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Lesson Plan: "Islam in Southeast Asia"

Fred R. von der Mehden
Professor Emeritus Political Science
Rice University

Course: Political Science, Religion, Asian Studies
Syllabus Section: Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslims in Southeast Asia

Muslims in Southeast Asia are a majority in three states: Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. There are also significant Muslim minorities in Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Burma (Myanmar). Almost all are Sunni. Sufism, with its elements of flexibility and mysticism, had a strong influence in molding Islam in the years after its arrival in the region in the 13th century. It should be noted that Muslims in Southeast and South Asia comprise more than a third of the world's adherents to Islam, and Muslims in the Asia/Pacific region total almost two-thirds of all Muslims worldwide. Several characteristics of Islam in Southeast Asia help to explain Muslim belief and practice.

Syncretic Islam

Islam in the region has historically been influenced by pre-Muslim religions, particularly Hinduism, and animist beliefs resulting in a syncretic pattern of practice and world view. This syncretism remains strong in rural areas, although there are differences across the region. This syncretic interpretation of Islam has been criticized by those proclaiming a more "orthodox" Islam, resulting in political and intellectual confrontations. More recently, traditional patterns have been weakened by religious classes in public schools, modern communications, and religious teaching funded from the Middle East. (See C. Geertz's classic, The Religion of Java, Free Press, 1960, parts 2, 12, 17, 22, and conclusion.)

Political and Religious Pluralism

Islam in Southeast Asia has tended to foster a greater support for religious and political pluralism than is to be found among its counterparts in the Middle East. Islamic-oriented political parties and organizations in both Malaysia and Indonesia support competitive political systems and have cooperated with non-Islamic parties. In Malaysia, the most significant of these parties have been the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). Islamic parties in the Indonesian legislature are fragmented and are in the minority. However, leaders of the two largest religious organizations in Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, support pluralist principles. Islamic concepts in these countries have been employed to support the concept of democracy. Minority Muslim communities have participated in competitive politics in Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand. There has also been a general acceptance of the right of other religions to maintain their beliefs and practices.

This support for religious and political pluralism is not universal. Brunei is an absolute monarchy. Radical Islamic groups in the region such as the multinational Jemaah Islamiyah and now defunct Indonesian anti-Christian organization Laskar Jihad have called the concept of religious and political pluralism anti-Islamic. Minority separatist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and the Patani United Liberation Organization in southern Thailand have rejected cooperation with government representatives or Muslims seeking more moderate programs. Antipluralism is reinforced by conservative and radical interpretations of Islam, the latter frequently imported from the Middle East. (See R. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia, Princeton, 2002, chapters 1 and 8 and G. Means, Political Islam in Southeast Asia, Reinner, 2009, chapters 1, 8, and 12.)

Co-Identity of Islam and Ethnicity

In most of Southeast Asia individuals and groups identify Islam and their ethnicity as an integrated whole, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two when analyzing attitudes and actions. Thus in Malaysia to be Malay is to be Muslim, and the vast majority of Muslims are Malays. In the nationalist era between the two World Wars, many Indonesians identified their cause as both religious and ethnic, defining the conflict as one of Muslim Indonesians against the Christian Dutch. Muslim minorities throughout the region view themselves as distinct Islamic-ethnic groups in societies dominated by a majority different in religion and ethnicity. This perception has reinforced separatist movements in southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, and Burma. (For the Philippines and Thailand and Malaysia, see G. Means, Political Islam in Southeast Asia, chapters 9, 10, and 13.)

Questions for Discussion

  • What factors explain the religious and political pluralism found in Southeast Asia?
  • How has the syncretic nature of Islam in the region manifested itself?
  • How can the observers differentiate between Islam and ethnicity when analyzing factors responsible for attitudes or actions?
  • Are there issues other than religion and ethnicity that explain the separatism found among most Muslim minorities in the region?
  • The majority of Muslims in the world live in the Asia/Pacific region. Why have they not been more important in religious dialogue in the Muslim world?

Further Reading

For syncretism read M. Woodward, Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, University of Arizona Press, 1989. For issues of ethnicity, separatism, and pluralism read W. K. Che Man, Muslim Separatism: The Moros of Southern Philippines and the Malays of Southern Thailand, Oxford, 1990; M. Yegar, Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar, Lexington, 2002; and J. Liow, Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia, Oxford, 2009. Recommended primary sources dealing with ethnicity and pluralism are Nurcholish Madjid, Islamic Faith and the Problem of Pluralism: Relations Among the Believers and Osman Bakar, Islam and the Malay Civilizational Identity: Tension and Harmony Between Ethnicity and Religiosity.

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