Saturday, 01-Dec-2001 9:40 AM
Asian Muslims put religion ahead of state
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - For now, predominantly Muslim Asian countries such as
can pass as largely secular in their outlook, given what they uphold
as a state.
for instance, it is Bengali nationalism that is the cornerstone
of the country's polity and not the religious persuasion of the
country's mainly Sunni Muslims, who make up more than 85 percent
of the population, or more than 100 million people. Thus, Sheikh
Hasina, the country's former prime minister, can confidently say
belongs to Bengalis of all religions".
But for how long? Or will these countries be forced to change their
political stripes to largely Islamic ones, where the faith of the
majority determines the country's identity as strongly as it does
in two other Asian Muslim countries, Iran
These questions have acquired significance in light of recent emerging
trends across the political landscape in Bangladesh,
where the notion of an Islamic identity for these countries has
been a key factor in the discussions, debates and public protests
The US-led military campaign in Afghanistan
has also fueled this political ferment, which continues despite
recent events in the war against terrorism, including the retreat
of the Taliban from key cities last week and the control by the
opposition Northern Alliance of most of the
In the past few months, thousands of Muslims from Indonesia,
and elsewhere used the occasion to protest and, in turn, to use
the moment to drum up support for their view on religion and the
state. For them, loyalty to Islam has mattered more than allegiance
to the state as it is constituted at present.
"I think every human being has primordial ties to an entity
higher than such concepts as a state," Thai member of parliament
Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister, said in a recent interview.
"These ties remain dormant until a stimulus brings them out.
The governments cannot ignore these voices," added Surin, a
member of the minority Muslim community in mainly Buddhist Thailand.
"The legitimacy of this secular idea of the nation-state is
being tested. They are questioning it."
Chaiwat Satha-Anand considers this tendency a reflection of the
current political climate. "After the end of the Cold War,
politics has become dominated by questions of identity," says
Chaiwat, director of the Peace Information Center at Bangkok's Thammasat
University. "It is a case of who you are, having much to do
with the notion of the self." Arising from that, adds Chaiwat,
who is also Muslim, is the idea of membership in a community. "What
is happening is not happening in a vacuum. Some Muslims in Indonesia
are questioning the way the country has constituted itself and what
it means to them as its members.
"I have sensed this Muslim presence whenever you have an Islamic
resurgence," affirms Chaiwat. "It is trying to push you
into a situation where you have to reaffirm your identity as a Muslim."
The street demonstrations by Muslim groups against the US air strikes
in Afghanistan in the past few months also revealed how strident
this resurgence had become. There were more and more of them as
the attacks went on and protesters pursued more strident measures
- such as threats to attack US citizens in hotels in Jakarta - than
those aired against the Gulf War a decade ago.
"Osama bin Laden made it easier for them," says Chaiwat,
referring to the Saudi Arabian dissident named by the United States
as the prime suspect behind the acts of terror in New York and Washington
on September 11, which killed more than 4,000 people. "His
role in Afghanistan is perceived as politics in the name of religion.
And the force attacking him has been painted as an outsider."
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has displayed the extent
to which governments are responding to the strident Islamic voices
at home. Having initially lined up as an enthusiastic supporter
of the US-led military campaign, Megawati changed her stance after
US bombs rained on Afghanistan, calling for a pause during the Muslim
holy month of Ramadan, which began over the weekend.
On the other hand, against such a backdrop, Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad has been embroiled in a national debate about the
nature of the Malaysian state, on whether it is an Islamic state
or not. Mahathir, say Malaysia watchers, triggered this question
of the country's identity to undermine the political agenda of the
opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia or PAS, which has a conservative
Islamic agenda and now controls two states.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, with 170.3
million Muslims among its population. Malaysia has 10.8 million
Muslims out of a population of 22 million people, most of them ethnic
An Asian Islamic scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity, says
the rage and fury generated by a section of Asian Muslims could
"manifest into something dangerous".
"They are taking a cue from Muslims in the Middle East, where
Islam has been used for political reasons," she says. "That
has not been the case among Southeast Asian Muslims until now."
What troubles her is the "exclusive vision" displayed
by those spearheading political Islam in the region, which could
go against the grain of the multireligious and multicultural face
of countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. "Their idea of
an Islamic state can create the kind of extremism we have seen."
Current events in Bangladesh, in fact, illustrate such extremism.
The country's minority Hindu population has been targeted by Muslim
fundamentalist groups such as the Jamait-e-Islami for supporting
Hasina's Awami League, which was defeated in the October parliamentary
It is a disturbing trend, says Abdur Razzaq, a former Bangladeshi
minister. "They want to undo the values of the Bangladesh liberation
war of 1971. They want to create a homogeneous Muslim nation by
driving out the Hindus," he was quoted as saying this month.