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Islam and Southeast Asia

By Professor Merle Ricklefs

Director of Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages & Societies and Professor of Asian Studies at The University of Melbourne.

This speech is retrieved from the ABC Radio Australia site under link:
The Radio Australia Asia Pacific: Lecture Series

Islam is the newest of the world's universal religions, with its roots in seventh-century Arabia - first century Arabia, of course, in the Islamic calendar. In Southeast Asia - a non-Arabic part of the globe - Islam represents one of the most important and dynamic aspects of the contemporary scene.

Southeast Asia stretches from Myanmar in the northwest (Burma if you prefer the more common English term) through Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in the east, and south to Malaysia, Indonesia and Timor. Islam is found in a variety of guises across this region.

In some places it is a minority religion. In Myanmar, we find Bengali Muslims as an ethnic minority in a majority Buddhist nation. In southern Thailand is a long-standing Malay Muslim minority in another majority Buddhist state.

In the southern Philippines, Muslims are also a minority, this time in a majority Catholic country. This minority has generated long-standing resistance and rebellion against the government in Manila, and has links to violent networks in Indonesia.

In Malaysia, particularly in peninsular West Malaysia, we find about 8 million Muslim Malays, alongside about 4 ½ million Chinese and 1 ½ million Indians, some of them also Muslims. There are also significant Muslim communities elsewhere in Southeast Asia, particularly in Brunei and Singapore.

The giant of this story is of course Indonesia - a country of well over 200 million people, of whom around 180-190 million are Muslims. Indonesia in fact has the largest Muslim population of any nation in the world. It is also one of the most important of all nations for us in Australia. So we need to pay serious attention to Indonesia.
The total number of Southeast Asian Muslims is, therefore, of the order of 200 million people.

We are all aware of the dynamic stage of history in which Islam universally finds itself, and of the dramatic political and social developments which have been associated with Islam over recent years. That being so, clearly we in Australia need to have an understanding of where Islam in Southeast Asia now is, and where it might be heading. This issue is central to the future of our immediate region.

Islam in Indonesia
Indonesia is an interesting case. During the Revolution of 1945-49 and indeed into the 1960s, Indonesian governments had to deal with the Darul Islam rebellion, which rejected the authority of the national Indonesian government. Darul Islam has indeed proved to be a breeding-ground for much of the violent extremism seen in Indonesia today. And Islamic parties were involved in a rebellion of 1958. Political Islam was thereby tainted with the brush of treason.

Soeharto's authoritarian regime from the mid-1960s deeply distrusted Islamic politics. But from around 1990 on, Soeharto began to accommodate Islamic political aspirations. At the end, in 1998, some of the last groups to abandon their support for him were the most fundamentalist Islamic groups, which had sought in his patronage a way to implement their vision of what the state and society should be. There is every reason to suspect that remnants of the Soeharto regime retain their links with those fundamentalists.

Soeharto's courting of Islamic political support was partly because he wanted to counterbalance the influence of the military. But it was also, no doubt, a recognition of how dramatically Indonesian society had changed as a result of Islam reform movements. There were many indications of this. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, for example, the number of mosques in Indonesia roughly doubled. Urban middle-class Indonesians embraced Islamic lifestyles with real commitment.

Take the majority Javanese ethnic group, as a telling example. Today this is a population of around 100 million people. From the 19th century that society had divided into progressively more conflicting social categories, depending on one's degree of commitment to Islam. Pious Muslims looked down on people they called abangan - who paid only limited attention to the ritual requirements and laws of Islam, but who were the majority among Javanese. The proportion of Javanese who prayed five times a day, who paid the alms, who fasted during the fasting month Ramadan, who went on the hajj was very low. In the 1960s, for example, surveys reported that the Ramadan fast was observed by only 2% of the population of Central Java.

These categories became politicized, hardened over time by political competition, and eventually bloody. The culminating episode was the massive slaughter of hundreds of thousands in 1965-6. Since many abangan nominal Muslims had supported the Communist Party and the left wing of the Indonesian Nationalist Party, they were the objects of violence inspired and condoned by the Indonesian military and often carried out by Islamic militants.

A legacy of social conflict thus ended in the worst communal slaughter in Indonesian history. But since the 1960s, Islamic mission and reform work among the Javanese has transformed that society. Most observers - but not all - would now say that the abangan nominal Muslims are no longer a majority or even a significant political element in Java. The society is more pious, more Islamic, but also interestingly more multi-religious - for Christian missions also have had success there.

Thus, Indonesian society was more Islamic by the 1990s, but also that Islam had changed dramatically. Two developments seem to me to have been particularly important:

Firstly, fundamentalism has been on the rise in all religious traditions around the world from at least the 1960s or so. It is important to realize this. Islamic fundamentalism is in fact part of a much larger religious phenomenon. Consider, for example, the Protestant fundamentalism that has changed the religious demographics of South America and Korea, and become a significant political force in the United States. Or the Hindu fundamentalism that has altered the politics of India in sometimes tragic ways.

Islamic fundamentalism - in its modern form -- has roots at least as far back as the 18th century but it was given a tremendous boost by the success of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Throughout Indonesia, young people took to wearing Ayatollah Khomeini tee-shirts while radical Islamic leaders pondered Iran's lessons for their own nation.

Secondly, a younger generation of progressive religious thinkers was reacting to several major elements in their social and political environment: the inflexibility of their elders, whose search for political power was at a definitive dead end, the near-total hegemony of the Soeharto regime, which promised nothing but imprisonment or worse for dissident political action, the dramatically improved educational opportunities and future prospects of the urban middle class in a rapidly developing Indonesia, and the threat posed by fundamentalist movements to their own understanding of God's message and, indeed, to the prosperity now flowing to the burgeoning Indonesian middle class.

So from the 1970s we began to see new, creative, flexible, sophisticated interpretations of the message of Islam promoted by younger Muslim leaders. They saw the Indonesian national state as the final formulation of their political aspirations rather than as something to be overthrown for an Islamic state. They worked together with their peers from Christian and Hindu communities in community development projects and interfaith dialogue. They became the backbone of a network of religious institutes across Indonesia.

And the best and brightest did masters degrees and doctorates in western democratic societies: at Universities like McGill, Cornell, Columbia, Chicago, Leiden and -- and this is worth recognizing - at the Australian National University. More recently, Melbourne has joined ANU as a major center for postgraduate study by these highly sophisticated intellectual leaders of Indonesian Islam.

I would like you to note this dynamic in particular: On the one hand, more radical fundamentalist ideas and, on the other, more tolerant and liberal interpretations of the faith. It has been, in my view, in part the existence of former - the fundamentalist urge - which has encouraged the evolution of the latter - the tolerant liberalism for which Indonesian Islam is so well known.

This is a dynamic of particular relevance to our post-September 11 and post-Bali world.

Fundamentalist Movements
Let's look for a moment at fundamentalism and religious radicalism as general phenomena. I said a moment ago that this is not restricted to Islam, but is also found in other world religions: in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are some general features found across all fundamentalist movements which help us to understand what's going on.

First, fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. The world we live in is changing rapidly, and not everyone is comfortable with those changes. Our discomforts may take many forms, one of them being religious fundamentalism. But those who embrace fundamentalism may not be those one would expect to do so.

In Christian fundamentalism, in Hindu fundamentalism or in Islamic fundamentalism - whether in places like Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Tunisia, Malaysia or Indonesia - we see some common recruitment patterns. The rank and file of such movements are typically young men and women who have been to university - and most commonly who have studied the most competitive subjects: physical sciences, medicine and engineering.

Their discomfort is not with the modern, but with the failure of their societies to shape modernity in ways which they find rewarding and meaningful. So it should not surprise us that economic development and expanding educational opportunities have produced both liberal, intellectual and open forms of religious thought and intolerant fundamentalism These various religious groups have been able to form - and sometimes to take violent directions - in part because Islam is a faith without a controlling hierarchy. The same is true of Protestantism, of course. Anybody with enough money can set up a television church.

So let's remember that when we are talking about Islam in Southeast Asia, or about Islamic fundamentalism or liberalism, we are actually talking about specific cases of some universal human issues. Let's not let religious categories or senses of civilizational difference blind us to that. In this regard, I am fond of an observation by Salman Rushdie - himself of course someone who is quite familiar with the fruits of religious intolerance. In The Moor's Last Sigh, he comments, 'Civilisation is the sleight of hand that conceals our nature from ourselves.'
So let's not lose sight of the universal, human-nature, aspects of what we are discussing - despite differences of 'civilisation' or culture.

Recent Developments
Over the last 5-6 years, the circumstances of Southeast Asian, especially Indonesian, Islam have changed dramatically. First, there was the widespread crisis which spread from 1997. The currency collapsed, large numbers were thrown out of work, kids were withdrawn from schools, El Nino destroyed harvests, forest fires devastated large areas, families faced serious malnutrition, and there was wide-spread social violence. Political certainties were overturned.

Social conflict had already been on the rise since about 1994 in Indonesia. Some of this was between ethnic groups of the same religion, as in the case of Muslim Dayaks and Malays killing Muslim Madurese in West Kalimantan. In other cases it was inter-religious, as in attacks on churches in Java and, in the worst of all cases, the inter-religious violence in East Indonesia.

In Maluku, violence between Muslims and Christians took thousands of lives. From early 1999 to late 2002, it is estimated, over 6000 people died in the Maluku killings. Poso in Central Sulawesi also saw bloody conflict.

These bloody episodes gave birth to one of the most famous of Indonesia's violent Islamic movements, the Laskar Jihad - the Holy War Paramilitary. This sprang up in 2000 to carry out Holy War - jihad - against Christians in Maluku; and later Laskar Jihad fighters were also introduced into Papua. Poso and Maluku have also been crucial training grounds for the much smaller network of Jemaah Islamiyah - the network responsible for the Bali bombings. But let's not forget that Christians have also been killing Muslims there.

And then came September 11 2001 and the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Thus began what the US calls its 'war on terrorism'. What impact did those terrible events have in Southeast Asia?

I was in Jakarta between September 11 2001 and the beginning of the American attack upon Afghanistan. I was struck by the mobilization of young Indonesians as volunteers to go to Afghanistan to defend the Taliban and al-Qaeda against the expected American attack. There were many anti-American demonstrations and gestures, covered in great detail by the Indonesian and international news media.

Soon the United States and its allies - including Australia - were concerned that Indonesia seemed to be a place where al-Qaeda-related cells could flourish, with a government in Jakarta which lacked both the capacity and, it seemed, the political will to do much of anything. And where the Vice-President, Hamzah Haz, appeared to be currying the favour of fundamentalist groups.

Two reports by Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group in 2002 have analysed one network of such people in Indonesia, based at the religious school of Pondok Ngruki near Solo, in Central Java. They have networks linking them to fundamentalists in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and the Philippines. This is the Jemaah Islamiyah network, responsible for the atrocity in Bali last October. Elsewhere in Indonesia, there are other schools teaching doctrines of the kind taught in the Islamist madrasahs of Pakistan, the educational base of the Taliban's supporters.

But let us not forget the scale of Indonesia. The country is home to 190 million or so Muslims. So it need not surprise us that amongst them are some who are prepared to embrace radical, violent actions. Others seek a pious life through Sufism, through private piety, or through public service. Some mix piety with the worship of local spirits and listening to the prognostications of soothsayers.

In August 2002, for example, the Indonesian cabinet Minister for Religion, no less, was persuaded by the advice of a soothsayer to order an excavation under a major archaeological object, a pre-Islamic inscription in West Java. He was told that there would be found an ancient treasure of such value that the entire Indonesian national debt - about 130 Billion US Dollars, mind you - could be paid off. He believed it, he dug, the President reprimanded him and the Archaeological Service complained about damage to the site. There was, alas, no treasure.

Extent of Extremist Networks
It is important not to underestimate the reach and danger of violent extremist networks in Southeast Asia. Two years ago, on Christmas Eve 2000, Jemaah Islamiyah was able to deliver 38 bombs to churches or priests in 11 cities in Sumatra, Java and Lombok, timed to go off within 1 ½ hours of each other. Nineteen people died and around 120 were wounded. This was a formidable logistical and organizational achievement.

The Indonesian authorities did not then discover and dismantle the Jemaah Islamiyah network - so that it was able to carry on with other bombings and eventually launched the terrible attack in Bali of last October. Nor - let us remember - had Malaysia done anything to stop the use of Malaysia as a safe haven by this group and other terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.

But Bali has changed all that. With help from our own Australian Federal Police, Indonesian authorities have broken open the Jemaah Islamiyah network. One of the first things to become obvious is how small and personally interconnected the leadership of that group is. If, in late 2000, Indonesia and Malaysia had arrested 50 people or so, several hundred innocent dead and wounded would have been spared.

Bali has also had another consequence of great importance. The extremists have been widely discredited in the eyes of Southeast Asian Muslims. Politicians who were prepared to cultivate these people have lost credibility and are rapidly backing away from them. No one with any degree of rationality can now deny that there are terrorist networks in Indonesia, or claim that Bali was some sort of 'CIA plot'. The government of Indonesia has recognized that it must act against these networks or lose all hope of international aid, investment or cooperation. And it is acting.

It is important also not to overestimate these extremist networks. For - crucially - the Bali bombings have strengthened the influence of the moderate, liberal forces within the Islamic community. Fortunately, Indonesia is blessed with a large number of such tolerant, liberal, open-minded religious leaders. In any religion, where leaders base their authority on their personal piety and command of religious knowledge, there is a potential for more radical leaders to claim greater piety and knowledge, and thus to challenge the authority of others. In my view, Indonesian fundamentalists had been challenging the authority of the moderates with some success before the tragedies of September 2001 and October 2002.

But when al-Qaeda terrorists smashed aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, it was not only the extremists in places like Indonesia who were mobilized. So were the liberals. Enough is enough, they said to themselves - this has gone too far, and we must take a stand now.

And when Jemaah Islamiyah blew up Paddy's Bar a year later, the determination of the liberals was only strengthened and their influence enhanced.

Nahdlatul Ulama
When the liberal, tolerant leadership of Indonesian Islam takes a stand, it is a powerful force, for it has solid institutional foundations. I am talking in particular about the modernist organization Muhammadiyah, the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama, and the educational network of the State Islamic University and State Islamic Religious Institutes. These are immensely powerful institutional bases for the enlightened Islam we find in Indonesia.

Consider the numbers. Laskar Jihad had several thousand fighters: certainly an organization to arouse our concern. But it cannot compare in scale with Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. These two organisations together have a following of 60 to 80 million people. Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama now seek to work arm-in-arm to resist the views of the extremists at every turn.

At least as important are the State Islamic Religious Institutes and the State Islamic University. These constitute a university-level educational network with multiple campuses, thousands of staff and over one hundred thousand students across the nation. They are led by some of the most enlightened and intellectually high-powered people in the country. Many have done post-graduate study in multicultural democratic societies, notably in Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and Australia. Amongst their students are, of course, some radicals. But the majority of the students, the courses they take and the intellectual culture of this educational system are inspired by tolerant, forward-thinking and open Islam.

And let us never forget that things are not always what they seem in Indonesia. The prominent activist groups in Jakarta included the Islamic Defenders' Front, which made a practice of attacking night clubs and other dens of immorality. In August 2002 it busted up a Jakarta discotheque, bar and restaurant named 'Lucky Star' - an unlucky star as it happened. Hundreds of bottles of booze were smashed and the building was heavily damaged. But for the first time, the Islamic Defenders' Front used not only clubs and swords, but bulldozers as well. Explanation? Well - the owners of the land had done a deal to turn it into a parking lot for a shopping mall, but the 'Lucky Star' was refusing to move. So - guess what? - the Islamic Defenders Front suddenly found themselves supported by the bulldozers of the landowners - and no doubt by a tidy amount of money as well.

This tale illustrates how groups like Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front receive patronage and protection from outside extremist religious circles - from shady businessmen, the military and police, and from outside financial sources. It is probably a symbol - a hopeful one - of how nervous these people have become about playing with this particular sort of fire, that both Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders' Front were demobilized in late 2002.

Global Struggle
No one can say who will win the global struggle within Islam. But in Indonesia the creative thinkers of tolerant Islam have powerful positions and are determined to defeat extremist views. These men and women are in the vanguard of the resistance to extremism from within the Islamic world itself. The terrible loss of Australians, Indonesians and others who died and were injured in Bali last October, has only inspired this Indonesian Islamic leadership to further effort - to destroy the extremists' claim that they represent Islam.

It is even possible that a new stage of Islamic history - one which fulfills Islam's promise to create a more pious and just society that is consistent with our post-modern world - may already have begun in Indonesia. Non-Muslim peoples and states - like Australia - who fear Islamic extremism would do well to recognize the global significance of such creative Islamic leaders, and to think seriously about ways to support them. Here in Australia, we are lucky to have them as our neighbours. Our shared tragedy must give rise to shared hope for a better world, to which Islam and other religions can contribute.