My main project at the IIAS will be to revise my doctoral dissertation, which I defended in May 2013, and turn it into a book manuscript. ‘Becoming better Muslims: Religious authority and ethical improvement in Aceh, Indonesia’ is a partly historical, partly anthropological study of religious practice in the Indonesian province Aceh. In my study I show that people in Aceh see their religion as part of a broader, personal and lifelong process of ethical improvement. In the study of Aceh, and Muslim Southeast Asia more generally, these expressions of ‘inner Islam’ have been largely neglected.
The study of Islam increasingly takes places within a framework of political change or radicalization. This is particularly true for Aceh, where a local formulation of Islamic (Shari’a) law has been implemented since 2003. In contrast, I have chosen to study how ordinary Acehnese Muslims practice and experience their faith, how they deal with institutionalized forms of Islam, and how, as a part of their everyday lives, they respond to and appropriate officialized norms. Although the Acehnese are known to be particularly ‘pious’, in my dissertation I am not primarily concerned with the search for pious ‘perfection’ or with the modes of self-discipline commonly associated with the revival of Islamic activism. I argue that more attention should be given to the workings of doubt, moral ambivalence, socially accepted modes of ‘indifference’, and imperfection and failure as a part of individual ethical improvement. Age, life phase, and the interaction between different generations are therefore a recurrent theme in my dissertation.
The study is based on a combination of historical and anthropological research. I have studied early modern indigenous literature as well as colonial and postcolonial archives in the Netherlands and Indonesia. I also carried out ethnographic research, for a total period of 15 months, on two different locations: a tsunami-affected urban neighborhood in the provincial capital Banda Aceh and a small village in the rural area of Aceh Besar.
While the revision of my dissertation will be my main project, I also want to further develop my activities in other, related fields of interest, including religion, violence and local politics, my ongoing work on ‘Recording the Future: an audiovisual archive of everyday life in Indonesia’, and my next research project, ‘Female Islamic leadership in Southeast Asia’.