SE Asian Muslims caught between iPad and Salafism

opinion March 16, 2012 00:00

By Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to T

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The majority of Southeast Asian countries are semi-secular, with their own versions of negotiated position concerning the relationship between state, religion and politics.


All Southeast Asian religions are currently facing tremendous challenges from the materialist impact of globalisation in all dimensions of life. These challenges come at two levels, among others; one is the condition of religious thought in relation to materialist development, and the other is in the modes of social relations. 
The common response to these challenges has been adoption of conservative interpretations of religious doctrine or theology, and assuming the stance of social exclusivism while paying lip service to tolerance, dialogue and religious pluralism. A gap has emerged between the state of development and the condition of religious thought, while some sections of the middle classes have opted for religious rationalisation of materialism within religious framework.
Unlike Southeast Asian Buddhism, which since its demise in India is now largely a locally contextualised religion, Islam in Southeast Asia is both local and externally related in terms of its link to its centre in Arabia. Christianity here too has external and local affiliations. Pre-Islamic Arabia had trade links with China, yet, early Islam came to Southeast Asia through China, India and Persia, and gradually links were established with Arabia, especially Yemen – a seafaring nation. Early Islam in Southeast Asia was a syncretic mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. 
After the advent of the steamship, Southeast Asian Muslims began participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage in large numbers, where in the 18th century they came into contact with the puritanical teachings of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam, which was in its ascendancy in Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis the traditional Hijazi Islam, which accommodated the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence and was a mixture of local Arab, Ottoman and other cultural varieties of Islam. Hijazi Islam was soon replaced by puritanical Wahhabi/Salafi Islam. 
Upon their return from the hajj, these Southeast Asian pilgrims brought with them Wahhabi/Salafi teachings. Thus began the contest between the local syncretic and the imported version of puritanical Islam in the region, resulting in the rise of local Wahhabi/Salafism, which is becoming stronger today. In Thailand, this contest is one between the khana kau (traditional) and khana mai (reformist) Islams.
Salafism began as an educational and social reform movement in 19th century Egypt. It was a modernist, rationalist movement that admired Europe’s advancement since the Enlightenment. In its view, there is compatibility between Islam and modernity. It proposed that Muslim reform required a return to the early practice of Islam by the Prophet and his companions, which was uncorrupted. This form of Salafism hoped to establish a modern Islam in contemporary times by linking it with the religious interpretation of early Islam. In other words, combine Islamic faith with reason, science and technology. 
This version of modernist Salafism became moribund with the rise of secularist Muslim nationalism, which reduced religion to be a private affair. It was also overtaken by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who also called themselves Salafis. The Wahhabi version of Salafism rejects modernity in favour of a simplistic interpretation of Islamic faith and a literal understanding of the Koran, and is the political ideology of Saudi Arabia. 
Since the petro-dollar boom of the 1970s, Wahhabi/Salafism has been exported to the rest of the Muslim world, including Southeast Asia, as being the only original version of Islam. It seeks to displace local versions of Islamic practice in favour of Arab thought and culture. Today’s Salafis of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia represent a religiously conservative trend, and al-Qaeda and the Taleban the radical version of Wahhabi/Salafism. Thus there are different versions of Wahhabi/Salafism.
The rapid socio-economic and technological development of, first Malaysia, and today Indonesia, along with Southeast Asian countries with Muslim minorities, is producing a gap between the impact of development and the condition of Islamic religious thought. This can be termed “development stress”. Religious thought has stagnated while materialist development has flourished. Many Southeast Muslims hold that the way out of this dilemma lies in adopting an iPad or materialist lifestyle and culture along with the simplified and literalist Wahhabi/Salafi style of devotion. 
Such a simplistic understanding of religion easily meets the needs of faith in a complex global age where religion is reduced to mere do’s and dont’s. This results in religious conservatism and social exclusivism, as seen in most Asian Muslim societies. Such an exclusivistic approach to Islam deprives it of its universalist teachings and also its social pluralism, whereas in the past Muslims had borrowed from the Greeks, Indians and Persians and produced a civilisation with an Islamic face. 
Southeast Asian Muslim societies have to curb the growing religious conservatism and social exclusivism that results in the cultural dislocation of local Islam. They need to develop their own religious thought and culture, fit for the age of Asian globalisation; promote the teaching of world religions in their academia without bias; and engage in inter-religious dialogue.
The contemporary religious contest between the conservative and universalist interpretations of religion, seeking refuge in religio-social exclusivism or succumbing to a materialist dimension of globalisation is not only a Muslim phenomenon, but is found in all Asian religions, societies and cultures. Thus, while globalising materially we are becoming exclusivist religiously, socially and culturally, except in the materialist dimension.
For the sake of a future of tolerance and peace, Islam and other Southeast Asian religions need to move from mere co-existence to dialogue, sharing and working for mutual human concerns. We need to move away from the emerging simplistic and exclusivist understanding of religious faith and doctrine to that of religious pluralism, fit for the coming age of the Asean community. 
It is imperative that we come up with a theologically or doctrinally rational response to the challenge of materialism, otherwise technological materialism and resultant religious and social exclusivism will erode the rich multicultural and inter-religious character of Southeast Asia.
Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.