Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Misunderstood: Political Islam in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Misunderstood: Political Islam in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

Southeast Asia--home to more than 250 million Muslims and to the largest Islamic country in the world--has experienced a perceptible intensification of Islamic militancy after September 11, 2001. The futility of the US-led war in Iraq and the failure of the "coalition of the willing" to secure UN approval to attack Iraq have heightened Islamic animosity in the region and across the Muslim world.

Radical Islam will continue to grow if Muslims, despite being the world's second largest religious community, continue to be treated like pariahs of the international community. Never in recent history have Muslims been subjected to such intense scrutiny, marginalization, and siege on a global scale. This state of utter bewilderment, disorientation, panic, and rage has the potential to intensify in the future, even in Southeast Asia, a region long known for peace and prosperity.

If Southeast Asian nations resort to undemocratic means of dealing with political Islam--which is characterized by the sustained, albeit peaceful pressure that Muslim political parties, organizations, and intellectuals exert upon the state to fulfill their aspirations--this discord will spread to their borders. The central tenets of political Islam are the inseparability of religion and politics and the legitimate right of Muslims to practice the shari'a, even in secular states. The re-awakening of political Islam within the democratic framework, if properly understood, should not endanger the stability of countries in this region and beyond.


Misperceptions abound concerning radical Islam in Southeast Asia. Political Islam in this region is neither new nor necessarily related to terrorism. Islamists were at the forefront of the independence struggle in both Indonesia and Malaysia, and terrorism is not unique to extremists of the Muslim faith. Not only is militant Islam in Southeast Asia scattered, but it is also confined to small and marginalized groups. These groups include Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia; the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia; and al-Maunah in Malaysia; the Abu Sayaff in the southern Philippines; Pattani United Liberation Organization in southern Thailand; and Laskar Jihad, Majlis Mujahideen, and Islamic Defenders' Front in Indonesia.

The rise in radical Islam has nothing to do with Western claims that Islam is inherently anti-democratic or that the Qur'an promises jihadis heavenly rewards in the form of unlimited luxuries and women of unparalleled beauty. Such claims trivialize radical Islam and its motivations.

The hypocritical US policies in the Middle East generally--and in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine specifically--have caused deep-seated resentment of the West among Muslims. The distorted translation of jihad as "holy war" and misguided ambition to re-establish a Pax Islamica caliphate further exacerbate that resentment. The long history of state oppression and other discriminatory policies aimed at denying the expression of Muslim identity also explicate the issue. Against such a background, the Danish caricatures that depicted Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist in September 2005 could not have been published at a worse time.

The binary distinctions often used by scholars to distinguish different types of Muslims--"moderate" versus "extremist," "modern" versus "traditionalist"--cause further misperceptions. These are political statements, not analytical ones. These explanations fail to grasp the multi-layered nature of the Muslim identity.

Misunderstanding of the above factors has led to a misinterpretation, if not misrepresentation, of political Islam in many parts of the globe. For example, many governments claim that the JI cells in Southeast Asia have been around for more than 10 years in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. True, some of these militant groups were inspired by the legacy of the anti-colonial Darul Islam movement in Indonesia, but the term "Jemaah Islamiah" has long been used in this region to describe the general and peaceful existence of Muslim communes and organizations. …

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