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The globalisation is a phenomenon much talked about the modern world, and while there has been a strong focus on how the globalisation process has stimulated the 'Westernisation' of countries and cultures, there has been less attention given to the 'Arabization' of others. This paper seeks to explore the effect 'Arabization' of Islam is having on Southeast Asian cultures and religions by examining the changes in Islamic practises.
This paper is not attempting to classify religious beliefs into set categories in terms of culture or practise, though further definitions are given in the footnotes to avoid any confusion by the reader. The terms 'Arab Islam or Arabization', 'Neo-Fundamental' and 'Wahhabism' are not used in an interchangeable manner in this paper, but are describing different elements of a common social/religious phenomenon; likewise with the terms 'Sufism', 'Islamism', 'Moderate Islam.' However, the terms Middle East and the Arab people and their cultures are used in an exchangeable style. Furthermore the terms mentioned above are utilised in this paper in a board manner.
This paper does not seek to place any moral judgements on the issues covered in the issues or concepts discussed.
What we are seeing in Southeast Asia is not a 'renewal of Islam' as many scholars have noted, in fact the reference to a revival of Islam in Southeast Asia is misleading. We are not seeing a revival or a 'deepening' in Islamic beliefs but a new strain of Islam coming from the Arab culture or the Arab understanding of Islam into the Southeast Asian region. This new Arab Islamic influence is altering the traditions of Islam in Southeast Asia, and having a dramatic effect on local cultures and the relationship between the religions in Southeast Asia. This form of Arab Islam or 'Arabization' of Islam has been translocated to Southeast Asia through increased communication, foreign funding, travel and information sharing between Asia and the Middle-East. In this respect, the new form of Islam has entered Southeast Asia much like a social movement carried through the means and processes of globalisation.
Islamic religiosity generally distinguishes two forms of Muslim belief; One normative and formal, and the other more accommodative and informal. The latter form is known for its ability to blend other religious and cultural traditions into its religious practices. This form is often communicated and taught orally. The former is fundamentally concerned with homogenising Islamic traditions and predominately transmitted through readings or reciting. The latter better describes the indigenous Islamic traditions in Southeast Asia, while the former describes Islamic practises in the Middle East, or Arab countries. This inclusive and adaptive form of Islam traditionally found in Southeast Asia has led some to refer to the traditional forms of Southeast Asian Islamic religion as moderate/modern.
Islam was brought to Southeast Asia from as early as the 12th Century through the Islamic traders from the Middle East. The gradual exposure that Southeast Asia received through the Arab traders can help to explain the form and nature of indigenous Islam in the region. Local groups would have been progressively educated in the Islamic religion, allowing time for the local people to slowly blend the Islam into their way of life. The gradual exposure experienced from the early 12th Century is not what is happening with Wahhabism or Arab Islam in modern Southeast Asia today.
Due to the increased of ease and rate of travel, communication and the transmission of ideas in modern times, (commonly referred to the process of Globalisation) this new strain of new Islam (Arab Islam/neo-fundamentalism) in Southeast Asia has been spread with unprecedented speed. The term Arabization refers to more than just a shift in religious piousness, but rather to the increased role of the Arab interpretation of Islam in codifying social behaviour in all spheres of life, and this behaviour (such as dress, language, ceremonies etc.) is visually and culturally similar to Arab Islamic cultures.
Southeast Asia's traditional Islam's high level of syncretism allowed it to fuse different beliefs or practises into the Islamic religion. This includes stories, beliefs and cultural practises of non-Muslim religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. This form of Islam is often referred to as Sufism or Mystic Islam. Southeast Asian Muslims were able to incorporate Islam into their own distinct ethnic, cultural and national identity, and therefore identified themselves first by their ethnicity or culture and then by their religion. Though it must also be noted that there are documented incidents of the Sufi Movement acting to removed indigenous and 'folk' traditions.
However in Southeast Asia since 1960's and 70's there has been a move to the Wahhabi form of Islam (Wahhabism), more commonly found in the Middle East. The 'Wahhabi' creed of Islam is characterised by a greater emphasis on ritual and code of conduct. Since the Islamic religion was founded in the Arab world, and the original Muslims mostly Arab, everything associated with them, such as the cultural norms, names, family structure, have been associated with the Islamic Religion. This form of identity is premised in an understanding and a belief that to be a 'true Muslim' one has to incorporate Arab Islamic traditions into every aspect of life. This is problematic in Southeast Asia, as the vast majority of Muslims are not of Arab descent, and the Arab culture is not indigenous to the Southeast Asian landscape.
The current Wahhabism/neo-fundamental movement in Southeast Asia can be explained through the permeation of ideas through increased connection and transference through cultural medium such as TV, movies, news, etc., though more concrete examples of the non-southeast Asian Islamic states actively trying to promote Wahhabi Islam can be found. It was common practise in the 1960's for preachers from Pakistan to arrive in Malaysia and Indonesia to convert and 'revive' Islam in the region. The most common modern form of the exportation of Arab Islam or Wahhabism in Southeast Asia is the funding of Wahhabi-dominated religious schools in the region - particularly in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and the Southern provinces of Thailand.
The development of Arabization in Southeast Asia coincides with the world wide resurgences of the Islamic movement. It is important to make the distinction between two strands of the resurgent movement; one, Islamism and the other Neo-Fundamentalism. Islamism can be defined as the social and religious movement aimed at building of an Islamic state(s). The Islamism movement can be seen in Southeast Asian countries such as local movements pressuring the political nature in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Mindanao. It does not necessarily seek to change cultural or religious practices. Neo-fundamentalism is not just a social movement, but also an ideology. It has the objective of strengthening the worldwide Muslim ummah on a religious basis. It is concerned with transforming human behaviour in line with the codes and patterns of consumption and communication delinked from any specific culture. The Neo-fundamentalism movement is characterised by transnational groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah.
Although these two forms of Islamic resurgence may be linked, and in some cases blurred, neo-fundamentalism has serious ramifications in terms of the indigenous culture of Southeast Asia. Neo-fundamentalism stresses the differences between religious belief and culture, and infers that any cultural practises that are not derived from Islam or the birth place of Islam (the Middle-East) are aggressively contrary to the Islamic faith. This has led some Muslims in Southeast Asia to alter their ethnic or geographic related traditions and cultures. Due to this phenomenon, Professor Ghoshal argues that the spread of Wahhabism or neo-fundamental in Southeast Asia is more than a change in 'tone' of the religion, but it is actually superimposing a very different culture into the region.
The rise in neo-fundamentalism (and in relation to this, the rise of Wahhabism) can also be viewed as a contributing factor in some religious conflicts in Southeast Asia. In areas where neo-fundamentalism has gained a foothold, there may be an increase in religious intolerances for any non-Muslim traditional practises, such as Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. Though, it is wrong and highly inaccurate to presume that all Islamic conflict in Southeast Asia is due to the rise of Islamic neo-fundamentalism. Most violent conflict that involve Muslims in Southeast Asia, such as the Free Aceh Movement or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are also based on visions of nationalism or independence, or have been sparked over issues of immigration or resource allocation, rather than solely religious differences.
Another example that is very likely linked to the rise in Islamic neo-fundamental practises (or Wahhabism) in Southeast Asia can be in seen in the banning of the Wayang in Kelantan. Wayang was banned in Kelantan because the stories were based in Hindu epics and were therefore thought to be un-Islamic. For centuries Wayang had been part of the Kelantese culture, and never presented an ideological challenge or clash to Islamic beliefs. This separation of indigenous/cultural beliefs and practices from religious beliefs is consistent to the doctrine Wahhabism and a sign of neo-fundamentalism.
The adoption of Middle East architecture of Southeast Asian Mosques could be an example of Arab influence into the region - though a more gradual and art based influence. The influence of the Arabization into the architectural practises of Southeast Asia happened as early as the 1900's but it is important to note that there are examples of pre-Arab influenced Mosques in the region. These Mosques reflected the architectural styles of the region or country. (Please refer to image 1)
Masjid Agung Demak is the classic example of a traditional Javanese mosque. (Image 1). Unlike mosques in the Middle East, it is built from timber and has a tiered roof supported by four wooden pillars. The tiered roof shows many similarities with wooden religious structures from the Hindu-Buddhist civilizations of Java and Bali. Masjid Agung Demak shows the traditional blending of cultural beliefs into Islam through the decorum, particularly the carved motif of an animal head with an open wide-toothed mouth. It is said that picture depicts the manifested thunder caught by Ki Ageng Selo (from local Javanese folklore).
The distinction between Masjid Agung Demak and Masjid Raya Baiturrahman (a recently constructed mosque), which contains traditional Arabic styles of architecture is striking. (Please see Image 2). Masjid Raya Baiturrahman Arab style is exhibited through the classic onion shaped domes and the colour scheme. Though when referring to the adoption of Arab styles of architecture other considerations must be taken into account; such as, the architects used in the construction of mosques from the 1900's where often foreign, and usually colonial. This could mean that the adoption of the Arab-style may have more to do with the European understanding of Islamic traditions, rather than a local preference and the process of Arabization.
Given the nature of the new Islamic influences in Southeast Asia, indigenous cultures and traditional practices may be under threat. Arab Islam (or Arabization), Neo-fundamentalism and Wahhabism are not the same - but they are increasingly prevalent in Southeast Asian cultures, and are distinct departure to the pre-1960's Islamic practices in Southeast Asia. If Arabization maintains or gains momentum, Islamic indigenous culture is likely to be transformed into the something that resembles the Islamic and cultural practices we see in the Middle East. This would greatly jeopardies the richness of Southeast Asian culture and alienate future Southeast Asian generations to the traditions and history of their region.
Image 1. Masjid Agung Demak. Traditional 15th Century Javanese Mosque, Indonesia.
(source: Flickr .com)
Image 2. Masjid Raya Baiturrahman, otherwise known as the Banda Aceh's Grand Mosque, built in the 1881 in Aceh Indonesia.