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Chance Of Breakaway Asian Islamic State Fades

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

on Jemaiah Islamiyah
(IPS) BANGKOK -- Among the many theories that are crumbling in the ongoing 'war against terrorism' is one that came to life almost a year ago -- that Southeast Asia needs to fear a campaign by Muslim extremists to carve out a pan-Islamic state in the region.

When Malaysian and Singaporean officials floated this theory in September 2002, following the arrest of Muslims allegedly planning to unleash violence in the region, it triggered a media frenzy. Gaining notoriety, as a result, was Jemaiah Islamiyah (JI), the group identified as a key proponent of such pan-nationalism.

This theory appeared plausible in the way Islam was interpreted, as a faith that places a high premium on its followers' unity. Weight was also added by the reports of the Indonesian-based Jemaiah Islamiyah having links with extremists in the countries that had Muslim majorities and minorities across Southeast Asia.

The group's concept of a pan-Islamic state -- one that would include Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines island of Mindanao and southern Thailand -- fit perfectly into the image the U.S. government had by then created of Southeast Asia -- as the second front in its 'war against terrorism'.

Yet this corner of Asia, which is home to over 190 million of the world's 1.2 billion Muslim population, has on offer another reality that succeeds in exposing the notion of a pan-Islamic state for what it is: a mere fantasy of a few vocal extremist Muslims.

What is more, the public attitude in the Muslim majority-countries such Indonesia and Malaysia indicate that if anything, national identity and loyalty to the state resonates much more than the much-hyped vision of pan-Islamic bonds attributed to Jemaiah Islamiyah.

As moderate Muslim citizens in the region point out, this seeming edge that the modern, secular political entity as the nation-state is enjoying over the Islamic state is also grounded in the palpable aversion to the violence, including deadly bomb attacks, linked to Jemaiah Islamiyah and other Muslim militants.

"I don't think that the idea of a pan-Islamic state in South-east Asia will attract many Muslims," Nico Harjanto, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told IPS.

That is partly because "Islamic ties in Southeast Asia are not that strong," he added. "Most countries share a strong spirit of nationalism than religious solidarity, (because) they achieved independence not because of religious solidarity but because of nationalism."

Malaysian scholar Maznah Mohamad sees it likewise, too, although admitting that the militant Muslims have made inroads into Islamic communities by building strong regional networks at the "informal, non-state level."

"But if they harbour ambition to take over the state, they will fail," said Maznah, a social scientist at the University of Science in the northern Malaysian city of Penang. "It is a small group that is working towards this ambition."

Some of the facts on the ground bear this out, such as the way the Muslims in Indonesian province of Aceh are being treated with suspicion by their co-religionists in Indonesia and Malaysia due to their ongoing separatist struggle.

Similarly, there has hardly been a sign of religious solidarity displayed from Malaysia to the plight faced by the Muslim community in southern Thailand over plans to build the Thai-Malaysian gas pipeline. Thailand's southern Muslims have been in the vanguard of the movement protesting against the pipeline, since hundreds of them will be affected.

As significant is the little headway that radical Muslims in Indonesia have made in their effort to force the archipelago to be ruled by the codes of Islam's 'shariah' law. Efforts to seek such change in Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly failed in 2000 and 2002.

According to Thailand's Chaiwat Sath-Anand, director of the Peace Information Center at Bangkok's Thammasat University, an Islamic state in Southeast Asia would be out of step in a region known for being open and accommodating.

"Muslims have to make a distinction between Islam and politics and Islam and the state," Chaiwat, a member of Thailand's Muslim minority, said in an interview. "I don't see a separation between Islam and politics, but that doesn't mean I am suggesting the emergence of an Islamic state."

Jemaiah Islamiyah's goal of an Islamic state is not a post-Sep. 11 phenomenon. On the contrary, records reveal that it can be traced to the vision of Darul Islam, an Islamic revival movement that was active in Indonesia in the late 1940s.

Darul Islam's aspirations -- to reclaim the prominence that Islam enjoyed in Southeast Asia around the 13th century -- were similar to other Islamic revivalist movements that have emerged in the Muslim world.

But this Islamic revival has also to contend with the emerging current of liberal scholarship spreading among Muslim communities that cut across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Nowadays, there are growing interests among young Muslim scholars to (pursue a) liberal interpretation of Islam, as a countermeasure against the radicals," said Nico. Moderate Muslims are campaigning to counter the "literal Islamic teaching with more substantive liberal teaching through the mass media, publications or sermons."

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has in the nascent Islamic Liberal Network a typical example. This loose network of Muslim intellectuals was formed in 2001 to challenge the fundamentalist view of Islam that proponents wanted to push to direct the course of Indonesia's political destiny.

According to Maznah, the violence unleashed by Muslim extremists, such as the bomb attack in Bali last year that killed 202 people, has also triggered debates among Muslims to "question the many strands of Islamic teachings."

Other signs pointing to the sea change among leading Muslims, who a year ago had no qualms flirting with the ideas of the Islamic extremists. Today, for instance, Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz has distanced himself from the champions of Jemaiah Islamiyah's brand of Islam.

Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), Malaysia's leading opposition political party that governs the states it controls under strict Islamic law, has even hinted at shifting away from its fundamentalist stance to appeal to the country's liberally-minded Muslims before the next elections.

Those who nurture the dreams of an Islamic state, "taking Islam to its origins to the time of the Prophet (Mohammad)," are "very static" in their thinking, argues Thailand's Chaiwat. "They are living in a time of history where being exclusive is not a reality."

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Albion Monitor August 20, 2003 (

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