Christopher R. DuncanViolence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia

Cornell University Press, 2013

by Nick Cheesman on September 15, 2015

Christopher R. Duncan

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Researching the communal killings that occurred in North Maluku, Indonesia during 1999 and 2000, Christopher Duncan was struck by how participants "experienced the violence as a religious conflict and continue to remember it that way", yet outsiders–among them academics, journalists, and NGO workers–have tended to dismiss or downplay its religious features. Agreeing that we need to move beyond essentialist explanations, Duncan nevertheless insists that the challenge for scholars "is to explain the role of religion in the violence without essentializing it".

In Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia (Cornell University Press, 2013) he takes up the challenge. Drawing on over a decade of research in North Maluku, and informed by time spent in the region prior to the conflict, Duncan speaks with impressive authority about the before, during and after of the bloodshed. Utilizing work by scholars of political violence and the management of memory like Stanley Tambiah and Steve Stern, he shows how participants themselves produced and reproduced master narratives of holy warfare. In the process, he critiques scholarship that overstates elite agendas and machinations, remaining too focused on the causes of violence and losing sight of how, in the words of Gerry Van Klinken, "a runaway war can become decoupled from its initial conditions".

Violence and Vengeance makes a powerful case for why study of vernacular understandings of conflict matter. The book also is exemplary in demonstrating how such study can and should be done.

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