I have written a number of times—probably more than on any other nonlinguistic topic—about the appalling results of the search for purity in the human world, the consequences of the lust for classifying things and people, and my deep affection for the mongrel and the creole. Some of the posts that evince this are Purifying Iraq (the results of classifying Iraqis), the Purity vs. History series (on Greece and the Greeks), How the Balkans Got Balkanized (“The process of ethnic cleansing begins when cultural and especially religious homogeneity is required”), American Babel (America’s native “prodigious multilingualism”), Braw and Witty with its comment thread that wound up discussing Bonnie Prince Charlie (Annie: “Yes, there were Jacobite protestants, although simplified histories paint all Jacobi[te]s as Roman Catholic. Politics was just as complicated and messy in those days as it is now”), and perhaps my all-time favorite LH thread, Peaches in Cluj (with Germans in Siebenbürgen, Dacia Porolissensis, the Klausenburger Hasidim of Brooklyn, putative Illyro-Thracian substrates, Sesut, Crimean Goths, Zipsers, Flemings, Armenians, and Székelys, not to mention Maria Benet’s wonderful poetry).

Now I want to direct your attention to Indonesia. Everybody “knows” that Indonesia is Islamic except for the island of Bali, which has stubborly preserved Hindu court culture and thereby isolated itself from the surrounding culture. Well, yesterday I ran across Adrian Vickers’ article “Hinduism and Islam in Indonesia: Bali and the Pasisir World” (the linked page links to a pdf of the article, and may I add that I wish all journals would adopt the policy of Indonesia: “All articles and reviews published in Indonesia published more than five years ago are available at no cost”), which says “Most writers on Bali have used religious difference to characterize the essential distinction between Bali and the rest of Indonesia,” and goes on to show why that’s a misleading oversimplification that distorts both history and the current situation. He begins with the history:

In the nineteenth-century Orientalist perceptions of Bali…, Balinese religious identity, formed through opposition to Islam, led to the development of a “Museum” of Hindu Java. One of the first to articulate this view in any depth was Raffles, who was particularly interested in the literature of the Kawi or “Old-Javanese” language: “For Raffles, Old Javanese was an Asian Latin, banished to Bali by invading, Goth-like Muslims.”…

Most twentieth-century Dutch administrators still maintained the idea that Balinese Hinduism was something to be “preserved” from Islam, which they associated with a lack of art or the destruction of a noble culture. This aim of preserving native culture was not unique to Dutch colonialists in Bali, but was generally the avowed goal of most imperial powers. In the case of Bali, however, the perception had a long genealogy. In 1633, for example, when the VOC sent a mission to Bali to promote an alliance between Batavia and Bali against the Central Javanese kingdom of Mataram, the premise the Dutch worked from was that “[the king] and all his folk are heathens, and therefore certain enemies of the people of Mataram, who are Moors.” The Dutch were surprised when Gèlgèl, the principal kingdom on Bali, procrastinated and subsequently expressed a desire to establish friendly relations with Mataram. The Dutch could not comprehend this change, since their system of religious classification did not accord with the political practices of the Balinese ruler.

Vickers goes on to discuss how the Balinese saw things:

In this Balinese categorization, religious differences function like clothing styles. They are signs used to differentiate groups which have basic similarities. The signs of distinction can be translated as “cultural” differences — culture, however, not in the sense of an underlying structure of ideas or complex of meaning, but of observable behavior, especially artistic behavior. The many “cultures” are manifestations of a common “civilization.” It is impossible to conceive of a different system of social organization, and so there is no absolute category of the “alien,” only a distinction between people of the same island and people from overseas (sabrang). The nature of this model can be gauged from the way it accommodated the Dutch. They were seen as a group belonging with Chinese and other traders, since they were not led by kings and princes; they partook in maritime trading and lived in coastal regions; and they did not manifest the signs of belonging to a “kingdom” which the Balinese knew from their immediate neighbors and their own Majapahit background. Therefore the Dutch were fitted into the Balinese social order, at the bottom.

He finishes up with a description of the cosmopolitan nature of the region:

The weight of historical research makes the picture of a cosmopolitan milieu undeniable. From early times there was a great circulation of trade goods, people, and cultural forms and objects throughout the area, which was only exacerbated by later events, such as the fall of Malaka which led to the movement of Malay princes, or the fall of Makassar with the consequent migrations of groups from South Sulawesi to as far away as Thailand. History has shown that political events in one state of this polyglot, cosmopolitan world had implications for many others. Thus it is possible to talk in terms of historical developments which characterize the region as a whole. Denys Lombard has proposed that the culture of the region, if we take culture in its narrower sense of literary and artistic forms, could be termed a “Pasisir” (Coastal) culture, utilizing the name hitherto given to the literary culture of Java’s north coast.

and, particularly pleasing to me, an emphasis on the importance of texts:

The major barrier to locating Bali within a “Pasisir” civilization is to think of the Pasisir world as essentially Islamic, and Bali as essentially Hindu. The picture changes dramatically when viewed from the standpoint of texts instead of religion. The texts are products of historical interaction within a civilization, and they are produced in order to pattern participation in that culture. Panji narratives like the Malat are the most widespread manifestation of Pasisir culture. By following the trail which leads from studies of individual Panji texts and related artistic forms, it is possible to use positive aspects of earlier textual scholarship to displace an Orientalist tendency to separate Bali from the rest of the archipelago.

A little more googling led me to a paper by Riwanto Tirtosudarmo, “The Orang Melayu and Orang Jawa in the ‘Lands Below the Winds’” (pdf), which widens the net:

In the Java-Malaya nexus, Houben [in V.J.H. Houben, H.M.J. Maier and W. van der Molen (eds.), Looking in Odd Mirrors: The Java Sea]… outlined the important concept of ‘borrowing’, meaning that some specific elements of Javanese culture were borrowed to be implemented and play a role in local societies elsewhere. It should be noted, however, that the pasisir as a place of origin for influences in the tanah sabrang (outer islands, the land beyond) was far from homogenously Javanese in the period under consideration. Reid, for example, made a strong case for the ‘Chineseness’ of the Islamic ports on the north coast of Java. Other groups (Indian, Arabs, Malays) had settled there, bringing their ideas and values with them. In this respect it is striking that the Portuguese were the first to make a sharp distinction between Malays and Javanese (Jaos in Portugese), whereas the Arabs before that (and the Malays in their wake) called all the inhabitants of the Archipelago ‘Orang Jawi’, making no distinction between the Malays and the Javanese.

Finally, there’s the parallel case of a Hindu enclave in Java itself, as described by Robert W. Hefner in his book Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam (Princeton, 1985): the Tengger society of a handful of villages on the north slopes of Mount Bromo near the eastern end of the island. Hefner had been told that the Tengger were “backward,” “primitive,” and generally exotic (they “throw live animals into the volcano’s smoldering crater”). Intrigued, he made his way to the villages only to find they looked “much like the Javanese community from which I had set out several hours earlier” except that it was more compact and had no mosque. He briefly describes the historical background (the fall of Majapahit and the consequent Islamicization of the rest of the island) and the villagers’ attitude towards it, concluding: “According to their own notions, in other words, Tengger are not an ethnic enclave of non-Javanese ways, but heirs to a tradition with deep roots in Javanese history.” He adds:

The “ethnic isolation” explanation of Tengger tradition… fails to take seriously Tengger claims that their tradition is Javanese, and ignores historical evidence that clearly indicates that Tengger have long been affected by developments in larger Java. Under closer scrutiny, the ritual tradition can provide insight into the social organization of at least one popular tradition in pre-Islamic Java… Investigation of the same tradition, however, reveals how profoundly it has been affected by the challenge of Javanese Islam. Although the ritual tradition Tengger preserves is now restricted to this mountain region, the cultural conditions to which it has responded are similar to those in many areas of rural Java… From this perspective, the Tengger story is not that of an isolated ethnic group unaffected by developments in larger Java. It speaks to developments that have transformed all of Javanese society, and are reworking it still today.

Or, in older words, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated… No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”


  1. LH: “Everybody knows that Indonesia is Islamic except for the island of Bali”
    Well, *you* know it’s more complicated than that. There are large numbers of Christian communities throughout eastern Indonesia. Islam only arrived a few hundred years before Christianity: roughly 1300s vs. 1500s IIRC. On many of the major islands outside Sumatra and Java, the coast and major rivers converted to Islam, while the highlands remained the preserve of heathens who could be enslaved. (Sort of like Scotland, back in the good old days, I suppose.) Christian missionaries got to them first, but not until the 19th and 20th centuries in many cases.
    Northern and highland Sulawesi still have large Christian communities (Google “Poso” for recently clashes there). The Moluccas were majority Christian or heathen until the Dutch Indies became Indonesia, after which Islam spread due to internal migration (including “transmigrasi” from Java). The same is happening now to West Papua, formerly mostly heathen, with Christian outposts in the highlands and often Muslim outposts on the coasts.
    Bali is just about at the breakpoint between the overwhelmingly Muslim western part and much more mixed-up eastern part of what now constitutes Indonesia.

  2. Related only by the tendency of Western historians to misunderstand Malayo-Polynesians on islands:
    Marshall Sahlins’ “Islands of History” is about the relationship between Captain Cook and the Hawai’ians who eventually killed him. Standard versions are: 1.) “Captain Cook was an insensitive imperialist who was killed for that reason”; and 2.) “Captain Cook tried to deal with the the Hawai’ians and thought he had succeeded, but he failed to understand the subtleties of their culture” [OR, 2a.) “failed to understand their murderous, superstitious nature”].
    Sahlins argues that all three narratives are wrong. Cook’s dealings with the Hawai’ians — who had had long familiarity with military adventurers, indigenous and otherwise — had been so successful that he had become one of the great men of the islands.
    However, the Hawai’ans almost always killed their great men.
    A crude simplification, of course. (Bonus: Hawai’ian queen with at least 50 husbands.)

  3. I don’t see anything criminal in “lust for classifying things and people” per se; without classification how would you distinguish Crimean Goths from Armenians and Szekelys, in your (and mine) favorite post?
    It’s when distinction is used for proscription lists the results are appalling. How was it, in Svejk, about Magyar being sometimes just a Magyar? (it’s better in Russian translation and I’m sure 100 times funnier in original.)
    About Iraq’s, and for that matter, Indonesian and any other multinational country where religeous affiliation is often mistakingly substituted for ethnicity – I was just reading an article, a link away from other blog that sent me there, on this same subject. Can’t say I don’t find faults with Hitch,I certainly do when Russia is concerned, but in this case he’s absolutely right.

  4. LH, maybe you’d better change “Bonnie Price Charlie” to “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, otherwise people might think you’re talking about a Glasgow rentboy.

  5. Human urge to stereotype produces sterile types of humanity which, in turn, can justify every kind of nationalistic, opportunistic, religious -isms. The more resistant to change or adaptation the stereotype, the more violent the urge to attack it. Anti-semitism is a classic example, but there are many others.
    PS. Having accidently found your most interesting page, I intend to be a frequent visitor and a very infrequent commentator.

  6. my apologies for an error in my url.It is called computer myopia or my opium.

  7. Joel: I hoped it was clear that my “Everybody knows…” was a summary of the very misleading bit that everybody thinks they know. But thanks for the added information, which usefully complicates the picture.
    Tatyana: Thanks for that Hitchen piece; he hits it right on the nose here:
    When it comes to Iraq, one of the most boring and philistine habits of our media is the insistence on using partitionist and segregationist language that most journalists would (I hope) scorn to employ if they were discussing a society they actually knew. It is the same mistake that disfigured the coverage of the Bosnian war, where every consumer of news was made to understand that there was fighting between Serbs, Croats, and “Muslims.”
    And I had written a clearer explanation of what I meant about classification (which of course is fine in itself, as you say), tying it to the usual consequence of putting people in hierarchies and controlling or expelling the ones you don’t like, but the sentence got too long and messy and I pruned badly.
    J. Cassian: Oops! Thanks, I’ll fix it.

  8. Is your blog name ‘Languagehat’ or ‘Language Hat’?

  9. Excellent question! The name of the blog is Languagehat (which came to me one night as I was trying to decide whether to try this blogging thing I’d heard so much about). When I set it up, the Blogger software asked for my first and last name; since I wasn’t attaching my real name to it, the obvious thing to do seemed to be to put “language” for a first name and “hat” for a last name. I also did this when I set up the YahooMail account, which has the pleasing result that Yahoo calls me “language” in its friendly way. But it does add a bit of confusion, since my posts are signed “language hat” here and “languagehat” at (for instance) MetaFilter, where it’s my username. I just hope it doesn’t give anyone excessive cognitive dissonance…

  10. (Just catching up.) Thanks for this. Your first sentence neatly summarizes one of the main reasons I keep coming here. Viva el mestizaje!

  11. (catching up too)…
    This post sent me off on my particular bugbear, the Rwanda conflict and the crass over-simplification of the forces involved. I found this interesting article “Talking about ‘Tribe'” ( which illustrates your point well.

  12. Thanks, that’s an excellent article (here‘s the direct link)—anyone interested in Africa or the concept of “tribe” in general should read it. I agree with the conclusion that it makes more sense to use the word “people.”

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