Tolerance V Terror: Even Though Extremism Has Taken Root in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Their Long Tradition of Moderate Islam Offers Hope

Article excerpt

Avoid bright lipstick and noisy high heels. The advice to Muslim women, issued last month by the authorities in a north-eastern state of Malaysia, comes from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the conservative face of south-east Asian Islam.

Islam in the region is an eclectic mixture of traditionalism and Sufi mysticism, with the accent firmly on mythology and folklore. The more conservative PAS has been strong for decades in rural and conservative states. It is described locally as "Taliban Lite", and its main concern has been with what it sees as the moral degeneration of the Malay people. In politics, it seeks to reform the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the corrupt Malaysian ruling party, and introduce some measure of transparency and accountability in the governing process. In the social sphere, PAS is obsessed with the separation of genders, women's dress and "modesty". It runs sharia courts but their remit is limited to issuing fines for sexual misdemeanours. On the whole, PAS is content with giving advice, largely to women who wish to follow "the Islamic way".

Much the same can be said about Indonesian Islam, although there are a few differences. Islam in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has been more directly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. The emphasis is not so much on Islamic law, but on values such as integrity, discipline, honesty and moral social behaviour. Indonesian Islam is also more intellectually alive: issues of modernity, globalisation and Islam's role in politics are hotly debated.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, radical forms of Islam have now taken root. Part of the problem is the older generation of religious scholars: the Malaysians largely trained at al-Azhar University in Egypt and the Indonesians at their own conservative religious institutions such as al-Irsyad University in Solo, Java, where Abu Bakar Bashir, the ideological leader of the 2002 Bali bombers, was educated. Radical movements received a boost in the 1980s when many supporters and followers of these scholars joined the Afghan resistance, returning to continue their battles on the home front. …