Alana Barrington Dye: The Effects of Foreign Intervention

It is important to note that Islam is not homogenous, and therefore, political Islam cannot be homogenous. There are regional differences in the application of Islamic values to state politics. West Asian Muslim states, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and East Asian Muslim states, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are notably different in their applications of Islam. Recently, West Asian Muslim countries have been characterized in the West by the rise of fundamentalism, a trend absent from the Muslim states of East Asia. It is clear then that there are certain socio-political factors at play in the current application of the Islamic faith to Islamic politics, such as the intervention of the United States, or lack thereof, into the internal workings of these states.

West Asian Muslim states, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, have become one focus of “Islamic anxiety” due to the rise of fundamentalism in this region in recent decades. However, West Asia had previously been home to some of the most liberal interpretations of Islam under the Hanafi School.[i] The very recent, and perhaps unexpected, rise of fundamentalism in the area must then be examined as an effect of certain socio-political causes. The Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s in Northern Pakistan with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.[ii] It is therefore apparent that the rise of Talibanism is directly linked to the politics of the Cold War, particularly to its conclusion. The United States, in an attempt to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, encouraged Muslim fighters to rise up against the Soviet-installed government, not considering what would happen to these fighters in the future.[iii] In Pakistan as well, militants mobilized against threats of the Cold War, as well as threats from India. While these threats initially mobilized the militant groups, shifting factors have played a role in maintaining these groups in Pakistan. During the Cold War, the United States greatly desired an alliance with Pakistan in an attempt to lessen the influence of the Soviet Union in the region, an alliance that has continued to this day. However, the Unites States does not want an ally that they perceive as unstable; they have therefore made it clear that they support suppressing any internal turmoil in the country.[iv] Juan Cole states that, as of 2009, “About half of all Pakistanis blame the United States for most of the violence in their country.”[v] It is clear that although Pakistan and the United States are technically allied, there has been little to no benefit for the people of Pakistan. For example, the last two military dictators in Pakistan have acted solely for the interests of the United States rather than for their own people.[vi] It is in this environment that fundamentalism has flourished in the region. In Afghanistan, the removal of the Soviet government led to a power vacuum that could be filled by the newly militarized people in the form of the Taliban, greatly influenced by Saudi Wahhabism.[vii] Recently, the Taliban has reemerged in Afghanistan and grown stronger in Pakistan,[viii] most likely because of the recurring cycle of power vacuums and Western interventions. It is the short-term projects in the region by countries such as the United States attempting to create a “balance of power” while actively ignoring the needs of the people that lead to the rise of fundamentalist groups.[ix]

In opposition with states such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, East Asian states such as Malaysia and Indonesia are experiencing relatively stable democracies. Of course the politics of these states are not perfect (Malaysia’s ruling party has won every election since independence),[x] but there is a notable lack of political fundamentalism in this region. It is arguable that this lack can be traced back to 1952 when Ahmad Sukarno established the non-align movement in Indonesia. This movement was a group of states that refused to ally with either the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.[xi] Because of this movement, there was a lack of American or Soviet intervention in Indonesia, leaving the country free to establish its own stable government. Today, Indonesia had a multi-party system with seven major parties. Around seven hundred different languages are spoken throughout Indonesia, and although the country is 87% Muslim, it maintains six official religions. Indonesia’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.”[xii] It is this spirit that has brought the country to where it stands today. Despite the obvious significance of Islam in Indonesia, the country remains a state of majority Muslims as opposed to an Islamic state (and there is little support for changing this).[xiii] That is, Indonesia maintains a secular state that is not opposed to religion but is also not ruled by it.[xiv] According to the New Perspective that has gained considerable ground in Indonesia, shari’a functions not as a law of the land, bur rather as a set of moral guidelines. It is the spirit of the law that emphasizes the importance of service as a manifestation of religion.[xv] When a number of Islamic parties emerged in 1999,[xvi] they were unable to enter the political sphere as they planned due to the political tradition in Indonesia of a separation of religion and politics.[xvii] In Malaysia as well, the Islamic opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), has been unable to be elected to power. The situation in Malaysia is slightly different, however, in that non-Malay Muslims are a small minority, and Muslim identity is therefore closely tied to Malay identity. While the PAS has failed to win an election, its importance lies in its success in putting pressure on the ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN), to move in a more inclusive direction.[xviii] Both Indonesia and Malaysia, while they have some difficulties, remain stable democratic, or at least stable semi-democratic,[xix] countries. This current political stability stems from the application of liberal interpretations of Islamic values to relatively secular democratic systems. This application, rather than pursuing the interests of a Western power, is what allows Indonesia and Malaysia to progress in their political stability.

The interventionist actions of the United States in West Asian Islamic states kept countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan from establishing stable governments that would benefit their own people. While states such as Malaysia are still struggling with how to best support their citizens, East Asian Islamic states in recent decades have largely been left to create their own political systems. The creation of democratic state governments by the people whom are directly governed by them appears to lead to greater political stability. As seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign intervention can cause a fundamentalist backlash against Western systems of power as these fundamentalist groups attempt to fill a power vacuum or thrive in a corrupt system, refusing a stable system with peaceful transitions of power for better or worse.




Works Cited

BBC. “Who are the Taliban?” BBC News. Last modified May 26, 2016. Accessed November 3, 2016.

Cole, Juan. Engaging the Muslim World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Kersten, Carol. Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Problem of Taliban.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. November 4, 2016.

——-. “Indonesia, a model for Islamic Democracy?” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. November 7, 2016.

Thirkell-White, Ben. “Political Islam and Malaysian Democracy.” Democratization 13, no. 3 (July 2006): 421-441. Accessed November 9, 2016.



[i] Mahallati, “Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Problem of Taliban,” 11/4/16.

[ii] BBC, “Who Are the Taliban?,”

[iii] Mahallati, “Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Problem of Taliban,” 11/4/16.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 163.

[vi] Mahallati, “Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Problem of Taliban,” 11/4/16.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] BBC, “Who Are the Taliban?,”

[ix] Mahallati, “Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Problem of Taliban,” 11/4/16.

[x] Thirkell-White, “Political Islam and Malaysian Democracy,”

[xi] Mahallati, “Indonesia, a model for Islamic Democracy?,” 11/7/16.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, 159.

[xv] Mahallati, “Indonesia, a model for Islamic Democracy?,” 11/7/16.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, 147.

[xviii] Thirkell-White, “Political Islam and Malaysian Democracy,”

[xix] Ibid.