Monday, November 2, 2009

Revisiting the Spin of Malaysia and Indonesia as ‘Moderate’ Muslim States

It is now ‘moderate’ season once again when the leaders of the developed Western world are on the lookout for moderate Muslim states and leaders to engage in dialogue with as strategic, economic and political allies and partners. Needless to say, the leaders and governments of the Muslim world are equally pleased with this open invitation, particularly from the White House, and there are plenty of Muslim leaders and governments that are prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of the man who is currently residing in the White House too.

On top of that it ought to be noted that the honour of being anointed as a ‘moderate Muslim’ leader is something that most Muslim leaders today would wish for and cherish above all else, cognisant of the fact that such an anointment would be followed by a blanket support of their own domestic policies at home as well as lashings of economic, political and military support to boot. During the bad old days of the Bush administration, countries like Thailand and Australia were given the dubious honour of being seen as the closest allies of Washington in Asia.
Thailand was given the title of being America’s ‘no.1 non-NATO ally in ASEAN’; while Australia (or rather the Howard government) was dubbed America’s sheriff in Asia- a dubious recognition indeed that merely compounded the image that both
states were anti-Muslim and anti-Islam.

Now that the keys of the White House have changed hands and a new American President is scheduled to visit Indonesia in the near future, it would appear that the developed countries of the world are once again on the lookout for ‘moderate Muslim leaders’ to court and cajole. Straight off the bat Malaysia and Indonesia come to mind as the two prime candidates for the top slot of ‘most moderate’ Muslim state in Asia. (While the governments of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore et al must be cursing their luck for not having enough Muslims to make the rankings…)

But before we jump the gun, let us look at both countries - Malaysia and Indonesia - and ask ourselves if they deserve the coveted title of moderate Muslim state in the first place.

Indonesia, it has to be said, has suffered from bad press thanks to the Bali bombings and how the country was presented in the international media following the attacks of 2002. But it is sad and unfair to see how this country, which has had a long record of strife and violence, has not been given the recognition it deserves for its efforts in the long march to democracy and democratisation.

For a start, when talking about the long history of political violence in Indonesia, one needs to situate such discussion in the proper historical context and identify all the agents and actors involved. While it is true that Indonesia has a long record of political violence, let us not forget that much of that violence was sanctioned if not tacitly approved by the international community as well, who are just as guilty of condoning the rise of political gangsterism in Indonesia in the past. During the violent and bloody counter-communist putsch in 1965 for instance, it was well known that thousands of suspected Communists of the PKI and their sympathisers were summarily wiped out by right-wing religious elements of the Nahdatul Ulama, with the tacit support (or at least non-interference) of the West.

During the violent annexation of East Timor in 1974-75 it was also the governments of the West that turned a blind eye to the violence there on the grounds that East Timor might have become the new ‘Cuba in ASEAN’ and was thus seen as the ‘red threat’ to countries like Australia and ASEAN.

Yet despite three decades of violent and arbitrary dictatorship under Suharto and his generals, Indonesia has developed to become one of the few truly democratic countries in ASEAN today with a press that is freer than most of its neighbours. We should also remember that so many of the reformasi leaders who brought down the government of Suharto and his army were also former student activists who were themselves Islamlist activists and intellectuals, contrary to the stereotypical image of Islam as a religion that works hand in glove with totalitarian forms of governance.

Today Indonesia’s Islamic universities - including the ones I am proud to be associated with - are at the forefront of modern Islamic education and are producing the first Muslim scholars who have developed a rational, objective and critical understanding of religion per se. Yet almost none of these developments feature in the international media that continues instead to harp on the idea of Indonesia being the hotbed of radical Islamist terrorism.

Conversely next door in Malaysia we see a totally different framing of Islam altogether. Malaysia has been seen and cast as a moderate Muslim state and a model state for others to follow, notably by the international media whose own exposure to the living social realities of Malaysia may stop at the poolside of the 5-star hotels in Kuala Lumpur. Yet a quick survey of the country will give a very different picture of the state of normative Muslim praxis in Malaysia today: This is still the country where book banning is rife and where we have seen embarrassing contradictions such as the banning of the works of Karen Armstrong while the author herself was invited to speak at Islamic conferences in the capital. This is a country with a morality police that has become a law unto themselves; where feminist Muslim organisations like Sisters in Islam are constantly persecuted and demonised and where the space for Muslim thought, expression and social life has been shrinking since the 1970s.

Yet despite these contradictions, Malaysia is cast in a more positive light compared to Indonesia, when it is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the normative Muslim politics of both countries that the normative space for Muslims in Indonesia is infinitely much bigger. And in terms of the discursive as well as normative-cultural frontiers to Muslim life and praxis in both countries, it is equally clear that the space of Muslim life is still bigger in Indonesia compared to Malaysia. So what gives, and why is Indonesia constantly placed in the dock?

One can only conclude that the negative image of Indonesia has more to do with the selective memory of the Western media that cannot look beyond the historical fact of the Bali bombing to recognise the realities of Indonesia today. By appropriating Bali as a ‘tragedy for the West’ and positing it as an attack on Australians and other Westerners, the international media as well as the governments of the developed world have not only robbed the Indonesians of their right to grieve for their pain, but have also appropriated Indonesia’s identity and history in the process. By doing do, they are in peril of overlooking the recent developments in the country that has probably gone through the most expansive and deep democratic revolution ASEAN has seen in ages, and have denied themselves the possibility of working with a truly moderate and democratic ally. That is Indonesia’s loss as well, but the bigger loss will be borne by the governments of the Western world.
By Farish A. Noor

1 comment:

  1. I think this is correct. I have not spent much time in Indonesia. But the few Indonesian people I have met seem to be reasonable people. Malaysia, on the other hand, does seem to have a problem on its hand. I have spent much time in Malaysia and have stayed everywhere from the 4 star hotels in KL and Penang to the bungalos in Kelantan. I visted Kelantan about one month before the WTO attacks in the U.S. I felt a "bad vibe" from the people there. The women seemed quite friendly but the guys seemed to give me the evil eye.

    Westerners have a good impression of Malaysia, as compared to Indonesia, because the western part is quite developed and has many Chinese people, the Chinese seen as being the successors to Western civilization. Also, Malaysia did a remarkable job of marketing itself to the West while Dr. M was PM. There was quite a lot of foreign investment into Malaysia, particularly semiconductors, during the 80's and 90's and Malaysia was perceived as being the next Asian "tiger" economy at the time (remember when we used to talk about Asian tigers?). So, Malaysia has a good image mainly due to the large amount of semiconductor industry foreign investment as well as successful PR by Dr. M's government.

    I agree that the West's treatment of Indonesia, particularly by the U.S., has been deplorable. The U.S. government was actively involved in both the '65-66 period as well as the anexation of East Timor, which was promulgated by Heinrich Kissinger. I believe the Eisenhower administration tried to overthrow Sukarno in 1958.