Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)



Religio-Cultural Intersections and the Modern State

Just as the colonial regimes sought to monitor and regulate the pilgrimage and Islamic schools, the modern state often attempts to play a role in defining religious and cultural practices at both the level of religious obligation and as officially-sanctioned cultural expression. The most obvious interventions may be seen in the specifically national mobilizations for the Hajj. Each year, for example, Indonesia supplies one of the largest contingents of pilgrims (over 200,000 people) for the annual series of ceremonies that take place in Mecca and its surroundings. To get there on such a massive scale necessitates a large degree of national coordination, including the provision of financial support. Beyond finance and coordination though, states also play a proactive role in
determining what variants of religious practice may be tolerated, particularly when those variants seem inimical to the government itself or which contest, sometimes violently, the depth of religious commitment of their fellow countrymen. For example, both Malaysia’s quietist Dar al-Ar qam organization, and the radical Ngruki network in Indonesia have seen their activities stopped or severely curtailed in the past decades.

Less tangible, but no less important, than contesting expressions of Islam framed in political terms or in alternative dress and practice, is the role of the state in presenting the style of religiosity felt to represent best the genius of its peoples. Sometimes the gaze is directed outward, sometimes inward. For example, one might think in terms of the architectural designs for many of the region’s modern mosques, which increasingly have a distinctly internationalist style owing more to India and Arabia than Southeast Asia; with minarets and onion domes and arches added to or supplanting the old multilayered pyramidal roofs.

On the other hand there is the Indonesian national museum for the Qur’an in Jakarta, with its showcase holy text (Al-Qur’an Mushaf Istiqlal) that has one page decorated in the style of each province of the Republic. But while the illuminations of Aceh have a distinct pedigree, many of the others are modern inventions designed to help Indonesians to think of the history of their country and its artistic expressions as an inevitable and natural process of combination given added meaning by Islam.

This is not to say, however, that this has always been the case, or that such increasingly Islamic views of history are universally accepted. Both Indonesia and Malaysia include substantial non-Muslim minorities, minorities that at times have become scapegoats during periods of economic uncertainty or because of the taint of imagined collaboration with colonial forces or even as fifth columnists for international communism. Indeed, Indonesia itself has a strong history as an avowedly secularist state, whose officials once placed more emphasis on the region’s pre-Islamic heritage in the form of temple remains. Its best-known author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, even downplayed the role of Islam in the making of Indonesia and focussed instead on the powerful ideas of unity engendered by resistance to Dutch colonialism across the archipelago.

In either form of history, though, whether the view of an Islamic or an areligious anti-colonial national past, it is important to see Southeast Asians placing themselves in relation to a wider world, a world in which “Islam” offers just one set of civilizational practices to draw upon and which may be freely combined with others. In fact, many of the expressions that feed into globalising trends beyond the reach of the state, and redolent of an Islamic identity, are certainly at great variance to what might be conceived of as “traditional” Islam. Here we might think of the many popular groups that fuse the musical styles of the Middle East and Southeast Asia with a presentation owing something to western music videos, or the instructional literature for children now replete with illustrations drawn in the style of Japanese manga. And, again, there is a sphere of personal reflection and reaction that can seem outside the control of the state or that strives to take more from within the Southeast Asian artistic tradition than what lies beyond, whether
in poetic musings on experiences in the mosque, or A. D. Pirous’s luminous canvases, which reflect upon both the eternal message and the troubled experiences of his own Acehnese people, who once fought for Indonesian independence in the 1940s but found themselves newly oppressed in the decades that followed.

Certainly one gains a more intimate view of the inner spirituality of Southeast Asian Muslims in such expressions. Even so, while Muslims are joined to each other by the medium of a religious inheritance in their archipelagic homelands, as well as to the broader Muslim community, in the expression of that identity they are undeniably drawing at all times from the images and sounds of the wider, shared world.