Living Faith

Inside the Muslim World of Southeast Asia


By Steve Raymer

I have traveled the world for three decades, first as a National Geographic photographer and more recently as a university professor and freelance photojournalist. Through the camera lens, I have seen Muslims kneeling in prayer in the sheikdoms of the Arabian Gulf, in African mosques made of mud, and those in Iran made of marble and lapis. I have encountered Islam in such unlikely places as on the banks of the Volga River in central Russia, and in traditional Muslim domains like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. But until I began a journey through the Muslim world of Southeast Asia, I knew more about the rituals of Islam than about the tenets of its faith and the lifestyles of those who submit to its powerful call. Unfortunately, this is often the case in journalism. For we live in a world that thirsts for symbolic images - images that are bounced at the speed of light across a constellation of communications satellites to feed an insatiable 24-hour news cycle. But in our quest for images, we do not always understand what we see.

My superficial acquaintance with Islam might have remained unaltered were it not for a 1998 trip to Southeast Asia, a region that has held my heart captive since I went to report on its wars in Cambodia and Vietnam and discovered its ravishing beauty so many years ago. Setting off for Indonesia, I was rerouted to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur because Jakarta was convulsed by revolution and its airport was closed. It was a fateful change. In Malaysia, a land famous for its gentle practice of Islam, I discovered a renewed allegiance to an Islamic way of life - something that foreshadowed what some scholars are now calling - wrongly in my view - a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. I was hooked.

Some 1.2 billion people call themselves Muslims, believers in an all-encompassing God whose teachings were handed down in the seventh century to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabian Desert. Over the centuries, Islam - a creed of unshakable beliefs and a code of conduct that regulates every facet of a Muslim's daily life - has spread far beyond Arabia to Southeast Asia, China, India, Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the United States, where some five million Americans embrace Islam. At its core, to be a Muslim is to submit to God. Indeed, the very word Islam, which is variously translated as submission or surrender, has its origins in the Arabic salam, or peace.

Contrary to popular belief in the West, most Muslims are not Arabs, nor are they wealthy. By any measure, Indonesia, a country of immense wealth and heart-breaking poverty, is the world's largest Muslim nation, followed by three Asian neighbors - Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The weight of Indonesia's numbers - some 198 million believers - makes Islam one of the dominant faiths of Southeast Asia, a region already rich in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Christian creeds.

But to the Western eye, Muslims are often seen as extremists intent on overturning governments, revolutionizing societies, and mistreating women and nonbelieving "infidels," sometimes at the point of a gun. These stereotypes became all the more vivid after that terrible September morning, when hijackers crashed airliners into buildings in New York and Washington and the world learned the fanatics were Muslims who adhered to a version of Islam that sanctioned terrorist violence. Religious leaders of many faiths were quick to say that Islam rejects violence against innocents and that over the centuries Islam has been no more violent than Christianity, whose history includes the Inquisition and the Crusades. Indeed, terrorism is defined neither by geography nor religion. But the image of extremist Islam continues to vex millions of African, Arab, and Asian Muslims, who live in a world of prayer, charity, piety, and pilgrimage far removed from the brutal world of assassinations, suicide bombings, and outpourings of hatred.

Arab and Indian traders brought Islam to the coastal trading ports of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java between the 11th and 15th centuries, gradually assimilating Hinduism, which then dominated the region, as well as local animist sects with strong supernatural overtones. Over the centuries Southeast Asian Muslims became known for their tolerance of religious beliefs, including those of their European colonial masters and imported laborers from India and China. As recently as the 1970s, Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia were considered complacent in faith and anything but dogmatic in practice. But no more. An Islamic zeal - some Muslims call it a reawakening - has caught fire in Southeast Asia, a region where religious fault lines already run deep.

For a half-century or more, brushfire wars for independence or autonomy have simmered in Muslim dominated areas of the Philippines, the southern provinces of Thailand, and oil-and-gas-rich Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. But the intensified fighting of recent years - and thousands of additional deaths - has put these Islamic revolts on the front pages of the world's newspapers and television screens. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian countries with Muslim majorities have their own problems with religious radicals and reformers.

In Malaysia, where ethnic harmony has been rigorously promoted since bloody Malay-Chinese riots in 1969, scholars worry about the influence of Islam on politics and culture. Many Malaysians worry openly that a "jihad mentality" - struggle, martyrdom, heaven, and hell - has dangerously inflamed passions, especially among the young. Increasing numbers of Malays say they want a more orthodox Islamic code to govern everything from supermarket checkout lines -separating men and women - to alcohol sales. In one conservative region, women have been banned from Koran reading competitions, a popular Malay pastime, on the theory that a female voice is too seductive to read the Islamic holy book aloud. Increasingly, being a devout Muslim now defines self and state in Malaysia, where 40 percent of the people are non-Muslims of Chinese, Indian, and tribal origin.

More ominously, Indonesia's slow social dissolution has given license to gangs of Muslim vigilantes who have rampaged through the cities of densely populated Java and inflamed Christian-Muslim tensions in the Maluku or Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia. Today Indonesia finds itself being redefined by a growing Islamic militancy that threatens to erode the country's well-known religious tolerance, which was written into the 1949 constitution to protect Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other minorities. There has been an explosion in the number of Islamic schools, businesses, civic groups, and media outlets. New Islamic political parties now make up a powerful bloc in the Indonesian parliament. And neighborhood Islamic banks are lending money to poor families still recovering from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s that drove millions deeper into poverty. Indeed, about 75 percent of Indonesia's Muslims now want Islam to play "a very large role" in society and government policy, according to a study commissioned by the United States government.

What governments and Muslim leaders have only begun to examine are links between extremist groups in Afghanistan and the Middle East with those in Southeast Asia. Increasingly, it seems, Malaysian, Filipino, and Indonesian students are going abroad to study at Islamic religious schools and coming under the influence of hard-line teachers with grievances against the West, especially the United States. Many students return from places like Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to become teachers in local religious schools, bringing with them a conservative brand of Islam the likes of which Southeast Asia has never seen.

Yet no one group or big idea has captured the imagination or the allegiance of all Southeast Asian Muslims. The only thing that unites Muslim revivalists is their use of the green flag of Islam as an all-purpose banner to rally support for their assorted causes. The poor and those with little or no stake in the system want their own Islamic states. Fundamentalists seek an end to government corruption and social decadence, which they define as everything from Western television and popular music to alcohol and sex outside of marriage. But the young toughs like Laskar Jihad - militants who have incited a religious war in the Malukus and bombed churches in Jakarta - have nothing in common with the peaceful Muslim reformers in Malaysia, who have used the ballot box and the media to advance their ideas. Thailand's shadowy Bersatu secessionists who specialize in kidnapping and extortion are cut from a different cloth than, say, the well-heeled conservatives of oil-rich Brunei or the self-assured, computer-savvy Muslim professionals of Singapore. The tattered militias of Java, West Kalimantan, and Sumatra stand in bold contrast to the gentle Cham of Cambodia and Vietnam - Muslims who were persecuted by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and his Vietnamese communist allies at the end of the Indochina War.

Going behind the headlines to tell complex stories is the photo essayist's challenge - and never has it been more difficult than in the Muslim World of Southeast Asia with all of its fractures and suspicions of non-Muslims like myself. To learn how the Islamic revival has affected ordinary Muslims, I traveled the length of the Malay Peninsula, including the four Muslim-dominated southern provinces of Thailand. I crisscrossed the Indonesian Archipelago and journeyed to Cambodia, Singapore, and Brunei to look at the impact of the Muslim resurgence on schools, villages, high-technology factories, cities, and families. My goal was simple and direct: To put a human face on Islam.

Over nine trips to the region, I discovered that a religious creed imported from Arabia was today transforming the culture and institutions of modern Southeast Asia, sometimes buttressing them again the advance of global capitalism and Western popular culture, at other times accommodating notions of democracy and universal human rights. Many snapshots come to mind, from Muslim banks that charge no interest to the Sisters of Islam in Malaysia, a group that has lobbied against domestic abuse and published books titled Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives? and Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah?

But the most enduring images linger in the mosques, both grand and humble, that form the backbone of the Islamic world. Here the faithful find solace in the muezzin's mournful call to prayer, chanted in Arabic: "God is great, God is great…Come to prayer, come to prayer…Come to salvation, come to salvation…" Of all the Muslim institutions, the mosque is the most important place for the public expression of Islamic belief and community identity. The mosque is where Muslims make their presence known in the multiethnic world of Southeast Asia. And because all men and women are thought to be equal in the eyes of God, or Allah, there are no reserved places for the rich or powerful. Scruffy sandals, athletic shoes, and polished slip-ons shed before entering the mosque testify to its powerful function as a social and economic leveler.

At its core, the mosque is a place where Muslims gather to pray, to learn, to contemplate, and to socialize away from the din of surrounding bazaars and with a dignity that is not always theirs in the world outside. The mosque is not a church or sanctuary; God is no more present here than He is anywhere else. Indeed, the only thing all mosques have in common is the mihrab, a niche or indentation in the wall indicating the direction to Mecca, Islam's most holy shrine to which all believers face when they pray. For most Muslims, the size or cost of a mosque matters little. It is what takes place inside that is of consequence. Indeed, the muezzin's chant is forever timeless and universal in what it asks and what it promises.

For the most devout, dreams of Islamic purity in polyglot Southeast Asia show no signs of diminishing - just the opposite. Undiminished, too, are the global markets and entrepreneurs who are transforming immense swaths of Asian rain forest into some of the most densely packed cities on Earth, complete with discos, megamalls, and Western TV that projects a culture that conservative Muslims find offensive and many millions more revere for its democratic ideals and technological prowess. In the end, Southeast Asian Muslims, like Muslims worldwide, seem caught between competing interpretations of Islam, whose history and teachings often speak of bygone glory and empires lost. No one can predict how many more Muslims will rally behind ideologues who seek solutions in slogans like "Islam is the Answer!" - cries that suggest a coming battle between the West and Islam. Scholars from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta suggest that millions more Southeast Asian Muslims will remember the words of the Islamic holy book, the Koran: "There is neither East nor West for God."

[This is only the introduction to a multipage photoessay. The original url was]