Image: Rowman Littlefield

In the introduction to his new book The Politics of Religion, Nationalism and Identity in Asia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019),  Jeff Kingston writes: “It is impossible to understand contemporary Asia without understanding the politics of nationalism and religion. They are a volatile mix that incites violence and poses a significant risk to secularism, tolerance, civil liberties, democracy, and political stability.

“This toxic tide has swept the region from Pakistan to the Philippines and Columbo to Kunming with tragic consequences. Recently the nexus of religion and nationalism is featured in headlines about 730,000 Rohingya Muslims being driven out of Myanmar, one million Uighur Muslims being locked up in China, Kashmiris slaughtered in India, and Islamic State affiliates wreaking havoc in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and in Sri Lanka.

“Who would have imagined hatemongering Buddhist monks inciting violence and intolerance or setting themselves on fire to protest ethnocide in Tibet? Or pious vigilantes beheading atheist bloggers in Dhaka?”

In this article excerpted from Chapter 4, he focuses especially on two of the largest predominantly Muslim Asian countries, Indonesia and Bangladesh:

Over the past few decades, a process of Arabization has influenced the practice of Islam in Asia, spreading a more devout and less tolerant creed that nurtures fundamentalism and militancy. The suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter 2019 are a tragic example of the consequences.

Saudi Arabian financing for mosque building and educational programs has promoted a profound shift in the role of Islam in society and national identities across the region. Arabization has polarized the Islamic word in Asia, fanning the flames of sectarianism, bigotry, hate, intolerance, and terrorism.

The contemporary Salafist wave has strongly influenced religious practice and mainstreamed Islamic reformism, but in threatening national unity and peace it has also generated a backlash by secular nationalists and the institutions of the state they have nurtured since independence. Thus, the battles over religion are also political battles over temporal power and national identity.

Author Jeff Kingston

Many Muslims around the world see globalization as the equivalent of a crusade threatening to overwhelm their values and norms through an onslaught of popular Western culture, liberal values, secular attitudes, religious pluralism, and promiscuous lifestyles.

Anxieties have intensified due to the communications revolution over the past few decades beaming and streaming Western music, films, fashion, and images of the “good life” throughout the ummah.

This ubiquitous exposure to Western ways, penetrating Muslim minds and reinforcing a sense of weakness and subordination, provokes a backlash mobilized by conservative religious groups who try to assert a reinvigorated Islam as an authentic indigenous response.

Cultural invasion

Yet what is authentic? In some respects, Arabization represents a cultural invasion mirroring globalization, both welcome and resented.

For many Asian Muslims, an Arab-centric Islam is part of their identity, one that is cosmopolitan and gives them entry into an imagined community of global believers. They are influenced by the intellectual ferment and Islamic experiences around the world, adapting and responding to what they see and learn.

Often this imagined community is an Internet echo chamber of the like-minded, demonstrating the common tendency toward confirmation bias. It is a low-cost, low-commitment participation that entices through instantaneous access to developments in the Islamic world that encourages sympathy toward Muslim struggles ranging from Palestine and Kashmir to Afghanistan and Syria.

There is an immediacy and sense of empowerment of feeling solidarity with unknown people in distant places and having empathy for their suffering. Arabization enables Saudi Arabia to shape this experience and nurture a discourse that promotes its agenda. Educational programs and scholarships help it sway opinion by credentializing capable people who can exert influence over others.

Arabization and the intolerant creed of Salafism gain momentum in Muslim majority Asia due to lavish Saudi funding and socioeconomic grievances that anger and frustrate youth in these nations. For them, the status quo and moderate Islam offer inadequate solace and little hope of change or a brighter future.

Globalization, tarnished as it is by failures and broken promises, gives impetus to Arabization. These unmet expectations reinforce a sense of neo-imperial subjugation and powerlessness, as remote and unresponsive forces discriminate, dictate terms, and determine destinies.

Militancy feeds on this discontent and alienation while fundamentalist Islam calls on believers to purify society, rendering this a sacred mission.

Religious community

The religious community empowers those who join the struggle and endows them with sacral dignity, status they would not otherwise enjoy, and a sense that they matter, that they are making a difference, and that they are needed. To the extent that democratic space for dissent and reform shrinks, fundamentalists are drawn to militant methods.

The forces of secularism remain resilient but appear to be on the defensive and losing the battle for youth in societies in which too many feel acute despair due to scant chances of advancement for themselves or their religious identity. It doesn’t matter that Arabization and fundamentalism don’t offer any sustainable solution, or that extremism is a dead end.

The righteous message is a tonic for the bypassed and deracinated dupes and prey of globalization. The legions of the aggrieved have a sense of being under assault, spawning a greater commitment and willingness to sacrifice in the name of Allah. It may seem hard in Muslim majority nations to conjure up credible threats to the primacy of Islam, but fearmongering clerics and state provocations stoke the necessary siege atmosphere.

The ideas and ideology fueled by Arabization are gaining adherents, creating momentum to continue challenging their country’s religious identity and national character. These advocates are skilled at manufacturing threats to the ummah, even in nations with some of the world’s largest Muslim populations.

Bangladesh and Indonesia are targets of Saudi-funded Arabization that is shifting Asian Islam toward a Salafist intolerance and reformist zeal that threaten minorities, the differently devout, and political stability.

Manufacturing or exaggerating threats, quick to take umbrage over minor or imagined insults and slights, showing little inclination to forgive and overcome differences, sanctimoniously denouncing and threatening Muslims or nonbelievers who disagree with or diverge from their austere religious vision, Salafists with their growing influence in Asia have been bad news for moderate Muslims, secularists, non-Muslim minorities and social cohesion.

There are interesting parallels between Indonesia and Bangladesh as they navigate the cross-currents of globalization and Arabization. Both nations embrace secular identities in their respective constitutions, but this has been challenged ever since they achieved independence by Islamic groups who seek to impose shariah and establish Islamic states.

Secular national identity has been maintained, but this has involved significant concessions to Islamic hardliners. Unelected pressure groups in both nations have exploited democracy and electoral politics to force secular leaders to grant concessions.

Indeed, Indonesian President Joko Widodo selected an Islamic hardliner as his running mate for the 2019 elections in order to fend off the prospects of an Islamic attack campaign like the one that had unseated his close ally in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial campaign. Choosing a vice presidential running mate who supported that campaign may have disappointed some Jokowi supporters but represented a sensible risk management strategy.

Prime Minister Sheik Hasina of Bangladesh has also made a series of concessions to Islamic groups and undercut secularists, revealing her anxiety about being portrayed as insufficiently Islamic. This pandering has gained momentum despite the fact she faces no significant opposition party.

Unlike the case in Indonesia, Islamic parties have held power in Bangladesh, but with the sidelining of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, political Islam has been marginalized from mainstream politics and thereby radicalized.

Not having a stake in the parliamentary system, Islamic groups are not subject to the constraints of party politics and appear to have little trouble shrugging off bans on their activities. Moreover, discontent with the Awami government helps discredit secularism and reinforces fundamentalist rejection of democracy as antithetical to Islamic precepts.

In both nations, the military has connived with Islamic groups against political forces on the left.

In 1965 and 1966 the Indonesian military, with tacit US support, slaughtered many while also helping Islamic youth groups carry out widespread massacres against suspected communists, an orgy of orchestrated violence that claimed several hundred thousand lives.

Since 1975 in Bangladesh the military has resorted to coups and manipulated militant Islam to neutralize the leftist leaning, secular Awami League. Remarkably, it even sponsored the rehabilitation of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic group that fought alongside Pakistan’s military to quash Bangladesh’s independence, engaging in brutal atrocities.

Another military leader revised the Constitution in 1988 to make Islam the national religion, attempting to assert the primacy of religion in national identity and thus overturn the language-based secular national identity that was at the core of the civil war and embraced by the Awami League since independence in 1971.

Security forces

Militants in Indonesia remain bitter that the state has not fulfilled the promises of the Jakarta Charter of 1945 requiring all Muslims to abide by shariah, an agenda shared by their counterparts in Bangladesh.

Islamic extremism and terrorism have also led to extra-judicial killings by the security forces in both nations, thereby undermining the rule of law that is essential to democracy and human rights.

Both nations have experienced significant backsliding in their secular and tolerant pluralist national identities.

Although Saudi Arabia has devoted considerable resources to promoting a more rigid Islam, in Indonesia there seems to be a more widespread pushback against a Salafist identity at the local level.

In rural Bangladesh, too often the only effective educational, health or spiritual support on offer emanates from Saudi-financed initiatives that limit the scope for defiance.

In both nations, Saudi promotion of intolerance toward Islamic minorities such as the Shi’a or Ahmadiyya has gained momentum, and in both blasphemy has become a powerful political weapon.

Finally, in both nations Islamic militant groups maintain important transnational ties, owing a degree of allegiance while gaining enhanced legitimacy and in some cases training and funds. These are run on both a franchise model relying on existing outfits or through targeted recruiting.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Islamic State provide varying degrees of external inspiration and promote radicalization that is riding in on the latest wave of Arabization, making the most of shambolic governance and vast inequalities.

Aside from educational scholarships, an important conduit of Salafism is the annual haj. The greatest number of hajis come from Indonesia, 221,000 in 2017, while Bangladesh is number four (127,000) – after Pakistan (179,000) and India (170,000). These Asian countries account for 700,000 out of the worldwide annual total of two million haji.

Usually, pilgrims spend forty days touring religious sites in Saudi Arabia, and this is often a transformative experience that exposes hajis to religious practice in the home of Islam, boosting their religiosity and stature back home.

Moreover, overseas workers in the Middle East encounter discrimination and harsh treatment but have prolonged exposure to Salafist practice and thus are an additional source of transmission. With over a million workers in Saudi Arabia alone, half of all those Bangladeshis working in the Mideast, this constitutes a significant potential influence especially given prolonged periods of residence.

Indonesia completely banned the dispatch of Indonesia workers to the Middle East since 2015 due to widespread abuses, but this doesn’t affect most of the 1.5 million Indonesians already working in Saudi Arabia.

Compared with previous waves, Arabization since the 1980s has been a tsunami involving sustained multi-dimensional interactions, hyper-connectedness, and lavishly funded institutionalization that marks it as vastly more powerful than anything that has come before, sweeping up far more people in even the remotest hamlets.

It is an Arab-centric strand of globalization, carrying similar implications as both are viewed as external homogenizing influences that provoke local backlash and unanticipated consequences. Conservative, authoritarian, and intolerant, contemporary Arabization is infusing national identities and polities with religious zealotry.

In pushing an illiberal agenda, hardline clerics have elicited illiberal responses from Jokowi and Hasina, thus sacrificing the tolerance and democratic values they are putatively trying to save.

Australia National University scholar Marcus Meitzner calls this backsliding “democratic deconsolidation,” a retreat from the values that contribute to political stability, heralding an escalation of religious-centered identity politics. The defense of democracy is best served, he argues, by deploying democratic means and the rule of law, not by criminalizing groups or adopting accommodationist policies.

Banning only strengthens and further radicalizes targeted organizations, gifting them an incendiary issue to rally around, while appeasement encourages incessant demands by those who insist on an Islamic national identity and nothing less.

Jeff Kingston is a director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan

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