Book Review: Asian Islam in the 21st Century

คุณวุฒิ บุญฤกษ์: 30 ม.ค. 2561 | อ่านแล้ว 2120 ครั้ง

Many authors of this book volume agree that Asian Islam will play a more significant role in the next century than it did in the last one and that it is inappropriate to assume that Islam in the Middle East tells the full story about the religion and its politics everywhere. This significance is in part due to the decline in importance of Marxism, communism, and anticolonialism. The first part of the book examines the Muslim-majority countries of Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan), and the second examines the Muslim-minority countries (China, India, the Philippines, and Thailand). The country chapters focus on what is distinctive about Islam in the different settings. Ultimately, although public attention on Islam in Asia will tend to stress the role of violence and the political posturing of Islamic militants, in fact, the more critical dimension of Asian Islam will be found in education, where the struggle for the soul of Islam will take place.

Although more than half of the world's Muslims live in Asia, most books on contemporary Islam focus on the Middle East, giving short shift to the dynamic and diverse presence of Asian Islam in regional and global politics. The Muslims of Asia constitute the largest Muslim communities in the world - Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Central Asia. In recent years, terrorist bombings in Bali, separatist conflicts in Thailand and the Philippines, and opposition politics in Central Asia, all point to the strategic importance of Asian Islam.

In Asian Islam in the 21st Century, terrorism and its effects are placed within the broader context of Muslim politics and how Islamic ideals and movements, mainstream and extremist, have shaped Asian Muslim societies. Democratization experiments successful and unsuccessful are examined. The rise of radical militant movements is analyzed and placed in historical perspective. The result is an insightful portrait of the rich diversity of Muslim politics and discourse that continue to affect Asian Muslim majority and minority countries.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Islam is the second largest of the world’s religions. The 1.3 billion Muslims of the world are spread across more than fifty-six Muslim majority countries and in a matter of decades have become a significant presence in Europe and America, where Islam is the second and third largest religion. Despite its global profile, Islam in the popular imagination and often in the media, still tends to be disproportionately identified with the Arab world or the Middle East. Yet, in fact, the vast majority of Muslims are in Asia and Africa.

Overall Chapter

The book is divided into two sections dealing with the ‘Religion and Politics’ of Muslim majority and minority populations, respectively. The bulk of both sections is dedicated to chapters discussing developments in the various nationstates of South and Southeast Asia, with the notable exception to this in the first section being Hakan Yavuz’ excellent chapter on the role of Turkey in the Central Asian Islamic revival. Yavuz calls attention to the impact of Soviet Islamic studies and government policies on the shaping of religious and ethnic politics in Central Asia as an important backdrop to his discussion of the role of Turkey as ‘the most influential country in the reconstruction of Islamic knowledge’ in contemporary Central Asia. The chapter thus provides a striking example of how a focus on Asia and the complexity of its relations with other regions of the Muslim world can point us toward more nuanced and accurate understandings of important contemporary dynamics in global Islam.

For South Asia, Mumtaz Ahmad’s chapter on Bangladesh presents a picture of the evolution of Islamic political and religious movements over the course of the country’s history with an eye toward contextualizing the rapid transformation from an early near-total exclusion of Islam from national politics to the ascendancy of Islamists in the public sphere over recent decades. Pakistan is the only country to be treated with more than one chapter in this volume. In the first, Vali Nasr presents a broad overview of the permutations of Islamism in the contexts of shifting configurations of state and military power over the past three decades, concluding with a discussion of the rise of the Muttahida Majlis-i Amal (MMA). This subject is treated in still greater detail in Anita Weiss’ chapter, which follows the development of MMA’s programmes of Islamization in the Northwest Frontier Province since 2002.

The chapters on Muslim majority nations in Southeast Asia do rather more than those on South Asia to treat the broader social contexts of recent political developments. Fred von der Mehden’s chapter on Indonesia summarizes broad trends over the past decade, with particular emphasis on the transitions of post- Suharto ‘Reformation’ and the impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the country. Osman Bakar’s chapter on Malaysia attempts to trace the shifting configurations of religion and ethnic politics in neighbouring Malaysia over this same period. Unfortunately, however, the persuasiveness of his analysis is significantly compromised by the overstatement of points such as Malaysia’s ‘towering’ profile in the contemporary Muslim world and the ‘homogeneity that has characterized Malay Islam for centuries’. Both these claims are arguable at best, but in this chapter they (and others like them) are deployed to support an argument about Malaysia’s ‘relatively successful management of ethnic pluralism’ that will likely sound unconvincing to most observers both in the region and beyond.

The second section of the book begins with Steven Wilkinson’s treatment of the world’s largest ‘minority’ Muslim population of 130-plus million believers in India. His chapter provides an overview of inter-religious tensions and their political manifestations, while arguing for a revision of dominant understandings of the Congress Era as a ‘Golden Age’ for India’s Muslims. This serves to provide a deeper context for more recent issues involving Hindu–Muslim communal tensions in the country, while also helping to frame his views on emerging and more hopeful trends for the future of Muslim communities in this dynamic nation. Following this, Jacqueline Armijo’s contribution on Islam in China provides a very helpful introduction to important developments in one of the world’s most rapidly developing countries that are nevertheless little discussed—and even less understood—in international scholarship on Islam. In particular, she raises important, and generally under-acknowledged, demographic and social factors that are having a differential influence on current trends within China’s diverse

Muslim communities.

The chapters on Southeast Asian Muslim minority populations are considerably less insightful and, unfortunately, do not expand significantly on already existing summaries of the situations in the countries concerned. In fact, in many cases, they even neglect important works of recent scholarship on the populations they treat. Eliseo Mercado’s chapter on the Philippines presents little more than a recap of government measures on autonomy over the last decades of the twentieth century, with discussions of post-9/11 developments appearing only in the last three pages. The chapter on Thai and Cambodian Muslims by Imtiyaz Yusuf deals more with these recent events, but its presentation is hampered by both glaring omissions (e.g. no treatment of important issues in southern Thailand) and confusing misstatements such as, for example, that of ‘Southeast Asian Muslims having developed within a democratic environment’— something which is obviously not true in cases such as that of the Cambodian community discussed in this chapter.

This book concludes with an essay by John Voll that does more than any of the individual country studies in the volume to address broader thematic and comparative issues. His essay includes not only a series of well-informed critical reflections on trends cutting across the various Asian Muslim societies treated in the preceding chapters, but also insightful suggestions for directions in future studies of Asian Islam in the fields of politics, education, mass media, ‘pop culture’, and gender issues. Given the thoughtfulness of this concluding chapter, readers might be left wishing that more were done in the rest of the volume systematically to address such issues in more conceptually nuanced ways. This might have included, for example, a conscious attempt to develop new parameters for comparative conversations through some shared working definitions for the terms used to construct typologies of various movements and political parties. As it is there is considerable difference between each chapter in the usages of terms like: fundamentalist, radical, extremist, orthodox, Sufi, revivalist, reformist, moderate, liberal, and postmodern Islam.

Muslims in Post-Independence India

The good news for India, and for India’s 130 million Muslims, is that there are several factors likely to restrain any Hindu nationalist attempts to establish a Hindu Rashtra that will turn permanently turn Muslims into second-class citizens. First, opinion polls consistently show that over two-thirds of Indians reject this option, and that Indians are committed to religious pluralism. Second, India’s strong legal institutions and civil society impose real restraints on politicians’ ability to target minorities in order to stay in power. Third, a broad increase in electoral volatility and competitiveness since the early 1980s is working in Muslims’ favor, because a higher level of party competition leads to more competition for Muslims’ votes. The increase in political competition in Indian states has had good effects— not just on the country’s level of violence, as Hindu politicians offer security to Muslims in exchange for political support, but also on Muslims’ economic prospects. In the south, which has historically been much more politically competitive than the north, Muslims have long benefited from reserved places in public employment, as well as educational institutions. In recent years, as politics in the north of India has also become more competitive, we are beginning to see politicians there also offer Muslims not just physical protection but reserved places in government employment and educational institutions as well. In the long term, it is these improvements in Muslims’ educational and economic outcomes that may prove to be the most significant developments in the next twenty years.

Islam in China

The Muslims in China are under the surveillance due to their Islamic identity, but Islam is still a major source of conviction and pride. Islam also gives them the strength and self-confidence to overcome the challenges caused by the myriad of contemporary social problems. Moreover, problems in every province of China are HIV/AIDS and drug addiction. Prostitution is everywhere, violent crime is also increasing. Women are kidnapped and bought and sold throughout the country, and unemployment is a growing concern everywhere. All of these problem results in the dismantling of the socialist welfare state. People with no cash are not provided treatment and because there are no such things as free medical care anymore. Education fees are also getting more expensive in rural China.

Even though, the Muslims of China are facing the same challenges, the Muslims are significantly poorer than the Han Chinese. At this time trouble when everything seems to be changing so fast in China, the Muslims are at least able to find some solace and hope in their faith. This is why Muslims in China have always been confident of their identities as both Muslims and Chinese. The survival of Islam in China for over a millennium belies assumption of many scholars that Muslim identities were somehow inherently antagonistic. Islamic and Chinese values have both proven to be sufficiently complementary, dynamic, and fluid to allow for the flourishing of Islam in China. There is no doubt that they are true Muslims.

Thai and Cambodian Muslims and the War on Terrorism

The action of the state of Thailand and Cambodia towards the Muslims has been shaped by the security concerns. Asian Muslims have faced many questions about the state of Islam in the region after the 9/11 event. The tension between the customary mode of ‘‘cultural Islam’’ and the rise of ‘‘neopan-Islamism’’ in Southeast Asia is growing. Some local Muslims has become accidental victims of the global war against terrorism because of the local factors and the aggressive nature of international relations.

However, hopefully the accommodative and moderate nature of Southeast Asian Islam functioning within the state of religious diversity will help the promotion of the Islamic way of life and thought across the region. America and Europe will also hopefully be interested to repair their relations with Southeast Asian Islam by convincing the locals that they are not engaged in a blind war against Islam and Muslims.

The war against terrorism should not be a metaphor for creating tensions and wrecking relations between the world of Islam and the West. The trail of post-9/11-related events in Cambodia and Thailand shows that contemporary Islam in these countries faces new types of challenges in managing itself, at both the local and global levels. The events in Cambodia indicates how local issues within a Muslim community got intertwined with global matters affecting the state of Islam in a not yet politically stabilized country. The Thai Muslim responses to the events of 9/11 and the Afghan war show how far the Thai Muslims have come in publicly expressing their concerns on pan-Islamic matters in a democratic country.

This chapter aims to present both the Thai and Cambodian Muslim responses to contemporary global events for the better understanding and enhancing coexistence and dialogue to the mutual benefit of all. As the United States continues to be engaged with affairs in the Muslim world, all should try to understand how the societies and communities of the ummah perceive its role as the superpower. Conflicts and hostile imagining about self and other on both sides can only be reduced if this understanding is achieved.

Conclusion: Asian Islam at a Crossroads

The world of the 21st century is full of dynamic change and transformation. As no society can escape these processes, old ways of life are disappearing. For example, nomadic lifestyles of Bedouin or the gathering-hunting peoples of the Kalahari are disappearing. Multiple modes of modernity has been obvious as a result of globalization and religious resurgence.

It can be concluded that Muslims in Asia are at a crucial crossroads in their historic experiences. The full range of human institutions and experiences are the key elements to understand  the dynamics of Islam in Asia in the 21st  century. For instance, these positions range from the militant exclusivism of groups like the Taliban to old-style secularist positions are open to more pluralist views while it also affirms the viability of Islam in the contemporary world. The competition among groups and visions is related to the education of the coming generations, the media for transmitting and shaping information and knowledge, and the changing nature of the popular culture of the general population. The issues of political authority of specific institutions are important as debates rage over the nature of a truly Islamic political system, the implementation of Sharia, and whether or not violence is necessary for defending and enforcing Islam. Framework of the transformation of the whole social order with the evolution of civil society and the public sphere could cover all arenas of activity in terms of the meaning of secularization in contemporary contexts. However, specific issues in this transformation are the ways that Muslims define and redefine gender and the significance of diversity in the social order are also important. These complex issues could be an important agenda for research and examination to achieve a better understanding of what will be the nature of Muslim faith and experience in South and Southeast Asia in the 21st century.



John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion & International Affairs and of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Previously, he was Loyola Professor of Middle East Studies, College of the Holy Cross. @JohnLEsposito

Dr. John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic history at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He taught Middle Eastern, Islamic, and world history at the University of New Hampshire for thirty years before moving to Georgetown in 1995. He graduated from Dartmouth College and received his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University.

Osman Bakar is Deputy CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies–Malaysia. A Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Malaya, from 2005-08 Bakar was a Professor of Islamic Thought and Civilization at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization; he has also been the Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia at Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Bakar is a member of the World Economic Forum's West-Islamic World Initiative for Dialogue.


Cover photo credit: BANARAS KHAN / AFP

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