Lin Hongxuan tells an untold history

The doctoral graduate uncovers how Islam and Marxism shaped Indonesian history

When people ask Lin Hongxuan why he studies the history of a community he’s not part of, his answer can be very simple: the history hasn’t been told.

But there’s a more complicated answer, too. It’s dangerous for people within this particular community to tell their history.

Hongxuan studies the historical relationship between Islam and Marixism in Indonesia. Between 1965 and 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 1,200,000 people were killed by their fellow citizens for being suspected communists or sympathizers. Talking about that history and communism to this day is still controversial and dangerous in the country.

But Hongxuan says it’s much less dangerous for him to write about it, as an outsider of those communities, and the work carries important weight for the present moment.

“The reason why history is so important is it allows you to bring these things to light,” Hongxuan said. “If you don’t present an accurate picture of a nation’s history, national identity becomes easily weaponized and turned to other kinds of purposes.”

Hongxuan’s research, “Ummah Yet Proletariat: Islam and Marxism in the Netherlands East Indies and Indonesia, 1915–1959,” received the Graduate School’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in the humanities.

Lin Hongxuan with fellow UW History graduate students.

“One of the major strengths of Hongxuan’s dissertation is the complexity he brings to our understanding of both Islam and communism as they came to shape the new nation,” said Laurie Sears, Hongxuan’s advisor and professor emeritus in the Department of History. “The sources used by Hongxuan have rarely, if ever, been studied before, especially in the nuanced way that they are studied in (his dissertation).”

While mixing Islamic identity and Marxist ideas may seem counter-intuitive to most, Hongxuan’s research reveals how prominent thinkers and leaders of Indonesian politics drew freely from both in the early 20th century, from the social justice concepts of Islam to how Marxism could help support their religious goals in light of anti-colonial resistance.

Understanding the history of how Marxism and Islam intersected is important in light of the violence that came later, when civil unrest in the predominantly Islamic country led to the killings of suspected communists, who were demonized as enemeies of Islam.

Hongxuan compared the importance of Indonesians understanding their history with the United States understanding the history of slavery and racial inequalities.

“In the US, if you don’t look at the violence of slavery, if you don’t focus on the inequities that are built into the system, it becomes very easy to embrace the politics of white grievance, that our country is being taken away from us,” Hongxuan said.

Neither Indonesian nor Muslim, Hongxuan grew up in Singapore, a nation which trumpets its commitment to “multicultural society” and “racial harmony,” Hongxuan said. While reality often falls short of ideals, he said he was inspired to put those ideals into practice through researching and learning about Islam.

Lin Hongxuan with his Indonesian class on the UW campus.

He found that most people he talked to were appreciative of someone from the outside wanting to learn and write about their religion and history.

To conduct this research, Hongxuan learned two new languages: Dutch and Indonesian. He said it was easier to learn these new languages because he was already a native English and Mandarin Chinese speaker and already had a basic grasp of French.

Because of this, he could spend multiple months around the world — from Indonesia to the Netherlands to Ithaca — reading primary texts. It was a time that was incredibly lonely, but helped him grow as a writer, he said.

Hongxuan also used literary sources and literary theory for his dissertation. While he’s a historian, he has found that studying fiction was a productive avenue to understanding the thoughts and ideas of people who couldn’t express themselves directly for fear of safety.

“Sometimes literature can speak volumes where history cannot,” Hongxuan said.

Now, Hongxuan lives in Singapore, where he is an adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore while his postdoc has been delayed due to COVID-19. He’s teaching a graduate seminar on race and ethnicity in Southeast Asia.

Lin Hongxuan with friends Adrian, Kirk, and Jorge.

It can be a challenging topic to discuss in Singapore, where people are socialized not to talk about race, Hongxuan said. But he recognizes the classroom provides a rare opportunity for people to be honest about their knowledge gaps and learn from each other.

“Every moment is a teaching moment,” Hongxuan said. “You want to take full advantage of those teachable moments because outside of an academic context, teachable moments are quite rare.”


By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published September 29, 2020