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The Middle East and Muslim Southeast Asia: Implications of the Arab Spring

Asst. Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf
Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion
Assumption University
Bangkok, Thailand

There are many theories about the rise and the current impasse of the Arab Spring that emerged in 2011. There are two that stand out prominently: The first is the secularist perspective of "post Islamism" proposed by Asef Bayat, who argues that the Arab Spring offers a post-Islamist model of Muslim polity that transcends the political ideology of Islamism that emerged in 1960's as a multifaceted political philosophy taking different shapes in different Muslim countries. Post-Islamism is a coalition of different social groups: the revolutionary youth, labor unions, secularists, liberals, and a variety of Islamists. It marks a move toward a political model in which religiosity, human rights, and freedoms co-exist under the rule of law. It strives for a democratic state which does not act as religious police and instead offers space for the existence of multiple political discourses.1

Second, there is the "trans-Islamic revolution" theory proposed by Abdelwahab El-Affendi. It holds that the current Arab revolutions constitute a phenomenon in which Islam is no longer an issue, because it is no longer a matter of contention. Both the Islamists and their liberal secular rivals have evolved and reached a consensus about the place of Islam in politics, as seen in the case of the 2004 Kefaya movement in Egypt, and the current ruling alliance of the Islamists and the secularists in Tunisia.2 The current contest, rather, is between the political alliance of the revolutionaries vis-à-vis the remnants of the previous autocrat leaders such as the felool—The cronies of ousted president Hosni Mubarak—and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt.

In 2010, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) , a group of 57 countries, had only five democratic members: Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Pakistan. As of 2011, that list has grown to include Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, with potentially more on the horizon. Judging from the events of the past decade, it is clear that the Muslim populations of the Middle East and Southeast Asia share a common desire for freedom, respect for human dignity, development and an end to corruption.

Islam in Southeast Asia: A Brief History

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, estimated at 1.6 billion. The majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia 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 Muslims in Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are in the minority.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and Brunei, and is one of the officially recognized 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. Unlike the Middle East, where relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians operate along theological lines, the relations between Islam, Buddhism and Christianity in Southeast Asia operate around ethnic identity. Here an Indonesian and a Malay are Muslim; a Thai/Laotian/Cambodian is a Buddhist; a Filipino is a Christian; and a Chinese is a Taoist/Confucianist or a Christian. Ethnoreligious identities also determine the social relations between religious majority and minority in each country.

Islam came to Southeast Asia in the 12th century, thanks to Muslim traders and preachers from Gujarat in India and China, who 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 developed by Sufi mystics lays stress on Islam's humanistic orientation, with emphasis on love and compassion.3 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.4

In a top-down arrangement, Javanese elites saw themselves as Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all at the same time. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam spread through the works of the nine Muslim saints of Indonesia, known as Walisongo, who were of Indian and Chinese origins, and also through other mystics such as Hamza Fansuri (d. 1590), and Shams al-Din of Pasai (d. 1630). Others, such as al-Raniri (d. 1658) from Randher, Gujarat, India, engaged in the propagation of orthodox Islam.5

By the time of the Portuguese arrived, Islam had a firm footing in maritime Southeast Asia. This continued to develop in the 17th century, when Arab traders and scholars from Hadramawt/Yemen settled in the area. They were held in high esteem as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad—even to this day, in some quarters.6

The arrival of steamships made travel easier for Muslims to fulfill their obligation of Hajj pilgrimage. Soon many Southeast Asian Muslims began pursuing their religious studies in Arabia. Upon returning to their homelands, they started the translation movement through which Arabic religious texts were interpreted in the regional vernacular languages. This movement mainstreamed Southeast Asian Islam along orthodox lines and Arabian patterns of lifestyle and culture. As a result, two types of Islam emerged in the region. The first, known as abangan in Javanese, or kaum tua in Malay, and khana kau in Thai, represents local syncretic 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. In addition, 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.7

Islam in Contemporary Southeast Asia

Islam in Southeast Asia today is witnessing a contest between all the above types of Islam as local Muslims seek to form their identities as citizens of both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries. Indonesia and Malaysia in particular are witnessing a robust intellectual discourse between different Islamic theological trends. Thailand and the Philippines, meanwhile, are facing ethno-religious insurgent movements based on an ideology that views Islam from an ethnic perspective, laying stress on kinship, language and culture. 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. But at the popular level, the stress of economic development, and the confrontation with materialistic modernity and consumerist globalization, is driving many Southeast Asian Muslims to seek refuge in orthodox and puritanical interpretations of Islamic theology.

In the post-colonial era, Southeast Asian Muslims were greatly inspired by Arab nationalist leaders such as Gemal Abdel Nasser, who joined with Indonesia's Sukarno to become the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. Later, 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.


In this atmosphere, intellectually dynamic and creative Muslim scholars and activists such as Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia and the late Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005), and the late Abdulrahman Wahid (d. 2009) of Indonesia, supported religious modernization, 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 Qur'anic and prophetic tradition of Islam. Indeed, these thinkers have wrote some of the most influential treatises regarding the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and development.

The 1998 Reformasi in Indonesia, which brought an end to thirty years rule under Suharto as president, along with the continuing struggle (and recent court victories) of the former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, have greatly inspired millions of Muslim democrats and reformists around the world.

The region produced a number of reform-minded intellectuals. Nurcholish Madjid, for example, was an Indonesian Muslim modernist whose career as a scholar and activist started with his role in HMI—the Islamic Association of University Students in Indonesia. As a young Muslim activist during the authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and Suharto, he realized that little could be gained through Islamising the political system; rather, such an initiative would eventually prove to be an obstacle. Hence, he proposed an "Islam yes, Islamic party no" strategy. For Madjid, Islam was not merely a political campaign but also a civilization mission that was educational and cultural, embodying religious pluralism and democracy.

Gus Dur (or Abdurrahman Wahid), a partner of Madjid's in opposing Suharto, was a democrat and a pluralist who offered an alternative model of Islamist political activity. He modernized the traditional Indonesian Muslim organization, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU), in the areas of education and political theology. He contributed to the formation of "Civil Islam" in Indonesia, and was later elected as the first president of post-Suharto Indonesia. The most important legacy of Gus has been his commitment to reform, modernization and democracy. Wahid held the conviction that Indonesia's stability should be rooted in the principle of unity in diversity and open politics, leading to the success of democracy in a Muslim majority country. He once remarked, "I am for an Indonesian society, not just an Islamic one." What mattered, according to him, was not the question of whether there was scriptural compatibility between Islam and democracy, but whether Muslims have a political intent, ambition, and capacity for democracy. Current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called Wahid a "father of multiculturalism and pluralism".

As president, Gus Dur lifted Suharto's ban on the public use of the Chinese language and the practice of Chinese cultural tradition, and made the celebration of the Chinese New Year a national holiday. Wahid guaranteed full citizenship to ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. He also defended the religious freedom of Indonesian Christians and the Ahmaddiyah's to exist in Indonesia on the constitutional principle of freedom of religion. For Wahid, pluralism was not only an intellectual concept but a matter of practice.


The Malaysia of Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim witnessed a contest between two political parties (UMNO and PAS) over the concept of an Islamic state. During his tenure as prime minister (1981–2003), Mahathir Muhammad declared Malaysia to be an Islamic state. This era also witnessed the Islamization of educational, economic, and social sectors of Malaysian society. Since that time, every Malaysian prime minister has declared an Islamic agenda for the country. Mahathir's successor Abdullah Badawi (2003–2009) declared his Islamic policy of Islam Hadhari, aimed at promoting compatibility between Islam and economic and technological development. The current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (2009–) does not have a specific Islamic agenda, but in the face of growing inter-ethnic tensions between the Malays, Chinese, and Indians, Najib proposed the "1Malaysia" campaign to bridge the ethnic divide, while also promoting himself as a moderate Muslim through his international agenda of "The Global Movement of Moderates", initiated in 2012. Mahathir Mohamed has warned that such moves towards liberalization will worsen ethnic tensions; the government, he claims, will be weakened, unable to act firmly against political forces that demand free and fair elections.8

Anwar Ibrahim, it should be noted, has become a steadfast Muslim democrat, imprisoned several times for upholding justice and equality. As an ardent democrat, he calls for religious and ethnic pluralism in Malaysia. He is a naturally evolved Muslim pluralist inspired by Islamic teaching and its humane values. As a student leader, Anwar founded the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM)—the Muslim Youth Movement—in 1971. As Deputy Prime Minister, he proposed the philosophy of "Asian Renaissance" in 1996 as a means for the "development and flowering of Asian societies based on a certain vision of perfection. This philosophy envisions societies imbued with truth and the love of learning, justice and compassion; mutual respect and forbearance; and freedom with responsibility. Faith and religious practice is not confined to the individual; it permeates the life of the community." Based on the teachings of Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, the Asian Renaissance holds that an Asian is essentially a persona religious.

Southeast Asian Muslim countries are facing tremendous challenges from the materialist impact of globalization in all dimensions of life. These challenges come at two levels, among others: one is the condition of religious thought in relation to materialist development, and the other is in the modes of social relations.

A gap has emerged between the state of development and the condition of religious thought. While some sections of the middle classes have opted for a rationalization of materialism within a religious framework, a majority of the populace has chosen a puritanical religious interpretation, along with the practice of the Wahhabi version of Salafism, which rejects modernity in favor of a simplistic interpretation of Islamic faith and a literal understanding of the Qur'an. This phenomenon is dislocating local religious practice and culture in Muslim Southeast Asia by producing a gap between the impact of development and the condition of Islamic religious thought. This can be termed "development stress". As a result, religious thought has stagnated, while materialist development has flourished, thereby encouraging religious conservatism and social exclusivism.

The Implications of the Arab Spring for Southeast Asia: A Comparison

The contemporary Middle East demonstrates that the political contest between the secularists and Islamists is not a contest about Islam as the identity of the state, but rather over the role of religion in politics. In the context of the Muslim world, Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia has called for liberating religion from state.9 The autocrats, he claims, have monopolized the control of religion in order to hold on to the reins of power for as long as possible. While this debate continues in the Middle East, the majority of Southeast Asian states have always been "semi-secular", such as Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia and Buddhist Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. The Philippines is guided by Catholic values while Singapore—a secular authoritarian state—has undertaken politico-bureaucratic measure to control its Muslim community.10

Just like the Middle East, Southeast Asia also has its Islamist parties. The two prominent ones are the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS in Malaysia and Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS in Indonesia. Both of them are transforming their political platform to become politically inclusive and pragmatic in the face of the demands for electoral reform and the need for political pluralism in and stability.

Hamid Dabashi refers to the Arab Spring as the end of post-colonialism.11 In a way, post-1945 Middle East and Muslim Southeast Asia shared similar political features of authoritarianism through the dominance of single political party, as in the case of Malaysia, where the state has total control of the media, implements drastic internal security Laws, and features political leaders have are in power for long periods such as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed (r. 1981–2003) and President Suharto (r. 1968–1998). The latter was brought down by the Reformasi revolt, while the post-Mahathir era in Malaysia is reeling under demands for more political freedom, electoral reform in the form of "Bersih 2.0", good governance, transparency, and demands for social justice and economic opportunities for its ethnic minorities.

Indonesia is shuddering with the rise of Muslim religious intolerance toward the Ahmadiyya, Shi'i, and other religious minorities as Muslim radical groups such as Front Pembela Islam (FPI) pressures the government and engages in violence. The current government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (r. 2004–) has proven to be weak in responding to the rising religious intolerance and sectarian strife in Indonesia, much to the dismay of the majority populace which elected him in the hope for democratic, developed and peaceful Indonesia. During the same period, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), Indonesia's top religious body, has issued a fatwa declaring secularism, pluralism, and liberal interpretations of Islam as haram—forbidden.12

Such a state of affairs has led Indonesian and Malaysian opposition leaders, civil society groups, academics, and majority moderate Muslim populace to call for reforms as well as for respect for human dignity, establishment of fairness, pluralism and social justice—demands similar to those raised in the Arab Spring. The difference will be in the process of achieving these goals. The spread and success of Arab Spring and its consequences for social and religious life and thought in the Middle East will also impact religious life, thought and socio-religious practice in Muslim Southeast Asia. In modern times, Muslim Southeast Asia provided the Middle East with a model of compatibility between Islam, democracy and development; hopefully the post-Arab Spring Middle East will offer the currently reeling Muslim Southeast Asia with examples of religious tolerance and pluralism from the birthplace of Islam.


The contemporary Muslim populations of the Middle East and Southeast Asia commonly desire freedom, respect for human dignity, development and an end to corruption. Southeast Asian Muslim countries embarked on the path of democratization years ago, and are currently better off in terms of economic development in comparison with Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, etc. Still, Muslim Southeast Asia, like the Middle East, continues to face the perennial religious problem such as intra and interreligious tolerance, issues that have not been amicably resolved as they are subject to politics of religion, whereby the state controls religion for its own legitimization while at the same time allowing free rein to the radical groups to terrorize the minorities—along with the moderate and liberal Muslims—on the basis of their self-religious authoritarianism. One reason for this development is the rise of religious puritanism of both local and imported origins. Therefore, while the post-Arab Spring Middle East has yet to resolve these issues, the situation in Muslim Southeast Asia democracies illustrates the social results if these problems are not addressed. Especially when there appears to be a glut of politicians and a dearth of statesmen.

Malaysia and Indonesia are success stories in terms of creating a functioning democracy and encouraging 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 for the Southeast Asian Muslims, one that transcends Islamism as a political ideology and is moving toward a model in which religiosity, rights and freedoms co-exist in a balanced way; where the state is not a religious police force and there is space for multiple political discourses.

Contemporary Arabs, Indonesians and Malaysians face the need to develop civil societies that respect religious pluralism and human dignity—an important principle in the Qur'an: "We have indeed conferred dignity on the children of Adam" (17:70). Yet, there is growing fear among the Southeast Asian non-Muslims concerning the rise of religious intolerance in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The most pertinent issue confronting the Muslim world today is not about the separation or non-separation of religion and politics, but about balancing the spiritual and legal aspects of the religion. Moving away from the practice of religion which sees it merely as a law and politics centered around the hudud code, this new process of democratization will enable the emergence of a balanced spirituality in the interests of democracy, freedom, development, and human dignity. The pluralist Arab Spring is making such space available for the Muslim world, which should not go to waste.

Politics in the Muslim world will, at best, be semi-secular, as seen in Southeast Asian and African countries. The Arab Spring demonstrates that the people have not rejected religion, but they have rejected religious leadership. Call it post-Islamism or Trans-Islamic, Arab Spring countries are embarking on a path toward democracy grounded in their grassroots for the first time.

Selected Bibliography

  • Abaza, Mona. Changing Images of Three Generations of Azharites in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993.
  • ———. Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds. 1st ed. Routledge, 2002.
  • Azra, Azyumardi. The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern "Ulama" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Allen & Unwin / Honolulu, 2004.
  • Bayat, Asef. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Stanford University Press, 2009.
  • ———. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. The Arab spring: the end of postcolonialism. London; New York: Zed Books, 2012.
  • Fatimi, S. Q. Islam comes to Malaysia. Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963.
  • Hefner, Robert W. Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam. Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid eds., The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 3, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  • Ibrahim, Ahmad. Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia. Edited by Ahmad Ibrahim, Yasmin Hussain, and Sharon Siddique. Ashgate Pub Co, 1987.
  • Kinney, Ann R., Marijke J. Klokke, and Lydia Kieven. Worshiping Siva & Buddha. University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
  • Laffan, Michael. Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds. 1st ed. Routledge, 2007.
  • Ricklefs, M. C. Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries. EastBridge, 2006.
  • Rinkes, Douwe Adolf. Nine saints of Java. Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1996.
  • Sardar, Ziauddin. Critical Muslim 1: The Arabs Are Alive. C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2012.
  • Tagliacozzo, Eric, ed. Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Duree. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2009.


1Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2007). Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2009).
2Abdelwahab El-Affendi, "A Trans-Islamic Revolution?" in Ziauddin Sardar, Critical Muslim 1: The Arabs Are Alive (C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2012) pp. 61-84.
3Ann R. Kinney, Marijke J. Klokke, and Lydia Kieven, Kinney. Worshiping Siva & Buddha. (University of Hawaii Press, 2003); Geoff Wade, "Early Muslim expansion in South-East Asia, eighth to fifteenth centuries" in David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid eds., The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 3, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 366-408; S. Q. Fatimi, Islam comes to Malaysia (Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963).
4M. C. Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries (EastBridge, 2006); Robert W. Hefner, Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam (Princeton University Press, 1990).
5Douwe Adolf Rinkes, Nine saints of Java (Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1996); Ahmad Ibrahim, Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia, ed. Ahmad Ibrahim, Yasmin Hussain, and Sharon Siddique (Ashgate Pub Co, 1987).
6Mohammad Redzuan Othman, "The Role Of Makka-Educated Malays In The Development Of Early Islamic Scholarship And Education In Malaya" Journal of Islamic Studies (1998) 9(2): 146–157; Azyumardi Azra, The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern "Ulama" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Allen & Unwin / Honolulu, 2004).
7Michael Laffan, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds, 1st ed. (Routledge, 2007); Eric Tagliacozzo, ed., Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Duree, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2009); Mona Abaza, Changing Images of Three Generations of Azharites in Indonesia (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993).
8Dan Martin, "Reform will 'lift the lid on ethnic tension." Bangkok Post, 18 June 2012, p. 6.
9"Secularism and Relation between Religion and the State from the Perspective of the En-Nahdah Party," Transcript of Rachid Ghannouchi's Speech at Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) on 2 March 2012 available at http://anwaribrahimblog.com/2012/03/19/transcript-of-rachid-ghannouchis-speech-at-csid-tunisia-on-2-march-2012-on-secularism-and-relation-between-religion-and-the-state-from-the-perspective-of-the-en-nahdah-party/. Accessed 17 June 17, 2012.
10Lily Zubaidah Rahim, "Governing Muslims in Singapore's Secular Authoritarian State" Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol.66, No.2, April, 2012, pp.
11Hamid Dabashi, The Arab spring: the end of postcolonialism (London; New York: Zed Books, 2012).
12Piers Gillespie, "Current Issues in Indonesian Islam: Analysing the 2005 Council of Indonesian Ulama Fatwa No. 7 Opposing Pluralism, Liberalism and Secularism." Journal of Islamic Studies (2007)18 (2): 202-240.

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Subject Entries

The Compatibility of Islam and Democracy
Indonesia, Islam and Democracy in
Indonesia, Islam and Politics in
Malaysia, Islam and Politics in
Southeast Asia, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in
Thailand, Muslim Minority in
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