Southeast Asia-The Modernist Muslim
Karim Raslan is author of Ceritalah: Malaysia in Transition
and is a founding partner of Raslan Loong, a leading Malaysian financial
Kuala Lumpur -
Recent events in the Middle East would seem to confirm American fears
about the wisdom of engaging with the Islamic world. However, the ummah
(congregation of believers) is extremely diverse, and while the Arab world
in particular has failed miserably in terms of governance, human rights
and democracy, the same cannot be said of all Muslim societies.
In Southeast Asia, the Muslim-majority nations of Indonesia and Malaysia
are faced with the same trio of economic, political and theocratic challenges.
Instead of succumbing to the forces of religious obscurantism, incompetence
and repression, the region's Muslims are set to provide a template for
modernist believers across the globe.
Politically, both nations are vibrant if flawed democracies. Indonesia's
freewheeling and robust media stand out. And while the ballot box has
remained sacrosanct in the two countries, the independence of the judiciary
(witness the trials of Tommy Suharto and Anwar Ibrahim) has certainly
been called into question.
In economic terms Malaysia has eclipsed Indonesia. With a population of
only 23 million people, the country has developed into an economic powerhouse,
growing at more than 3 percent per annum and exporting well more than
$100 billion worth of merchandise-twice as much as India and the equivalent
of Israel, Iran and Turkey combined.
Interestingly, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, concluding
an Asia-Pacific tour, has also discovered Southeast Asia's charms. The
leading regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), has inked a high-profile anti-terrorism pact with the US.
The fact that ASEAN's members (three of whom are Muslim-majority nation-states)
was able to sit down-at this highly emotional juncture-and hammer out
a treaty that is broadly supportive of the US reveals a great deal about
the region's inherent pragmatism and plurality.
Certainly, substantial American foreign direct investment over the past
decades as well as the recent resumption of economic growth in the region
after the debilitating Asian financial crisis of 1997 has contributed
to a sense of well being. In much of Southeast Asia (the Philippines and
Vietnam excluded), America, unlike Britain and the Netherlands, is still
remembered for its historic commitment to self-determination and anti-colonialism.
However, this does not mean that American foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis
Israel, is popular among the region's Muslim communities. Far from it.
The White House's perceived partisanship in the Middle East and the continuing
fixation with Iraq has done untold damage to American prestige and moral
authority. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's vituperative criticisms
of Israel's leader Ariel Sharon are by no means isolated. There is no
doubt that support for the region's moderate Muslim leaders is undermined
by continuing American hard-headedness in the Middle East.
Still, the region's 230 million Muslims (more than in all of the Arab
Middle East) remain a bastion of democracy, modernist scholarship and
openness in the Islamic world: a vital counterweight to the narrow-minded
bigotry and Wahabi-inclined conservatism of the Arab world. Indonesia-in
this instance surpassing Malaysia-is an acknowledged center for liberal
Islamic scholarship. Moreover, unlike Egypt or Saudi Arabia, in Indonesia
moderate Muslim academics and thinkers occupy senior positions in leading
The country's moderate Muslim scholars are not effete, Western-educated
secularists. Most of them emerged from rural pesantrems (religious schools),
are fluent in Arabic and are trained in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
They are well equipped to debate substantive religious issues and do not
retreat from confrontation. As Shafie Ma'arif, the head of the 30 million-strong
Muhammidiyah association, declares, "We are Koranic scholars who
believe in the enlightening impact of education (including for women)
and social welfare. We maintain our moderation in the face of challenges
from the conservatives. We must draw from the Holy Koran, and we must
always consider the practical dimension of our arguments."
With more than 30 million members apiece, moderate associations such as
the Muhammidiyah and the Nahdatul Ullama have had a deep impact on the
community. Their enduring commitment to civil society, interfaith dialogue
and secular education has helped halt the slide to conservatism.
Their schools and colleges churn out thousands of religious scholars every
year-dwarfing the numbers produced by the extremist groups such as the
Laskar Jihad. Moreover with universities such as the State Academy of
Islamic Sciences (IAIN), a new generation is being imbued with modernist
thinking, tolerance of other faiths and sensitivity to gender rights.
Indonesian liberals are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of
Muslims as well as an epoch-making attempt to extract the prophetic truths
from the Holy Koran in a manner that shows the inherent compatibility
of modern-day concerns with the sacral texts. And at a recent international
conference on progressive Islam in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysian scholars spent many hours listening to and learning from their
Much of this is due to Southeast Asia's extraordinary racial and religious
diversity. While Muslims constitute the majority in Malaysia, Brunei and
Indonesia, they are the largest minority in Catholic Philippines, Buddhist
Thailand and Confucian Singapore. Unlike the Middle East, minority rights
and pluralism are a fact of life in Southeast Asia.
It is also important to bear in mind the peaceful manner with which Islam's
eternal message of truth and justice was spread in the region. Unlike
the Subcontinent, conversion was generally achieved through a process
of persuasion rather than brute force. As a consequence, underlying Hinduistic
and Buddhist cultural mores have been adopted and adapted rather than
expunged. This in turn has encouraged Southeast Asia's Muslims to be more
accommodating on issues such as faith and ritual.
Malaysia has an important role to play in the promotion of modernist Islamic
thinking across the globe. It is clearly in America's interest that this
moderate and highly developed Muslim democracy, with its thriving multiracial
ethos, succeed and prosper.
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