The Middle East's Relations with Asia and Russia

By Hannah Carter; Anoushiravan Ehteshami | Go to book overview

8

Muslim South East Asia and the Middle East

C.W. Watson

I shall be arguing in this chapter that strong as their commitment to Islam is, the Muslim states of South East Asia - Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei - rarely translate that commitment into anything but nominal support for international Muslim positions, and that their membership of the Organisation for the Islamic Conference and their links with the Muslim Middle East betoken more gestural and symbolic politics than anything substantive. Where the governments of the countries are likely to take Muslim issues seriously is in their immediate implications for domestic politics - which in fact often means playing down international commitments for fear of encouraging potentially destabilising fervour at home - or in the local context of neighbouring South East Asian states - for example the Philippines - when they feel they can play a positive role in helping their fellow ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) members to resolve matters they regard as essentially internal to those countries. The argument is not a new one, 1 but it is worth reiterating and it still holds good today. However, while stressing continuity it is important not to be misled into assuming that policy-making and the thinking underlying it have remained static. There have been major changes in the attitudes of the governments of Muslim countries in South East Asia to the place of Islam in the polity. Consequently, the general description of continuity requires some modification.

In this context two points need to made immediately: first, there is now far greater scope for gesture politics than there has been before - in terms of cultural exchanges and educational initiatives, not to mention experiments in Islamic financial institutions; and second, globally spread images and institutions have led to a greater visibility of Muslim cultural phenomena in civil society, ranging from the adoption of new dress codes for women through a proliferation of prayer and study groups to the establishment of new legal institutions and more exposure of Muslim ideas in the media. It is tempting to regard this greater visibility of Islam as an indication of a rising level of Muslim political awareness which must inevitably have ramifications for South East Asia's links with the Middle East, hence casting doubt on the thesis of continuity. This temptation must be resisted since, as I suggest below, it ignores the enduring influence of the specific character of the

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