Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia

The Rise in Extremism

As fundamentalists in Malaysia and Indonesia strive to control and homogenize Islam, social harmony is the first casualty, says Baladas Ghoshal

In Malaysia and Indonesia traditional greetings used to be "selamat pagi," or "good morning." More and more, the greeting has been replaced by the Arabic "assalam aleikum." A few years ago, former president and influential cleric Abdurrahman Wahid suggested that Indonesians revert to customary greetings, and conservative Islamic leaders in Indonesia were outraged.

This could be the tip of the iceberg for profound changes taking place in Islamic Southeast Asia and may have implications for other states throughout the region.

Fueling the new Islamic identity is the steady process of transformation as ideas, practices and finances flow from the Arab world. The transformation brings about conflicts – not only within Islam as to its correct interpretation and desirable way of life, but also among Muslims and others in otherwise tolerant and harmonious plural societies like Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam once arrived, mostly peacefully, through trade.

The "Arabization" of Islam

This process of homogenization, or "Arabization" of Islam, emphasizes rituals and code of conduct more than substance. It stems from "the Wahhabi creed," a rigid branch of Islam exported from and subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is distinct in its destructive nature when religion is used by the state for political ends. Unlike other traditions that accommodate dissenting views, the Wahhabis claim to possess an undebatable vision of "true Islam."

The inroads of the Arab Wahhabi and Salafi variant of Islam into Southeast Asia and elsewhere have led to a growing assertiveness on the part of the fundamentalists. For them, to know the Koran is to know everything worth knowing. There is only one God, one book, one way of salvation, and the holy tenets cannot be questioned.

Such a vision of Islam leads believers to think of the religion as an absolute truth, that all other religions are false and that there can be no meeting ground between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. Dialogue, debate or reasoning is not permissible under such a medieval version of Islam.

The most appealing feature of Islam before the process of Arabization was its ability to blend with local traditions and practices, which gave it a syncretic and inclusive character, allowing tolerance and respect for other religions. Blending of indigenous beliefs and customs with Islamic faith allowed for the evolution of folk theater, like the "wayang" shadow plays, drawing stories from the Hindu epics, turning them into indigenous cultural traditions.

Over the past three decades, however, the nature of Islam changed dramatically in Malaysia and to a certain extent in Indonesia. Wayang was banned in the Kelantan state of Malaysia for being "un-Islamic." In Indonesia, the wayang is still a part of the Javanese culture despite pressures from the more conservative Muslims. Indonesia's very diversity – in terms of ethnicity, culture and religious beliefs together with a fractious Islam – has allowed that country to practice secularism amid pressures from more fundamentalist groups to adopt sharia, or Islamic law.

Slow change of inter-faith relationships

But inter-faith societal relationships in Indonesia society are slowly changing. Not long ago, Indonesians of different faiths commonly participated in one another's religious ceremonies. Muslim clerics reportedly use "fatwas" against such inter-religious social mixing, even in offices. An Indonesian Christian businessman narrated his bitter shock to me when, in mid-1990s, his Muslim employees suddenly broke with tradition and refused to appear with colleagues in a photograph for the company's New Year greeting card.

While in Malaysia one cannot marry a Muslim without conversion to Islam, such marriages were once common in Indonesia. Today, those marriages incur the wrath of the conservative Muslim groups.

photo: AP
A Catholic Church burns after it was ransacked and set on fire by Muslim mobs on Sulawesi island. Indonesia has seen a rise in violence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority

​​The first major challenge to the Indonesian style of Islam came in the 18th century, in the form of a movement to purify Islam by removing aberrations that had crept into the faith through local customs. A manifestation of this clash within Islam could be found in the 20th century Indonesia, in the division between the two Islamic political organizations, Masyumi and Nahdatul Ulama, the former as the advocate of purifying Islam and the latter supporting the blending of Islam with local traditions.

When education was liberalized in the 1960s, more Indonesians studied abroad. Religious students went to the Middle East, where many studied Wahhabi and Salafi doctrines. Pakistani preachers arrived, offering strident Wahhabi interpretations of faith. Traditional locally trained "ulema," religious leaders, were in large part displaced or undermined by foreigners.

The spread of madrassas, the conservative religious boarding schools funded by Middle Eastern money, throughout Southeast Asia has since confirmed the arrival of radical Islam. Even some "pondoks," or religious boarding schools in Indonesia, have also come under the influence of more extremist clerics.

Religious strife

Secular dictatorship is also culpable. Other than the slow process of Arabization of Islam in Indonesia, over-representation of Christians in public positions during the Soeharto administration also contributed to the Muslim-Christian divide in today's Indonesia. In his attempt to clip the political wings of Islam, then Indonesian President Soeharto reduced space for democratic expression. Thus, mosques became the center for the expression of Islamic feelings and activities.

As Muslims became more exclusivist and fundamentalist, the impact spread to other religious groups. After the Bali bombing, the region experienced a rise in Hindu rituals and evangelical Christian appeals.

In recent years, a demand that Indonesian Muslims follow sharia law has resurfaced, despite having been dismissed by the country's founding fathers at independence in 1945. In 2003, seven districts had faith-based laws in place including bans on alcohol or women going out alone at night. Today, 53 districts, or more than 10 percent of all Indonesian regencies, live under some form of Islamic-inspired law. More places are expected to implement similar initiatives this year.

But the diversity of Indonesian society did not allow the spread of a unified version of Islam, which could influence every Indonesian. Only a tiny percentage of Indonesian Islamists espouse violence, but that has been enough to make the last seven years the bloodiest in Indonesian history since the pogroms of the 1960s.

At times of perceived threat, open-minded moderates and exclusivist fanatics close ranks and form united fronts of considerable clout, pursuing objectives that are not necessarily constructive. The rumor that Christian organizations were sending guns to the Moluccas to boost the Christian force in the raging conflict a few years ago swiftly mobilized the Islamic jihad and, people say, the moderate Muslims in the armed forces, too.

Across Java, Christians complain of church burnings and intimidation by homegrown local militias. In Sulawesi three teenage school girls were beheaded as a warning to the Christian community.

Many Indonesians do not fully subscribe to Arabization and view the rise of a fundamentalist form of Islam as a threat to their way of life and societal harmony. Not surprisingly one sees the emergence of non-political Islamic groups, the so-called liberals and moderates, competing for influence among the elite and the students.

While the battle for the hearts and minds are welcome in a vibrant society, the growing influence of Islam and the attendant communalization of politics have planted seeds of social turmoil that threatens Indonesia's stability and affect the neighbors of Southeast Asia's largest country.

Baladas Ghoshal

© Yale Global 2007

Baladas Ghoshal is a senior research fellow of the Centre for Policy Research and most recently a visiting professor at the Department of Intercultural Studies, Nagoya City University, Japan.

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