The Future of Islam - Islam in Southeast Asian Politics

Islam has historically had a “softer” side in Southeast Asia compared to its rigid orthodoxy in some other regions. Already before the September 11 terrorist attacks, an Islamic resurgence in the region had changed the landscape of the region somewhat. In this case study, Professor Douglas Webber and Ulla Fionna investigate whether the intricacies of Islam in the region could lead to significant changes in the political and economic climate. They offer a richly detailed study, and ask you to consider key issues for the future.

by Douglas Webber, Ulla Fionna
Last Updated: 26 Apr 2016

The impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was felt in all corners of the world, including Southeast Asia. For most of the last few decades, the region has seen a high level of economic growth, but shortly after those terrorist attacks, the short-term economic impact was extremely negative. Indonesia, for example, saw foreign investment decline by 90%, reflecting investor skepticism over Indonesia’s political and economic stability, and tourism also took a hard blow.

The region, with more than 200 million Muslim inhabitants, has long prided itself on its gentler form of Islam, without the orthodox aspects that characterize the religion in many other parts of the world. However, signs of fundamentalist resurgence began to show, even before September 11.

In the current context, with the world’s eyes firmly, and critically, on Islamic fundamentalism, will there be a tilt in the nature of the prevalent form of Islam in the region? In this case, Douglas Webber, INSEAD Professor of Political Science, and Ulla Fionna, INSEAD Research Associate, trace the footprints of Islam in Southeast Asia, providing the groundwork for analyzing Islam’s likely trajectory and the roles various stakeholders will play in the future.

They pose several key questions for debate. How will the September 11 attacks reverberate and affect the political future of a region with such a large Muslim population? If a split should severe the Western world from the Islamic, which way would the predominantly Muslim states in Southeast Asia lean? How will these states’ domestic political stability be affected, especially given their multi-religious composition and the existence of rather significant Muslim minorities in other states in the region?

The authors explain the background and Islam’s roots in Southeast Asia, both during times of colonization and post-independence. They note that at the most fundamental level, the “Islamic resurgence” refers to the intensification of people’s identification with their faith. More pious or devout Muslims, however, are not necessarily politically more radical, aggressive or violent. The roots of political radicalization among Muslims are arguably mainly political in character. Next, they examine the roots of the worldwide Islamic resurgence before examining regional and national factors that have reinforced this trend. Finally, they analyze the specific situation in Southeast Asia post-September 11.

What conclusions you draw as to the future role of Islam in Southeast Asian politics depend on how you answer several key questions. Will Islam in Southeast Asia become much more “orthodox,” contrary to its dominant tradition (that is, more similar to Islam as it practiced in the Arab states of the Middle East)? Are Indonesia and Malaysia in particular on their way to becoming “Islamic states?” If they were, would this development lead to their political destabilization or to a growth of “Islamic terrorism,” affecting other countries, in or beyond Southeast Asia? If they were not, how probable was it that these countries would nonetheless become havens for would-be terrorists?


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