Can Southeast Asian Countries Bridge Islam-West to Understanding?

Updated On: Jun 15, 2007

There were two inter-faith conferences held this week in two Southeast Asian countries.

The first one, called holocaust-affirming conference took place last Tuesday in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and the second one titled “Islam and the West: Bridging the Gap” was held in Malaysia, the current chair of OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference).

The holocaust conference on Bali Island tried to counter the Teheren conference in December 2006, which dismissed the genocide of Jews during World War II. Former Indonesian president and moderate Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) chaired the meeting. Besides rabbis and Muslim leaders, holocaust survivors, victims of a terrorist attack in Israel and of suicide bombings by Muslim militants onBali in 2005 were among participants. The conference was intended to condemn any actions carried out in the name of religion.

Malaysia is also taking up a role to bridge the growing gap between Islam and the West, said Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar in an interview with News Straits Times. The divide between Muslims and the West does exist, and although there is a serious intention to create dialogue, there are still inherent prejudices and biases on the ground. Many Muslims feel that the West applies different standards when it comes to certain issues like Palestine and Iran. Even though it is not a religious issue but a question of human rights and international justice, there is an imbalance.

The repercussion if we do not respond to fix the gap is that we are going to have more radicals among Muslims. On the other hand, the Muslim communities also have to look at themselves; perhaps they have also created some of the misunderstanding.

In the effort to bridge the understanding, Malaysia portrays itself as a modern, multiracial and moderate Muslim country and in that capacity addresses the issues in any possible opportunities. However,Malaysia itself has also been under increasing criticism for “politicizing” Islam.  Political scientist Farish Ahmad Noor, speaking at an international conference, told its fellow Malaysians and the rest of the Muslim world have much to learn from Indonesia’s progressive approach in Islamic education. 

Still, the drive from both Malaysia and Indonesia to counter extremism with more dialogue should be highly appreciated. However, more efforts need to be done and the two countries need to answer the question whether their role can make a real difference in the discourse on Islam, particularly within Middle East societies.

Indonesia, with some 190 million Muslims has secular government and most of its people are moderate, though a vocal militant fringe has grown louder in recent years. On its foreign policy regarding theMiddle East issue for instance, debates have recently arisen on whether Indonesia should base it on the broad edict of Muslim brotherhood or on international principles and national interest? This debate surfaced when earlier this year, Indonesia in its role as a UN Security Council member voted together with other members to apply sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programme.

After being fiercely criticized by some Muslim organizations and the parliament with regard to Indonesia’s decision to support the UNSC’s resolution on IranIndonesia is receiving more pressure from its people to act as a nice Muslim brother to Iran and Palestine. Chairman of the People`s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Hidayat Nurwahid urged Indonesia to adopt a firmer stance in supporting the independence of Palestine which had suffered clear subjugation of Israel. Indonesia’s rejection of a UNSC statement condemning the Iranian president for calling for the destruction of Israel is seen as an attempt to appease domestic critics angered by its earlier decision to back UN sanctions against Iran. Only last week, some members of parliament still demanded the president to be present in an interpellation meeting at the parliament and explain his decision to support the sanction. 

As quoted by Jakarta Post, observers said that Indonesia's most recent decision to block the United Nations statement condemning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was understandable given the domestic political situation and its long-standing support for Palestine in its conflict with Israel.

"With this decision, Indonesia has showed the Muslim community here that it doesn't take sides with the U.S. or any other Western power. And as far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned, it has been consistent," Broto Wardoyo, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia, said.

Bantarto Bandoro of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said Indonesia's defiance in the UN Security Council could be seen as the government attempting to avoid further criticism from lawmakers.

Indonesia said the Security Council's decision to target President Ahmadinejad's remarks was unfair because on many occasions and on many issues that directly threatened international peace and security the UN had been silent. It pointed to Israeli's recent abduction and detention of Palestinian Cabinet and parliament members and the Jewish state's threat to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Mishal as examples.Indonesia also said Ahmadinejad's June 3 statement calling for Israel's destruction was simply "rhetoric" and the draft statement did not reflect what Ahmadinejad actually said, as he called for the destruction of the Zionist regime, not Israel.

Later on, Indonesia again foils UNSC attempt to issue statement on Iran. Indonesian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Hasan Kleib said although there were some changes to the statementIndonesia still found it difficult to agree to it.  (14 June 2007)


Malaysian scientist: look to Indonesia (Jakarta Post, 14 June 2007)

Holocaust-affirming conference opens in Indonesia (Straits Times, 13 June 2007)

Indonesia must be firmer in supporting Palestine, (Jakarta Post/ Antara, 10 June 2007)

Jewish Holocaust survivor appeals for tolerance at in Muslim Indonesia (Antara, 13 June, 2007)

Security Council refuses to condemn Ahmadinejad's remarks on Israel's destruction (Jakarta Post, 10 June 2007)