Image: Living Faith
Centuries ago, merchants from the Middle East swept through South and Southeast Asia, bringing Islam with them.

When I started this project, my aim was to put a human face on Islam in Southeast Asia, a goal that seems more urgent now that Southeast Asia has become a new front in the global war on terrorism.

Islam came to the region through trade, not conquest, and over the centuries preached moderation and social justice. Now, Southeast Asia’s tradition of tolerance is being tested as never before. In the months following the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, terrorists linked to Muslim extremist groups were rounded up in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, which sees itself as a model of racial harmony in a region where religious passion runs deep.

Osama bin Laden T-shirts appeared along with anti-American protests on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Muslims and Christians once friends and neighbors murdered, tortured and beheaded one another with a new vengeance on Sulawesi and the Maluku islands in Indonesia. And al-Qaida terrorists continued to slip in and out of Indonesia, bringing with them millions of dollars for radical Islamic organizations, recruiting members and providing military training.

As troubling as these developments may be, Southeast Asia -- home to nearly 25 percent of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide -- is not the Middle East or South Asia, where religious violence has a long history. Not only is the Islam of Southeast Asia more tolerant -- women are encouraged, for example, to enter the professions and decide for themselves whether to cover their heads -- but the region’s links to the West are stronger. Investments in universities and educational exchanges have spawned a new elite that moves easily between the Muslim and Western worlds. Educated and urbane moderates some of whom helped me with my latest book have become a bulwark at a time when some Muslims are prepared to believe the worst about the Western democracies and cheer for extremists like bin Laden. The world now looks to these Muslim moderates to steer Southeast Asia clear of fanaticism, which festers in villages and city slums left behind by globalization.

The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque dominates the skyline of Shah Alam in Malaysia. The mosque can accommodate about 24,000 worshippers under a computer-designed dome whose lighting system creates the illusion of being in the desert on a star-filled night.

Scholars and local journalists say the cultural traditions of Southeast Asia are too strong and the region far too ethnically diverse for radicalism to take root as deeply as it has in places like Algeria and Afghanistan, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Governments across the region have pumped billions of dollars into economic development projects, though the boom-and-bust cycles of global markets have alienated many impoverished Muslims. In places like Indonesia, there is an energetic free press that offers a marketplace of ideas and demands accountability from the country’s leaders. But Indonesia’s central government remains weak, its borders porous and corruption rampant all conditions that benefit a handful of uncompromising Islamic clerics who seek to radicalize the country's traditionally moderate Muslims.

Contrary to popular belief in the West, most Muslims are not Arabs. By any measure, Indonesia, a land of heart-breaking poverty and enormous wealth, 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.

For many of these Muslims and others whose lives are far removed from the brutal world of suicide bombings and other violence, the image of extremist Islam is vexing.

After making 10 trips to the region, what seems undeniable to me is this: Islam is transforming the culture and institutions of modern Southeast Asia, sometimes buttressing them against the advance of global capitalism and Western popular culture, at other times accommodating notions of democracy and universal human rights.

In the end, Southeast Asian Muslims, like Muslims worldwide, face competing interpretations of Islam, whose history and teachings often speak of bygone glory and empires lost. No one can predict how many Muslims will rally behind ideologues who cry, "Islam is the answer!" a slogan that suggests a clash of the West and Islam. My hope is that millions more Southeast Asian Muslims will heed these words of the Koran: There is neither East nor West for God.


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