Executive Summary:  On April 16, 1999 the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar entitled “Islam in Asia.”  The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and likely future role of Islam (especially Islamic political parties, organizations and movements) in key countries of the Asia-Pacific region.  In particular, the seminar focused on Pakistan and South Asia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and China.  The following is a brief overview of some key findings:

Islam and Security:   Islam's implications for security in Asia at the national or country level come in the form of political stability and ability to accommodate minorities where Islam is the majority religion.  At the regional level, Islam's role in security appears to be its relevance to either promoting cooperation or creating tensions.  At the international level, a major issue is Asian Islam's role in international Islamic movements and organizations particularly relations with the Middle East.  At none of these levels (national, regional or international) does Islam in Asia pose a serious or immediate security problem.  Only in South Asia, given Islam's growing role in Pakistan's domestic politics and its response to Hindu nationalism, is Islam a major element affecting both domestic and regional security.  Longer-term issues include the restiveness of some of China's Muslims and the shifting social, economic and political roles of Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Islam and Governance:  A major debate within and without the Islamic community is the compatibility of the faith with democracy.  Though the seminar hardly settled the debate, it did note that Muslims certainly participate in democracies (e.g., India and Pakistan) and that Islamic parties are playing a role in possible transitions to democracy (e.g., Indonesia).  In essence, at least in practical as opposed to theological or philosophical terms, Islam and democracy are not incompatible.  One of many complexities of this debate is the different attitudes of Sunnis and Shiias toward democracy. 

Islam and the Militaries:  The role of Islam in the militaries of the Asia-Pacific countries represented at the meeting obviously differed considerably.  In Indonesia, for example, it was noted that while the military has long had uneasy relations with Islamic political parties and movements, this relationship is less troubled today.  Regarding Pakistan, concern was expressed that lower and middle level officers were becoming more supportive of Islamic groups. 

The Middle East Connection:  There are considerable connections between the Islams of Asia and Islam in the Middle East.  The primary reason of course is that Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula and the faith’s holy places, to which every Muslim is enjoined to journey at least once in his or her life, are there.  More concretely, countries in Asia depend on energy resources from the Middle East, rely on remittances from laborers, and find common cause on certain international political matters.  There are also overlaps between Asian and Middle Eastern countries in organizations such as the OIC, OPEC, and NAM.

Islam(S) and Asia(S):  There is neither a monolithic Asia nor a monolithic Islam.  The many schisms in Islam emanate from doctrinal issues (e.g. Sunni vs. Shi’ia), history (e.g., maritime vs. land arrival of Islam), demographics (e.g., minority vs. majority Islam) and political ideology (e.g., secular states vs. religious-proclaimed states).  Asia, of course, is a diverse region and Islam across its breadth has taken on different forms, meanings and implications.

Distinguishing between Religion and Ethnicity:  In many of the countries of the region it was clear that there was a distinction between ethnic identity and religious identity.  For example, some Chinese ethnic minorities, though they share Islam as a common faith, emphasize their ethnic identities over their common religion with other ethnicities, i.e., Muslim Uygur do not necessarily share close affinities to the Muslim Kazalchs in China.    In South Asia, for example, Muslim Bengalis chose independence from Pakistan despite being co-religionists with West Pakistani Punjabis, Sindhis, and Baluchis.


The end of the Cold War has led to new thinking about the forces that shape international relations.  Among the forces receiving greater attention is religion.  Though religion, organized and otherwise, has always played an important part in international affairs, it is only in the past few years that there has been a rush of academic and policy writing on the role of religion in international relations.[1]  The precise reasons why religion is becoming a subject of greater concern to those engaged in the study of societies and relations among them are complex.  The end of the Cold War, of course, has been a key factor.  The purported end of ideological rivalry, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama, has shifted the focus of potential friction to religion or, as in the view of Professor Samuel Huntington, religion expressed as civilization.  But theories about the shape of things to come are not the only sources for religion’s revival in the study of international relations.  The actual phenomenon of religion’s revival has been critical too.  A central paradox of our increasingly material globe, is that religion is making a comeback.

Whatever the reasons for the increased interest in and attention to the role of religion, the link between religion and geopolitics, foreign policy and state security is still yet another leap.  Though religious activism or revival has been evident in numerous faiths (e.g., Hinduism in India), it is fair to say that “the current wave of religious activism was first associated with Islam.”[2]  And it is partially for this reason that the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies undertook to examine the role of Islam in Asia, and particularly the security implications of Islam in the region.  Asia, where most of the world's Muslims live, is today an especially appropriate place to examine Islam's status and direction.  Across the region, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, domestic political dynamics are highlighting the possible future role of Islam.  While there are significant historical and current differences in the role played by Islam in these countries (and hence its future role will differ as well), each of these countries is to a greater or lesser extent searching for an accommodation involving organized Islam.

The objective of the symposium is to develop a fuller understanding of the current and likely future role of Islam in key countries of the Asia-Pacific region.  To this end, we invited experts from Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as bringing to the table experts from the United States.

Several  key questions were addressed through the course of the day concerning the following issues:

·        The role of Islamic organizations and political parties in the politics and societies of key Asian countries;

·        The nature of links between Islamic organizations and political parties across the region;

·        The attitudes and policies of key Islamic organizations and political parties towards regional security, including regional institutions;

·        The role of Islam in the militaries of key Asian countries;

·        The ways Islamic countries in the region view United States' strategic policy in the region; and

·        The nature of  "Islamic" responses to economic, social, and political aspects of globalization?

The following report summarizes the presentations and discussions that occurred during the day.  It also draws on a wider range of literature to set the presentations and discussions in context.

Islam in Pakistan

Pakistan occupies a unique place in the Muslim world.  It is the only state explicitly established in the name of Islam, and yet fifty years after its independence, the role and place of Islam in the country remains unresolved.  The basic divide regarding the relationship between religion and the state pits those who see the existence of Pakistan as necessary to protect the social, political and economic rights of Muslims, and those who see it as an Islamic religious state.  During the past fifty years, the public has resoundingly rejected Islamic political parties in every general election.

A combination of domestic and international developments over the past two decades, however, appears to be pushing Pakistan in the direction of a more explicitly religious state.  Just in the last year, for example, the government of Pakistan has introduced strict Sharia laws and there has been a rise in Shia-Sunni violence.  Some analysts have even begun to consider the prospect of a Talibanized Pakistan.  The shift from liberalism to a more overt religious character for the country has been affected by developments in neighboring Iran, Afghanistan and India.

Two major factors have been primarily responsible for keeping religion separate from the business of the state in Pakistan until now.  First, the way in which Islam spread through the subcontinent has been important.  Contrary to the view that Islam was spread in the subcontinent by Islamic conquerors, in fact it spread through the preaching of Muslim Sufi saints.  The Sufis practice a type of Islam that contrasts with the more conservative styles and values prevalent in some countries of the Middle East and even Afghanistan.  Moreover, most Muslims in the subcontinent are Hindu converts.  For these former Hindus, the basic reference point, despite choosing the Islamic faith, was South Asia and not the Arab lands to the west where more conservative approaches to Islam are practiced.  And in South Asia the indigenous social and religious practices were more amenable to a “softer” kind of Islam.  Indeed, nearly 85% of South Asia’s Sunni Muslims are said to follow the Barelvi school, closer to Sufism.  The remaining 15% of Sunnis follow the Deobandi school, more closely related to the conservative practice of Islam.  Most Shiites in the subcontinent also tend to be influenced by the Sufis.  The bottom line is that Pakistan’s Muslims, like other Muslims in the region, tend to follow a school of Islam which is less conservative, and hence the support for strongly and overtly religious parties has been minimal.

A second reason why formal religion has been kept at arms length from state politics in Pakistan is that Muslim scholars and leaders in South Asia were essentially “liberals” or “reformists” rather than “conservatives” or “fundamentalists.”  Muslims leaders such as the great educationist Syed Ahmed Khan or the poet-philosopher Allama Mohammed Iqbal attracted, through their teachings, Muslim intellectuals and even religious leaders (Ulema) who were modernists and reformers.

In the initial two decades after Pakistan’s creation, religion rarely came in the way of state policies.  This was largely because the state apparatus was dominated by a combination of feudal or western-educated politicians and the civil servants who had been trained under the system run by the former British rulers of the subcontinent.  This state apparatus had little interest in pushing a religious agenda.  Moreover, the middle class, that in a country like Pakistan tends to be a repository of conservatism, was non-existent and the poorest of society had little representative voice.  An episode that highlights the commitment of Pakistan in the early years to religious tolerance occurred in the early 1950s.  A violent campaign started by groups representing Sunni Muslims against a minority sect of Ahmedi Muslims was forcefully crushed by the government.  Key Sunni religious leaders, including the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Mawdoodi, were given death sentences.  Though these were never carried out, the strong reaction to the attack on the minority Muslim sect and the subsequent harsh sentences symbolized that the state would not allow religious intolerance.

Just twenty years later, however, when another major violent campaign was launched against the Ahmedi community, the state acted quite differently.  The irony was that the government then in power, headed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was strongly socialist and secular in its ideology.  Moreover, it had come to power in the country’s first and truly free and fair elections in which Islamic parties contesting the polls had been roundly trounced.  Despite this, then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto took the unprecedented decision of using the parliament to amend the constitution in the early 1970s to declare the Ahmedi community as non-Muslim.  Some religious conservatives in Pakistan saw this decision as their first major victory.

The Rise of Islamic Conservatism in Pakistan

In the past two decades or so, there has been an even greater increase in the power of Islamic conservatives in Pakistan and communal violence and intolerance.  Several factors appear to have contributed to this trend:

·        The coming into power of a highly conservative military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, in the late 1970s;

·        The Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran;

·        The emergence of the Islamic mujahideen in Afghanistan; and

·        The rise of Hindu nationalism in India.

Moreover, the largely negative attitudes and actions of the West towards the Muslim world have helped to push forward the agenda of the Islamic conservatives.

 General Zia al-Haq and the Rise of Islamic Conservatism

During General Zia’s rule from 1977-1988, the state took a leading role in supporting Islamic conservatives and their values.  In addition to changing electoral laws in order to deprive non-Muslim minorities open participation in general elections and tightening laws to curtail women and minority rights, a major effort was launched to encourage and support the setting up of Islamic madrassas (theological schools).  These schools have been used by Islamic conservatives to support militant movements not just in Pakistan, but in other parts of the world.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Rise of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan

The Iranian revolution had a particular impact on neighboring Pakistan.  At first, much of Pakistani society welcomed the Iranian revolution because it overthrew the brutal regime of the Shah.  Some mainstream Islamic parties welcomed the event as a true Islamic revolution.  However, as Iran began to support the export of its revolution, it lost favor amongst Pakistani's majority Sunni community, but found some support amongst the conservative Shiite groups in Pakistan.  To complicate and exacerbate matters further, conservative Sunni regimes in the Gulf countries began to support Pakistan’s Sunni groups who now began to oppose the Iranian revolution and its allies within Pakistan.  This situation exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites within Pakistan.  Additionally, the free flow of arms from the war in Afghanistan and funding from Iran and the Gulf regimes for their respective clients led to the start of organized sectarian violence in Pakistan.  This proxy war between the divergent Islamic orthodoxies of revolutionary Iran on one side and the conservative Gulf sheikhdoms on the other essentially used Pakistan as the battlefield.

The Civil War in Afghanistan and Its Impact on Pakistan

The war in Afghanistan further exacerbated internal religious tensions and weakened Pakistani society.  Not only did the war lead to an increase in the flow of arms, drugs and money into the country, but it also caused a major shift in the attitude of religious conservatives in Pakistan.  Islamic conservatives in Pakistan paid close attention to events in Afghanistan and began to play a more and more active role in the conflict (partly backed by the West and Pakistan’s intelligence services).  Many saw the situation in Afghanistan as an opportunity to press their agenda beyond Pakistan.

There were other specific impacts of the Afghan civil war on the security of South Asia.  For example, the fact that many of the most committed Muslim conservatives had fought in Afghanistan created a pool of militants for other conflicts.  One such conflict was Kashmir.  Though the origins of the conflict lie elsewhere, the availability of a pool of dedicated, well-trained, seasoned and sometimes well-equipped fighters certainly exacerbated the fighting in Kashmir.  Moreover, given the role of these fighters and the availability of Afghanistan as a sanctuary and training ground for militants, the Kashmir insurgency moved from one in which there was support for self-determination to one in which there was a new agenda of Islamic conservatism and even extremism.

Finally, the rise of the Taliban phenomenon owes a great deal to the situation not only within Afghanistan, but also within Pakistan.  It is clear that the rise in religious conservatism in Pakistan provided the basis for the rise of the movement.  More specifically, the Islamic madrassa network that General Zia had encouraged provided a steady stream of committed warriors for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.  Today, some Islamic conservatives within Pakistan see the Taliban as a source of inspiration and support for their own cause in Pakistan.

The Rise of Hindu Nationalism

Consolidating the trend towards Islamic conservatism in Pakistan has been the rise of Hindu conservatism or chauvinism in next-door India.  The demolition of the Babri Masjid in the northern India town of Ayodhya in 1992 marked the high-point of contemporary Hindu zealotry.  In addition to alienating many of India's Muslims, this event further marginalized the tiny Hindu minority in Pakistan.  Dozens of large and small Hindu temples were attacked by Muslim zealots in Pakistan as revenge for the destruction of Babri Masjid.  The election of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in India has further strengthened the hand of Islamic conservatives in Pakistan.  They have used such developments to argue against any settlement of disputes with India and branded Pakistani supporters of a peace process as anti-Muslim.

Pakistan’s Islamic Political Parties and Militant Movements

The most potent and organized Islamic group in Pakistan is the Jamaat-e-Islami.  The Jamaat is both a political party and an activist organization.  It has contested Pakistan’s general elections, but fared poorly.  In the most recent 1997 general elections the Jamaat boycotted the process, arguing that the present parliamentary system in the country is corrupt.  Though it has failed to garner support at the polls, there are indications that it may be gaining power as the mainstream political parties falter and fail to deliver on socio-economic development and law and order concerns of the Pakistani populace.

There are several other religio-political forces in Pakistan.  One such is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) that has two factions.  It too has contested elections but with almost no success.  On the whole, Pakistan’s Islamic political parties and movements appear to be turning away from organized politics to more activist stands and in some cases militancy.  Especially worrying to some is the link between various Islamic extremist organizations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Can Pakistan Become a Fundamentalist State?

Pakistan over the past fifty plus years has rejected the option of becoming a fundamentalist Islamic state.  However, there are signs that the hand of the Islamists may be growing stronger.  Recently, in parts of certain Pakistani provinces such as the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), extremist or conservative elements have pressed for the application of Islamic Shariah law.  The central government is seen by some as having caved into these pressures.  At the same time, the government has tried to counter the Islamist trend by itself amending the constitution to introduce more Islamic laws.  This attempt to undermine more extremist demands may in fact backfire if the Islamic movement interprets the government’s move as a sign of weakness.

On the whole, the likelihood of a Taliban-type uprising in Pakistan is slim, mainly because Pakistan has neither gone through the same turmoil as was witnessed in Afghanistan, nor is it a monolithic society with a strong base for believers of fundamentalist Islamic views.  One great danger that might spur radical Islamic groups to power is the collapse of the present democratic system.  This could happen if it is discredited by inefficiency and corruption.  The tumult and chaos that might follow such an event could give an opening to radical Islamic groups to take power, especially if there can be some form of coalition amongst the various Islamic groups.  They realize, based on defeats in past elections, that there is little room for them in the current parliamentary democracy.  Therefore, they may wish to help in the collapse of the present system, and they could do it through street protests and other extra-parliamentary activities.  If the present system collapses, it will be in the interest of Islamic conservatives in the country.  When a wave of Islamic militancy begins in a country like Pakistan, it is likely to take on strong anti-Western and anti-American tendencies.

The one critical institution that could stand between any collapse of parliamentary democracy and extremist Islamic elements is the Pakistani military.  In the past, the military could be counted on to crush any Islamic-oriented uprising because the military has generally been a secularist force in the Pakistan context.  Indeed, even today, many of the top officers of the Pakistan armed services are seen as “liberal” on religious matters. It has been suggested that the October 1999 takeover of power by Pakistan’s military was at least partly motivated by a desire to counteract Prime Minister Sharif’s perceived move towards the conservative religious parties and his endorsement of the Sharia law. However, as in other aspects of Pakistani society, over the past two decades there has been a growing Islamization of the Pakistan military, especially in the lower ranks.  For this reason, it is difficult to predict what stance the military will take if the present political system were to collapse and if Islamic parties were to make a bid for power.

Pakistan's political future is more uncertain than ever.  However, the rise of Islamic forces is indisputable.  How many years it will take for Islamic hard-liners to coalesce and pose a real and imminent challenge to the existing political order is a key question.  But, the massive failures of Pakistan's feudal-democratic system give little confidence that intolerance and liberalism can persist.  This would suggest that Islamists could come to power sooner rather than later.

Islam and South Asia 

South Asia is home to the second, third, and fourth largest Islamic countries in the world.  Roughly 400 million Muslims live in the region though the distribution varies greatly; for example, there are some 300,000 Muslims in the Maldives and 137.7 million in India.  Indeed, India’s Muslim population, though only about 14% of its total, is larger than that of the two declared Islamic countries in the region, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  A useful way of considering the security implications or aspects of Islam in the subcontinent is to take a national, regional and international approach to the analysis.

Islam at the National Level in South Asia

At the national or country-level in South Asia, Islam has an  important impact on political stability.  Pakistan's situation has been discussed in detail above.  In the case of India, the most compelling domestic security issue is the prospect of widespread and destabilizing Hindu-Muslim violence.[3]  India is an extraordinarily diverse country.  There are schisms of every kind;  religion, ethnicity and language.  But the Hindu-Muslim division is really the only one that could rip apart the entire country.  One reason for this is that Muslims are not confined to just one part of India.  They live amongst the Hindu majority throughout the country.  Moreover, Muslims tend to be concentrated in urban centers, constituting up to a third or fourth of the populations of major cities in all parts of India.  It is empirically true that Hindu-Muslim violence has been on the rise since the late 1970s.  During the period between 1950 (after the bloody Partition when India and Pakistan became independent in 1947) and 1977, there was a relatively low and stable rate of violence between the two communities.  This was largely due to good governance and the fact that the dominant Congress party represented well the interests of Muslims.  Moreover, India’s leadership (particularly Jawaharlal Nehru) was decidedly secular, and did little to use religious and other sensitive symbols for political purposes.

The growth in Hindu-Muslim violence since the late 1970s is worrying, but so far it has been contained to local violence concentrated in specific places, rather than spreading, dangerously, to the national level.  Just eight cities in India account for over 50% of total deaths resulting from Hindu-Muslim violence.[4]  Preliminary research suggests that where a healthy civil society in which there are inter-communal associations exists, there is less violence between the two communities.  At least for now, Hindu-Muslim violence does not appear to be an internal security concern threatening to the entire country.  It has been suggested that the rise of the BJP along with its fundamentalist Hindu supporters has increased the possibility of a major breakdown in Hindu-Muslim relations in India.  Though the destruction of a mosque in 1992 and acts of violence by extremist supporters of the BJP heightened these fears, it now appears that a BJP government will not lead to wide-scale Hindu-Muslim violence. 

 Islam at the Regional Level in South Asia

At the regional level in South Asia, there is one issue in which the role of Islam may be considered to have implications for security.  This is of course India-Pakistan relations and specifically the dispute over Kashmir.  While the history of Hindu-Muslim relations had a major impact on the creation of two independent states after the British withdrew, today the India-Pakistan dispute has expanded far beyond animosity between Muslims and Hindus.  As noted earlier, there are nearly as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan.  Rather than Islam, the main causes of the India-Pakistan disputes are competing nationalisms and the asymmetries of power between the two states.  Similarly, the Kashmir dispute is not about the relationship between Islam and Hinduism but rather an outgrowth of these competing nationalisms.  The Hindu-Muslim narrative works as a popularizing mechanism to whip up antagonisms in both countries.

Islam at the International Level in South Asia

South Asian Islam’s relevance to international security rests on its relations with the wider Islamic community.  India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, given their huge Muslim populations, geographical positions and economic and energy needs, have a great interest in and connection to the wider Islamic world.  For South Asia’s Muslim countries, membership in Islamic organizations and relations with other Muslim countries, whether in the Middle East or Asia, have always been seen as important to their foreign and security policies.

Islam in the Philippines

The role of Islam in the Philippines centers on the minority Muslim community of the Moros living in the southern part of the country.  This group has resisted what it deems to be outside political and economic forces challenging its way of life.  The resistance has used governance and identity as the two main pillars of its campaign.

 Sociohistorical Background of the Moros

The Filipino Muslims now known as the Moros constitute approximately 5% of the total population of Filipinos were converted to Islam before the majority of the Philippines were converted to Christianity.  The name Moros derives from the word “Moors”.  Both were coined by the Spanish; the former to refer to Muslim converts in the Philippines and the latter to refer to the Muslim inhabitants of southern Spain and North Africa.  While the Moros share a faith, they do not share a language; at least 13 distinct ethnolinguistic communities of Moros exist. Amongst the various groups of Moros, two are most prominent; the Tausugs of Sulu and the Magindanaons of the Cotabato-Pulangi region.  The legacy of these distinctions persists in the context of the modern Moro movement.  The core leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), under Nur Misuari, is largely Tausug while that of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) under Hashim Salamat gravitates around the Magindanaons.

Much of the population of the Philippines underwent religious conversion, with the inhabitants of the northern islands (Luzon and the Visayas) becoming Christians and the southerners (Mindanao and Sulu) becoming Muslims.  An underlying ethnic commonality thus became layered with two distinct religious identities.  The rivalry between the two faiths' converters surely contributed to complicating the relationship between the converted communities in the Philippines.

The response to encroaching colonialism also has had an important impact in increasing the distinction between Christian and Muslim Filipinos.  Some of the Muslims of the south credit their faith for their having successfully resisted Dutch, British and especially Spanish colonial efforts.  The American role in the region, including the imposition of military rule from 1899 to 1903, contributed to the Moros’ dissatisfaction.  The fact that American rule in the country led to the Christian Filipinization of the administrative apparatus in Mindanao provoked further resentment amongst the Moros and laid the basis for the Moro rebellion.

The Moro Rebellion

The Moro rebellion was essentially aimed at regaining lost rights over the people and territories deemed to be traditionally Moro.  The costs of this struggle have been large with some 60,000 deaths and some 200,000 refugees in the Malaysian state of Sabah. 

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gained some international leverage against the Philippine government through its efforts at international Islamic forums such as the  Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).  At the fourth meeting of the OIC in Libya in 1973 a Quadripartite Commission including representatives of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Somalia was dispatched to the Philippines on a fact-finding mission.  At the following OIC summit a resolution calling for a political settlement of the rebellion was approved.  The resolution passed by the OIC called on the government of the Philippines

“to find a political and peaceful solution through negotiation with Muslim leaders, particularly with the representatives of the Moro National Liberation Front, in order to arrive at a just solution to the plight of Filipino Muslims within the framework of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines.” 

It was in the context of this international Islamic engagement with the issue of the Moro rebellion that an agreement, the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, was reached.  At its core, the Tripoli agreement contained two critical parts or phases.  The first was an agreement in principle to establish a region of autonomy.  The second stage was the mechanisms and modalities of the implementation of the autonomy plan.  However, the second stage of the Tripoli Agreement was not signed until 20 years later in 1996 by Philippine President Fidel Ramos.  Attempts were made to implement the autonomy plan under Presidents Marcos and President Aquino, but their efforts were rejected by the MNLF.  The creation of a number of political institutions to meet Moro demands for greater autonomy is now in place in the region.  These institutions include the Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD), the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) and a Consultative Assembly (CA).  The MNLF leader Nur Misuari was persuaded to accept the framework of agreement that allowed him to hold leadership positions in the new institutions but also remain at the head of the MNLF.  A three-year transition plan is now underway to transform these interim institutions into a Regional Autonomous Government.  The specifics of the final settlement will depend on a planned plebiscite agreed to by all parties.  Politically, the principle of autonomy under the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines has been accepted by all the relevant parties.  A larger question relates to the question of cultural integration.  It appears that the commitment by all parties to political autonomy (rather than secession) will allow for the development of a non-assimilationist or pluralist model on cultural matters.  The Christian majority also seems to support such an approach to national integration, hence reducing the fears of some Moros that there will be further pressure on them to assimilate into the larger Filipino society.

The Moro Issue, International Islam and ASEAN

It is clear that the issue of Islam in the Philippines, in the form of the Moro issue, has connections with the wider Islamic world and particularly with the Islamic countries of Southeast Asia.  It should be noted for example that the signing of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 that laid the basis for the end of the Moro rebellion was derived from discussion in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).  Indeed, all the signatories of the Agreement with the exception of the Philippine representative were Muslims.  Moreover, the Islamic members of ASEAN, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia have, at various points, lent their good offices to the search for a political solution to the Moro rebellion.  Already a grouping, BIMP-EAGA,[5] has been formed to promote increased inter-island and inter-regional trade and tourism that would cover the proposed autonomous region. 

Islam in Malaysia

Islam in Malaysia, embraced by about 55% of the country’s 22 million people, is both a religion and ethnic identity because most Muslims in the country are also Malays.  Though Islam is the religion of half the country’s population, its influence in Malaysian life is central given the political and cultural pre-dominance of the Malay-Muslim population.  The remaining population of Malaysia is comprised of ethnic Chinese (35%), ethnic Indians (8%) and small indigenous groups (2%).  These latter groups are mostly non-Muslim.  Islam in Malaysia is not the same as that of the Middle East.  The practice of Islam in Malaysia, as in other places where the religion is practiced, is embedded in the local cultures.  In particular, Buddhism and Hinduism have been important pre-Islamic influences in Malaysia.

The Politics of Islam in Malaysia

The Malay ethnic group has been divided politically, and therefore they require the support of either Chinese or Indians in order to gain political dominance.  This situation leads to a central fact in the country’s political life: Malay-Muslim dominance has always been negotiated amongst various forces.  Inter-ethnic and inter-religious coalition parties, whether in opposition or ruling parties, have dominated the country’s electoral politics in post-independence politics.

The background of contemporary politics in Malaysia is critical to understanding the present.  By the 14th century, as Islam made its way through Indian and Chinese merchants into the area of today’s Malaysia, Buddhist and Hindu influences gave way.  Islam became the source of legitimacy for the Malay feudal rulers.  It was during this period that Islam and Malay identity combined together, but many Hindu and pre-Hindu customs and practices remained part of the cultural and social mix.  The coming of British colonialism in the 18th century fundamentally altered the composition of Malaysian society.  To work the millions of acres of tropical forests for the production of rubber, palm oil and coffee, the British imported in thousands of laborers from India and China.

The Japanese occupation between 1941-1945 touched off ethnic and religious conflicts.  Though a faction of the Malay nationalist movement welcomed the Japanese occupation, other Malays joined with the British in an anti-Japanese front.  Almost all Chinese inhabitants of Malaysia at the time were strongly anti-Japanese due to the massacres of Chinese by Japanese troops.  With the end of WWII, the divisions of the war period took a violent turn with Malays who were seen as having collaborated with the Japanese fighting with Chinese.

The British, still the colonial rulers of Malaysia after the war, sought to contain the ethnic conflict by attempting to establish a unitary state where feudalism would be abolished and equal citizenship granted to all.  However, this attempt at a unitary state failed and in 1948 a federation was formed.  It is this federation system that persists today as the government structure for the country.  The constitution establishing the Federation of Malaysia was not, however, enough to prevent further ethnic conflict.  Indeed, the worst riots took place in May 1969 and led to a new set of policies that were to give further strength to Malay-Muslim dominance.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was initiated in 1971 in response to the 1969 riots.  The policy was designed to be a pro-Malay affirmative action policy.  Its direct effect was to lead to an Islamic resurgence, especially amongst Malay Muslim youth.  While in its initial years the NEP concentrated on redressing socio-economic imbalances, today it is also concerned with issues of identity and culture with Islam at the core.  The NEP has not only wrought major economic and social changes in Malaysia, but also redefined its politics.  Islam in Malaysia is today more visible than ever before.  And it is a modern, “consuming Islam” as evidenced by the proliferation of Muslim financial institutions, medical centers, and social work organizations as well as tourist agencies and supermarkets.  Moderate Islam has become uncontested in Malaysia.  The country’s main Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, remains the credible alternative definer of Malayness.  Since Islam enjoys a general appeal across class lines amongst the Malay community, it is difficult to identify a specific ideological interpretation, voice, or personality that dominates.

One complication is that the increased emphasis on Malay and Islamic identity in economic and public life has exacerbated the problematic of relations between Malay-Muslims and non-Malay non-Muslims.  The idea of Malaysia as an united nation-state, or Bangsa Malaysia, has been challenged.  Still, most religious and ethnic minorities have decided to remain Malaysian and enjoy the benefits of the relatively strong economy of the country.  It is noteworthy, for example, that the recent economic crisis did not lead to an out-migration of Chinese and Indians as witnessed in some of the other countries hit by the financial crisis.  In fact, these minorities have at time's openly supported the troubled Mahathir government.  The main reason for this support may be a desire to assure a stable political system that will ensure the safety of their economic interests.

Indeed, a large proportion of Malay-Muslims have been perceived as being sympathetic to the ousted former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was removed from his position in September 1998.  Some observers feared that because Mr. Ibrahim had been leader of the Islamic youth movement in the 1970s, the political uncertainty brought to the fore by his removal could lead to Islam becoming a destabilizing factor.  In fact, however, the moderate, revivalist type of Islam supported by Mr. Ibrahim may instead be shaping the formation of a truly non-communal politics in Malaysia.  In essence, Islam of the kind that has come to prominence in Malaysia since the 1970s may be the most progressive element in contemporary Malaysian society.  This progressive Islam had led the civil society movement and efforts to protect human rights under the broader effort to achieve “social justice.”

Islam in Malaysia and Security Issues

Two possible security implications of Islam in Malaysia relate to the country's political stability and regional relationships.  Questions have been raised as to whether Mr. Ibrahim's Islamic ties (he once headed Malaysia's Islamic youth movement) will be used in the struggle with Dr. Mahathir.  However, the general view was that these ties would not have a determining impact on the country's stability.  Moreover, it was suggested that no matter who emerges victorious in the current political struggle between Mr. Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir, there is not likely to be any fundamental change in the country's governing structures.

A second possible aspect of security involving Islam relates to Singapore-Malaysia relations.  Singaporeans sometimes describe themselves, worriedly, as a Chinese enclave in a Muslim sea.  However, there is widespread agreement that recent Singapore-Malaysia tensions derive from state-to-state disagreements and have almost nothing to do with Islam.

Islam in Indonesia

Indonesia, where nearly 90% of the populace is Muslim, is the world’s largest Islamic country.  However, Islam has never played a central role in the country’s politics.  Nevertheless, there has been a persistent tension between those advocates of a more prominent and formal role for Islam in the country, and those who resist making Islam an organized political actor.

In the late 1980s, under the now defunct New Order era of former President Suharto, there was an effort to reach out to Muslims and Islam in a more explicit way.  The main reason for this was President Suharto’s desire to widen his power base beyond the military and the secular ruling political party, Golkar.  A symbolic indication of this effort was President Suharto’s decision in 1990 to make his first trip or Hajj to Mecca.  Other steps on the path to Islamization of the New Order regime included reversing the ban on the wearing of jilbab (head covering) for female students in state-run schools and the founding of the country’s first Islamic bank.

Roughly a decade after Suharto’s attempt to encompass Islam in the political sphere, the New Order collapsed.  On 21 May 1998, President Suharto resigned.  In essence, the effort by Suharto to widen his political base by reaching out to Islam did not prevent the fall of his regime. While Suharto’s efforts in the preceding several years to cultivate Islam may have re-invigorated Islamic groups and organizations, the current evolving role of Islam in the politics and policy-making of post-Suharto Indonesia is likely to be more sustainable then it was at the beginning of Suharto’s New Order era.  A major reason for this expectation is that there has been, over the past decades, a surge in religious consciousness among many circles within the Indonesian Muslim community.

Islam and the State in Indonesia

A central point about the Islam in Indonesia is that it is not monolithic.  A key divide, other than the differences between  “traditionalists”, “modernists” and “fundamentalists”, is that between those working for the Islamization of Indonesia and those who wish to Indonesianize Islam.  In some measure, the debates over the role of Islam in Indonesia have been between santri (devout Muslims) and the abangan (nominal Muslims).  The New Order era largely succeeded in suppressing this basic (and overly simplified) dichotomy.

In the immediate post-independence period of parliamentary democracy, Muslim political parties did in fact play an important role in politics.  A number of the Prime Ministers of the period were from the largest Muslim political party, Masjumi.  But divisions and differences amongst the various elements that comprised the party led to the weakening of political Islam in Indonesia.

As Sukarno issued in the era of guided democracy, the fortunes of almost all political parties began to flounder.  The Masjumi was banned in 1960 on the basis of allegations that its leaders were active in a regional rebellion.  Other Islamic groups also began to come under Sukarno’s control.  The rise of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and Sukarno’s growing support for it put Islamic parties and groups even more on the defensive.  However, given Islamic cooperation with the military in the context of the fall of Sukarno in 1965, it appeared that Islam might yet again play a stronger role in the country’s politics.  This did not materialize however.  As Rizal Sukma has written:

However, that coalition was in fact only temporary in nature and the brief period of honeymoon between Islam and the military-backed Suharto’s government soon came to a close.  The early years of the New Order marked the beginning of a long and difficult period for political Islam in Indonesia.  Muslim groups found that their expectation and hope for a renewed political role was pushed aside by a number of policies introduced by Suharto’s New Order government.  Political Islam soon became subject to the process of marginalisation, and the strength of Islam as a political force was reduced remarkably due to a number of measures undertaken by the government.[6]


While working to diminish the role of Islam in the politics of the New Order, at the same time the government encouraged Islamic religious and ritual activities to flourish.  Such encouragement took the form of government-sponsored proselytizing, the increase in Islamic publications and the construction of mosques.  In essence, Suharto’s New Order took a dual-track approach to Islam.  On the one hand, it resisted any political role for Islam while on the other it promoted Islam as a private religion. 

Between the political and the private, a third dimension of Islam in Indonesia has been its societal role.  In this realm, Islam retained an important, and in fact increasingly influential position.  For example, Islamic organizations as mass-based movements focussing on social and educational activities remained important aspects of the Indonesian landscape.  However, as the two largest Muslim organizations, the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama suggest, even as a social force Islam in Indonesia is not monolithic.  Still three developments arising out of the societal role of Islam in the last decade or so of Suharto’s rule have set the background to the role of Islam in the country today.  First, members of the Muslim middle class are now culturally and intellectually more self-confident than their predecessors.  Second, the Muslim middle class, while accepting that religion and society cannot be separated, including government and politics, does not support an Islamic state.  Finally, there is a growing religious awareness amongst the middle class of Indonesia.  The contemporary significance of such developments is that the long-standing distinctions between santri and abangan and between modernism and traditionalism is now giving way to a more complicated picture of Islam’s role in Indonesian society.

Islam and the Military in Indonesia

Relations between Islam and the Indonesian military have been problematic.  Many reasons have been offered to explain the troubled, and at times mutually suspicious relationship.  First, some in the military elite have been unhappy with what they regard as the factious and rebellious nature of the Islamic community.  Specifically, the military elite have suspected that Islam has been a motivating force in regional rebellions in West Java, Aceh and South Sulawesi to name but a few.  Second, the military leadership has tended to be dominated by either the abangan Javanese or secular nationalists.  The non-Muslims in the military have tended to shy away from defining national identity in religious terms.  Even more, the military leadership, in perceiving its role as the guardian of national unity in an ethnically and religiously diverse society, have tended to regard attempts by Muslims to express political interests through protests on economic and cultural grievances with hostility.  Third, in terms of power politics, ABRI was inclined to deny a formal role to Islam out of concern that it would challenge the military’s prominent position in the New Order system of government.  However, in the early 1990s and since, there appear to be the makings of a greater accommodation between Islamists and the ABRI.  The ABRI’s suspicion about the Islamic community’s rebelliousness and tendency towards factionalism appears to have abated. 

The Foreign Relations of Indonesia’s Islam

In general, Islam has not had an important role in shaping Indonesia’s foreign policy.  There are two main reasons.  First, foreign-policy making has been dominated by state institutions, and non-governmental forces have not been allowed to tread on the government’s authority in this area.  Second, Muslims leaders themselves have been concerned with a relatively narrow range of international issues; particularly those that have explicit Islamic dimensions or involve the Islamic world or the Middle East.  This too may be changing. Emerging leaders in the new political climate of post-Suharto Indonesia such as Amien Rais, leader of the political party PAN, are raising questions about Indonesia’s foreign policy.  Two compelling issues for these persons are the international identity of the state and the country’s place in the Islamic world.  Related to these questions is the issue of Indonesia’s relationship with the West.  It is clear that new voices are emerging in terms of views on foreign and security policy in the new political climate, but it is not clear what these voices will have to say.  However, it does not seem likely that the Islamic factor will emerge as a major factor or determinant of Indonesia’s foreign or security policy.

Conclusions about Islam in Indonesia

Islam has not been a monolithic force in the politics of Indonesia.  There have been divergent views amongst several Islamic organizations and movements, most prominently the NU and the Muhammadiyah.  The New Order government’s policy of diminishing the role of political parties combined with the military’s suspicion of Islam, led Islamic organizations to concentrate on religious, social and educational activities rather than politics.  This very shift in emphasis led to Indonesian society becoming more Islamicized, including the rise of a Muslim middle class that entered both the government and the military.  These changes in part led the military to reassess its view of Islam’s role in Indonesia.  Moreover, in the post-Suharto context of Indonesian politics, Islam has emerged as perhaps the most important force.  Islam is likely to be a major force in the politics of Indonesia for the foreseeable future.

Islam in the People's Republic of China

Muslims in East Asia live as minority communities amid a sea of people, in their view, who are largely pork-eating, polytheist, secularist, and kafir ("heathen").  Nevertheless, many of their small and isolated communities have survived in rather inhospitable circumstances for over a millennium.  Though small in population percentage (about 2% in China, 1% in Japan, and less than 1% in Korea), their numbers are nevertheless large in comparison with other Muslim states.   For example, there are more Muslims in China than Malaysia, and more than every Middle Eastern Muslim nation except Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.  East Asia is also increasingly depending on mainly Muslim nations for energy and cheap labor, thus raising the importance of its Muslim diasporic communities for international and domestic relations.  Japan has a rather small resident Muslim community, estimated to be less than 10,000, however, recent waves of Middle Eastern and South Asian migrant laborers to Japan's large industrial cities suggest that the total Muslim population in Japan could be nearing the 1 million mark.  Though these communities are temporary in terms of residency, they are have as strong an impact on Japan's rather insular society as the Turkish and Kurdish populations in the Scandinavian heartlands (which now have surpassed 10 percent).  As Jonathan Lipman insightfully noted, these long-term Muslim communities have often been the "familiar strangers" found in small enclaves throughout Asia.[7]  And if Kosovo and Bosnia are to serve as lessons, failure to accommodate Muslim minorities can lead to national dismemberment and international intervention.  Indeed, China's primary objection to NATO involvement in Kosovo centered on its fear that this might encourage the aiding and abetting of separatists, with independence groups in Xinjiang, Tibet, and perhaps Taiwan, clearly a major Chinese concern. 

China contains the largest Muslim population in East Asia, and China’s Muslims are clearly the most important in terms of national security concerns.  The lessons gleaned from the situation of China’s Muslims may be useful for other Muslim communities in East Asia, and perhaps elsewhere in Asia as well.  Successful Muslim accommodation to minority status in East Asia can be seen to be a measure of the extent to which Muslim groups allow the reconciliation of the dictates of Islamic culture to their host culture, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other.  Islam in the diaspora is not inherently rebellious and Muslim minorities need not be problematic to the security of a non-Muslim state.

Islam in China has primarily been propagated over the last 1300 years among the people now known as Hui, but many of the issues confronting them are relevant to the Turkic and Indo-European Muslims on China’s Inner Asian frontier.  According to a 1990 census, the total Muslim population of China is about 17.6 million.  It is important to note, however, that the Chinese census registers people by nationality, not religious affiliation, so the actual number of Muslims is still unknown.

Though Hui speak a number of non-Chinese languages, most Hui are closer to Han Chinese than other Muslim nationalities in terms of demographic proximity and cultural accommodation.  The attempt to adapt many of their Muslim practices to the Han way of life has led to criticisms amongst Muslim reformers.  The Hui are unique among the 55 identified nationalities in China in that they are the only nationality for whom religion (Islam) is the only unifying category of identity, even though many members of the Hui nationality may not practice Islam.  As a result of Islamic reform movements that have swept across China, the Hui continue to subscribe to a wide spectrum of Islamic belief. 

Many Muslims supported the earliest communist call for equality, autonomy, freedom of religion, and recognized nationality status, and were active in the early establishment of the People’s Republic of China.  However, many of these Muslims became disenchanted by growing critiques of religious practice during several periods in the PRC beginning in 1957.  During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Muslims became the focus for both anti-religious and anti-ethnic nationalism critiques, leading to widespread persecutions, mosque closings, and at least one large massacre of 1,000 Hui following a 1975 uprising in Yunnan province.  Since Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms, Muslims have sought to take advantage of liberalized economic and religious policies, while keeping a watchful eye on the ever-swinging pendulum of Chinese radical politics.  There are now more mosques open in China than there were prior to 1949, and Muslims travel freely on the Hajj to Mecca, as well as engaging in cross-border trade with co-religionists in Central Asia, the Middle East, and increasingly, southeast Asia.

Increasing Muslim political activism on a national scale and rapid state response indicates the growing importance Beijing attaches to Muslim-related issues.  In 1986 Uygurs in Xinjiang marched through the streets of Urumqi protesting against a wide range of issues, including the environmental degradation of the Zungharian plain, nuclear testing in the Taklamakan, increased Han immigration to Xinjiang, and ethnic insults at Xinjiang University.  Muslims throughout China protested the publication of a Chinese book Sexual Customs in May 1989, and a children’s book in October 1993, that portrayed Muslims, particularly their restriction against pork, in a derogatory fashion.  In each case, the government responded quickly, meeting most of the Muslims’ demands, condemning the publications and arresting the authors, and closing down the printing houses.  These protests have continued well into the late-1990s, with intermittent terrorist attacks and popular protests occurring in Xinjiang, extending even to Beijing with a widely publicized bus-bombing in the Spring of 1997 claimed by Uygur separatists worldwide.  Significantly, this claim has never been verified, and many of China's Uyghurs deny support for terrorist acts, indicating a widely divergent view regarding Muslim separatism in China.

China's Muslims are anything but unified vis-à-vis their relationship with the Beijing government.  Regional and factional struggles continue to divide China’s Muslims internally, especially as increased travel to the Middle East prompts criticism of Muslim practices at home and exposes China’s Muslims to new, often politically radical, Islamic ideals.  In February 1994, four Naqshbandi Sufi leaders were sentenced to long-term imprisonment for their support of internal factional disputes in southern Ningxia Region that had led to at least 60 deaths on both sides and People’s Liberation Army intervention.  Throughout the summer and fall of 1993 bombs exploded in several towns in Xinjiang, indicating the growing demands of organizations pressing for an “independent East Turkestan.”  In February 1997, a major uprising in Ili led to the deaths of at least 13 Uyghur and the arrests of hundreds.  Beijing has responded with increased military presence, particularly in Kashgar and Urumqi, as well as diplomatic efforts in the Central Asian states and Turkey to discourage foreign support for separatist movements.  It is clear that Hui and Kazakh Muslims are critical of these separatist actions among the Uyghur, and it is not yet clear how much support even among the Uyghur there is for the violent acts, especially one recent attempt to assassinate a “collaborating” Imam in Kashgar.  At the same time, cross-border trade between Xinjiang and Central Asia has grown tremendously, especially due to the reopening in 1991 of the Eurasian Railroad, linking Urumqi and Almaty with markets in China and Eastern Europe.  Overland travel between Xinjiang and Pakistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan has also increased dramatically with the relaxation of travel restrictions based on Deng Xiaoping’s prioritization of trade over security interests in the area.  The "Shanghai Five" agreement of April 1998 between China, Russia, and the three key bordering Central Asian States (Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), has secured border security for the region.  The government’s policy of seeking to buy support through stimulating the local economy seems to be working at the present.  Income levels in Xinjiang are often far higher than those across the border, yet increased Han migration to participate in the region’s lucrative oil and mining industries continues to exacerbate ethnic tensions.  Muslim areas in northern and central China, however, continue to be left behind as China’s rapid economic growth expands unevenly, enriching the southern coastal areas far beyond that of the interior.

While further restricting Islamic freedoms in the border regions, at the same time the Chinese state has become more keenly aware of the importance foreign Muslim governments place on China’s treatment of its Muslim minorities as a factor in China’s lucrative trade and military agreements.  The establishment of full diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in 1991 and increasing military and technical trade with Middle Eastern Muslim states enhances the economic and political salience of China’s treatment of its internal Muslim minority population.  The increased transnationalism of China’s Muslims will be an important factor in their ethnic expression as well as practiced accommodation to Chinese culture and state authority.

Islam and Chinese Nationalism

China is not immune from the new tide of ethnic nationalism and “primordial politics” sweeping Europe, Africa, and Asia in the post-Cold War period.  Much of it is clearly a response to globalization in terms of localization: an increasing nationalism arising from the organization of the world into nation-states.  No longer content to sit on the sidelines, the nations within these states are playing a greater role in the public sphere.  In most of these nationalist movements, religion, culture, and racialization plays a privileged role in defining the boundaries of the nation.  In China, and perhaps much of Muslim Asia, Islam will continue to play an important role in defining the nation, especially in countries where nationality is defined by a mix of religion and ethnicity (i.e., China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines). 

Muslim activism in China cannot but be nationalistic, but a nationalism that may often transcend the boundaries of the contemporary nation-state, via mass communications, increased travel, and the internet.  Previous Islam movements in China were precipitated by China’s opening to the outside world.  A new movement may now be washing across China’s terrain.  No matter what conservative leaders in the government might wish, China’s Muslims politics have reached a new stage of openness.  If China wants to participate in an international political sphere of nation-states, this is unavoidable.  With the opening to the West in recent years, travel to and from the Islamic heartlands has dramatically increased in China.  Throughout the first 30 years of the PRC, only a handful of Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca.  In 1984, over 1400 Muslims left China to go on the Hajj.  This number increased to over 2000 in 1987, representing a return to pre-1949 levels.  Several Hui students are presently enrolled in Islamic and Arabic studies at the Al-Azhar University in Egypt. 

Encouraged by the Chinese state, relations between Muslims in China and the Middle East are becoming stronger and more frequent, partly from a desire to establish trading partners for arms, commodities, and currency exchanges, and partly by China’s traditional view of itself as a leader of the Third World.  Delegations of foreign Muslims regularly travel to prominent Islamic sites in China, in a kind of state-sponsored religious tourism, and donations are encouraged.  While the state hopes that private Islamic investment will assist economic development, the vast majority of grants by visiting foreign Muslims have been donated to the rebuilding of Islamic mosques, schools, and hospitals.  As Hui in China are further exposed to Islamic internationalism, and they return from studies and pilgrimages abroad, traditional Hui identities will once again be reshaped and called into question, giving rise to a fourth tide of Islam in China.  Global Islam is thus localized into Hui Islam, finding its expression as a range of accommodations between Chineseness and Muslimness as defined in each local community.

These accommodations of China’s Muslims are not unlike those made on a daily basis among other Muslim minorities in Asia.  The only difference may be the increasingly post-modern contraction of time and space: accommodations that took over a millenia in China are now being required of Muslim diasporic communities in a matter of hours or days.  For Hui in China, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers in Tokyo and Seoul, and the wider diaspora, Muslims may becoming increasingly “unfamiliar strangers.”  This does not bode well for the future integration of Muslims into the East Asian Leviathan, China.

The Security Dimensions of Islam in Asia

For most Americans, Islam is a faith from and of the Middle East.  Islam’s security implications therefore tend to be seen as emanating from the vexing problems of that region including, but not limited to, the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab dispute, the Iranian revolution, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and its illicit nuclear weapons program, oil embargoes and terrorism.  The dramatic events of the past two decades in that region have only served to confirm the links between Islam, the Middle East and security problems in the American popular imagination.

In part for these reasons, Islam’s changing role in Asia has been largely missed.  To be sure, developments regarding Islam in Asia, with exception of the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union and the continuing civil war in that country, have been far less dramatic and directly threatening to the interests of the United States and its allies.  Hence, the relatively little attention paid to them.  But there have been important, if more “distant” and at times nuanced developments affecting Islam in Asia.  These developments include:

·        the takeover of power in Pakistan by General Zia Al-Haq and the increased Islamization of that country;

·        the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and its implications for relations with its Islamic neighbors;

·        the restiveness of China’s Muslims partly resulting from their wider ties to the world;

·        shifting social, economic and political roles of Islam in the politics of Malaysia and Indonesia; and

·        the mostly localized Moro rebellion in the Philippines.

While all of these trends and developments are important, they simply have not been able to compete with the jarring scenes visible in the Middle East, including most recently the Persian Gulf War.  How, then, based on the reviews of the status and roles of Islam in key Asian countries provided above, can one think about Islam’s security implications in Asia?  And, more specifically, what if any, implications might the changing roles of Islam in Asia have for the United States?  At the national or country-level, Islam’s implications for security come in the form of political stability and ability to accommodate minorities where Islam is the majority religion.  At the regional level, Islam’s role in security appears to be its relevance to either promoting cooperation or creating tensions.  At the international level, a major issue is Asian Islam’s role in international Islamic movements and organizations and particularly relations with the Middle East.

Islam and Domestic Political Stability in Asia

The presentations on the roles of Islam in Pakistan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and China suggests that, with the exception of the Philippines where an Islamic rebellion is all but over, Islam’s role in the politics, societies and economies has grown.  Despite the growing role of Islam and the rise of more activist and religious Muslim middle classes,[8] there appear to be few signs of an Islamic fundamentalist trend in Asia.  The point was made repeatedly that Islam in most of Asia must compete with other identities, most notably ethnicity.  Moreover, Islam in Asia generally is built on pre-Islamic influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism still persists.  All of these factors tend to make Islam in Asia of a variety different from the more doctrinaire influences of the Arabian peninsula. 

Only in one country, Pakistan, does it appear that Islam is threatening to take an extra-parliamentary role towards politics.  Islamic politics of the street intended to undermine Pakistan’s barely functioning democracy is possibly a real danger to the political stability of the country.  Just how serious a threat Islam poses to Pakistan’s political system, and how soon, is a matter of speculation.  But what is not beyond doubt is that factional fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Pakistan has grown, and so too has intolerance against the country’s minority communities whether they be Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi. 

In India, it is not the rise of Islam, but rather the rise of majority Hinduism that has raised concerns about political stability.  In particular, the destruction in 1992 of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in northern India claimed by Hindus as the birthplace of the god Ram, led to some of the worst Hindu-Muslim rioting in post-independence India.  Some observers have wondered whether such incidents bode a long-term trend in serious Hindu-Muslim violence that will lead to undermining the stability of the Indian state.  The victory, once again, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners, in the most recent national elections suggests that political Hinduism is now pre-eminent.  Still, the prospect of an all-India conflagration between Hindus and Muslims does not appear likely.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islamic identity and activity in social, economic and political dimensions has been on the increase, political stability arising from Islam’s role is not the critical issue.  Rather, the compelling issues appear to be accommodating Islamic activism in the emerging politics of the two countries and protecting the rights of minorities.  The New Order of Suharto’s Indonesia did not collapse because of Islamic activism, and Islam is not behind the rough political dynamics of Malaysia during the past two years.  But, as both countries move through an era of political change, Islam will certainly be one if not the most critical of the many factors shaping the future. 

All in all, it appears that none of the Asian countries considered in this seminar, with the possible exception or Pakistan, are in danger of being thrown into turmoil and instability due to an Islamic revolution.  There are ways in which the role of Islam may affect the stability of the some of these states, however; such as incorporating Islamic political parties in the new dispensation in Indonesia or ensuring the confidence and safety of non-Muslim minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia.  In India and Philippines non-Muslim majorities must work to ensure that confidence and safety of the minority Muslim community.  There are also legitimate questions about the degree to which Islam will affect the definition of nationalism in Muslim-majority countries of the region.

Islam and Asian Regional Politics in Asia

The role of Islam in Asian regional politics is extraordinarily complicated and differs from sub-region to sub-region not to mention across Asia.  In South Asia for example, Islam has not proved to be a tie that binds as indicated by the separation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from co-religionist West Pakistan in 1971. (The majority-Hindu states of India and Nepal certainly have not always had good relations either).  Intra-regional relations in South Asia are certainly complicated by religion (whether Islam or Hinduism, or for that matter Buddhism) but religion does not shape these relations.  Nationalism, power politics, and ethnic identities are much stronger factors in intra-regional relations. 

Similarly, in Southeast Asia, intra-regional relations are only partly affected by religion.  There has been intra-regional cooperation on problems with an Islamic dimension such as the Moro rebellion.  In that case, both Malaysia and Indonesia played a moderating and facilitating role.  In other instances, however, the Islam “factor” appears to have different implications for regional relations.  For example, several Southeast Asian leaders came to the defense of Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim after he was removed from office by Prime Minster Mahaithir. At least one report has noted that Mr. Ibrahim’s most vocal supporters were, like him, moderate Muslims and implied that a network of moderate Muslims was rising to power in Southeast Asia.[9]  The only problem with such a view of course is that the person who put Mr. Ibrahim in prison is also a fellow moderate Muslim, and another of Mr. Ibrahim’s strongest supporters is the Catholic President of the Philippines Mr. Estrada.  Again, religion, whether Islam or any other, seems to be the less compelling variable in shaping intra-regional cooperation or tensions compared to other factors.

In terms of regional organizations, Islam seems to play an important organizational role in bringing together non-governmental groups for the purposes of youth exchanges, education and other social types of engagement (e.g., the World Assembly of Muslim Youth).  But when it comes to governments and government policies, the regional organizations deemed most important at the regional or sub-regional level have almost nothing to do with any faith (e.g., the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).  The bottom line regarding Islam at the regional or sub-regional level in Asia is that it has little direct or determining power in either promoting cooperation or in creating tensions.  Hence, Islam’s role in regional security is limited.

Asian Islam and the World

Islam has always been an internationalist religion, but with a special connection to the holy places in the Middle East where the faith has its origins.  Muslims, like Christians, Jews and others, will always be concerned with the fate of co-religionists around the world.  Whether that will lead governments to take particular policy actions is less certain.  For example, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan certainly created much concern in the Islamic world, but few Muslim countries cut-off relations with the Soviet Union.  Muslims also watched with great care the world response to the situation in Kosovo.  Many Muslim countries were heartened that the United States and other Western countries had acted to assist Muslims on humanitarian grounds.  Other governments with large Muslim minorities (e.g., China and India) were very critical, however, of the West’s actions in Kosovo. 

Another international issue affecting the Muslims of Asia is globalization.[10] The trend towards globalization allows increased contacts amongst Muslims.  This has had an especially important, and perhaps ultimately destabilizing, impact in countries where Muslims have been relatively isolated from co-religionists elsewhere, as in China.

International Islamic organizations such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) offer an important venue for Islamic country representatives to share views and work towards common stances on issues.  As with other non-faith-based international organizations however, there is no guarantee that the OIC will act with consensus.  Indeed, individual Islamic countries within the OIC have often taken strongly divergent policies on issues.  One example is the Moro rebellion; an issue on which Indonesia and Malaysia worked to moderate Libya’s strongly critical stance of the Philippines in OIC deliberations and actions.  Nor can the OIC be counted upon to support its fellow members fully or generously.  It has been reported that the OIC offered to Pakistan only $20 million in assistance following its May 1998 nuclear tests and the sanctions that brought Pakistan’s economy to the brink of collapse.

A final aspect of Asian Islam’s international links relates to the Middle East.  The Middle East is important to Asian Islam not only as the home of the faith’s holiest sites, to which every Muslim is enjoined to travel at least once in his or her lifetime, but also for more earthly reasons.  Asian Islamic countries rely on the Middle East for oil supplies, for markets for goods, for remittances from their workers stationed there, and for economic assistance.  There are also, of course, overlaps between Asian and Middle Eastern countries in organizations such as the OIC, OPEC, NAM and the United Nations.  These overlapping memberships do not, as indicated, guarantee anything like common cause on all issues, but they are important avenues for dialogue and consultations on issues of common interest.

Islam in Asia and the United States

As this summary of the seminar presentations and discussions suggests, Islam in Asia is highly complex.  Its implications for security at the national, regional and international level are limited.  United States' interests in Asia will be affected by developments regarding the role of Islam in the regional countries themselves more than by a concerted Islam in the region or the world.  In essence, Islam itself poses no monolithic challenge to United States interests.  If the United States were to treat Islam as an enemy, it might become one.  Recent events, most notably in Kosovo, have reduced some suspicions about the United States’ and other western countries’ hostile attitudes about Islam and Muslims.

This report was authored by Dr. Satu Limaye, Chief, Research Division, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. For more information, please contact him at 808-971-4054.


Mr. Zaffar Abbas
Herald Magazine

Professor Tamara Albertini
University of Hawaii

Professor Roger T. Ames
University of Hawaii

Mr. Richard Baker
East West Center

Dr. Donald L. Berlin
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Dr. Eric Casino
Hawaii Pacific University

Dr. Dru C. Gladney
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Professor P. Bion Griffin
University of Hawaii

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Gross
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Major Randall Koehlmoos
U.S. Army

Lieutenant Colonel Mel C. Labrador
U.S. Pacific Command

Dr. Satu P. Limaye
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Professor Michael J. Montesano
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Mr. Thomas Peterman
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Professor Amri Baharuddin Shamsul
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Captain Robert Speer
Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Dr. Rizal Sukma
Centre for Strategic and International Studies


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Esposito, John L. "Islam in Asia:  An Introduction," Islam in Asia:  Religion, Politics, and Society, John L. Esposito (ed)., 1987.

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