From our Concept Caching image cache that hopes to promote student spatial awareness by relating specific features on the Earth’s surface with their visual character and GPS coordinates. Through the site photographs and GPS coordinates demonstrate core concepts in geography. Images are “cached” for viewing by core concept and by region. Images are certainly useful for introducing visual content to students in all Geography classes.
Many students do not firstly associate Southeast Asia with Islam, nor do they imagine that the region includes some of the world’s relatively stable (in the regard that they have not been overturned) Islamic governments. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population within the structures of an Islamist state. The image of the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta holds testament to the extent of Islam within Indonesia’s capital city. As students discover further, these Islamic states are not populated entirely by Muslims, but include a great degree of religious diversity. This diversity has not coexisted without tension and violence, as discussed in the post, Religion and Society in Southeast Asia. For the past few decades, there have been periodic outbreaks of violence within Southeast Asia’s religiously diverse society. Reports of violence between Muslims and Christians seem to be a dominant theme; however, there are also tensions between Islamic groups and sects and between various cultural/ethnic groups within the same religion (both as evidence in Malaysia). The cultural politics of religion exists at the national level as ambivalent policy and enforcement. Yet, it is at the local level that groups fight over the religious character of urban spaces and suburban neighborhoods, in places like Jakarta and throughout the region.
Political Islam is a term that refers specifically to the formation of an Islamic state, one in which religion ultimately provides the context for political institutions and social lives. Political Islam is most associated in popular discourse with extremism, and even terrorism, in Southwest Asia and North Africa region. However, the link between extremist Islam and political Islam is specious, just as the link between Southwest Asia and North Africa is myopic. Islamist states are also found in Southeast Asia, with the two most significant Islamist states being Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world as of 2009. It will be left to scholars and analysts to argue the merits or evils of political Islam as opposed to more secular Muslim states. As geographers we can impartially investigate the interconnections between culture/religion, politics and society in the Southeast Asian region, especially within these Islamist states. An interesting, although troubling, trend is the future of religious diversity in the Islamic states of Southeast Asia. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are majority Muslim, but certainly not exclusively Muslim. Each country has varying size populations of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and animists. The interaction between the various religious groups and the Islamic governments provides an interesting case for social politics in the region, and for other Muslim societies beyond.
An article for the International Relations and Security Network describes how both Indonesia and Malaysia have had similar histories marked by colonial domination, violent independence, and repressive dictators. Throughout the years, Islam was either restricted or exploited by the various powers or governments. In particular, it was the post-independence periods that saw Islamic social and political organizations become selectively integrated by dictators into secular states. In both countries, Islam was used for political gain in ‘divide and rule’ approaches: in Indonesia, the “New Order” rule of Suharto fragmented Islamic groups into alliances to bolster his control; in Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad intertwined being Muslim exclusively with the majority Malay ethnic group, politically privileging that group over Chinese and Indian ethnicities as well as over other religious groups as well. It is this context in which struggles over religious freedom are waged within both of these Southeast Asian countries.
In Indonesia, there have been significant clashes between Muslims and Christian groups since the end of the New Order government and the democratization of politics in the 1990s. Although the democratic constitution guarantees religious freedom, the Islamic government has not decisively intervened on behalf of Christians or other ostracized groups in the face of “hard-line” or “vigilante” Islamic groups. Groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have been targeting Christian congregations in the sprawling suburbs around Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta. Behind all of these clashes are battles over place. At the national scale, the FPI warns of the “Christianization” of Indonesia, as “Christians are up to something.” Vigilantism takes place at the local level, as FPI and other “hard-liners” target neighborhood congregations claiming the “Christianization” of their neighborhoods by Christian proselytization or the building of churches. One protestant congregation was attacked and two of its leaders stabbed and beaten. The group was forced to hold services in an empty lot despite “warning signs” posted by Muslim residents.
In Malaysia, there have also been clashes between the Muslim majority and minority Christian groups. In particular was the cultural clash over the use of the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian god in a Malaysian language bible. There was ambivalence within the government as it initially banned the use of the word, yet its ruling was overturned by the court. The conflict did materialize into actual hostilities as Christian churches were vandalized or burned, and pig heads left at two mosques in retaliation. The conflict over a single word illustrates the depth of racial politics, as the Malay ethnicity and language are conflated with the Muslim faith in state politics. Further, Malaysian religious freedom also does not apply to all Muslim sects within the country. Since 1996, the Shiite sect of Islam was definitively banned by the Malaysian government. The sect is viewed by the government as a “threat to Muslim unity in Malaysia” and “could give rise to fanatics as it permits the killing of Muslims from other sects,” even going as far as directly linking it to the majority Shiite state of Iran. A raid on a Shiite hauzar, or “house of knowledge,” was slanted by the media as an “anti-terror operation,” although the police were not involved in the raid. The detention of Shiites from the raid is being appealed to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, an advisory body to the government. It will be unclear how the Commission will advise a government which already seems convinced that the Shiites are a national threat.
The complexities of political Islam in Southeast Asia are found from the national scale through to the local scale. The seeming incongruity of the religious diversity of Southeast Asian societies is set within the social and philosophical control of the government by one religion. Tensions within countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are experienced by people on the ground, as they struggle with one another and as they interact with the government at large. Tensions are also existent in the political mores established by Southeast Asian governments, as constitutional or ‘human’ rights, which are transgressed or unsupported by various governmental institutions and agencies.