The rise of Political Islam in Southeast Asia


Southeast Asia is experiencing a growth in political Islam. Political Islam various enormously but is roughly understood as the desire ‘to bring about political change inspired by interpretations of Islam’. Through this, political Islam is associated with the goal of transforming a state or society to be aligned with Islamic principles and law. There are two main forms of political Islam: moderate Islam and militant Islam. The distinction between these two rests on their attitude towards the legitimacy of violence - moderate Islam eschews violence whereas militant Islam embraces it.


Moderate Political Islam

Malaysia and Indonesia are key examples of countries where moderate political Islam has spread widely. Since the early 2000s, Islamist and conservative groups have slowly gained more power in both countries, spreading their political agenda through the democratic processes, educational campaigns and cultural influence. This has created societies that are hyper-aware of Islamic values and are increasingly aligning their moral compass with a strict, dogmatic interpretation of Islam. Through this, Islam has increasingly becoming a central feature of politics and the organisation of daily life in both countries. 


Militant Political Islam: Contrasting Tales

The violent separatist conflicts in Mindanao and the deep south of Thailand are key examples of the rise of militant Islam. Both of these insurgencies are partly motivated by religious differences between the areas in question and the rest of the country.  

Mindanao, a Muslim-majority region, has been fighting for self-determination from Christian-majority Philippines from the mid 20th century. While the insurgency in Mindanao has been intensely violent, leaving around 150,000 people dead, an independence referendum that occurred at the beginning of this year has the potential to end the conflict. In January 2019, 85% of voters passed a plan to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region – a self-administered Muslim-majority region that will be given greater levels of self-governance and fiscal control. Through this, militant Islam in Mindanao has the potential to evolve into moderate political Islam, as the Muslim-majority population now has the opportunity to direct social and political growth in their chosen direction. 


The deep south of Thailand is a Muslim-majority region that has been fighting a campaign for autonomy against the Buddhist-majority country since 2004. Violence has been a key tool of the insurgency - which has resulted in the deaths of around 6900 people. Southern Thailand, particularly the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, is a largely neglected part of the country, and there have been few genuine attempts at conflict resolution with the insurgents. There is no clear end in sight for the insurgency and tensions are appearing to heat up again. 


Why is the growth of political Islam in Southeast Asia a potential problem? 

There are four key issues associated with the rise of political Islam.


1. The rise of political Islam has the potential to fuel intra-state conflict and through this, destabilise an already fragile region. As seen in Mindanao and the deep south of Thailand, political Islam partially contributed to the intense separatist conflicts that occurred within both countries. This was also seen, to a lesser extent, in Indonesia, with the recent riots following the 2019 Indonesian General Election. The rise of internal unrest has the potential to then affect regional stability. 


2. The rise of religious law and governance often correlates with rise in discrimination against the political, social and religious minorities. This endangers the lives of minorities and threatens the health of democracies where conservative Islamic voices are increasingly on the rise. For example, a recent poll conducted by UN Women and the Wahid Foundation indicate that 57.1% of Indonesian Muslims have intolerant views regarding one or more minority groups, an increase from the 51% in 2016. These views then can have tangible impacts on the safety of minorities; as seen in the rise of attacks on churches in Indonesia. 


3. The growth in political Islam, especially militant Islam, can in some circumstances, lead to a rise in terrorism. For example, many foreign fighters in Mindanao were from Malaysia and Indonesia. Further, in Mindanao, the long-running separatist conflict had strong links to the Islamic State (IS). The insurgency saw a rise in local pro-IS groups and IS-claimed attacks. In 2017, the city of Marawi, was occupied for months by militants who had pledged allegiance to IS. 


4. The rise of political Islam in one country has the potential to spread. This is clearly seen in the case of Brunei, which has recently implemented a new Sharia law inspired penal code, including punishments for promoting religions other than Islam. This decision was heavily influenced by actors in Malaysia and Indonesia. For example, the Sultan of Brunei was encouraged to make this decision by his close relationship with Muslim cleric Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who lives in Kelatan (Malaysia) and is a key figure in the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in Malaysia. 


Political Islam is on the rise in Southeast Asia. While political Islam is not inherently violent, its growth has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing social and political fault lines. There is a potential for some variants of political Islam to contribute to internal conflict, encourage the growth of discrimination against minorities and disrupt regional stability. As such, the growth of political Islam should be watched with an open mind, but carefully.  


Sarah Wilson is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. 

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