Book Review: Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia


Violence broke out in the Moluccas Islands of eastern Indonesia during the anxious aftermath of Suharto’s New Order regime (1965-1998). Local participants and survivors framed the violence in terms of religious difference and rivalry between Christians and Muslims. Yet many academics and Indonesian government officials were quick to dismiss religion as the cause, pointing instead to political economy. In Marxian scholarly accounts, religion is only of interest insofar as it is mobilized instrumentally for power and material gain.

In this marvelous ethnography about religion and communal violence in eastern Indonesia, Duncan provides an important corrective to these assumptions about violence and religion. Careful not to dismiss political and economic accounts, Duncan nonetheless takes seriously local explanations about religious difference. He cogently argues that religion did indeed structure specific forms and idioms of violence, memory, and memorialization. False consciousness or not, religion persists nonetheless. This delicate balance between political economy and religious politics is no easy feat. As Duncan observes, “The challenge is to explain the role of religion in the violence (which can include beliefs, identities, social networks, material culture, the use of particular texts or imagery), without essentializing it, while at the same time appreciating that local communities were involved in this very process of essentialization.” (p. 4) Violence and Vengeance elegantly walks this fine line and would be a welcome addition to undergraduate and graduate courses in anthropology, religious studies, and political science.

This book is based on fieldwork carried out over the course of twelve years between 2000-2012. Duncan’s long-term engagement with perpetrators and survivors of violence provides a broad range of interviews, media accounts, and ethnographic observations in local villages, camps for internally displaced persons, and eventually back in the villages, where survivors returned to charred homes and apprehensive neighbors. Chapter One provides the theoretical groundwork and outlines Duncan’s ambition to move beyond chronology and causation in scholarly explanations of violence. Chapter Two contextualizes violence within colonial histories of political economy and missionization that informed post-colonial (especially New Order) processes of bureaucratization, reformist Islam, and increasing ethnic and religious tensions.

Chapters Three and Four describe in convincing detail how ethnic conflict came to be viewed as religious warfare. As Duncan observes, “Although it started as a dispute between ethnic groups over a redistricting initiative, for the vast majority of people involved, regardless of their motivations, the eventual dividing line in this conflict became and remained religion.” (p. 2) Duncan examines how Indonesians infused religion into specific forms and justifications of violence. In chapter Three, he draws from Stanley Tambiah’s (1996) concepts of focalization and transvaluation to explain why this shift occurred and how it influenced subsequent violence and local interpretations thereof. Chapter Four provides an exceptional account of how rumor played a role in the spread of violence throughout the province of North Maluku.

Chapters Five, Six, and Seven concentrate on the aftermath of violence. In chapter Five, Duncan explores how religion informed strategies of peacekeeping and social reparation, especially when those who fled the violence finally returned to their village. Peace and reconciliation, Duncan explains, is not an easy, linear, or uniform process. Religious leaders structured the formal gatherings promoting peace, yet most people directly involved in the violence were interested in co-existence, not reconciliation. Chapter Six examines how religion structured the memories of perpetrators and survivors alike, especially their conflicting recollections of aggression and betrayal. Drawing on Lisa Malkki’s (1995) idea of mythico-history and Steve Stern’s (2004) notion of emblematic memory, Duncan demonstrates how the processes of memory and memorialization were infused with, and further solidified, local perceptions of religious difference. Chapter Seven reflects on the memorialization of violence, notably the designation of victims as religious martyrs who died in the path of righteousness.

Duncan weaves together the threads of previous chapters in a brief conclusion to argue compellingly that scholars of communal violence must account for perpetrators and survivors’ conceptions of the role of religion “to explore how this discursive construction of the conflict made sense to participants, how it changed the violence itself, and how it continued to affect the region in the decade or so after the bloodshed stopped.” (pp. 171-172) Duncan’s account provides chilling descriptions of communal violence. He does so, laudably, with straightforward and sympathetic prose that does not fetishize violence for ethnographic consumption. The strength of the data on violence and subjectivity relies, in part, on the author’s adept ability to elicit interlocutors’ musings on fantasy, meditations on rumor, and rationalizations about revenge. Throughout the book the author notes that local police and military were often unable or unwilling to intervene. I would like to have learned more about how, and under what conditions, state actors chose to (and were able to) intervene in local violence. This line of inquiry could be especially fruitful if considered alongside Benedict Anderson’s (1989) reading of revenge in terms of the postcolonial state and James Siegel’s (1997) interpretation of revenge within cultural systems of exchange and reciprocity.

This book’s major concern and contribution, however, is to offer a compelling corrective to those anthropologists, historians, and political scientists who have fetishized political economy at the cost of understanding religion only in instrumental terms. Christopher Duncan’s Violence and Vengeance thus provides an invaluable contribution to understanding how people in eastern Indonesia turned to religion and religious difference as they imagined, perpetrated, suffered, survived, and memorialized communal violence.

James B. HoestereyEmory University


Reviewed in this Essay:

Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia

Christopher R. Duncan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).



Benedict Anderson. 1989. “Reading ‘Revenge.’ By Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1978-

1982).” Writing on the Tongue. Ed. A.L. Becker. Michigan Papers in South and

Southeast Asia, no. 33. Ann Arbor: Center for South and South-east Asian

Studies. Pp. 13-73.

Malkki, Lisa. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology

among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tambiah, Stanley J. 1996. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective

Violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Siegel, James T. 1997. Fetish, Recognition, Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press.

Stern, Steve J. 2004. Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London, 1998.

Durham: Duke University Press.




About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s