Islamic resurgence and renewal in Southeast Asia

Preliminary notes for the Round Table discussion at the EUROSEAS conference,
Paris, 2 September 2004


Islam, radicalism and social change

The place of Islam in Southeast Asian societies has in recent years received unprecedented attention, both from the general public and from academics, but this has mostly been due to a wave of ethno-religious conflicts throughout the region and to a series of terrorist attacks, real or alleged, attributed to Jama'ah Islamiyah and similar groups. Although Islam may not be the major factor in regional conflicts such as those in Acheh, Patani, and the southern Philippines, it is conspicuously present as the core of the asserted identities. The conflict in the Moluccas may have started as one between indigenous and immigrants but soon religion became its chief defining element. Jihad movements supporting Muslim communities in the southern Philippines, the Moluccas and Sulawesi against their non-Muslim enemies demonstrated the existence of significant transnational networks of Islamic radicals, which also spawned a number of small terrorist groups. And thus Islam, jihad and terrorism became inextricably linked in the mind of many outside observers - to which many Muslims in the region responded with the equally simplistic denial of the very existence of Islamic terrorist networks.

Due to the jihad movements, vigilante groups and terrorist cells that have drawn so much attention, Islam has to many observers become primarily a security issue. The security-oriented view, however, obscures more of the dynamic of Islam in the region than it elucidates. It is certainly true that transnational networks and communications have increasingly impacted on the discourses and practices of Muslims in the region, but ‘jihad tourism’ in Afghanistan and later in the southern Philippines has made up a relatively insignificant aspect of the transnational experiences Southeast Asian Muslims have engaged in. And the radical thought inspiring movements that endorse violence in the name of Islam is but a minor though dangerous element in the wide range of ideas impacting on the region from abroad. Throughout the region, there has been a remarkable turn to religion during the past two decades, an active and engaged search for Islamic ideas and practices that are (or can be made) relevant to societies undergoing rapid economic and social change and political turmoil, and an adoption of Islam as the core element of modern identities and life styles. In all countries of Southeast Asia, though in different modalities depending on whether Muslims constitute the majority (as in Indonesia and, more delicately, Malaysia), regionally concentrated ethno-religious communities (as in Thailand and the Philippines) or dispersed minorities (as elsewhere), Islam has assumed a more visible presence in the public sphere.

Mass education, Muslim middle class, and access to authoritative sources

Two mutually related developments underlie many of the other relevant changes that have taken place over the past few decades: one is the educational revolution – mass literacy and almost universal modern school type education, and the accessibility of higher education to significant sections of the population at large – that has seriously challenged the authority of the traditional ulama; another is the emergence of sizeable Muslim middle classes, that constitute a vast market for Islamic consumer goods through wich Islamic identity is affirmed.

Mass literacy gave broad strata of society direct access to written sources in the vernacular languages – including translations of the Qur’an and hadith, of course, but more commonly secondary materials ranging from simple ‘how to’ booklets to sophisticated theological treatises, Sufi texts and works by Muslim intellectuals. The oral transmission of Islamic knowledge in the pesantren (pondok, surau, madrasah) is continuing, but it is now complemented by a wide range of mediated forms of dissemination, through books and journals, radio and television, videocassette or VCD and the Internet. There is a multiplicity of authoritative voices; discussion and debate have become more common than the unquestioning acceptance of a teacher’s words.

International developments, transnational networks, and reform movements

Increasing numbers of Southeast Asians have been studying abroad, and Mecca and Cairo are no longer the chief foreign sources of (religious) knowledge. Students of religion have been going to centres of higher learning in India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even Turkey and Iran (since the Revolution), but also to universities in North America, Western Europe and Australia. It was not only students of religion but also, and perhaps especially, students of ‘secular’ subjects who abroad became involved in religious study circles and transnational networks. Within the Southeast Asian region as well, the movement of people and ideas across national boundaries has increased.

A few international developments have been of special significance: the rapid rise of oil revenues in the 1970s, which made the Gulf countries large-scale sponsors of Islamic activities; the Iranian revolution, which inspired numerous disaffected students and intellectuals; and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the American-inspired jihad that it provoked. The Muslim World League (Rabitat al-`Alam al-Islami) and associated organizations such as WAMY (World Association of Muslim Youth) were originally established in the 1960s by Saudi Arabia to counter the threatening influence of Nasser’s Arab Socialism, but they became more powerful due to the 1970s oil boom and aggressively strove to counter Iran’s revolutionary influence throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Rabita and various Saudi and Kuwaiti foundations that funneled zakat money to Southeast Asia (as well as other parts of the Muslim world) built mosques, supported schools and sponsored publications. They endorsed Ikhwani (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood-derived) and Salafi (‘Wahhabi’) varieties of Islamic teachings, that often clashed with both traditional Islamic teachings and practices current in the region and with more ‘liberal’ and ‘modernist’ Islamic thought as well as the various sects, schools and movements branded ‘deviant’ by Muslim puritans (such as the Ahmadiyah, Sufi orders and other Sufism-inspired movements, perennialism and syncretistic sects).

The reform movements of the early twentieth century had all over the region given rise to conflicts between kaum muda and kaum tua, and people continued using these and equivalent terms, but they no longer were an adequate summing up of the range of Islamic discourses and practices. The opposition of ijtihad and taqlid, which had defined the difference between reformists and traditionalists, had lost much of its relevance and new differentiations had emerged in both camps. Political developments (different in each country) had brought important and influential segments of the reformists ever closer to Muslim Brotherhood thought, whereas especially in Indonesia many members of the rising Muslim middle class adhered to ‘liberal’ views that stressed the contextuality of sacred scripture and acknowledged pluralism of interpretations. Calls to implement the shari`a and to Islamicize society and the state, as well as political parties with an Islamist platform, emerged in Indonesia mostly from ‘reformist’ circles, in Malaysia and elsewhere primarily from ‘traditionalist’ ones.

Islam, the state, and civil society

The role of the state in Islamization programmes has been significant, at least in the two Muslim majority states. Partly in order to pre-empt the Islamist opposition, partly to gain grassroots support, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have engaged in what may be called ‘Islamization from above’, enacting relevant legislation, empowering Islamic courts, supporting Islamic banking, and creating numerous other Islamic institutions. Instead of being a neutral arbiter between different religious communities, in these countries the state has, during the past few decades, tended to align itself with the Muslims. In the countries where Muslims constitute a minority, there have been demands of autonomy in religious matters (as well as political autonomy) and similar efforts at institution-building.

‘Islamization from above’ has by no means weakened grassroots shari`a movements, of which a wide range remains active, each with its own understanding of what is central to the shari`a, from the conservative to the revolutionary. Some are home-grown (such as the various groups coming out of Indonesia’s Darul Islam movement) but most are strongly influenced by shari`a movements elsewhere and have extensive connections with transnational networks, both in the region and beyond.

Muslim civil society – NGOs, associations, loose networks – has been experiencing significant expansion since the 1980s. In Indonesia this was largely due to the support from international NGOs, especially since the fall of Suharto; in the other countries there may have been other contributing factors. Much of this vigorous civil society activity has been conducive to social integration — it has been observed in Indonesia that people who were active in such Muslim associations as Muhammadiyah and NU also tended to take part in social activities connecting them with other segments of society — but the number of exclusive, sect-like religious associations that shield their members from contacts with outsiders has also been increasing. Different demographic relations (proportions of Muslims and non-Muslims) and different policies of the various Southeast Asian states have resulted in quite different types of civil society and a great variety in the pattern of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Modernization without secularization? Return of the sacred?

The well-known models of development of Muslim societies of Geertz and Gellner, in which ‘classical styles’ of Sufi-inspired Islam and ecstatic popular religiosity inexorably give way to shari`a-oriented scripturalism, account for only a part of the religious change that has taken place. It is true that scripturalism has become more prominent, but within the scripturalist fold one finds not only those who tend towards a literalist Salafism but also those insisting on alternative hermeneutic principles. The resurgence of Sufism in many varieties among the new middle classes, quite against the expectations of Geertz and Gellner, has perhaps been the most remarkable aspect of the turn to religion of the 1990s (most clearly so, obviously, in Indonesia, but in spite of official policies discouraging Sufism in Malaysia it appears to hold a great appeal there too).

There is little doubt that Islam, and religion in general, has become more prominently present in the public sphere in all societies concerned, but this does not mean the complete failure of secularization theory. The intensification of religion among certain, highly visible segments of society may well be offset by the decline of religiosity among other segments. Religion as religion may have become more important in many individuals’ personal lives and in the way they organize their social and political lives, but the sacred dimension of numerous everyday activities, from the production of food to the maintenance of health, has largely disappeared. If secularization is understood as the disenchantment of the world, the decline of the magical or sacred aspect of worldly activities, it may be said that puritan reformist movements are themselves part of the process of secularization, as Bryan Wilson has argued.) Many religious institutions (religious courts, schools, etc.), though respected, are no longer seen as sacred in themselves. Islamic banking and Islamic economics present themselves as alternatives to the dominant systems but they are not any more sacred than neo-liberal economic policies. Islamists, who claim that Islam prescribes coherent systems of economic, political and social organization, implicitly seek the legitimatization of religion by its social roles (whereas in traditional society social arrangements were legitimated by their sacred dimension).