Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eastern Islam and the Arab Spring

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, commentators on East Asia Forum have highlighted the moderate character of Southeast Asian Islam.

Bahrawi argues that contested interpretations of Islam are democratising Islam in Southeast Asia — but similar contests seem to be ineffective in countries like Pakistan. And van Bruinessen argues that large, resilient Islamic organisations are stabilising Indonesian democracy — but comparable organisations are failing to play such a role in other Islamic countries. So are local factors playing a bigger role in Southeast Asia than is usually suspected? Islamic countries in Southeast Asia can be treated as valid role models for other Muslim countries only if non-local factors can explain the existence of moderate Islam in Southeast Asia.

There are six major Muslim communities outside the Arab world: the immigrant Muslim communities in the West, Persian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan, and Turkic Muslim communities.

Since the 19th century, Arab Islam has claimed moderate Islam in northern and western parts of South Asia. But Islam in rest of South Asia continues to be moderate so that we can still speak of an Eastern Islam to refer to Islam in both Southeast Asia and parts of South Asia. Sub-Saharan Muslims are rarely taken seriously on ideological issues, and moderates within immigrant communities in the West are often denounced as sell-outs.

This leaves just four potential role models within the Islamic world — Arab, Persian, Turkic and Eastern Muslims, which can be further classified into two broad groups: those who use Arabic language and/or script for daily communication and those who do not. So far only the latter have proven to be largely moderate and conducive to relatively stable democratic states. Thus it is not surprising that, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, moderate Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia are often suggested as role models for Muslim-majority countries in other regions.

Muslims in countries like Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and in provinces like Paschimbanga and Tamil Nadu in India, are ethno-linguistically rooted and only use Arabic for prayers and specialised religious studies. In these places, Muslims are more likely to read translations of the Quran in their mother tongue (and in a non-Arabic script). This has four salutary effects reinforcing the ethno-linguistic rootedness of believers.

First, the majority of people in these Muslim communities cannot directly participate in the religious discussions within the Arab world, and are less affected by such discussions.

Second, clerical control over religious discussions is largely confined to specialised debates. The routine debates most believers are exposed to are conducted in a linguistic medium which the clerics cannot claim exclusive control over. This helps limit the role of clerics to the religious sphere and isolate them from secular affairs.

Third, the favourable position of local language among the believers helps maintain links with local cultural heritage.

And finally, local languages allow engagement between believers and non-believers. Non-believers can access activity within the local Muslim community through a common language and make creative contributions.

These effects reinforce ethno-linguistic roots by strengthening the bond between the believers and their local cultural heritage, as well as the bond between the believers and non-believers who share that heritage. Ethno-linguistic rootedness in turn dampens the quest, if there is any, for global ideological and cultural dominance à la the jihadists. And secular bonds between believers and non-believers, and the marginalisation of clerics, shield the state from communal religious pressures.

Ethno-linguistically rooted communities in Pakistan have proven to be resilient to Wahhabi influence. Indian provinces like Paschimbanga and Tamil Nadu, where non-Muslims and Muslims alike use regional languages, are less prone to religious riots. Bangladesh, which separated from Pakistan to protect Bengali language and heritage, is actively contesting radical Islam and is known for democracy and the empowerment of women. In contrast, the Deobandis, who are the major ally of Wahhabis in South Asia and dominate the Pakistani military establishment, are opposed to all non-Deobandi Muslims and promote Arabic — ‘the religious and official language of Islam’ — at the expense of South Asian languages and scripts. The Taliban, who destroyed the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan, are products of Pakistani Deobandi seminaries.

The contrast between the Arab-dominated strains of Islam and Eastern Islam cannot be starker — a divide that is unlikely to be bridged. This divide is reinforced in West Asia and North Africa by the dominance of Arabic, which has long ago erased the linguistic and, to a lesser extent, cultural diversity of the region. To that extent, the moderate Eastern Muslim communities cannot serve as role models for the Arab world. The Arab world has to find its own solutions.

By Vikas KumarAssistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. East Asia Forum

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