Presented to the House Committee on International Relations’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, July 14, 2004
I would like to begin by thanking you and members of this committee for the privilege of testifying before you on the importance of Islam in Asia and its implications for U.S. foreign policy.
Since the United States was attacked on 9/11 by terrorists claiming to speak in the name of Islam, there has been considerable discussion in the U.S. about the significance of Islam as a factor in U.S. policy. Islam is the religion of over 1 billion people around the world. Given the U.S. principle of strict separation between state and religion, the U.S. clearly cannot have a policy towards the religion of Islam. But policies and actions of states and non-state actors ostensibly seeking an Islamic revival and declaring the United States as their enemy necessitate a policy response. Before commenting on the specific issues relating to political and militant Islamic groups in Asia, let me share with you a few basic observations:
1. Islam is not a monolithic religion. Its adherents in different parts of the world, and within each community, practice their core beliefs in diverse ways. There is considerable cultural, social and national heterogeneity among Muslims. Several Islamic sects and Sufi orders co-exist throughout Asia and some of them are confrontational towards one another as much as they are hostile to non-Muslims.
2. Notwithstanding the differences in ritual and even religious belief or practice, Muslims have a strong sense of belonging to one community – the Ummah.
3. Although Muslim history is replete with instances of militant assertions of religion these are not very different from, for example, the invoking of Christianity as a unifier of nations or mobilizing factor for armies in the middle ages. For an overwhelming majority of Muslims, particularly in Asia, Islam is a spiritual scheme for salvation and not a political ideology.
4. Contrary to the widespread belief that Islam does not allow the separation of state and religion, political power in most of Muslim history was not wielded by a theocratic class. Although Islam was invoked as the source of political legitimacy throughout history, the Islamic political theory known today as Political Islam is largely a response or reaction to the breakdown of the traditional order under the pressures of modernity. Muslims did not evolve contending ideas about the state and attended to the issue of defining the principles of state after having to contend with ascendant western power. The notion of political Islam, therefore, is a modern idea and should not be considered an integral part of the Islamic tradition.
Historic overview: In Asia, the spread of Islam took place gradually beginning soon after Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) proclaimed the religion in the Arabian Peninsula during the early seventh century. Chinese Muslims believe that one of Muhammad’s companions brought the religion to the country and is buried in southern China. Today, the world’s largest concentrations of Muslims are in Asian countries. Indonesia (population 238 million, 88% Muslim), Pakistan (population 160 million, 97% Muslim) and Bangladesh (population 142 million, 83% Muslim) are the world’s largest Muslim majority nations. In addition, India’s population of over 1 billion people includes 140 million Muslims.
Islam’s spread into Asia came in several waves and different ways. In South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), merchants and Sufi saints spread the religion long before Muslim conquerors from central Asia established their power base in northern India, the last of these being the Mughal empire that lasted from 1526 to 1857. Islam’s early proselytizers in South and southeast Asia allowed local people to retain their cultures and traditions, leading to a regional blend that differed significantly from the way Islam was practiced in its Arab heartland. There were occasional efforts by puritans to Arabize religious practices but the fact that Muslims in Asia lived among or ruled large non-Muslim populations militated against widespread adoption of puritanical interpretations of Islam. Religious tolerance and the tendency to synthesize Islam with local customs has traditionally been one of the chief characteristics of Islam in Asia.
Like the rest of the Muslim world, Muslims in South and Southeast Asia lived in relative isolation until the advent of the colonial era. They were now faced with modern transformation over a relatively short time and mainly under pressure from the European powers. Unlike Europe and North America, Muslim territories did not get the opportunity to evolve into modern states over time. The Dutch in Indonesia and the British in India and Malaya penetrated and occupied Muslim lands. Once their authority was firmly established, the Europeans governed with an iron fist, with the help of elites trained by the colonial masters.
The earliest western idea borrowed by Muslim modernizers especially in the nineteenth century was enlightened absolutism. Administrative and military reform within the decaying Ottoman Empire, for example, depended largely on the enlightened despotic model. Numerous ‘partial modernizers’ emerged in other parts of the Islamic world, primarily rulers who wanted to introduce selected western social and economic ideas and technology without altering the basis of political power. Some Sultans even followed Europe’s enlightened despots in introducing constitutions and assemblies of nobles, but these efforts did not go far enough for some and too far for others within powerful elite groups.
Muslims responded to the challenge of the technologically and militarily superior west in one of two ways. One segment of the population accepted western education and adopted the western way of life, excluding religion from their discourse almost entirely. Others started defining politics in religious idiom, insisting that Islam offered a complete way of life distinct from that offered by the colonial powers and their modern ideas.
The beginning of the modern era thus marked the beginning of ideological conflicts within the Muslim world about politics and governance. Until then, traditional Islamic scholarship had focused on the divine message (Tafseer and Hadith), philosophy and reasoning (Kalam) and jurisprudence (Fiqh). With notable exceptions, Muslims had paid little attention to political and economic theory. This absence of a consistent Islamic political theory has led scholars such as Bernard Lewis to argue that in Islam, “In principle, at least, there is no state, but only a ruler; no court, but only a judge”. But the alternative explanation is that Muslim politics were (and remain) plural and changing, which renders redundant any monolithic interpretations of fourteen centuries of history by historians or by religious ideologues.
The end of the colonial era marked the beginning of a struggle between the Islamic traditionalists, who saw the colonial powers’ retreat as an opportunity to ‘revive’ the traditional ‘Islamic’ way of life, and the modernizers, who insisted that there could be no turning back from western influences. In case of Pakistan (which included Bangladesh until 1971), there was another phenomenon at work. Pakistan was carved out of the Muslim-majority areas of British India in 1947. It felt threatened by a much larger India that did not willingly accept partition and its elite was insecure about the future of the newly independent, multi-ethnic country. Here the elite tried to “use” Islam as a unifier of national identity and encouraged Islamic revivalism, believing that a secular civil-military oligarchy could retain power even after suppressing ethnic and political dissent with the help of an Islamist ideology.
During the cold war, anti-Communist Muslim rulers and western policy-makers saw the Islamic revivalists or Islamists as potential allies. This alliance reached its peak during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which we all now know played a significant role in polarizing Muslim communities and transforming political Islamists into militant Jihadists. One of the longest lasting consequences of the cold war in Asian Muslim communities is the penetration of the ‘Wahabi’ puritan version of Islam. Invited by pro-western governments to assist Islamic education and charities, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states sent missionaries to Asian Muslim communities primarily to purify their understanding of Islam. Strong Wahabi and neo-Wahabi groups now exist in all Asian Muslim countries, weakening the local traditions of pluralism.
Current Trends: Islamist parties exist in all Asian Muslim countries with varying degrees of support. Not all groups organized for politics in the name of Islam pose a threat to global security or the interests of the United States. But the sentiment, by all accounts, in Asian Muslim nations is clearly anti-American. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2003 survey on global attitudes, favorable ratings for the U.S. in Indonesia fell from 61 % to 15% in one year. Nearly half of the Pakistanis surveyed trusted Osama bin Laden to do the right thing as opposed to negligible percentage having that faith in President Bush. At the same time, most Muslims also support a prominent – and in some cases expanding – role for Islam and religious leaders in the political life of their countries.
Religious hardliners are obviously influencing the political agenda of others, non-fundamentalists, in Muslim countries and can create an environment conducive to even harsher, more puritanical and anti-American interpretations of religion. Given the size of Muslim populations, even if only one percent of the world’s Muslims accepts an uncompromising theology calling for an infinite struggle between Islam and un-Islam, we confront the prospect of several million volunteers opposing the present global order. If ten percent of that one- percent decides to commit to a radical agenda, we are looking at the potential for a larger recruitment pool for groups like al-Qaeda.
Several reasons are commonly identified for the rise of political and radical Islam throughout the Muslim world. Anti-American sentiment among Muslims is often attributed to virtually unconditional U.S. support for Israel as well as American backing for hated repressive regimes, especially in the Middle East. The Middle East factors into Asian Muslim politics but there are other, more local, reasons for radicalization of Asian Muslim communities. The Afghan and Kashmir wars have created large cadres of Jihadists in Pakistan who have, until recently, been trained and supported by the state. After General Musharraf’s decision to align Pakistan with the United States not all Jihadists are willing to accept the state’s U-turn and are carrying on their Jihad in pursuit of their beliefs. Unresolved conflicts in southern Philippines and Indonesia feed radicalism in Southeast Asia in a manner similar to the role of the Kashmir issue in South Asia. But in each case, the absence of ideological alternatives and the declining performance of the state in caring for its citizens is a major factor, which then can be exploited by well-funded and organized radical groups.
That local factors rather than global U.S. policy play the defining role in Muslim anti-Americanism can best be judged by comparing Bangladesh with Pakistan and Malaysia with Indonesia. In case of Bangladesh, the country has a functioning democracy with genuine competition for power. Young Bangladeshis have secular political avenues to channel their energies. The fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party) can openly contest elections and is currently part of the ruling coalition. The open political environment and absence of a major dispute that leads the state to encourage radical insurgents has contained the influence of the Islamists in Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh have no less empathy for the Palestinians than the Pakistanis but the momentum for radicalism found in Pakistan is not there in Bangladesh.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, the military and intelligence services tightly control political space. For years, the Pakistani State recruited and trained religious radicals in pursuit of its strategic ambitions in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan’s Islamists made their strongest showing in a general election during parliamentary polls held in October 2002, securing 11.1 percent of the popular vote and 20 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. Since then, they have pressed for Taliban-style Islamization in the Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, where they control the provincial administration. Because of their ties to the military, the initials of the alliance of religious parties Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal – MMA—are often referred by critics to mean the Military Mullah Alliance. Pakistan remains home to many extremist groups. The ratio of its population living below the poverty line (31 % of total population last year) is increasing, adding to the pool of disaffected youth searching for simple answers to complex questions and therefore likely candidates for recruitment to radical causes.
Malaysia’s experience of allowing a fundamentalist Islamic party to participate fully in a pluralist political system has also kept radicalism at bay. The country’s Islamic Party recently lost control of a state it had ruled for twelve years. On the other hand, Indonesia’s legacy of military rule and the deployment of Muslim vigilantes by the military as an instrument of influence have created groups such as Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiya, which have engaged in terrorist acts. A consistent democratic process, accompanied by socio-economic development could marginalize Indonesia’s radical Islamist groups over time, as has been the case of Malaysia.
What can the U.S. Do: Promoting a culture of non-violent dialogue and tolerance, and fostering acceptance of contemporary democratic ideas and norms must be an integral part of any U.S. strategy for dealing with the Muslim world. The same surveys that showed declining support for the U.S. government in Muslim countries also confirmed broad acceptance of ideas and principles espoused by the United States. That is a sign that the U.S. needs ideological and philosophical allies among Muslims, in addition to the strategic and tactical alliances that already exist with Muslim governments. Such moderate democratic Muslim allies would answer questions about the role of the state, political practices and institutions, education and knowledge acquisition, and the economy from a perspective contradictory to that of the anti-Western Islamists.
Instead of Islamist revivalism, which insists on rejection of western values and modern ideas, the core belief of moderate Muslims hinges on Muslim reformation. There are several Muslim intellectuals and small groups of activists throughout the Muslim world – an especially in Asia -- who see intolerance and Jihadist interpretations of Islam as a threat to the Ummah as much as to the rest of the world. But these individuals and groups do not command the networking resources available to the Islamists, who have over the years built a formidable resource generation capacity beginning with the injection of Saudi and Gulf funding.
Islamist revivalism was seen as an alternative to communist influence during the cold war, giving Islamists an opportunity to organize a global network. Their ideological tracts advocating Jihad, for example, have been printed in large numbers and in many languages with funding from Muslim governments and private individuals in oil-rich states. Groups and scholars expounding non-violent beliefs – such as democracy, inclusiveness and secularism -- remain limited to their countries of origin. Reform groups in Pakistan, India and Indonesia, for example, do not have the global following of anti-western Islamists or even Al-Qaeda.
Just as the last few decades have witnessed an effort by the “puritanical” view of Islam from the Arabian heartland to penetrate the syncretist Asian periphery, there is now a need to reverse the flow of Islamic ideas from Asia to the Middle East. Promoting Muslim moderation is a U.S. national security objective, just as containing communism was during the cold war. Then, the U.S. led efforts to counter Communist propaganda and ideology. Because Islam is a religion and not just a political or economic ideology, the U.S. cannot directly get involved in intra-Islam discourse. It can, however, provide support and encouragement to moderate Muslims, who can then move forward on a momentum of their own.