Avoid bright lipstick and noisy high heels. The advice to Muslim women, issued last month by the authorities in a north-eastern state of Malaysia, comes from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the conservative face of south-east Asian Islam.
Islam in the region is an eclectic mixture of traditionalism and Sufi mysticism, with the accent firmly on mythology and folklore. The more conservative PAS has been strong for decades in rural and conservative states. It is described locally as “Taliban Lite”, and its main concern has been with what it sees as the moral degeneration of the Malay people. In politics, it seeks to reform the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the corrupt Malaysian ruling party, and introduce some measure of transparency and accountability in the governing process. In the social sphere, PAS is obsessed with the separation of genders, women’s dress and “modesty”. It runs sharia courts but their remit is limited to issuing fines for sexual mis demeanours. On the whole, PAS is content with giving advice, largely to women who wish to follow “the Islamic way”.
Much the same can be said about Indonesian Islam, although there are a few differences. Islam in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has been more directly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. The emphasis is not so much on Islamic law, but on values such as integrity, discipline, honesty and moral social behaviour. Indonesian Islam is also more intellectually alive: issues of modernity, globalisation and Islam’s role in politics are hotly debated.
But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, radical forms of Islam have now taken root. Part of the problem is the older generation of religious scholars: the Malaysians largely trained at al-Azhar University in Egypt and the Indonesians at their own conservative religious institutions such as al-Irsyad University in Solo, Java, where Abu Bakar Bashir, the ideological leader of the 2002 Bali bombers, was educated. Radical movements received a boost in the 1980s when many supporters and followers of these scholars joined the Afghan resistance, returning to continue their battles on the home front. It was in Afghanistan that followers of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group behind the bombings in Bali, forged links with al-Qaeda.
These radical elements are also the driving force behind separatist movements in the western Philippines and southern Thailand. Abdu rajak Abubakar Janjalani, who founded the militant Filipino group Abu Sayyaf in the 1990s, was himself a conservative religious scholar who had fought with the Afghan mujahedin. His violent band is responsible for many kidnappings, assassinations and bombings.
We know very little about the separatist militants in southern Thailand. Their most daring action was attacking ten police outposts in the provinces of Pattani and Yala in April 2004. There are indications, however, that Thai militants are inspired by Jemaah Islamiyah, if not supported by the followers of Abu Bakar Bashir.
Should we be worried about these developments? While not underestimating such groups as Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, we should see them for what they are – anomalies. Extremism goes against the grain of history in the region and will eventually lose its appeal.
Meanwhile, many moderate Muslims are working to undermine extremism. Malaysia is heavily promoting the concept of Islam Hadhari, a type of progressive Islam that emphasises the importance of modern knowledge and espouses a belief in hard work, honesty and tolerance. In Indonesia, organisations such as Muhammad iyah, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Liberal Islam Network, with millions of followers, are working together to focus Islam towards democracy and liberal ideals as well as well-established notions of tolerance and communal harmony. Both numbers and history are on their side.
The hot-button issues of worldwide Muslim fellow feeling stir emotions and beguile a few. But the reason to be hopeful is that Islamic reform is directly related to the bottom-line issues of the local population: good governance and social justice and, in Indonesia, economic development with equity to eradicate poverty.