The world is wrestling with a variety of events, all classified under the name of Islam. A storm of criticism against the shocking kidnapping by the militant Boko Haram of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, prompted countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel and Canada to offer military and intelligence aid. At the same time, a spontaneous and celebrity-led boycott of top Hollywood hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei, though not expected to be effective, took place after the Southeast Asian kingdom initiated a staggered implementation of hudud punishments, which would eventually include stoning adulterers to death.While the two events are not connected, both help fuel a perception of deep polarization between ways regarded as “Islamic” and those that are not.
Two related dynamics are involved, which, if left undiscussed, might inflame international relations for decades to come. The first has to do with the excessive use of “Islam” in denoting as many aspects of daily life as possible. With Islam being a holistic religion, modern leaders of Muslim-majority societies tend to encourage the description of as many aspects as possible of modern life under a restrictive Islamic paradigm.
Regrettably, this tendency mirrors and sustains the propensity of non-Muslims to regard Muslim societies as being steered by a rigid religious ideology.
Second, the sense of besiegement felt in Muslim societies since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has discouraged public criticism among Muslims of any aspect of culture their society has labeled Islamic. This is avoided especially in contexts involving non-Muslims. Matters are exacerbated by a growing propensity of non-Muslims to comment unfavorably on Islamic culture.
Typically, the international assistance being given to Nigeria in the search for the schoolgirls did not include Muslim countries. That is a pity and was symptomatic of the treacherous Islam-versus-the-rest paradigm the world has created.
Historically, effective resistance to excessive Islamization in Muslim-majority countries has often been headed by the military, as champions of secularism. This has been obvious in the Middle East’s modern history.
Where monarchies have reigned, Islam’s role has been harder to predict. And so in Brunei, a stable country living off oil wells, the sudden implementation of hudud has left many baffled. The government has suppressed social media in response to this. Whether the whole exercise is simply the whim of an autocrat or long-term strategic politics is too early to determine.
In nations where Muslims comprise a small majority of the population, the role of Islam has been more undecided. In Malaysia, where about 60 percent are Muslims, the trend has been towards a homogenization of Islam and a strengthening of the religious bureaucracy. The incessant drawing of an effective line to separate Muslims from non-Muslims has, over the last 40 years, also precipitated the painful erasure of healthy distinctions among Muslims themselves.
This is unfortunate. A common understanding about the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia since the 14th century is that it was largely peaceful and commerce-driven. In a wish to attract the Arab and other Muslim merchants who then dominated oceanic traffic, port rulers became Muslims.
Given the hierarchic and caste-based nature of the many ancient Indic kingdoms dotting the archipelago, Islam came as a liberating ideology for the lower classes. This democratization of religious consciousness did not go very far, and traditional authoritarian structures of power prevailed. The nine sultans in Malaysia and the Brunei Sultanate are a case in point.
Culturally, however, a sense of Islamic cosmopolitanism, inclusiveness and liberation was enhanced over time. Such had been the peaceful historical nature of Islam in Southeast Asia.
However, recent trends spanning the world have come to change this perception. In Southeast Asia, an Islamic revival has been going on since the 1970s. As colonies, the Malay sultanates – along with Brunei – were governed through a clever formula whereby the British stayed out of matters of religion and culture.
This allowed the populace at large to imagine that they in essence actually remained uncolonized.
An uneasy cohabitation between civil law and Muslim law thus came to form the fabric of post-colonial society in Malaysia and Brunei. The fact that the majority of the archipelagic peoples were Muslims while migrants into the region were followers of other faiths made the political equation a very difficult one.
In recent times increasing numbers of individuals and groups have opportunistically come to use “Islam” as an easy route to infamy – and power.
The Nigeria kidnappings were but the latest extreme event involving a claim to know “Islam.” The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, the major bombings in European cities, the bombings in Indonesia, the attack on the Boston Marathon, and America’s war on terror have all made “Islam” a modern newsmaker second to none.
A majority of Southeast Asian non-Muslims may have come to see Islam as a threat to their civil and religious liberties, but it is just as worrying to Muslims that Islam – perhaps because of its decentralized and devolved procedure of doctrinal proclamations – is being so evidently and easily hijacked.
In Malaysia, the government has banned certain Arabic words central to Islamic discourses from use by non-Muslims, including the word “Allah.” The excuse is that their use by non-Muslims in non-Muslim contexts might confuse common Muslims. The latest inane proclamation is that historical immigration into the region had been engineered over centuries for the sole purpose of robbing Malays of their birthrights.
In truth, much of the confusion is generated within Muslim communities through the strong inclination to couch and simplify all social tensions, psychological pressures and political conflicts as opposing religious positions. And since this is done by any power-seeker, ranging from hooligans such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, unscrupulous opportunists within Malaysia’s Malay-based political parties, purportedly devout scholars or aging aristocrats, it has become difficult to tell what seriously rests on religious fundaments and what does not.
In a situation where political leadership is weak, as in Nigeria and much of the Islamic world, this crucial distinction is ignored, encouraging further misuse of the Islamic label as a shortcut to political relevance. Religious pronouncements, true or false, have become an easy path to power and consequence. “Islam” as a self-glorifying and self-justifying marker is up for grabs.
All major religions promulgate rules, but they also teach tolerance and compassion. For some sad reason, the social turbulence of modern times has, in public discourse and behavior, allowed the doctrinal and punitive aspects of historical Islam to overshadow the religion’s compassionate teachings and practices. Resetting the balance will not be easy, and is furthermore a task that is best done from within Muslim communities, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2014, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.