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By Invitation

Political Islam's changing face in South-east Asia

With exclusivist sentiments seeping into the region's majority-Muslim countries, there is an urgent need to preserve pluralism

The Arab Spring of 2011 offered up the prospect of Islamist political parties gaining a foothold in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a wider tide of political transformation. Six years later, the record of these parties, which are intent on organising society according to their interpretations of Islamic law, has been mixed.

The fortunes of political Islam in South-east Asia, however, appear to be changing in different ways. About 65 per cent of the global Muslim population resides in South-east Asia. The region is home to the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, which incidentally also supplies the largest contingent to the annual haj pilgrimage (around 200,000).

Volumes have been produced documenting the rich cultural inheritance and diverse historical tapestry of South-east Asian Islam, in many ways unique to the Indo-Malay archipelago. South-east Asian Islam also enjoys a long intellectual tradition.

From the efforts of stalwarts like Daud Abdullah Fatoni and Zayn al-Abidin Fatoni of southern Thailand and other ulama jawi (as South-east Asian Islamic scholars were called in the Arabian peninsula) who taught in the storied halqah (study circles) of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca during the 19th and early 20th centuries, to renowned Indonesian scholars of Islam such as Nurcholish Madjid, Abdurrahman Wahid, and Syafii Ma'arif in the more recent past, South-east Asian Muslims have always had among their ranks thinkers and scholars who have made major contributions to the advancement of Islamic thought.

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Yet while these are important aspects of Islam's place in South-east Asian society, they are not the whole story. In part because of the rich and heterogeneous heritage of South-east Asian Islam, the region's Muslims today subscribe to different interpretations of doctrine even as they have acquired diverse social outlooks. This diversity is reflected in Islam's growing role in the public sphere.

The challenge posed by polarisation is rendered all the more urgent because of the dearth of credible voices that have emerged to outrightly oppose and condemn such moves that threaten to fray the multi-religious fabric of South-east Asian society.

GROUND SHIFTS

Here, the signs of transnational influences are inescapable. Islamist political parties such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in Indonesia and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) in Malaysia remain heavily influenced by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and model their political engagement after it. From Islamic schools prevalent among Cham communities in Cambodia to followers of the popular Saudi- trained preacher, Ismail Lutfi, in southern Thailand to graduates and members of the Institute of Islamic and Arab Studies and the Indonesian Society for the Propagation of Islam, Saudi funding has since the 1970s fuelled a resurgence of religious consciousness and shaped the interpretation of Islamic principles in a way that challenges what some anthropologists have termed (in somewhat derogatory fashion) "folk" Islam, in reference to the traditionalist understandings and practice of the faith that prevailed in the region for centuries.

An aspect of this has been growing more visible in recent times in a gradual turn towards exclusivism which threatens to shift states from their secular foundations and fray the fabric of pluralism which has long been a defining characteristic of South-east Asian societies. One needs to look no farther than the recent Jakarta gubernatorial elections to discern the instrumental role that political Islam has come to play in some countries. While it may be premature to conclude from the election that a definitive turn towards conservatism among segments of Indonesia's Muslim population has taken place, the correlation between the grounds on which the election campaign was fought and the eventual result cannot be ignored.

The story that this correlation tells is one where, though small in numbers, hardline Islamic groups in Indonesia are becoming highly effective in how they mobilise wider religious sentiments towards polarising political ends.

The picture is arguably more discomfiting in Malaysia. There, persistent efforts by PAS to reform the country's Syariah Court (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act of 1965 for purposes of further empowering Islamic courts to enforce punishment provided in syariah laws for offences deemed religious in nature (according to PAS) now enjoy the tacit support of Umno, which anchors the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

EXCLUSIVIST VIEWS

What do these recent developments tell us about the broader trends in Muslim engagement in politics across South-east Asia?

To begin with, these are hardly isolated events.

Political Islam has been gradually growing in influence in the region over the years. The fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 ushered in a period of political change that has seen Indonesia emerge as the world's largest Muslim-majority democracy. But this democratisation and political liberalisation also found expression in the rise of an incendiary populist sectarian vortex which is unrelenting in its animus towards non-Muslims and Muslim followers of smaller Islamic sects and movements, as the plight of the Shi'ite and Ahmadiyah communities would attest.

In Malaysia, in order to bolster its religious credentials, a Muslim- dominated government has gradually allowed the expression of acutely polarising, exclusivist views on religion, in the name of "defending" the Islamic faith, to go unchecked, the deleterious effect of which has been the constriction of religious and cultural space afforded to non-Muslims by a range of means including, not least, attempts to re-interpret the Malaysian Constitution.

South-east Asia has over the last four decades witnessed a proliferation of zealous actors whose primary point of reference in their engagement with politics is their interpretation of Islamic texts and teachings.

There are, today, a number of Islamist political parties in Indonesia and Malaysia that have been gaining popularity. PAS has been gradually increasing its prominence in Malaysia, and is looking to further expand its political footprint via some form of cooperation with Umno.

Although the PKS has not been successful in efforts to make greater headway in Indonesia, this is arguably because Indonesians have a variety of avenues through which to express their desire for greater observance of Islamic strictures. This is evident in the piecemeal implementation of syariah by-laws across Indonesia that cuts across party lines. As the noted scholar of political Islam, Shadi Hamid, has discovered, Indonesia and Malaysia feature significantly more syariah ordinances than Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco or Lebanon.

The surge in syariah consciousness can in part be attributed to the activism of a diverse range of Islamic social movements intent on reshaping politics and society, not a few of which have staked intransigent positions on issues of religion. In Indonesia, the vigilante group Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) espouses a brand of muscular intolerance, which unfortunately has enjoyed periodic tacit official support even as minority groups are attacked and their places of worship destroyed.

In Malaysia, the mobilisation of a proverbial cacophony of conservative Malay-Muslim voices have found expression in organisations, such as the Malaysian Ulama Association, Malaysian Muslim Solidarity and the Malaysian Islamic Welfare Association, that invoke Muslim unity in defence of the faith against conjectural threats such as mass conversions to Christianity.

The challenge posed by polarisation is rendered all the more urgent because of the dearth of credible voices that have emerged to outrightly oppose and condemn such moves that threaten to fray the multi-religious fabric of South-east Asian society. While Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, two of the largest Muslim religious bodies in the world and often deemed to represent the "tolerant" and "pluralistic" face of Indonesian Islam, have admirably spoken out against the vigilantism of groups such as the FPI, these organisations are themselves noticing with not a small degree of anxiety how younger members are gravitating towards more radical organisations such as the Hizbut Tahrir, a transnational Islamic movement that rejects the legitimacy of the nation-state and agitates for the re-establishment of a global Islamic caliphate and a return to a "pristine" Islamic lifestyle.

By the same token, the arid reality in Malaysia is that dissenting voices are few and far between. Instead, the narrative of Muslim exclusivism has become entrenched, and prospects for change are impeded by the fact that the Malay political class occupying positions of power continue to perpetuate the siege mentality among the Malay-Muslim community by engaging in a discourse of threat, as typified by the following remarks articulated by a former Umno Cabinet minister: "The character and tradition of Islam, as well as its position as the official religion of Malaysia, has been challenged by various provocations with the intention of denting the pride of the religion."

Indeed in Malaysia, the dual narrative of (explicit) primacy and (implicit) insecurity has been allowed to penetrate far too deep into Malay society such that the point of reference is no longer that of accommodation of non-Muslims as it was in the past, but dominance - how to assert it and defend it.

Indeed, while South-east Asia has long enjoyed a reputation of being distinct from the Middle East - which reflects the diversity of the region's cultures, faiths and societies - there are disturbing trends that point to exclusivist sentiments seeping into South-east Asia's majority-Muslim societies. This underscores the urgency of preserving pluralism and reinforcing the virtues of mutual respect, even as Islam's role in the public sphere continues to expand in Indonesia and Malaysia.

• The writer is dean and professor of comparative and international politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'Political Islam's changing face in South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe