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More on the Shifting Worlds of Islam. The Middle East and Southeast Asia: A Troubled Relationship?

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More on the Shifting Worlds of Islam. The Middle East and Southeast Asia: A Troubled Relationship?
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   M           S      W         I     419  Blackwell Publishing LtdOxford, UKMUWOThe Muslim World0027-4909 © 2007 Hartford SeminaryXXX  ORIGINAL ARTICLES   M           S     W        I     T     M     W     • V     97 • J     2007  More on the Shifting  Worlds of Islam. The Middle East and Southeast  Asia: A Troubled Relationship?  Mona Abaza   American University in Cairo Cairo, Egypt   F   or the Southeast Asian world, the Middle East has been the object of much anxiety, hatred and fear and, paradoxically, an increasing curiosity since the dramatic events of 9/11. One has to acknowledge that the Middle East has always been a source of both interest and worry because of its long lasting historical, religious, and cultural extensions (The Arab Hadhrami diaspora is one of those links, for example). It seems that in official circles today — at least in Singapore — there is a real concern that the Middle East is nesting and exporting terrorism. The Regional Outlook    report of 2004–2005 published by the Institute of Southeast Asia in Singapore insists that the main security problem for Southeast Asia in the next few years will be “terrorism from extremist Islamic groups, domestic violence srcinating from separatist rebellions and ethnic or religious tensions.”   1   The main terrorist organization is the    Jamaah Islamiyah    , which is believed to be associated with al-Qaeda and was responsible for the Bali bombing in 2002 and the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003.   2   Quite often, fanaticism is associated with imported “Arab” lifestyles, which are perceived to be in conflict with local religious practices and a different habitus    . This concern evidently has some valid basis, since some specialists inform us that even though members of the Asian extension of al-Qaeda “were not as highly motivated, well trained or well led in the early stages as their  Arab allies, . . . with indoctrination, training and leadership they have   T      M       W      •   V       97  •   J      2007  420 improved.”   3   The fear of alien Middle Eastern imports is often inflated, but not  without some foundation, since we are told again that the Asian members of al-Qaeda account for one fifth of the organization’s strength. The term “Asian” here includes Central Asians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Malaysians, Singaporeans and Philippinos who have been trained in the Middle East, speak Arabic and have been “handpicked” to be members of al-Qaeda.   4   Moreover, much discussion has taken place in Singapore concerning the madrasahs    , because they lag behind the vernacular system. The fact that they bred “drop outs” for years and alumni who were not prepared to work in the Singaporean job market has led people to associate them with possible connections to “dangerous” external influences, since these madrasahs    send students to the Middle East and, in particular, to the Cairo al-Azhar University.   5   Pakistani madrasahs    are often depicted in the Singaporean press as nests breeding fanaticism. The Middle East and Indian Subcontinent are often perceived as problematic because of the inabililty of their regimes to contain terror.This article consists of two main sections. The first part will discuss the complex web of perceptions between the two worlds of Islam. The second part will look at how Asia and Southeast Asia are perceived in the Middle East. It will attempt a survey of some research institutes in the Arab world that have developed an interest in Southeast Asia.These two regions, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, are sometimes  viewed in a simplistic, dichotomizing manner.   6   There is a prevalent unconscious indiscriminate stereotyping of regional characteristics that perpetuates simplistic images of “a pure,” “orthodox,” scripturalist Islam srcinating mainly from the Middle East. This stream of Islam, which includes reformism and Wahhabism, continues to flow from the Middle East towards a so-called imagined recipient; heterodox, syncretic, lax and to a large extent stereotyped as “oral” Southeast Asian Islam.It is possible to argue that the dichotomy focuses on the tension between a harsh “Arab” style imported Islam and a local brand of “lived Islam,” which is constantly being threatened by the “Arab” import. “Arabized” mannerisms, clothing, the emphasis on gender segregation and the adoption of different eating customs brought by Middle Eastern travelers, students and pilgrims are often perceived as counter to local Southeast Asian customs, so much so that they in fact constitute a “counter culture.” The stress on the importance of the  Arabic language and the categorical refusal on the part of some to mix Arabic  with the everyday language in the Indonesian context remains today a conscious political fight that has created strong divisions.   7   Is it a coincidence that today in Aceh the mounting Islamization that led to the application of the   M           S      W         I     421 Islamic Shar    i“    ah    coincides with the revival of the  Jawi script (written in  Arabic letters)? Furthermore, the application of Shar    i“    ah law in Aceh has been enforced by public whippings that are filmed with digital cameras. Public  whipping is perceived by many as an Arab-rooted tradition that was brought to Aceh.   8   One can extend this dichotomy and apply it to Wahhabi influences in the early 19th century, which had to be counteracted by “    adat    . This stream of Islam, including reformism and Wahhabism, continues to flow from the Middle East towards an imagined recipient — heterodox, syncretic, lax and to a certain extent “oral” Southeast Asian Muslim. I refer to earlier observations about how customary law was regarded as hierarchically inferior. This idea  was supported by the idea that unwritten customary practices needed codification. This need was underscored by anthropological observations of colonial administrators which served to sharpen the dichotomy between Hukum    (Islamic law), which is constantly revivified from the Middle East, and the local adat    , or traditions in Southeast Asia. One can thus talk about “Arab” puritan as opposed to “local” “pagan.” Implicit in this logic is the fact that the Muslims of the archipelago have been generically perceived as recipients or followers rather than innovators in religious sciences. For instance, Drewes’s  vision of Indonesian Islam published in 1955 says, “Indonesia has shown great receptivity and an amazing faculty for adapting newly acquired ideas to her old basic pattern of thinking, but she has not displayed any creative impulse. In matters of religion the Indonesians have always been good followers: they have never taken the lead.”   9    Again, the impression is that Indonesian Islam is receptive and imitative, implying that the innovative streams of thought are derived from elsewhere. In another passage, Drewes insists upon the fact that Indonesian Islam is different because of its inconspicuousness. “Whoever knows Islam only as it appears in North Africa or in the Near East can, on visiting Indonesia, at first hardly believe himself to be in a Muslim country at all. And not only passing  visitors but even people who have been living in the country for a considerable time will tell you first and foremost about Borobudur and Hindu-Javanese temples, about Javanese and Balinese dancing and stage performances. In short, they can inform you about all kinds of non-Muslim aspects of Indonesian life, but most probably they will never have seen the inside of the mosque.”   10   Here, the Hindu Javanese element seems to be an important component of the “laxity” concept that has often been promoted by Indonesian specialists. Drewes seems also to stress the fact that Islamic law was restricted to daily family life — otherwise inheritance is based on customary law adat    11    — and matrilineal Minangkabau is understood as adat    struggling against Shar    i“    ah    .   T      M       W      •   V       97  •   J      2007  422 The idea that the Middle East has been exporting fundamentalism remains  very powerful in the imagery of today. This is best exemplified by how the press portrayed the Arab Hadhrami community of Indonesia after the dramatic events of 9/11. The bombing of a discotheque in Bali in October 2002 and the condemnation of Abu Bakar Ba   ‘   ashir as a possible suspect with alleged connections to the al-Qaeda organization seemed to enforce clichés about the association of Islam with a harsh, imported “Arab” brand of Islam connected  with Indonesia’s Hadhrami (Yemeni) Arabs. This brand of “Arab” Islam has often been perceived as a threat to an Indonesian “local,” syncretistic religious culture. Many continue to ask this question: Is it a coincidence that the four major leaders of the Islamic Jihadist groups in Indonesia, Ja   ‘   afar ‘   Umar Talib, Habib Riziq Syihab and Abu Bakar Ba   ‘   ashir, are of Arab Hadhrami descent? How is “Arabness” contributing to terrorism and consolidating fundamentalist ideologies? Is it providing further legitimacy and religious authenticity in the multi-ethnic societies of Southeast Asia? The London based al-Hayat    newspaper in covering the Bali bombing provided a survey of the Indonesian Islamic movement, ranging from the NU (   Nahdatul Ulama    , the largest Muslim party in the world) to the Mohammadeyyah (the second most important social movement in Indonesia); portraits of the four Jihadist leaders received the lion’s share of attention in the Arab press.   12   The Far Eastern Economic Review    recently pointed to how the media portrayed the political circles of the “Arab Indonesians” as exponents to conservatism with a militancy in Yemen.   13   Since Bin Laden is of Hadhrami srcin, it would be naïve to consider the renewed interest in the Arab diaspora of South East Asia as a purely academic curiosity. These recent events will definitely have political and social repercussions on the nearly 5 million Indonesians of Yemeni descent.   14   But to compare the exponents of the two regions of Islam is not a simple endeavor. One is constantly plunging into Middle Eastern Arab-centric  visions of Islam, tainted by preconceived ideas about a correct Middle Eastern orthodoxy versus a counter picture of a peripheral, syncretic Southeast  Asian Islam. The fact is that much of Middle Eastern popular Islam is to be contextualized in the Mediterranean world   15   and its affinities in terms of history, geography and worldview with the Judeo-Christian world of the region. Take for example Egyptian Coptic and Muslim Mawalid (popular feasts). They have so much in common that it would be hard to see much  variance in terms of popular celebrations. Javanese Islam has certainly interacted and incorporated Indian, Iranian and Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu influences that makes Southeast Asian specialists quite often overemphasize Hindu syncretic elements of Javanese Islam. However, regardless of the significance of the variation in local Islam(s), the orthodoxy exemplified in the cosmopolitan networks of “    Ulama    (Islamic religious scholars) has long   M           S      W         I  423 since created a homogenized, scripturalist, high culture, whether in Indonesia or in Egypt.This leads me to raise the next question. How new is this mistrust towards the Middle East for exporting terrorist and “counter–establishment” ideologies? The legendary Dutch Orientalist C. Snouck Hurgronje, who disguised himself as a Muslim to report on whether Southeast Asian Hajjis   constituted a danger for the Dutch East Indies, is the most evident example of such a long history of suspicion. Snouck is considered to be one of the most controversial of colonial figures and his Islam policy is very much debated even today, as is the question of whether he was purely a colonial administrator or promoting a humanitarian policy towards Indonesians. He owes this reputation partly to the fact that he lived in Arabia for a year between 1884–85, and spent six months disguised as a Muslim in Mecca. His personal life became legend perhaps because he converted to Islam in Mecca and was named Abdel Ghaffar. In Indonesia, as in Mecca, he behaved as a Muslim 16  and married two Indonesian Muslim women. Indonesians remember him under different Muslim names and titles such as “Abdogapha,” “Si Gam,” and later “Teungkoe Hadji Blanda.” 17  Whether or not he was a true Muslim, there was controversy about his intellectual honesty, which was attacked by some contemporary Dutch Orientalists. 18  In some Muslim circles both in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia, Snouck is perceived on a popular level as a Dutch spy and an Orientalist who conducted a policy antagonistic to Muslims. A close look at his  writings, however, shows that for his time, he was an enlightened and concerned scholar.Snouck was forced to leave the holy city of Mecca after being charged  with theft. According to Jean-Jacques Waardenburg, Snouck was probably denounced by the French Consul to the Turkish governor. 19  The idea of disguising oneself as a real Muslim to penetrate the terra incognita   of the holy city of the Muslims was a fascinating temptation for many Westerners. Richard F. Burton, who preceded Snouck in 1853, disguised himself as an Afghan pilgrim, which must have fed Snouck’s dream of living in the Holy Land. Snouck was given the credit for being the first Orientalist to document Mecca through photography in his book on Mecca, which also includes pictures of unveiled women. 20 Snouck was sent to the Netherlands East Indies in 1889. In Mecca, he had already taken a particular interest in studying the  jawah   community and demystified the so-called danger of fanatical Hajji   returnees. We have to be reminded here that there is a long tradition among colonial administrators like Sir Standford Raffles and the Netherlands East Indies Company (V.O.C), among others, who considered pilgrimage to be dangerous. Hajjis   have a history of being discriminated against by colonial authorities and looked on as suspicious
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