Drifting toward Extremism; Malaysia and Indonesia Are Known for Their Gentle Version of Islam. So Why Is the Mainstream Worried?

By Cochrane, Joe; Kent, Jonathan | Newsweek International, December 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

Drifting toward Extremism; Malaysia and Indonesia Are Known for Their Gentle Version of Islam. So Why Is the Mainstream Worried?


Cochrane, Joe, Kent, Jonathan, Newsweek International


Byline: Joe Cochrane and Jonathan Kent

The meeting of the united Malays National Organization, the ruling pro-Muslim party in Malaysia, was a shocking display of divisiveness. Some UMNO delegates at the rally, which ended Nov. 17, gave speeches that, either explicitly or in veiled terms, were racist or called for violence as a means of settling religious or political differences. One of them, Hasnoor Sidang Hussein, declared: "UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood in defense of race and religion." Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein unsheathed a keris (Malay dagger) at the meeting. Party supporters perceived the gesture as invoking Malay power and pride, but critics said the minister was pandering to racist elements in UMNO's youth wing, which Hishammuddin heads. Twenty years ago, the youth wing had displayed banners calling for the keris to be bathed in the blood of the minority Malaysian Chinese.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi disavowed the inflammatory rhetoric in his speech to the UMNO conclave, and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak suggested that the police have a word with delegates who'd used extreme language. Still, the UMNO chest-thumping makes clear that the moderate Abdullah is

struggling to cope with a surge in intolerant--and in some cases extremist--behavior by his base of Malay Muslims. Earlier this year a Muslim mob disrupted a forum being held in Penang to discuss religious pluralism. Forum organizers said the mob's message was unmistakable: attempts to equate other religions with Islam in Malaysia will be met with violence. Malaysia's minority Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs--already on the short end of economic policies that favor the Malay majority--are worried. Wong Kim Kong, head of a Christian evangelical group, said in a newspaper interview after the UMNO conference that tensions among the communities were higher than they'd been in decades--partly because Muslims "feel they are being cornered" by the Western war on terror.

In neighboring Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, even more troubling scenes are playing out. Last week a radical Islamic preacher publicly said it was the obligation of Muslims to assassinate George W. Bush during his visit to Indonesia. In Jakarta, three Muslim men are on trial now for allegedly decapitating three Christian schoolgirls in central Sulawesi last year as they were walking to class. On the main island of Java, mobs of young Muslim men have forcibly closed dozens of Christian churches. "We cannot ignore this radical tendency among certain elements of the community," says Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, a mainstream Indonesian Muslim group that boasts 30 million members. "The mainstream in the country are a bit worried."

Traditionally, Southeast Asian Muslims have been known for their tolerance and their incorporation of traditional beliefs into an Islamic framework. Indonesia and Malaysia are thought to be models of multicultural democracy. And yet, say mainstream Islamic scholars, political analysts and even former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, Southeast Asia's two most important countries are both drifting toward fundamentalism--a trend made scarier by the inability or unwillingness of some senior political leaders to condemn those promoting the shift. Some analysts are already calling this the "Arabization" of the region.

Certainly, most agree that mainstream Muslims generally are more religious and conservative than they were 10 years ago, and Southeast Asia's Muslim regions (Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, southern Philippines) are more radical. The trend--which was started by Islamic radicals in exile in Europe in the 1970s and then slowly gained strength with the Iranian revolution and later the struggle of the mujahedin in Afghanistan and now the Iraq war--is both ironic and surprising. Indonesia has been moving toward democracy and the rule of law after decades of authoritarianism; Malaysia is quick to lock up alleged terrorists (without trial) under national-security laws.

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