Thursday 3 September 2009

Southeast Asia's confident Muslims

In his introductory remarks to the launch of his most recent publication Indonesia Riding: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power, author Dr. Nasir Tamara made it a point to note that the appearance of 'Islam' as the first word in the book's subtitle was not a coincidence, but rather meant to underscore the significance of Islam in the recent political history of Indonesia. Tamara, a Sorbonne-educated scholar and leading Indonesian journalist, argues that the religion factor is a key constituent element of what he considers -- in spite of its ups and downs -- the success story of Indonesia's democratization process.

Indonesia Risingis the outcome of a research project entitled Moderate Islam in Indonesia, Indonesian Presidency under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which Tamara executed as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (INSEAS) in Singapore (Cf. also the commentary in the Financial Times of 9 July published under the same title). After the rocky presidencies of Abdurrahman Wahid (a.k.a. Gus Dur) and Megawati Sukarnoputri, and in spite of the scepticism of many when taking the disrupting activities and violent attacks by Muslim radicals into account, Tamara maintains that the policies of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) are starting to sort tangible effects.

In the opening pages of his book he backs this up by invoking the comment made by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Indonesia earlier this year that 'if you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia'. Tamara feels further strengthened in his claim of Indonesia's rising stature on the global scene by President Obama's decision to sent Secretary Clinton to Jakarta on her first international assessment mission - not to mention his own personal interest in things Indonesian dating back to the primary school years he spent there.

Although his own study focuses on Indonesia, amplifying its role as an exemplatory Muslim state, Tamara does note that the developments in that country are part of a much broader phenomenon affecting the Muslim world, as his visits to Morocco, Turkey, and -- yes -- Iran had shown him (the same countries I have singled out for another research project on the recent intellectual history of the Muslim world).

I believe Nasir Tamara's assertive position also forms parts of another more regional phenomenon: the growing self-confidence displayed by Southeast Asian Muslims. In a 2002 interview with Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, the current Secretary General of ASEAN and former Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs, Surin Pitsuwan (interesting in itself that a Muslim can serve as the chief diplomat of a Buddhist kingdom), stated that: 'For all Islam's history, Southeast Asia was considered a backwater. But the flows of globalization now need to be reversed. Islam must learn not from the Center but rather the periphery'. Two years later, the Malaysian Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Datu Seri Rais Yatim came out against the 'Arabisation' of Malay culture in an interview in the newspaper The Star, encouraging his countrymen to 'challenge those who condemn deep-rooted practices of the Malay community as UnIslamic'.

As the main protagonist of Tamara's narrative argued himself in a speech delivered at the LSE in March 2009, Indonesia has a bridge function to play, connecting the Muslim world, Asia and the West. Also during SBY's second term in office as president of the largest Muslim nation in the world, the eyes of those interested in alternative Islamic discourses will continue to focus on developments in Indonesia.

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