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Review: Muslims in Southeast Asia

Review: Muslims in Southeast Asia
Published: Jan 13, 2011

Elizabeth Collins

Outbreaks of Islamic violence in Southeast Asia, including attacks on churches in Malaysia and the persecution of the Ahmadiyah in Indonesia, have seen analysts turn their attention to national policies and local history as agents generating or allowing violent conflict to erupt. This is a welcome shift from the situation only a few years ago, when mass media generally attributed Islamic violence in Southeast Asia to links with radical Islamic organisations in the Middle East.

This book, Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement and the Longue Durée, comes out of a workshop held in 2004 at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, when analysis of such connections was highly sought after. The result is a book which will appeal to those interested in the long history of the spread of Islam to Southeast Asia and the influence of Islamic scholars and reform movements in the Middle East on Islam in Southeast Asia. The historical essays are arranged in chronological order in three sections entitled ‘The Early Dimensions of Contact’, ‘The Colonial Age’ and ‘The First Half of the 20th Century.’ Five are devoted to the influential and exceptionally interesting Southeast Asian Hadrami community, which originates from Hadramaut region of Yemen. The others explore the community of Southeast Asian Muslims that settled in the Middle East, who were known as the Jawi, and their influence on fellow Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, it is the final section of this collection with a focus on Islam in contemporary Southeast Asia and Islamic violence and its causes, that students and more general observers of the region will perhaps find most interesting. These chapters make it clear that the debate on the causes and motives for violence in the name of Islam is far from over.

A debate on the origins of Islamic violence

The first of the three chapters in this section of the book is John Sidel’s, ‘Jihad and the Specter of Transnational Islam in Contemporary Southeast Asia’. Sidel shows that Islamic violence in the Philippines and Indonesia has deep historical roots going back to Spanish, American and Dutch policies in the colonial period. This was compounded by policies adopted by the authoritarian regimes of Marcos and Suharto, which marginalised Muslims. Sidel argues that the eruption of violence at the end of the 1990s was not organised by radical Islamic groups in the Middle East but by local activists in response to national political developments. He points out that what is viewed from the West as ‘triumphs for global liberalism in economic, political and cultural terms’ has not been experienced as an extension of inclusive, universalistic freedoms to Muslims in Southeast Asia, ‘but rather as the intrusions of colonising, particularistic interests at the expense of Islam’. In Sidel’s view ‘jihad in Southeast Asia is …overwhelmingly reactive and defensive in nature’ responding to national policies that have denied Muslims a strong voice in their own society. He believes that ‘the internationalization of jihad most apparent in the Bali and Jakarta bombings’ is the consequence of Muslim activists taking advantage of a new mode of mobilising support for an Islamist agenda utilising external financial resources.

In the chapter that follows, the interpretation of the origins of Islamic violence is vastly different. Moshe Yegar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem makes an argument directly opposed to that of Sidel. He maintains that ‘any attempt to understand Muslim rebellions in Southeast Asia must take into account more than an analysis of the local factors in each country or … of relations between the Muslim minority and the majority government against which it struggled’. His essay, entitled ‘Some comparative notes on three Muslim rebellion movements in Southeast Asia’, describes similarities and differences in Muslim separatist movements in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines and the response of the respective governments. He concludes that ‘the history of Muslim rebellions in Southeast Asia indicates that attempts to seek a solution to the problems of the Muslim minorities through economic or social instrumentalities did not succeed’. The reason for this, in his view, is that religious identity ‘is the primary element in the lives and … consciousness’ of Muslims who live in societies under the rule of non-Muslims. Thus for religious reasons these Muslims will never accept rule by a non-Muslim government. Yegar recognises that the Muslim minority communities in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines endure higher rates of poverty than the majority community and are not represented in positions of political power. He denies, however, that these are significant factors in the political mobilisation of Muslim separatists, citing a survey he conducted that found Muslim minorities ‘saw the conflict in more than socioeconomic terms’. The survey is not further described; one should presumably turn to Yegar’s 2002 book Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myamar for more information.

Syafi’i Anwar concludes that the future orientation of Islam in Southeast Asia will depend on the success of democratically elected leaders in dealing with poverty, corruption and lawlessness

The concluding chapter in this section and the book, is by M. Syafi’i Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism in Jakarta. He describes the vibrant debate in post-Suharto Indonesia between proponents of what he calls ‘radical-conservative’ Islam and ‘progressive-liberal’ Islam. He identifies the leaders and organisations on both sides of the debate and the issues that have given rise to conflict. Syafi’i Anwar concludes that the future orientation of Islam in Southeast Asia will depend on the success of democratically elected leaders in dealing with poverty, growing inequality, corruption and lawlessness. If progress is not made on these issues, he argues that people will be more inclined to accept the view that an ‘Islamic solution’ is required to deal with the problems they face.   

These essays raise crucial questions about the policies governments in the region should adopt toward radical Islamist groups and demands for reforms that give the poor and other disenfranchised groups a political voice. They also point to the need for greater understanding of the emerging interaction between local, national and global political/religious movements. Taken together the essays constitute a call for further research on past and present connections between Muslims in Southeast Asia and Muslims in the Middle East, an area of critical interest and great consequence.

Eric Tagliacozzo, ed., Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement and the Longue Duree. Singapore: NUS Press (2009).

Elizabeth Collins (collinse@ohio.edu) is a Professor in the Department of Classics & World Religions and the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Ohio University.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

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