Islam in Asia after Sept 11
(30 October 2001)
Islam. Asia. The two are rarely connected in the American mind. For most of us, Islam is a faith of the Middle East, intricately part of that human crucible's glories and tragedies.
But the vast majority of Muslims live in Asia, which is home to the four largest Islamic countries in the world (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India). Islam in Asia is diverse, as varied as Christianity in the West. Generalizations are therefore perilous.
Still, Asian Islam's lack of religious militancy, increasing political importance, and relatively minor relevance to Asian governments' reactions to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts have significant meaning for U.S. policy.
So far, Asian Islam has been less militant than its Middle Eastern variant. Asia's comparative economic successes, more open civil societies, less repressive governments and rich, ingrained mixtures of pre-Islamic traditions are likely explanations for the resistance to militancy.
Whether Asian Islam will remain resistant to radicalism is unpredictable. Muslim protests among several regional countries during the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan suggest at least some empathy with co-religionists. Indeed, the controversial Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul, interviewed recently in The New York Times, rejects the very concept of non-fundamentalist Islam, saying "it is a contradiction ... the idea of a moderate state is something cooked up by politicians looking to get a few loans here and there."
Naipaul has thus far been demonstrably wrong. But we cannot be certain that the future will mimic the past and present.
Regardless of the degree of religious militancy, Islam's resurgence in Asia is increasingly becoming fused with expressions of discontent. Islamic politics rather than Islamic faith are the principal aspect of the Islamic challenge in Asia.
And the root of Islamic politics is the sense of grievance, of being disadvantaged. Though the specific discontents vary from the Uyghurs in Western China (there are almost 20 million Muslims in China) to the Achenese in Indonesia, Islam serves as a vehicle by which to articulate frustration.
In much of Asia, Islamic activism is connected to separatism. Indeed, it may be argued that originally ethnic discontents have acquired the patina of Islam. Whether in Kashmir, Xianjiang or the southern Philippines, Asian governments certainly conflate terrorism with separatism, and both have an Islamic edge.
However, Islamic ends, such as the adoption of Shari'a (Islamic law) or an Islamic state, are not the prime or only drives of Asia's Islamic activists. The primacy of local grievance in Islamic politics, however disconcerting, offers a reason for hope. If grievances are political, there is the prospect of management and negotiation. Theological imperatives brook no similar compromise.
Asian governments' response to U.S. anti-terrorism policies are not motivated much by Islamic considerations. Indeed, non-Islamic factors have dramatically triumphed over Muslim sentiment in the case of Pakistan. Ironically, in India and Malaysia, anti-Islamic stances have been utilized for political ends such as isolating the opposition or mobilizing electoral support.
On the whole, cool calculations ranging from monetary benefits, relations with the U.S., regime survival and balance of power have led to general Asian government support for U.S. initiatives. Some Asian governments' support is highly conditional on a quid pro quo: The U.S. must bring its "national terrorism" under the rubric of the U.S.'s "global terrorism."
India is an obvious case, but the Philippines shares the same view. Conversely, a country like Pakistan wants to avoid U.S. censure of its support of what it calls Muslim "freedom fighters" in Kashmir.
These features of Asia's Islam suggest several things relevant to U.S. policy in the region. First, Asian Islam is not hopelessly militant, theologically chauvinist or anti-American. That's good news. We can help keep Asian Islam moderate by appreciating that military responses to terrorism will not be the sole avenue of success. Negotiation and diplomacy must be part of our tool kit.
Even more important, the U.S. must work to ensure that economic progress, political liberalization and open societies flourish so that Islam does not become the lone avenue of expressing grievances. We must also distinguish not only between Islam and terrorist acts (as President Bush and his team have), but also between Islamic religious extremism and Islamic politics in Asia.
Confusing the two threatens to skew our responses, including getting caught in the thickets of Asian "separatism" and "terrorism."
Finally, the U.S. should not dismiss criticism of U.S. policies generally, and anti-terrorism specifically, as inspired by Islamic radicals alone. Secular, modernizing nationalists in Asia (Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad comes to mind) are occasionally shrill about the U.S. too. Some of this is to be expected.
As the superpower, the United States will be the subject of resentment, anger and blame. This comes with the turf. But to dismiss all criticism as deriving from Islam, especially in Asia, would be to miss the message.
We must tune in sensitively to Islam in Asia — understanding how it does, and does not, matter.