Archive for the ‘South East Asia’ Category

Pew have published some new research on Muslim opinions towards the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah and, amongst other things, views on the role of Islam in public life.  The report makes for interesting, and worrying, reading as you can imagine:

Extremist groups Hamas and Hezbollah continue to receive mixed ratings from Muslim publics. However, opinions of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, are consistently negative; only in Nigeria do Muslims offer views that are, on balance, positive toward al Qaeda and bin Laden.

It is Pew’s job to produce objective, non-partisan research, but this opening paragraph to their commentary understates what to me are some startling figures.  Firstly, we often hear about the public’s ‘mixed reaction’ to various policy initiatives, or even their ambivalence.  In some instances this might even be a controversial issue (such as lingering support for capital punishment).  In this instance, however, we’re talking about a large body of people who support genocidal terrorist organisations: according to Pew, some 38 million Nigerians express support for Hamas and al-Qa’idah, and some 35 million the Shi’ite Islamists of Hezbollah (this in spite of the fact that Nigerian Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni).  In Egypt, some 36 million people look upon Hamas favourably, whilst 14.5 million Egyptians champion al-Qa’idah.  In avowedly secular Turkey, some 3 million, 3.8 million and 7 million Turks endorse the policies of al-Qa’idah, Hezbollah and Hamas respectively; this, in a country in the advanced stages of gaining accession to the European Union.  But perhaps the most disturbing data in the survey comes from Indonesia.  With a population approaching 250 million, Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world with some 209 million Indonesians professing faith in Islam (according to the last census) or 86% of the population.  Of this 209 million, according to Pew, 23% approve of al-Qa’idah (48 million); 39% Hamas (81.5 million); and 43% Hezbollah (90 million).


Looking at the results of two previous surveys (see Mixed Views of Hamas and Hezbollah in Largely Muslim Nations and Muslim Views of Hamas Mixed) on Muslim attitudes to Islamism, we notice a general trend of growing support, with exceptions:

  • support for Hamas has doubled in Lebanon, nearly doubled in Indonesia and Turkey, and increased by over a third in Nigeria since 2007;
  • support for Islamism in Egypt has fallen, with declining support particularly marked for Hezbollah;
  • support for Hezbollah has increased significantly in Jordan and by 50% in Lebanon since 2009

The survey also finds that Muslims are overwhelmingly in favour of Islam’s role in their countries’ politics.  Furthermore, although the Turkish public are ambivalent towards the role Islam, of the 69% who say  religion plays a large role, 45% see it as good a thing.


Regarding democracy, majorities in most of the Muslim publics surveyed say that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, though it is unclear from the survey exactly what form of democracy.  This view is especially widespread in Lebanon and in Turkey, the most Westernised countries in the Middle East with the exception of Israel.  In these two states at least three-quarters of Muslims (81% and 76%, respectively) express a preference for democratic governance.  Support for democracy is less common in Pakistan, but a plurality (42%) of Muslims in that country prefer democracy to other types of government; 15% of Pakistani Muslims say that, in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable, and 21% say that, for someone like them, the kind of government their country has does not matter.

To view or download the full report in .pdf, click here.


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The Sunday Telegraph has today published several articles detailing its investigation, in cooperation with Channel 4’s documentary programme Dispatches (which is screened tormorrow, Monday, 1st March 2010 at 8pm), into Islamic Forum Europe, a Jamaat-e Islami front run out of the East London Mosque, and the Labour Party.  I’ve decided to reproduce all the articles here in case they disappear for some reason or another:

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Having seen the dynamics of Islam and politics in secular Indonesia, we turn our attention to Malaysia and the difficulties of reconciling political Islam with pluralism.  In the following article, Maznah Mohamad, draws on the several recent incidents of religious intolerance as well as a questionable legal ruling to highlight the increasing Islamisation of the state.  This paragraph, in particular, made me think of the difficulties inherent in trying to synthesise positive law from uncodified Islamic law:

Islamic laws in Malaysia are based on religious doctrine but codified and passed as statutes by state parliaments. Not much debate attends their enactment, because a fear of heresy keeps most critics from questioning anything deemed Islamic.

This is precisely the sort of inbuilt legislative awkwardness that prevents Islamic states such as Iran being considered truly democratic.  The idea of sovereignty vested in the people is a fig leaf, as positive law must still conform to the diktats and dogma of the Qur’an, Sunnah of the infallibles and the legal opinions of both the faqih and his Guardian Council.  Experience suggests that, just as in Iran, the Malaysian legislature must operate within a straightjacket; no laws can ‘transgress’ the eternal limits of the Shari’ah, whatever their democratic legitimacy.

This profoundly alien concept is what Mohsen Milani calls ‘limited popular sovereignty’.  It’s just one of the many paradoxes manifested within a politico-legal system constrained by constant recourse to a divine law.


RealClearPolitics – Articles – Print Article via kwout

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In the early 1980s, Nasir Tamara, a young Indonesian scholar, needed money to fund a study of Islam and politics. He went to the Jakarta office of the U.S.-based Ford Foundation to ask for help. He left empty-handed. The United States, he was told, was “not interested in getting into Islam.”

The rebuff came from President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, a U.S. anthropologist who lived in Indonesia for more than a decade. Dunham, who died in 1995, focused on issues of economic development, not matters of faith and politics, sensitive subjects in a country then ruled by a secular-minded autocrat.

“It was not fashionable to ‘do Islam’ back then,” Tamara recalled.

Today, Indonesia is a democracy and the role of Islam is one of the most important issues facing U.S. policy in a country with many more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf combined. What kind of Islam prevails here is critical to U.S. interests across the wider Muslim world.

“This is a fight for ideas, a fight for what kind of future Indonesia wants,” said Walter North, Jakarta mission chief for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who knew Dunham while she was here in the 1980s.

It is also a fight that raises a tricky question: Should Americans stand apart from Islam’s internal struggles around the world or jump in and try to bolster Muslims who are in sync with American views?

A close look at U.S. interactions with Muslim groups in Indonesia — Obama’s boyhood home for four years — shows how, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, rival strategies have played out, often with consequences very different from what Washington intended.

In the debate over how best to influence the country’s religious direction, some champion intervention, most notably a private organization from North Carolina that has waded deep into Indonesia’s theological struggles. But, in the main, U.S. thinking has moved back toward what it was in Dunham’s day: stay out of Islam.

A change in public mood

In many ways, Indonesia — a nation of 240 million people scattered across 17,000 islands — is moving in America’s direction. It has flirted with Saudi-style dogmatism on its fringes. But while increasingly pious, it shows few signs of dumping what, since Islam arrived here in the 14th century, has generally been an eclectic and flexible brand of the faith.

Terrorism, which many Indonesians previously considered an American-made myth, now stirs general revulsion. When a key suspect in July suicide bombings in Jakarta was killed recently in a shootout with a U.S.-trained police unit, his native village, appalled by his violent activities, refused to take the body for burial.

A band of Islamic moral vigilantes this month forced a Japanese porn star to call off a trip to Jakarta. But the group no longer storms bars, nightclubs and hotels as it did regularly a few years ago, at the height of a U.S. drive to promote “moderate” Islam. Aceh, a particularly devout Indonesian region and a big recipient of U.S. aid after a 2004 tsunami, recently introduced a bylaw that mandates the stoning to death of adulterers, but few expect the penalty to be carried out. Aceh’s governor, who has an American adviser paid for by USAID, opposes stoning.

Public fury at the United States over the Iraq war has faded, a trend accelerated by the departure of President George W. Bush and the election of Obama. In 2003, the first year of the war, 15 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favorable view of the United States — compared with 75 percent before Bush took office. America’s favorability rating is now 63 percent.

There are many reasons for the change of mood: an economy that is growing fast despite the global slump; increasing political stability rooted in elections that are generally free and fair; moves by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who won reelection by a landslide in July, to co-opt Islamic political parties.

Another reason, said Masdar Mas’udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Islamic organization, is that the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with Americans, Mas’udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in theological quarrels often provides radicals with “a sparring partner” that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor Muslim farmers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster “moderate” Muslims against what Bush called the “real and profound ideology” of “Islamo-fascism.” Obama, promising a “new beginning between America and Muslims around the world,” has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps. He has denounced “violent extremists” but, in a June speech in Cairo, stated that “Islam is not part of the problem.”

North, the USAID mission chief, said the best way to help “champions of an enlightened perspective win the day” is to avoid theology and help Indonesia “address some of the problems here, such as poverty and corruption.” Trying to groom Muslim leaders America likes, he said, won’t help.

Rethinking post-9/11 tack

This is a sharp retreat from the approach taken right after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a raft of U.S.-funded programs sought to amplify the voice of “moderates.” Hundreds of Indonesian clerics went through U.S.-sponsored courses that taught a reform-minded reading of the Koran. A handbook for preachers, published with U.S. money, offered tips on what to preach. One American-funded Muslim group even tried to script Friday prayer sermons.

Such initiatives mimicked a strategy adopted during the Cold War, when, to counter communist ideology, the United States funded a host of cultural, educational and other groups in tune with America’s goals. Even some of the key actors were the same. The Asia Foundation, founded with covert U.S. funding in the 1950s to combat communism, took the lead in battling noxious strands of Islam in Indonesia as part of a USAID-financed program called Islam and Civil Society. The program began before the Sept. 11 attacks but ramped up its activities after.

“We wanted to challenge hard-line ideas head-on,” recalled Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an Indonesian expert in Islamic theology who, with Asia Foundation funding, set up the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. The network launched a weekly radio program that questioned literal interpretations of sacred texts with respect to women, homosexuals and basic doctrine. It bought airtime on national television for a video that presented Islam as a faith of “many colors” and distributed leaflets promoting liberal theology in mosques.

Feted by Americans as a model moderate, Abdalla was flown to Washington in 2002 to meet officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the then-deputy secretary of defense and a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta. But efforts to transplant Cold War tactics into the Islamic world started to go very wrong. More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency. Iraq “destroyed everything,” said Abdalla, who started getting death threats.

Indonesia’s council of clerics, enraged by what it saw as a U.S. campaign to reshape Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing “secularism, pluralism and liberalism.”

The Asia Foundation pulled its funding for Abdalla’s network and began to rethink its strategy. It still works with Muslim groups but avoids sensitive theological issues, focusing instead on training to monitor budgets, battle corruption and lobby on behalf of the poor. “The foundation came to believe that it was more effective for intra-Islamic debates to take place without the involvement of international organizations,” said Robin Bush, head of the foundation’s Jakarta office.

Abdalla, meanwhile, left Indonesia and moved to Boston to study.

One U.S. group jumps in

While the Asia Foundation and others dived for cover, one American outfit jumped into the theological fray with gusto. In December 2003, C. Holland Taylor, a former telecommunications executive from Winston-Salem, N.C., set up a combative outfit called LibForAll Foundation to “promote the culture of liberty and tolerance.”

Taylor, who speaks Indonesian, won some big-name supporters, including Indonesia’s former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, a prominent but ailing cleric, and a popular Indonesian pop star, who released a hit song that vowed, “No to the warriors of jihad! Yes to the warriors of love.” Taylor took Wahid to Washington, where they met Wolfowitz, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and others. He recruited a reform-minded Koran scholar from Egypt to help promote a “renaissance of Islamic pluralism, tolerance and critical thinking.”

Funding came from wealthy Americans, including heirs of the Hanes underwear fortune, and several European organizations. Taylor, in a recent interview in Jakarta, declined to identify his biggest American donor. He said he has repeatedly asked the U.S. government for money but has received only $50,000, a grant from a State Department counterterrorism unit.

“You can’t win a war with that,” said Taylor, who is working on a 26-part TV documentary that aims to debunk hard-line Islamic doctrine. “People in Washington would prefer to think that if we do nothing we will be okay: just cut off the heads of terrorists and everything will be fine.”

As the atmosphere has grown less hostile, Abdalla, the much-reviled American favorite, returned this year to Jakarta. He hasn’t changed his liberal take on Islam but now avoids topics that fire up his foes. “I’ve changed. The environment has changed,” he said. “We now realize the radical groups are not as dominant as we thought in the beginning.”

Tired of being branded a fringe American stooge, he plans to run in an election next year for leadership of Nahdlatul Ulama, a pillar of Indonesia’s traditional religious establishment. He doesn’t stand much of a chance but wants to “engage with the mainstream instead of the periphery.” His Liberal Islam Network doesn’t get U.S. money anymore, skirts touchy topics on its radio show and no longer hands out leaflets in mosques.

“Religion is too sensitive. We shouldn’t get involved,” said Kay Ikranagara, a close American friend of Obama’s late mother who works in Jakarta for a small USAID-funded scholarship program. Ikranagara worries about Islam’s growing influence on daily life in the country, but she’s wary of outsiders who want to press Indonesians on matters of faith.

“We just get in a lot of trouble trying to do that,” she said.

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The best aftermath/repercussions of the Jakarta bombings article that I’ve seen so far:

Contexts of terror in Indonesia

Sympathy for terrorism in Indonesia is far too sparse for Friday’s explosions to destabilize the country. But they occurred merely nine days after Yudhoyono’s landslide re-election as president on July 8, with three months still to go before the anticipated inauguration of his new administration on October 20. That timing ensured that some would speculate that the killers wanted to deprive the president of his second five-year term.

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Given President Yudhoyono’s resounding electoral victory last week, the future looked bright for a democractic Indonesia and its Muslim-majority population.  But, every silver lining has a cloud as they say:  in this instance, the ‘cloud’ came in the form of two separate but coordinated, virtually simultaneous bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta, at around 7:48 am local time.  Nine fatalities, including four foreigners have been reported, with more than fifty others  injured in the blasts.

If reports prove to be correct, this will be the second time that the Marriott has been attacked by a suicide bomber.  Several analysts have speculated that this was indeed the work of Jemaah Islamiyah, a South East Asian militant Islamic organisation dedicated to the establishment of a Islamic State.

But does this terrorist attack, coming so soon after the free and fair elections suggest that Indonesia is not a ‘model’ Muslim democracy?  Paul Wolfowitz, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, outlines some of the elements that make Indonesia such a success story:

Successful economy

Per capita incomes are more than double what they were when I arrived there as U.S. ambassador 25 years ago. Since 2000, Indonesia’s economy has grown at an average of more than 4% a year. Last year the rate was 6%.

Stable geopolitical situation 

The country has made strides in other areas as well. The war in Aceh has ended. Secessionist sentiment elsewhere in the country has largely disappeared, thanks in part to a transition to democracy. And the Indonesian police have recorded substantial successes against terrorism.

Evidence of a maturing electorate

Above all, Indonesia’s political process has displayed a remarkable degree of maturity. Three consecutive free and fair presidential elections is one mark of that. Voters have also shown an impressive degree of common sense. For example, when President Yudhoyono was criticized because his wife often appears in public without a head covering, or jilbab, voters shrugged off the criticism.

Robust leadership

Mr. Yudhoyono’s leadership deserves a great deal of credit, as does the country’s tradition of tolerance and respect for women. Indonesia’s first two democratically elected presidents were Abdurrahman Wahid, a devout Muslim leader and proponent of religious tolerance, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, a passionate spokeswoman for democracy. Neither presidency was very successful, but the values each embodied were influential.

Redoutable civil society

So too were a variety of civil society groups that thrived despite restrictions from the Suharto regime. Indonesia’s press was financially independent and competitive, so the country had the basis for a free media as soon as censorship restrictions were lifted. Many of the country’s leaders were also educated in democratic countries. Mr. Yudhoyono is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and Staff College.

All of these factors and more have contributed to Indonesia’s contemporary success both on the global stage and domestically, not the least of which is the Indonesian state’s constitutionally enforced religious pluralism and founding philosophy of pancasila:

Pancasila (pronounced [pantʃaˈsila]) is the official philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state. Pancasila consists of two Sanskrit words, “panca” meaning five, and “sila” meaning principles. It comprises five principles held to be inseparable and interrelated:

  1. Belief in the one and only God, (in Indonesian, Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa).
  2. Just and civilised humanity, (in Indonesian, Kemanusiaan Yang Adil dan Beradab).
  3. The unity of Indonesia, (in Indonesian, Persatuan Indonesia).
  4. Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives, and (in Indonesian, Kerakyatan Yang Dipimpin oleh Hikmat Kebijaksanaan, Dalam Permusyawaratan Perwakilan, dan)
  5. Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia (in Indonesian, Keadilan Sosial bagi seluruh Rakyat Indonesia)

Wolfowitz also adds some caveats:

But we can’t be complacent about Indonesia’s future. The problems facing the country are enormous, poverty first among them. Corruption remains a deterrent to foreign investment. Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat. The authorities have shown a disturbing passivity in the face of attacks on churches and mosques of certain minority sects. Many Indonesians are fearful that government restrictions on pornography and proselytizing will be used by extremists to restrict free expression.

On the positive side, recent elections showed that there has been a decline in the influence of overtly Islamist parties.

The U.S. has an enormous stake in Indonesia. It provides stability for the whole of Southeast Asia, a region of more than half a billion people. It is an example for other aspiring democracies. And if it continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.

One pleasing note is that he doesn’t use the term ‘the Muslim world’ as so many have.  At any rate, the recent elections, perceived declining influence of the Islamist parties and now these bombings, which are likely to galvanise Indonesian public opinion even further against the extremists, are promisin signs for the future in one of the world’s most diverse, Muslim-majority nations.

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