people put their feet in cement to express their solidarity with the Kendeng struggle. This powerful and theatrical action has indeed become the symbol of the movement, which performs new forms and methods of political resistance.

Women performing resistance

The women of Kendeng first caught attention when they protested in front of the Presidential Palace in 2016. For a week, they sat down dressed in their beautiful traditional batik clothes, with their feet buried in buckets of cement. Known as the “ibu-ibu” – which means both “women” and “mothers”, they’ve embodied the movement’s vision of non-violence and spiritual ecology.

These women put the emphasis on what they are defending, rather than what they’re fighting against. Re-embracing their responsibilities as mothers and wives, performing their bodies in the public space made their struggle a public concern. It is a struggle for life and future generations: how will their households survive if there is no more water? How will they take care of their children and ensure them a good life?

For many years, the women were on a daily basis at the forefront of struggle. In Rembang, they launched a permanent occupation – through a system of rotation – of a protest tent set up at the entrance to the gigantic industrial site. This reinforced solidarities within the communities, as the women made the private political. The struggle entered into family relations and transformed them. While the Kendeng movement didn’t aim to take on patriarchal structures, the fact is that the struggle has enabled them to break down some barriers and uplift certain norms through a sense of togetherness. The women also made the tent feel like “home” – a place where people cook, eat, sleep, sing, pray, discuss and invent new ways of thinking. It became the door to another world, where the impossible is made magic.

While embedded in everyday concerns, the women gave the struggle a mystical dimension. Their performances contributed to creating a stage in reality which bridges the sacred with the profane. Their protests in Jakarta alternated between everyday conversations, light and joyful, with prayers, chants and tears – as if their performances gave women the possibility to go beyond their individual beings, and tap into the collective and symbolic body of Mother Earth.

Once, they blocked the road leading to the gigantic industrial site, with a sit-down by the tent. Face to face with the authorities, they started dancing and chanting together, calling out to the powerful spirits of nature. Another time, they unbuttoned their shirts. Speaking to us, one of the women recalls how in Javanese traditions, women expose their breasts to put spells on people. The consequences were immediate: some policemen got fired; others had accidents, one even died.

The struggle of Kendeng has also been violent. A few months ago, in March 2017, Bu Patmi (Mother Patmi), who had been involved since the very beginning, died during a protest in Jakarta. For the second time, peasants cemented their feet: this time, the women along with men and activists. When Bu Patmi removed her feet from the cement, she felt dizzy and nauseous; the blood had coagulated. Her death sparked great emotion throughout the archipelago. From the island of Sumatra to Papua, numerous organisations of women, workers, peasants, students and indigenous groups manifested their solidarity with Kendeng by putting their “feet in cement” as well. Such an action revived the memories of the far too numerous deaths and other oppressions that haunt Indonesia’s contemporary history.

Reclaiming democracy

For a while, an alliance with the president Joko Widodo – “Jokowi” seemed almost within reach. “He’s like us”, said one the peasant, while wearing a tee shirt with the face of the president, like a new type of Obama. Jokowi had campaigned on a break with past politics and the heritage of the New Order regime (1965-1998). Boasting about his peasant origins, he claimed to speak to “the people”. Once elected, he also made it possible for people wearing sandals to enter the Presidential Palace. “He understands us.  If we wore shoes, we would look like clowns”, the peasant also explained.  On the walls of his wooden house, with furniture he had carved himself, one could see a photograph capturing a memorable moment: in August 2016, when the peasants sat at the table of the president, who promised them that he would cancel the industrial plant in Rembang.

It was a first step towards a victory which should have happened in October 2016 – when the Supreme Court suspended the construction permit of the enterprise PT Semen Indonesia, as it violated the environmental protection laws that designate the Kendeng region a “geological area”. The governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, first accepted this decision. But in February 2017, he implemented a new law, which re-legalized the construction of the cement factory. In the meantime, a “pro-cement” nationalist group set fire to the tent in December. It was in the context of such injustice that the peasants protested last March, in front of the President Palace. Jokowi received Mbak Gun – the woman who was in Germany last month. But this time, he shifted responsibility for the Kendeng case to local authorities.

Mas Gunretno, the Samin leader of the movement – also the brother of Mbak Gun – told us: “We are not struggling against the state, but for our freedom”.

But when the state starts infringing on their freedom, they answer back. They reclaim democracy, as embedded in the unfinished story of decolonisation. In a vehement letter addressed to the president, the peasants wrote collectively last March 2017:

“Mister President, when we protest in villages, in provincial capitals and in the country’s capital, we are always bothered by threats and violence. We really are ‘orang desa’ (country people), far from big cities. Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine that we work close to the earth, outside and sweating from morning until night.

 When we come now to protest in front of the Presidential Office or the National Palace, we are circled by the police, the army and officers – who spy on us and shoot us one by one. We feel as if we were wild animals that had to be captured so they wouldn’t do any harm (…) But this building is no longer that of the Dutch East Indies, Mister President. This old building, which we have reached, is now a symbol of Indonesia’s independence. We are citizens who are very proud and worthy to be peasants, Mister President.”

They added:

Mister President, we know that the majority of government employees are at your service, as state functionaries. However, those who have been disturbing our lives and despising our human dignity, breaking the unity of our peasant people in the Kendeng mountains, and blame us as if we were bad people – those are precisely heads of governmental offices, functionaries of the highest rank, university professors with the best education. Most of them know the law, yet it has become the law and its jurisdictions that have been betraying the people”.

Here we see the central idea that the “people” know more about what they need for their country than do the experts and technocrats that manage it.

Freedom of the mind

Since the beginning of the movement, one of the challenges has been to prove that the construction of the cement factory is illegal and based on falsified data. Environment policies require that industrial projects be validated by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – which in Indonesian refers to AMDAL (Analisis Mengenai Dampak Lingkungan). But in the case of Rembang, this report produced false information. As early as 2014, the commissioner of the National Commission of Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM), Muhammad Nur Khoiron declared that this was a violation of human rights. He also underlined the national dimension of the problem: “Conflicts between local populations and enterprises that follow AMDAL agreements don’t only occur in Rembang, but also in other regions”[4].

Facing this reality, the Kendeng peasants built alliances with several groups of environmental organisations, scientists and lawyers. They also engaged in a series of geological explorations, in order to scientifically refute the legitimacy of the AMDAL report.

This was also the occasion to venture into the discovery of their territory. Using headlamps, cameras and hand phones, one of the missions was to descend 20 metres into a cave in order to find an underground river, while filming the performance. “The struggle taught us to do so many things”, said Mas Joko Priyanto who also leads the movement. Their quick thinking and willingness to learn gives full meaning to the Samin saying, according to which: “Nature is our school, and we are all the professors of one another.”

In a similar way that the Samin children do not attend an official school, the education of the Rembang peasants involved in the struggle rarely goes beyond the elementary level. Yet when we meet them, they reveal a deep wisdom and understanding of the world, through which they distinguish their intelligence from a scholarly or institutionalized knowledge. Here, culture isn’t an individual property, nor a title that serves as an added value in the marketplace of power and economics. Culture is something alive, which circulates, gets reinvented and strengthens everyday relationships. The Kendeng struggle has helped to amplify this, allowing many talents to develop according to different skills and personalities. While they keep working in the field, people have become filmmakers, spokesmen, mediators, communicants, illustrators, and teachers.

In that way, their movement reveals how science acts as a battlefield, polarizing two opposing visions. The peasants teach us a freedom of mind and a reappropriation of collective intelligence, which breaks through alienation and grows with the world.

With the world

Before concluding, I’d like to recall an anecdote. Last year, in August 2016, soon after the peasants first met with the President, we were spending a joyful evening in the “tent”, at the entrance to the industrial site. More than 90% of the factory was already built, and the mountains were already widely destroyed by the roads, the gigantic plant and the nearby mine.

As we watched, late at night, the ongoing, back-and-forth movement of trucks that were actively building the factory, the Kendeng struggle suddenly seemed impossible. What could they do, facing the inexorable power of capital and time? As I was focused on watching the trucks, Mas Joko Priyanto changed the direction I was looking in. He pointed to the sky filled with beautiful stars, then to the rustling jungle. I understood that they have the world of nature with them, and that makes them stronger than anyone. In some way, this movement happens in a space and time of endless possibilities.

Now finished, the factory was originally supposed to be inaugurated in April 2017. We are now in June, and the peasants are waiting for the results of a final environmental report. People say that this time, the scientific team should be objective, and expect that Jokowi will make his final decision based on the report – which should one again prove the Rembang factory to be illegal. But 5 trillion Indonesian rupiahs (about 376 million dollars) have already been invested in the gigantic project, sprawling across 850 hectares in the middle of the forest. The peasants keep repeating that they’ve struggled against the project from the very beginning, and that such an amount is nothing compared with the damage that will be caused in the future. The entrepreneurs have on their side led a campaign saying that the factory would create more jobs and respect green standards of globalisation.

It is impossible to know at this moment how the situation will evolve in the coming months, but it’s under pressure. In April 2017, the former intelligence chief Sutiyoso, a retired three-star army general, was appointed the top commissioner of PT Semen Indonesia. Meanwhile, the peasants keep struggling with the same constancy. For them, such a project is simply impossible because it violates the very principles of the world order. And they will continue their struggle to the very end, with their bodies and souls. As Bu Murtini told us: “I’m always ready, at any hour of the day and of the night”. With an unshakable and mystical confidence, they often claim they are not scared of death. But we must also get ready for the worst-case scenario. Forced displacements and violent conflicts due to land grabbing or the opening of gigantic industrial sites have become common in Indonesia. They have already killed so many people, whose names have been erased from our memories.

As we are writing these lines, the peasants of Rembang are building a new spot that will replace the tent, this time made of bamboo. On Facebook, we read “Rembang melawan, Rembang menang” – Rembang struggles, Rembang wins. In some way, the ongoing struggle is already a victory in itself. That has also been the way the Samin people have never lost a battle, throughout history. They’ve always been able to readjust and find new strategies to defend their land and spirit. The Kendeng movement is a new challenge in global times.


[1] « Who will build Trump’s long promised border wall ? » published on March 05 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/who-will-build-trumps-long-promised-border-wall/a-37816935

[2] « Dirty Cement : The Case of Indonesia » by Anett Keller and Marianne Klute, first published  in the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, 13 October 2016. An English version can be found on : https://th.boell.org/en/2016/12/09/dirty-cement-case-indonesia

[3] « The Samin Movement and Millenarism », A Korver, 1976 first published in : Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 132 no: 2/3, Leiden, 249-266. Available on line.

[4] “Komnas HAM: Pembuatan Amdal Pabrik Semen di Rembang Langgar Ham”, Kompas.com, December 2 2014.


Date : July 11, 2017
By : Alice Sakasi
Source : OpenDemocracy

Posted in Democratization & Social Movements, Latest Post, Social Justice | Leave a comment
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