Asia and Islam — A Historical Perspective

Why does Southeast Asia have a better relationship with Islam than the West?

June 9, 2005

Why does Southeast Asia have a better relationship with Islam than the West?

Perhaps it is difficult for Westerners and Muslims to see each other outside the prism of their own historical experiences.

From the perspective of Asia, however, historical Islam looks quite different. Islam’s encounters with Hinduism, Southeast Asia and the Chinese world were very different from its encounter with the West.

Islam entered North India by successive invasions. Its greatest triumph was the establishment of the Great Mughal Empire, which the British Raj took over and enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Having to co-exist with the vast Hindu majority, Islamic society as it evolved in Mughal and British India was less intolerant of other religions than in the Middle East, where Muslims were in the overwhelming majority.

In South India, where Islam arrived more by trade than by conquest, Muslim-Hindu relations have always been less troubled.

While India today has the second-biggest Muslim population in the world, they make up only 12% of the country’s population. It is in Pakistan and Bangladesh that the problem of Islamic extremism has become more serious in recent years.

For China, Muslims are a relatively small minority. There was only one great battle between Arab and Chinese armies in Central Asia — which took place at Talas in the 8th century.

The Chinese lost and the Chinese armies never crossed the Tianshan Mountains separating China from Central Asia again. Consequently, Muslims make up only 1-2% of China’s population today.

They belong to different minority groups, like the Uighurs and the Huis. Generally speaking, they enjoy many freedoms — so long as they do not challenge the political authority of Beijing. If they do, they are put down brutally.

As a result of this history, young Chinese grow up with a very different view of historical Islam from young Americans or young Europeans.

When 9/11 happened, many young Chinese cheered that America had its come-uppance — until the central government intervened to stop them.

From the global Muslim perspective, the Chinese world is not viewed negatively at all. The Prophet himself encouraged Muslims to seek knowledge, even from China.

Some members of China’s Muslim minority might have a more jaundiced view of Han Chinese, but that is a local perspective — not the perspective of the global Muslim community.

In contrast to India and China, Islam was brought into Southeast Asia by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India and China from the 13th century onwards. It was a civilizing influence and helped create networks of trust that facilitated trade.

In the same way as Buddhism was the religion of the overland Silk Road, Islam was for many centuries the religion of the maritime Silk Road between Europe and China.

Muslims make up half the population of Southeast Asia today. Indonesia has the world’s biggest Muslim population. However, many Indonesians practice a more tolerant form of Islam — influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions.

While there have always been local conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, they do not have the same sharpness as the conflicts between Islam and the West. Indonesia’s constitution specifically disavows Islam as a state religion.

Although Islamist terrorism is a threat to China, China does not view it with the same degree of seriousness as the United States and Europe.

At this point, Islamist terrorism in China consists mostly of Uighur separatism. Looking ahead, however, as the inland regions become better connected to the coastal cities by road, rail, air and electronic means, the problem of Islamist terrorism in China may become worse.

With increasing urbanization, more Chinese Muslims will live in China’s urban centers. However, the Chinese government will manage this problem in a robust, practical way.

Abstract Western notions of all citizens being equal before the law will matter much less in China. When China introduced a one-child policy, that policy did not apply to minorities who were free to have as many children as they wished.

Singapore is three-quarters ethnic Chinese. In Singapore, male Muslim citizens can legally marry up to four wives according to the sharia. This is not a political issue at all.

For matters relating to Muslim marriage, divorce and inheritance, sharia laws apply. In Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion, non-Muslims — who comprise 40% of the population — enjoy freedoms that Muslims do not.

For example, there is a casino which is open to all but Muslims. Such discriminatory practices, whether positive or negative, would not be allowed in Western democracies.

Both Malaysia and Indonesia are functioning democracies. Malaysia is a middle-income country enjoying a high growth rate.

Its Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, promotes a progressive form of Islam called Islam Hadhari — or civilizational Islam. Indonesia has only recently restored its democracy after a few difficult years of transition from the authoritarian rule of Suharto.

In 2004, for the first time, the country’s president and vice president were elected by universal franchise in nation-wide elections that were internationally considered to be free and fair.

When the Indonesian Constitution was promulgated in August 1945, it put all major religions on an equal footing under a state philosophy called Pancasila — even though 85% of the population was Muslim. That founding principle remains the bedrock of Indonesian society.

But it is still a fledgling democracy. President Susilo has committed himself to reducing corruption, which remains widespread. The Indonesian Army still plays a major role in the political arena.

It is in the interest of the United States to help Indonesia strengthen its institutions and professionalize its army. The United States must also remember that some of the world’s most important sea-lanes pass through Indonesian waters. A stable, secular Indonesia is good for all of us.

In the south of Thailand and the Philippines, where there are significant Muslim minorities, there is now general acceptance that policies of assimilation would not work.

Both governments are prepared to accommodate Muslim minorities in a special way.

The alternative to accomodation is the danger of Muslim insurrection and the possibility that Muslim communities could become hosts to al Qaeda-type global Islamist terrorist groups, such as the Jemaah Islamiyah — or JI.

Like other parts of the world, fighting Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia is a difficult, long-term challenge. Cracking down hard on the terrorists and their networks is necessary, but insufficient.

At the same time, the countries of Southeast Asia need to accommodate legitimate religious aspirations and practices within multi-religious frameworks. Without such provisions, democracy in Southeast Asia cannot deliver stability and growth.

The growth of Asia gives countries in the Middle East new options which they did not have in the past. But, more significantly, developments in China, India and Southeast Asia offer models of social and political organisation different from the West. They carry less emotional baggage from the past.

With globalization, many more diplomats, businessmen, scholars, tourists and religious teachers travel freely between the Middle East and Asia — bringing home new ideas and inspiration.

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