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Message-ID: <DDF4B7032E44D211A32400A0C9E11AF303262E72@mail.ccsu.edu>
From: Brown, H. Haines (History) <BrownH@mail.ccsu.edu>
To: 'brownh@hartford-hwp.com' <brownh@hartford-hwp.com>
Subject: FW: South-East Asia: SE Asia must engage political Islam (PHAR Ki m Beng, Harvard University)
Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2000 17:55:23 -0500

-----Original Message-----
From: E Phillip Lim
To: brownh@mail.ccsu.edu
Sent: 1/8/00 10:45 AM
Subject: Fwd: South-East Asia: SE Asia must engage political Islam (PHAR Kim Beng, Harvard University)

SE Asia must engage political Islam

The Straits Times Interactive,
A perspective by Phar Kim Beng, 8 January 2000

IN THE West, the perception of Islam as a potential threat has significantly increased since the end of the Cold War. The reason frequently offered is that neither political Islam (otherwise known as Islamic fundamentalism), nor Islam as a religion itself, is compatible to liberal democracy.

In South-east Asia, the unease with political Islam is of another form. At issue is not the contention over Islam's lack of democratic attributes. Rather, the palpable concern of most governments, especially Muslim ones in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, emanates from the potential risk posed by certain groups' radical reading of the Islamic scriptures.

The ease with which Islam can be radicalised is made all the more apparent by the lack of any papal-like religious institution, to mitigate authoritatively on pressing political questions. This is a real dilemma faced by many Muslim societies.

The full effect of which was occasioned by events leading to Operation Desert Storm. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, there was literally a war of fatwas (Islamic legal edicts). The fault- lines emerged with one group of Muslim scholars in favour of launching a jihad against Iraq--the aggressor which invaded Kuwait--pitched against another, strictly opposed to any form of warfare that would include non-Muslim forces (in this case, American-led Western forces) as principal allies.

In the end, the groups issued two different fatwas each, declaring their side's cause to be a just war, that is, jihad. More alarmingly, fatwas, declarations and proclamations originated not only in Islamic countries alone, but also in several Islamic communities in the Muslim diaspora, including Europe and the United States.

The above controversies amply showed the internal confusion faced by the Muslim world. Indeed, other than the consensus that jihad should be defensive, Muslims themselves disagreed on the terms in which jihad could be initiated or conducted.

What the above demonstrates are three key points. Firstly, jihad is a term that can be used flexibly (or abused). Secondly, Islamic authority remain decentralised, thus increasing the idiosyncrasies of each judgment. Thirdly, Islamic groups can declare jihad too.

Within the context of South-east Asia, the last has obvious security implications for Indonesia. The Acehnese, for one, have been using Islamic symbols and rhetoric to justify their demands for complete independence from Indonesia. Despite President Abdurrahman Wahid's peaceful overtures to placate the Acehnese by agreeing to a referendum on Islamic law, the independence movement has not abated.

In Malaysia, the Islamic Party (PAS) has also gained in ascendancy -- by retaining Kelantan, then capturing Terengganu in the recent elections. Upon coming to power in the latter, Abdul Awang Hadi, the new Chief Minister of Terengganu, immediately and predictably proceeded to introduce religious enactments that would facilitate Islamic rule in the state.

What are the reasons for the perpetual link between Islam and politics? More precisely, what are the attributes that make for Islam's unique brand of what eminent Islamic specialists call religio-politics?

>From Morroco to Mindanao, Islam appears intimately entwined with political struggle of various forms.

Even after almost 80 years of secular rule in Turkey, Islam still remains a potent political force, not withstanding the ban that had been imposed on the Islamic Refah Party in 1998.

Part of the vibrancy of religio-politics can be explained by the internal characteristics of Islam, as well as the external milieu that the religion operates in.

First of all, Islam is affirmed by Muslims as a complete faith. By virtue of this holistic character, Islam has a stake in everything from personal hygiene to national, even international, politics.

Secondly, Islam also functions as an important cultural identity.

The meshing of religious, cultural and ethnic identity has assured Islam a central place in the political discourse of many nations.

Thirdly, the political activism of Islam, including those in South-east Asia, is sustained and informed by the numerous crises the Islamic world is currently confronting.

Of the 21 armed-conflicts proceeding at present, the Muslim world takes the lion's share. It is involved in 17 of these conflicts, including the present quagmire in Chechnya.

Saddled with a Muslim world wracked by violence and despair, Islamic fundamentalists have universally become anti-Western and anti- establishment too.

Predictably, the line advocated by these groups calls for nothing except a complete return to ancient Islam, with the creation of an Islamic state holding a position of central importance within the scheme of Islamic politics.

That said, political Islam's policy on an Islamic state is evidently flawed. The policy easily makes for the redundant role of an Islamic state in the first place.

After all, if contemporary difficulties can be solved by the mere return to antiquated religious practice, why then the need for the creation of a powerful Islamic institution to arrest moral and other forms of decline?

In other words, the call to go back to the time of the Prophet represents a civilisational retreat, not advance.

An Islamic state, in this context, isn't the solution, but an act of political escapism.

Nevertheless, in identifying the flaws of political Islam, one cannot accuse it of not trying to be democratic, although this is one of the most common invectives hurled at political Islam.

In fact, past records have shown that political Islam has accepted the legitimacy of elections.

In 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) even participated in Algeria's parliamentary election.

However, just when the FIS looked set to emerge triumphant from the polls, the incumbent military regime arbitrarily suspended the exercise--a phenomenon not entirely different from what had taken place in Myammar several years earlier.

Yet, while the world criticised the Myammar junta's decision, hardly a single government registered a protest against Algeria's military regime at all.

Invariably, the ambivalence of the international community has reinforced the belief of some Islamic activists that they cannot rely on the ballot to claim power.

If political Islam has been guilty of violence, as most recently marked by the harrowing hijacking of the Indian Airlines jet by the Kashmiri militants, the international community bears some blame.

In seeing political Islam as an unsalvageable political project, it has failed to engage and understand the legitimate concerns of political Islam.

To prevent the recurrence of religious violence in Aceh, Ambon, Mindanao and even Pattani, South-east Asia is well-advised to take the pulse of political Islam more seriously.