Islam Is Up for Grabs

By Ooi Kee Beng

The world is wrestling with a variety of events, all classed under the name of Islam. A storm of social media criticism against the shocking kidnapping by the militant Boko Haram of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, eventually prompted countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Israel and Canada to offer military and intelligence aid to Nigeria. At the same time, a spontaneous and celebrity-led boycott of top hotels in Hollywood owned by the Sultan of Brunei, though not expected to be effective, is underway after the little 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 a deep polarization between ways regarded as "Islamic" and those that are not.

Two related dynamics are involved, which if left undiscussed may 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 simultaneous 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 already labeled Islamic. This is avoided especially in contexts involving non-Muslims. Again, matters are exacerbated by a growing propensity of non-Muslims to vex unfavorably on Islamic culture.

Typically, the international assistance being given to Nigeria in the search for the schoolgirls does not include Muslim countries. This is a pity and is symptomatic of the treacherous Islam-versus-the-rest paradigm the world has created and of the two dynamics mentioned above

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 modern history of the Middle East.

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 response against the sudden imposition of hudud. 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 homogenizing 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 the Muslims themselves.

This is an unfortunate historical change. 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 that dotted 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 did in fact prevail. The nine sultans in Malaysia and the Brunei Sultanate are a case in point.

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Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. His articles can be read at wikibeng.com. © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

(AP Photo)

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