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Moderate Islam in South East Asia

Written by eastern writer on Tuesday, October 21, 2008

As Robert W Hefner has written in his book Civil Islam, the study of Islam in South East Asia is a particularly important and interesting area of research today as Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Thus understanding Islam in Indonesia is important for the West and for the global community. Within this context, Indonesian Muslim society has to work to counter the post-9/11 discourse which has identified Islam with terrorism. In this effort, the cooperation between the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to project an image of moderate Islam is an eminently sensible measure. Indeed, Indonesia and Malaysia lead South East Asia in promoting a tolerant vision of Islam.

John L. Esposito’s article “Islam’s Southeast Asia Shift, a success that could lead to renewal in the Muslim World” describes South Eastern Islam as it stands today. Esposito describes how for more than 20 years, he had not been interested in South Eastern Islam. One of the main factors for this was the common opinion among western intellectuals that Islam in South East Asia is peripheral in the Muslim world. However, in the 1990’s he became increasingly interested in the phenomenon and began to argue that Indonesia and Malaysia would soon come to play an important role in the Muslim world (1997). In a world which perceives Islam as being incompatible with modernization and democracy, and as being a force for the inspiration of religious radicalism, South East Asia leads the way for the development of moderate Islamic values.

The resurgence of Islam in South East Asia beginning in the 19th century is a global phenomenon in which Islam has been transformed through its interactions with western civilization. This began earlier in the 18th century when Muslims began to realize how backward Islamic society was in comparison with western civilization. As a result of this interaction over the centuries, democracy has nevertheless been able to take root in Islamic societies because so many verses in the Koran are compatible with western notions of democracy.

However, the revival of Islam in South East Asia is not so much a reaction to western modernity as it is an integral part of a reformation process which indicates the viability of Islam in history. The revival of Islam in South East Asia constitutes an alternative Muslim discourse and is neither a threat to the west, nor a threat to Muslim society, since it is a revival based in Islamic tradition. In this, the central characteristic of Islam in South East Asia has been understood to be tolerance rather than radicalism as Thomas W Arnold has noted in The Preaching of Islam. There, Arnold concluded that the historical development of Islam in South East Asia has been largely a peaceful process. This is in contrast to the history of the spread of Islam in other parts of the world which has involved violence.

This characteristic tolerance allows for an ongoing dialog with western civilization which considers imperialism to be the negative aspect of western civilization with democracy being its positive contribution to the world. At a time in which Islam is associated with radicalism and as being incompatible with democracy, Indonesia and Malaysia lead the way in denying such stereotypes of Islamic societies. In fact, today, moderate Islam in South East Asia is the antithesis of radical Islam and may well help to diminish extremism and the use of terror in the name of religion. For example, Lee Kuan Yew, a Senior Minister in the government of Singapore, argues that moderate Islamists in the region must focus on the struggle against extremist Islam as its central goal.

To this end, several conferences have been recently held in order to counter the influence of radical Islam in Muslim society and to counter the identification of Islam with terrorism. For example, the “Jakarta Charter 2001”, a Summit of World Muslim Leaders, was just one of the many conferences which have been convened by South East Asian Muslims as a means of responding to religious radicalism. The conference concluded that Islam is moderate religion which loves peace, is against violence and is for progress. Another example was the Jakarta International Islamic Conference (JIIC) convened by NU-Muhammadiyah in October 2003. These conferences asserted the role of moderate Islam in South East Asia, specifically the role that NU and Muhammadiyah actively play in countering radicalism. []

This article written by M. Hilaly Basya. Get more liberal islam journal at

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