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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 22, 2007
De-demonizing Southeast Asian Islam
By Michael Vatikiotis

SINGAPORE - At last the academic community is standing up to the myths being perpetuated about Islam and Muslim identity in Southeast Asia. For years scholars and area specialists have lain supine as the roller-coaster of the "war against terror" has ridden roughshod over truth and history concerning the region's nearly 300-million-strong Muslim community.

Kudos to British political scientist John Sidel for his brief and biting essay "The Islamic Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment" [1] that seeks to redress the appalling

imbalance. In fewer than 60 pages, Sidel, a professor at the London School of Economics, demolishes many of the shaky premises that have shored up the so-called "second front" in the US-led "war against terror" and helped create a dangerous divide between Muslims and non-Muslims in the region.

The backlash has regrettably been slow in coming. Perhaps that's because of the immense weight that US foreign policy carries in Southeast Asia; perhaps also because tales of fanatical bearded jihadis plotting the downfall of secular regimes are just too compelling for the Western media to report straight.

It has become axiomatic in the media and among so-called security specialists that Southeast Asia is home to a resurgent Islamic sentiment that breeds and protects dangerous radicals bent on redrawing the region's map through the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate.

Sidel in essence argues the reverse. Using a more refined and informed analysis, he points to the declining fortunes of once-ascendant Islamic forces in the last decade of the 20th century. From the mid-1990s in Indonesia and Malaysia, the intellectual effervescence of Islamic thinkers such as Anwar Ibrahim and the late Nurcholish Madjid offered a promise of a modernist Islamic politics that blended and synthesized modern technology and democracy with the moral tenets of faith.

Their liberal ideas posed a threat to oligarchic and undemocratic interests and were smothered - partly through co-option as in the case of Indonesia, and more starkly in Malaysia by Anwar's arrest and incarceration. Anwar and his intellectual peers epitomized the nadir of Islamic revival in the region.

After 1998, the financial crisis and the ensuing political instability swept away rosy ideas of an Asian renaissance based on enlightened religious ideas. This emasculation, Sidel argues, left more conservative and radical activists feeling that Islam had been sidelined and besmirched, which helps explain, he argues, why a tiny minority turned to violence.

"The turn towards terrorist violence by small numbers of Islamist militants," Sidel writes, "must be understood as a symptom of a reaction to the decline, domestication and disentanglement from state power of Islamist forces in the region."

Modern roles
Finely argued as his thesis is, Sidel is in too much of a hurry to explain away the role of Islam in modern Muslim society and policy.

For instance, he neglects to explain fully why conservative Islamic mores are so appealing to a society that sees secular politicians stealing from the people and modern forms of government powerless to defend their interests. The important distinction here is between Islam as a moral code for governing everyday life and Islam as a war cry for a tiny minority of misguided misfits.

It is one thing to explain away the fanatics targeting Westerners in Bali and Jakarta as weak and marginal. It is quite another to play down the trend toward religion in a society that has seen Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Islam make huge gains in the region over the past two decades. As a result, there is no escaping the fact that religion has entered the political fray. The question is: How successfully can democracy, which has made great strides in a country like Indonesia, temper the conservative, fanatical fringes?

Sidel argues convincingly that Islam has become a marginal force in Indonesian and Malaysian politics. Yet he misses the point that in both countries, there is insufficient ideological ballast to counter the forces of Islam and therefore insufficient middle ground on which to contest elections. People have the vote, but democracy is still under construction in an institutional sense - party platforms are poorly developed and rhetoric and symbolism outweigh substance.

So instead of fighting over better education and garbage collection, gubernatorial candidates in the recently held Jakarta city elections battled over Islamic law and pluralism. In Malaysia, the deputy prime minister provocatively and erroneously described Malaysia as an Islamic state so that the ruling party could get out in front of the opposition Islamic party ahead of elections expected by early next year.

Sidel is right about the domestication of Islamic politics. He is wrong about disentanglement, and this is what still concerns many non-Muslims. None of this detracts from the core of Sidel's thesis, which is that the violent militancy of the past few years is a marginal anomaly rather than a symptom of growing strength of radical sentiment in society at large. The problem is that he applies this notion rather too broadly to all forms of violence in the Muslim community.

He supports the idea, for instance, that the eruption of violence in Muslim minority regions of Mindanao and southern Thailand is a symptom of re-ordered elite relationships that have upset the balance of interests that in the past appeased local Muslim leaders and kept violence at bay. This is simplistic and ignores deep-rooted issues of ethnic identity and pent-up historical grievances that have at best been contained rather than accommodated over the generations.

True enough, legions of so-called terror experts and mainstream journalists have failed to make a convincing case that armed groups in either of these two backwaters are about to link up, break out and sow violent mayhem across the region. Nor is the violence going to subside with the simple restoration of justice and democracy, as Sidel seems to suggest.

Ultimately, Sidel's provocative essay is too short to cover adequately all the valuable new analytical ground he is opening up. The significance is that he has created a path for other experts and specialists to follow. If the "horrorists", as British writer Martin Amis calls the more conservative proponents of the Islamist threat, are allowed to dominate the debate much longer, there is a real danger that the distorted perceptions of Muslim Southeast Asia could become dangerous realities.

Sidel seeks to paint a less alarming picture and put Islam in a more objective social and political context. He mostly succeeds in defusing the Islamic time bomb, though in places his argument moves too far in the other direction by playing down the importance of assertive Islamic social and political currents.

In the face of so much uncritically received nonsense from the other side of the argument, perhaps Sidel can be excused for a modicum of hyperbole.

1. "The Islamic Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment" by John T Sidel. East West Center, Washington, DC, and the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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