In Indonesia, as in other countries of Southeast Asia, a community approach to dispute resolution is often favored over a legal approach. Civil law is alien to many Indonesians who avoid the courts because litigation is an embarrassment to all parties. Additionally, a legal approach toward dispute resolution often leads to distrust. Therefore, for a peaceful resolution in most disputes, musyawarah (dialogue) is more common than pengadilan (courts).

Many foreign scholars remain puzzled by the complexity of Indonesia’s legal and political system even after studying the country for decades. Unfortunately, this ambiguity often leads scholars to conclusions that are superficial, disdainful, or both. Professor Dan Lev, however, was a completely different kind of foreign scholar. He embraced the complexity of Indonesian law and society, and he understood that the complexity surrounding the legal system is both intended and explicable. As he has demonstrated in one of the most important contributions to the legal literature, Islamic Courts in Indonesia: A Study on the Political Basis of Legal Institutions (1972), the present legal system fosters disparity between Islamic officials and Islamic leaders or intellectuals. The Islamic officials often do not have adequate Islamic knowledge and have no spiritual power or authority. Today, Islamic courts are less favored, even disrespected, by many Moslems for a variety of reasons, among them corrupt, illegitimate, and incompetent officials.

According to Professor Lev, this phenomenon was created by former leaders. The Dutch, royals, and local aristocrats set up a system that allowed non-Islamic intellectuals or Islamic leaders to run the Islamic judiciary. Dan Lev demonstrated that to weaken the influence of Islamic leaders and intellectuals in the East Indies’ legal system, Dutch colonialists created power sharing among themselves, royals, aristocrat members, and Adat leaders and intellectuals. The result was an appointment system in which only the Dutch, royals, and local aristocrats could appoint Islamic officials. The latter often appointed their relatives and friends. This is why Islamic officials were not involved in the nineteenth century Muslim rebellion, either against Adat leaders or against the Dutch.

Professor Lev’s book also recognizes the liberal thoughts and standpoints of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) during the law-making period before independence put the agenda on hold and unified itself with other political groups against the Dutch. This is a remarkable history rarely acknowledged because NU has been on the political sidelines for decades. Their acceptance of liberal ideas often appears to mock their traditions. The political discourse and tradition within NU also included a complexity and a contradictory nature that is rarely understood. The combination of traditional and moderate thought within NU required profound wisdom to capture the true essence of the organization. NU’s engaging attitude toward outsiders became a trap for many scholars whose subjectivity often overpowered their analytic intention. Professor Lev treated NU’s openness with respect and saw it as an invitation to show greater appreciation of the organization’s traditions and political involvement.

Professor Lev understood that Indonesia’s legal and political complexity arose from the combined influence of colonial history, custom, culture, and political process. His books are a academic treasure of hard facts and the political-legal process. There are only a few scholars who have managed to research the richness and complexity of Indonesia’s legal system. Among them, John Bowen, through his chapter, Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia, analyses the social frameworks for disputes about land, inheritance, marriage, divorce, Islamic history, and more broadly about the relationships between the state and Islam, and between Muslims and non-Muslims of Gayo society. Bowen provides a complex and innovative account of how people in normative, pluralistic societies such as Indonesia argue, debate, interpret, and reason about competing values and norms and how such reasoning legitimizes and justifies the ways they transform their world.

Professor Lev has brought law, political, and colonial history together into a legal and political institution. He treated law in Indonesia as something beyond money, politics, ethnic conflict, and the corruption that often unfortunately turned out to be the main concern of many scholars. Professor Lev saw the impediments in the political-legal system and went beyond them. Another example of his deep admiration for Indonesia is shown in the book called Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, edited by J. Sears. Most Western writers in the book suggest that the source of strength is resistance, ambiguity, and conflict, while Indonesian writers have an critical and pessimistic edge. Indonesian writers confronted political, social, and ideological pressure of women during the New Order era. In contrast, Lev begins his chapter by citing that Indonesia leans decidedly closer to equality than to subjugation, as does Italy and France. He notes that Indonesian women have been economically and politically active for a long time and offers as evidence the example of women’s position in the Islamic court. Unlike many Islamic countries, the practice of Islamic family law in Indonesia has long been one of the most liberal in the Muslim universe where marriage contracts are elaborate and flexible, partly due to pressure and advice by women’s organizations.

His passing was a tremendous loss for Indonesia, for the study of Indonesia, and for those of us fortunate enough to have known him personally. His legacy lives on in his students, in his life’s work, and in the reform efforts of so many tireless activists and leaders who share his vision and passion for a democratic Indonesia. Professor Lev taught all of his students — in the US and in Indonesia — to question the apparent, to dislodge truisms, to deconstruct all assumptions. He adhered to many of the basic tenets of post-modernism long before they were fashionable — there is no truth, essentializing is very dangerous, the appearance of a stable reality must be met with deep skepticism (in fact pretty much everything should be met with deep skepticism). Yet his response to this, in most un-postmodern fashion, was a strong empiricism. His work was known as a deep grounding in meticulous, critical, but quite unshakable empiricism, such that even those who disagreed strongly with him theoretically were respectful of the value of his work.

Just before he passed away last July, he bequeathed his entire collection of research notes, containing many original Indonesian documents and books from the 1950s, unavailable elsewhere, and a valuable collection of academic and legal resources, to PSHK (Center for Study of Law and Policy). He did not care about academic status, prestige, and honorific. While he had been a generous supporter of the University of Washington Library, in this instance he wanted his life’s work to go back to Indonesia particularly to this group of young scholars/reformers that he felt could best carry on the torch of legal reform in Indonesia. PSHK has responded ably to this trust, establishing the Daniel S. Lev Library next to their office space in Jakarta, expanding the collection with other donations and building a website to allow for easy online access (Dan Lev Library). Meanwhile, other senior scholars of Indonesia, seeing Professor Lev’s example, are contemplating making similar donations of their life’s work. Even in his passing, he was a pioneer.


Author details:

*Robin Bush is Assistant Country Representative of TAF

**Siti Nurjanah is the director of the CRCS