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The Arab Spring and the model of Islam in SE Asia

There are about 240 million Muslims in Southeast Asia, making about 25 per cent of the total world Muslim population of 1.6 blnl

Southeast Asia is referred to in Sanskrit as Suvarnabhumi, as Nanyang in Chinese, as Serambi Mekah - verandah of Mecca - in Malay, and as Zirbadat - "lands below the winds" - by the Arabs and Persians.

By Imtiyaz Yusuf | The Nation | 17 Jan 2012

There are about 240 million Muslims in Southeast Asia, making up about 42 per cent of the total Southeast Asian population and 25 per cent of the total world Muslim population of 1.6 billion. The majority of them belong to the Sunni sect, and follow the Shafii school of Muslim jurisprudence. Three Southeast Asian countries - Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - have Muslim majority populations, while Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have Muslim minority populations. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and Brunei and is one of the officially recognised religions of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Southeast Asian Muslims come from many ethnic groups, speaking different languages such as Bahasa Indonesia, Malay, Javanese, Maranao, Maguindanao, Tausug, Thai, Chinese and Burmese.

Islam came to Southeast Asia in the 12th century. It was brought by Muslim traders and preachers from Gujarat in India and China, as they navigated the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Siam and the South China Sea. The 13th century saw the establishment of the first Islamic kingdom, in Pasai in Sumatra. The Islam brought by Sufi mystics lays stress on Islam's humanistic orientation, with emphasis on love and compassion.

It was a meeting between the monotheistic, pantheistic tradition of Islamic mysticism and Hindu-Buddhist monism, in the form of worshiping Siva and Buddha, which resulted in the emergence of syncretic Islam - a combination of the teachings of Islam mixed with Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs and ritual practices.

As a top-down movement the Javanese elites saw themselves as Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists at the same time. During the 15th and 16th centuries Islam spread through the works of the nine Muslims saints of Indonesia, known as Walisongo, who were of Indian and Chinese origins, and also through other mystics such as Hamza Fansuri (d. 1590), Shams al-Din of Pasai (d. 1630), while al-Raniri from Randher, Gujarat, India engaged in the spread of orthodox Islam.

By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, Islam was well spread in maritime Southeast Asia. The 17th century saw the settlement of Arab traders and scholars from Hadramawt/Yemen, who were regarded as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

The arrival of steamships eased travel for the hajj and soon many Southeast Asian Muslims began pursuing their religious studies in Arabia. Upon returning to their homelands, they mainstreamed Southeast Asian Islam along orthodox lines. This resulted in the emergence of two types of Islam in the region, known as abangan in Javanese, or kaum tua in Malay, and khana kau in Thai, representing popular Islam different from the orthodox Islam called santri in Bahasa Indonesia, or kaum muda in Malay, and khana mai in Thai. Both types continue to exist side by side today.

The 18th century witnessed the coming of two influences from the Middle East - puritanical Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia and the Islamic modernism of Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.

Islam in Southeast Asia today is witnessing a contest between all the above types of Islam as local Muslims seek to form their identity as citizens of both Muslim majority and Muslim minority countries. Indonesia and Malaysia are witnessing a robust intellectual discourse between different Islamic theological trends.

In the post-Suharto era and after 9/11, jihadist extremism surfaced in the region. Indonesia and Malaysia have been largely successful in combating terrorism.

At the popular level, the stress of economic development, and confrontation with materialistic modernity and consumerist globalisation, is driving many Southeast Asian Muslims to seek refuge in orthodox and puritanical interpretations of Islamic theology.

On the other hand, intellectually dynamic and creative Muslim scholars and activists such as Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia, and the late Nurcholish Madjid and late Abdulrahman Wahid of Indonesia, supported religious modernisation, the adoption of new Islamic hermeneutics and socio-theological trends of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue from within the Islamic Weltanschauung - "world view". This form of Islamic pluralism is a natural evolution from within the koranic and prophetic tradition of Islam.

Thailand and the Philippines are facing ethno-religious insurgent movements based on an ideology that views Islam from an ethnic perspective, laying stress on kinship, language and culture.

The difference between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, including the West, concerning religion, is that, in the former, all religions operate around ethnic identity, while in the latter, religions operate along theological and racial lines.

In the post-colonial era, Southeast Asian Muslims were greatly inspired by Arab nationalist leaders like Gemal Abdel Nasser. Nasser and Sukarno became the leaders of the Non-Aligned movement. Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), founded by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

Middle-Eastern Islamic events and movements such as the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat e Islami of Pakistan, inspired an Islamic resurgence in Southeast Asia during the 1970s and 80s, though it was moderate in orientation. Meanwhile, the Indonesian, Malaysian and Bruneian states implemented Islamisation ventures in the areas of education, economics and public space, thereby largely counteracting the Islamist agenda.

Malaysia and Indonesia are success stories in terms of functioning democracy and economic development. They offer a model worthy of emulation for the "Arab Spring". And in turn, the Arab Spring offers a post-Islamist model of polity, one that transcens Islamism as a political ideology and is moving towards a model in which religiosity, rights and freedoms co-exist in a balanced way. The state is not a religious police force and there is space for multiple political discourses.

Indonesia and Malaysia are a model worth learning from, as contemporary and other Muslim communities face the need to evolve into civil societies that respect religious pluralism and human dignity - an important principle in the Koran - "We have indeed conferred dignity on the children of Adam" (Koran: 17:70).

Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.


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