Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Diversity and Unity

Islam in Southeast Asia

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Islam in Southeast Asia


Diversity and Community in Southeast Asian Islam

Western media accounts frequently give the impression that all Muslims share the same values, views, and aspirations, and that they all speak in a single voice. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! There is a great deal of ethnic, socio-economic, and other diversity among Muslims in Southeast Asia (as elsewhere). Such diversity is of considerable significance because it typically entails divergent life experiences. Divergent life experiences in turn commonly give rise to contrasting views on important issues such as the fundamentals or essence(s) of Islam; their implications for women and gender; the proper place of Islam in the political process and in public life as a whole; and the role that Islam—and Islamic law in particular—should play in processes of modernization and state policies bearing on the future.

One way to approach diversity in Southeast Asian Islam is to examine the major variants (or visions) of Islam in the region in relation to the main institutions, organizations, and groups that help support and reproduce them. The major “carriers” of Islam in Malaysia—to focus for the moment on the country that has sustained a pace of economic development that is probably second to none in the entire Muslim world—include the following: (1) The ruling political party (known by its acronym UMNO) that has steered the country on an overwhelmingly secular, “pro-development” course since independence from the British in 1957 and has promoted a relatively moderate, progressive, and inclusive Islam; (2) the more “conservative” Islamist political party (PAS), which seeks an expansion of the role of Islamic law and the creation of an Islamic state; (3) grass-roots organizations and movements of various kinds, some of which encourage one-on-one missionary outreach, communal living, economic self-sufficiency, and emulation of the lifestyle of the Prophet; (4) Islamic religious scholars (‘ulama), who tend to see their role as guardians of sacred texts and traditions, but are in many cases active proponents ofchange; (5) Muslim feminist organizations (such as Sisters in Islam) that engage in advocacy and lobbying efforts to improve women’s legal options and overall standards of living, and are in some ways similar to Western-style non-governmental organizations NGOs; and (6) “ordinary Muslims,” who are not in the forefront of religious or political developments, but are among the more enduring targets of resurgents’ cultural cleansing (owing to the animist, Hindu-Buddhist, and Sufi features of their syncretic Islamic beliefs and practices), and who make up the majority of the Muslim population. Just as each of these institutions, organizations, and groups is associated with one or more distinctive (and in some respects mutually contradictory) visions of Islam, so, too, does each contribute in its own way to the multifaceted nature of Islam in contemporary Malaysia.

Religious landscapes in certain other areas of Muslim Southeast Asia are even more complex. In Indonesia, for example, the range and prominence of national religious organizations (such as Nahdlatul Ulamaand Muhammadiyah) is far more extensive. So too is the tradition of religious boarding schools (pesantren), many of which promote regionally variable and otherwise distinctive visions of Islam. Contemporary political organizations and movements (some seeking partial autonomy or complete independence for outlying regions, as is the case in the southern Philippines) are also far more varied than Malaysia’s. Feminist groups in Java and other areas of Indonesia, for their part, are highly diverse as well and much more variegated than in Malaysia. Indonesia’s national motto, “unity in diversity,” is nonetheless relevant here, as it is in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. More generally, there are important commonalities among Muslims throughout Southeast Asia that derive from their observance of common rituals, their embodiment of broadly shared values, and their shared identity as Muslims living in an ethnically diverse and rapidly modernizing world.