Harris Walker: Differences between East and West Asian Muslim Nations

Differences between East and West Asian Muslim Nations

A growing population of Muslims in Southeast Asia is shifting the center of the Islamic World further East. Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have developed strong Muslim majorities that are paramount to understanding the political and social cultures of these states. Similarly, West Asian countries with Muslim identities such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia place Islam at the core of their societies. Despite both groups of nations being Islamic in nature, their socio-political climates are vastly different resulting primarily from differences in Western intervention in these states, which were driven by the different economic models these countries employ. Additionally, the different modes by which Islam was introduced in these states gives religion a different political function, which has allowed Southeast Asian states to strike a balance between religion and its influence on politics.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim state in the world, but unlike Iran and Iraq, it has prevented religion from dominating the political dialogue. The factors that have made this possible are Indonesia’s guiding political philosophy of Pancasila, a diverse population, and a burgeoning economic state that is currently the 16th largest economy in the world.[1] While Muslims dominate the religious make up of Indonesia, comprising of 87% of the country, there is a level of pluralism that as well, with a 9.9% Christian population as well as Buddhist and Hindu communities.[2] This diversity of religions meant that when independence was granted to Indonesia, there was a need to figure out “how to safeguard secularization in Indonesia for the future, especially as a means to ensure basic freedoms and religious pluralism.”[3] This was done through the Pancasila, whose main points emphasize a constant urge to strive for a just and civilized society and democracy as obligatory for a functioning polity.[4] As a result, Indonesia is reticent to adopting a government that is religious in nature but Islam still serves as a political guide for many Indonesians, an idea that is captured in Nicholas Madjid’s line “Islam Yes! Islamic Party No!”[5] This approach allows for the polyinterpretability of Islam to influence politics, rather than a small circle of Islamic scholars to determine how Islam should be implemented politically.

Saudi Arabia on the other hand, has not hesitated from putting Islam at the heart of its politics, which is a direct result of foreign influence in the state. First there was British intervention in WWI, when Britain’s goal was to protect their oil interests in the region by bringing down the Ottoman Empire. As part of their effort to do so, the British backed the Saudis as they had the best chance of defeating the Ottoman Empire, thereby giving the British optimal access to the petroleum rich country.[6] The Cold War also reinforced Saudi control of the state as the United States supported them throughout the Cold War. The US viewed them as a buffer between the world of Arab Nationalism and the Soviet Union.[7] The United States made “Wahhabi Saudi Arabia the spiritual leader of the Mddle East, as a way of shifting the region to the right.”[8] This approach by Western nations emboldened religious fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia purely in an effort to better their standing in the petroleum industry.

This focus on the petroleum industry has set up an economic model that is entirely dependent upon factors that are sometimes difficult to control such as the price of oil and international demand for the commodity. This is a precarious economic approach that has resulted in a region that is almost entirely dependent upon South Asian migrants as the source of labor.[9] The Western influence in the region is clearly on display in the economic functionality of the country, a clear difference between Arab states and South Asian ones. In Southeast Asia, a focus on the development of a strong middle class drives politics, particularly in Malaysia.

While Malaysia is a Muslim-majority state, its diversity both racially and economically has forced the country to focus on interests outside of its Islamic population. At the time of independence in 1963, Malays made up over 50% of the population while Chinese immigrants constituted another 30% and Indian descendants making up the remaining 20%.[10] Additionally, Chinese merchants controlled the economy in the country through their domination of medium-scale trade markets and domestic industry.[11] This disparity put the political control in the hands of Malaysian natives while a Chinese minority dominated the economy. This Malaysian control of government is present in the two major parties in the country, the UMNO, which emphasizes moderate Islam with a strong Malaysian populism and PAS, a more radical Islamic party that has attempted to gain power by forming ethnic coalitions amongst rural populations. While these groups have, on occasion, taken on some strong Islamist characteristics, the emphasis on creating a strong Malaysian middle class has necessitated compromise with the Chinese ethnic minority groups means the nation has retained pluralism as crucial to their economic prosperity.

The Malaysian economic model has prevented Islamic fundamentalism from gaining real political traction in the country, as opposed to Afghanistan, which has seen a rise in fundamentalism stemming from poorly coordinated US intervention in the state. Following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, at the height of the Cold War, the US forged an all-out attack against communism in the Middle East, which they accomplished by giving billions of dollars to Sunni fundamentalists in the region.[12] This eventually led to the collapse of the leftist government in Afghanistan, resulting in a power vacuum that was filled for many years by the Taliban.[13] As Juan Cole puts it, “There were no Wahhabi suicide bombers until after the Reagan administration launched its struggle…against the Soviets in Afghanistan.”[14] The clear ties between foreign intervention and religious fundamentalism have led to a culture of “Islam anxiety” in the West that has damaged Islam’s image.

Differences between South Asian Islamic states and Islamic states in Western Asia such Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia can be traced to a few crucial differences. One such difference is the ethnic diversity between these two sets of countries. A nation like Indonesia has millions of citizens who do not identify as Muslim, so there is a need to emphasize pluralism to retain political legitimacy. Saudi Arabia on the other hand has combined Islam and politics to the point where the two cannot be disconnected. Additionally, differences in economic models and the role of foreign intervention have a lot to do with the differences in the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism. In West Asian countries, Western powers have intervened from time to time to serve their political and economic interests with regards to petroleum. This has resulted in the backing of fundamentalist parties as well as power vacuums that were filled by fundamentalists. In South Asian countries, foreign powers have less incentive in countries as they are dominated by middle-class Muslim labor and Chinese bourgeois, both of which have remained out of the realm of foreign intervention. These fundamental differences in their religious and economic foundations have led to two wildly different political identities.

[1] Mahallati Lecture, November 6, 2017.

[2] Ibid

[3] Carool Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 137.

[4] Mahallati Lecture, November 6, 2017.

[5] Carool Kersten, Islam in Indonesia, the Contest for Society, Ideas and Values, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 140.

[6] Mahallati Lecture, November 11, 2017.

[7] Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 88.

[8] Ibid, 89.

[9] Mahallati Lecture, November 8, 2017.

[10] Thirkell-White, Ben. “Political Islam and Malaysian Democracy.” Democratization 13, no. 3 (2006): 421-41. doi:10.1080/13510340600579318.(423).

[11] Ibid

[12] Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 101.

[13] Mahallati Lecture, October 11, 2017.

[14] Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World, 111.