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Political Islam in Southeast Asia

Political Islam in Southeast Asia
Date/Time: Sep 28, 2006 / 5.00pm

Professor Ghosal’s lecture on Political Islam in Southeast Asia focused on the transformation of Islam as it was practiced at the grassroots and its impact on the nature of the state in the region and subsequently on the regional order in Southeast Asia.

Professor Ghosal remarked that the worrying aspect of the situation concerning Islam in the region was not the radical fringe elements or Muslim terrorists. Rather, the most worrying aspect was the transformation of Islam at the grassroots level from a more syncretic, inclusive version to one that is more ritualistic and exclusive, which in turn fuelled social divide between the Muslims and others in otherwise tolerant and harmonious plural societies like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Professor Ghosal provided some anecdotal evidence to draw comparisons with the practice of Islam fifteen to thirty years ago and how it is markedly different today in the region. He said that this represented “a sea change in the nature and practice” of Islam in the region. Whereas previously, Islam in Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by Sufism and that Muslims in the region had managed to accommodate local customs and accommodate local traditions. Muslims were able to incorporate Islam into their own distinct cultural and national identity, and therefore identifying themselves first by their nationality and then by their religion. Religion and nationality were not in conflict but had merged into an identity.

This had however changed, beginning thirty years ago. From the 1970s onwards, the numbers of devout Muslims has begun to rise and Muslims in the region began to identify themselves more as Muslims than by their nationality.

Professor Ghosal then went on to chart the reasons for such a change. His first reason was the Dakwah movement in Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1960s. Preachers from Pakistan would come to the region to convert and call for a revival of Islam in the region. Likewise, local imams and Islamic teachers, who used to be educated in local religious schools were now replaced by preachers from abroad or went abroad to places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to study. Similarly, as more liberal education and economic prosperity in the region allowed local preachers to travel to these countries which were already beginning to see the rise in the influence of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood by the 1960s and 1970s. These locals would return to the region influenced by these Arab traditions and cause the “Arabisation” of Islam in the region and the introduction of Wahhabism to Southeast Asia.

Other factors include the Iranian Revolution, the funding of madrasahs and Islamic movements of the Wahhabi creed by petrodollars, events in the Middle East such as the Palestine issue, Iraq, and the globalization of political Islam. Local factors were also cited by Professor Ghosal, where the marginalization of religious leaders by political leaders led to religious leaders to reassert their position on a return to Islamic fundamentals. It also pushed politics into the mosques. In the case of Indonesia, with Suharto’s exit from the political scene, it led to an “outburst” of the influence of Islam in politics. In the case of Malaysia, the challenge from PAS has led to UMNO having to adopt some Islamic postures despite being a secular political party.

Professor Ghosal also noted that it was the educated classes of society that responded to globalization’s implications on their Muslim identity. This was reflected in the performance of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in Indonesia’s 2004 elections. The PKS had the largest increase in its share of votes in 2004 and drew its support from the educated elite in Indonesia.

Turning to the impact of political Islam in the region, Professor Ghosal argued that Islam’s tone was changing in its social practice and this was putting demands on the state.

This included the demand for strict implementation of the Sharia law and the use of Sharia law to guide the state. Professor Ghosal focused on Indonesia, citing reasons that it was “the fulcrum for the region”. Indonesia is not only the largest Muslim country in the world but also the largest state in the region and had provided leadership and stability in ASEAN. Post-1997, Indonesia did not have that social stability it enjoyed under Suharto and was being destabilized by its radical fringe. This meant investors would be scared off but the Indonesian economy needed foreign investment to grow and foster stability, creating a vicious cycle.

The current situation in Indonesia worried Professor Ghosal, who contended that Yudhoyono’s policy on giving a lot of political space to Islamists had future implications for Indonesian politics. Furthermore, while globalization had brought economic growth, it had widened income gaps and created a sense of alienation in Indonesian society. As the Indonesian armed forces as a force in politics have been largely discredited, should democracy fail in Indonesia, the only recourse is likely to be a call to return to Islam for answers. Whereas in Thailand, the military was a source of stability, this was not the case in Indonesia. The Indonesian military was no longer a credible source of internal security and stability, leaving Islam as the only alternative political solution available should Indonesia be destabilized. Furthermore, inter-faith relations in Indonesia had taken a “us versus them” stance, as seen by closure of churches in West Java.

Professor Ghosal postulated that if something happens in Indonesia and if the nature of the Indonesian state changed, it would have an impact on the stability of the region. He argued that the moderates in Indonesia are able to handle the current situation but this was dependant on the state of the Indonesian economy. If the Indonesian state fails the ordinary populace economically, then Indonesia would be vulnerable to radical elements of Islam. The only way the moderates could keep control on the situation was for good governance to emerge. The burden on tackling the rise of radical political Islam lay with the moderates. Professor Ghosal remarked that this was a clash within Islam and not between civilizations and only Muslims could solve this problem. The saving grace in Indonesia which is also sometimes a source of tension is the fractious nature of its large number of Muslims. There are so many different groups and thus far none has truly emerged as the dominating one.

Moving on to questions, Professor Ghosal was asked to comment on the role Islam played in Malaysia. Professor Ghosal commented that in the case of Malaysia, it was different from Indonesia because in Malaysia, race and religion were roughly synonymous. In the case of Malaysia, transformation of Islam was wider. In Indonesia, the diversity of the racial background of Muslims (Boyanese, Javanese etc) had kept the country united because there was “no common Muslim direction” for conservative Islamic movements to drag Indonesia towards. Therefore, Professor Ghosal argued that democracy was the only antidote to radicalism, but democracy meant that it had to be a way of life in Indonesian society and it could not fail, lest Indonesia then turn to an Islamic vision of the state.

When asked on the potential for an Islamic reformation, Professor Ghosal argued that this would probably not be along the lines of the Christian reformation which led to the separation of church and state. In Islam, which the term itself meant “submission”, there was no distinction between private and public life and all aspects of life were to be governed by Islam. Professor Ghosal contended that the voice of reason had to be heard in Islam and that it had to adapt to modernity. This accommodation would be brought about by democracy, just as Indonesia’s democratization process post-1997.

With regards to the role of women in political Islam, Professor Ghosal agreed that the empowerment of women was a ray of hope in the moderates’ stand against conservative Islam. He argued that there needed to be greater participation of women in the way of life in the region.

The last question of the evening concerned the Sunni-Shia division in Islam in the Middle East and its implications for Islam in the region. Professor Ghosal replied that ten years ago, this distinction was not clear but it had increasingly changed over the years, due precisely to the Arabisation of Islam in Southeast Asia. Professor Ghosal argued that this was dangerous because it superimposed a very different culture into the region.

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