Southeast Asian Islam, gentle and ungentle

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A “rage against history”: a bewildered and at times visceral sense, a disquiet in the soul and gut, that “history has gone wrong”, departed from its divinely ordained path.

Religious “supersessionism”: or, underlying that sense of historical bewilderment, the conviction and doctrinal assertion that Islam completes and perfects —— but also shows up and casts off, incorporates yet negates —— the earlier Abrahamic revelations and faith communities of Judaism and Christianity with all their (or so it is claimed) vitiating defects and limitations.

What has all this to do, I hear people asking, with today’s on-the-ground sociocultural dynamics and current political realities in Southeast Asia? And in Malaysia specifically?

Well, quite a lot really. As I tried to suggest by reference, in the second essay in this series —— in a brief prologue to my commentary “On Supersessionism” —— to a recent controversy in Sarawak over the public offering of religious commentaries upon,  and instruction about, Christianity and the Bible by Muslim religious lecturers and spokesmen.

There was no way to make sense, I suggested, of such events —— neither of the initial sense of untroubled entitlement displayed by those seeking to present such lectures, nor of the wounded reaction of those who opposed them —— other than by grasping the concept of “supersessionism”, together with the historical processes denoted by it within the religious evolution of Abrahamic monotheism.

In Malaysia today

Understanding the processes of “supersessionism” and, more pointedly, the attitudes and reactions to which they continually give rise —— on both sides of this interfaith religious drama —— is crucial to making sense of some basic issues that are now very much in public contestation in Malaysia these days.

Arguments, for example, about whether the views and religious attitudes encouraged by the national government, or  promoted by some working inside its specialised agencies such as those heading the nation’s Islamic officialdom within the Prime Minister’s Department, are in any way tainted with so-called “extremism”, as some have controversially alleged.

Islam, as has often been noted, may find expression in various forms. It may display a variety of faces, some kinder and more reassuring than others.

Arguments about whether the public stance taken by various government religious officials and agencies is in any way tainted by “extremism” have their origins in this fact. In which of these faces or guises is offered by leading politicians and official religious spokesmen as “currently acceptable” Islam.

And what has been officially acceptable, recommended and required has not stayed constant over time in Malaysia, but has proved historically variable.

Some of us, for example, can remember a time when UMNO, in its contest with PAS, used to clarify the difference between the two rival parties, and their approach to promoting Islam, by identifying itself as espousing “secular Islam”. How inconceivable that would be these days, when not only leading religious officials but also the top national political leaders routinely offer impassioned denunciations of the twin evils, as they are now seen, of liberalism and secularism.

There was a time too, even more recent, when UMNO, as the core of the national government, stood opposed to efforts to implement certain very rigorous understandings of the Shari’ah criminal law, including the imposition of the hudud punishments of amputation and stoning, while the PAS-led state government of Kelantan wished to move in that direction. These days we witness courteous and mutually sustaining cooperation, and finely choreographed concerted action, between UMNO and PAS as the Kelantan state government again signals its determined intention to move in that same direction.

And when the prime minister recently warned that “it was not impossible for what happened in Paris and Sydney to take place in Malaysia”,few people cared to disagree. But what worried many of them was the fact that, at the time of the Memali insurrection of 1985 and the al-Ma’unah confrontation at Grik in 2000, those holding national power stood in explicit opposition not just to those insurgents but to the attitudes and more widely shared mindset driving extremist actions of that kind. By contrast, if in only muted form, the attitudes nurturing such fearful actions these days seemingly manage to find shelter under government protection, among some of those working within major state instrumentalities, even when the overt national leadership does not itself espouse and openly promote such views.

Depending upon how they choose to see the history of Islam, Muslims may or may not adopt a strictly and rigorously “supersessionist” stance towards the so-called “precursor” faiths and faith-communities and Judaism and Christianity. And whether they do so or not largely shapes whether or not they will adopt for themselves, and for Islam as a whole, an oppositional, reactive and strenuously “restorationist” stance towards (and a desire to settle scores and “get even” with) the world at large: including towards modern civilisation and plural humanity generally, as a global configuration in which Islam and Muslims are just one part of the total, complex mosaic pattern.

What is involved here is the contrast, and tension, between what we may call moderate and immoderate, between conciliatory and antagonistic, between “gentle” and “ungentle” Islam.

It was that opposition and tension within the mind and soul of Islam that I spoke about at a conference in Canberra a decade or so ago.

This conference was convened in the wake of the New York destruction of September 2001 and the ensuing initial bombings in Bali. At that conference, I posed to myself and to people like me (as I felt I had to) the question whether we had fallen down, or “gone to sleep”, on the job in not foreseeing and warning of the possibility of such atrocities.

For my part, I had been approached on a number of occasions before those events by people in the media and also in official circles, who had picked up certain “noise” suggesting that such dreadful events were being planned. They asked me whether I had any specific expert knowledge of, or could throw any light upon, such possibilities.

I always offered the same answer. Namely that such things were of course conceivable and possible, but that I had not heard and had no knowledge of any such actions being planned. And that, if such things were being planned, they were the projects of a very small minority. Such things, I hastened to assure them, were not characteristic of Muslims generally, worldwide or in Southeast Asia specifically.

That answer, I had later to admit to myself, had been right, in fact, but also wrong, as advice. What people needed to know about and focus upon was not the benign and innocuous nature of the majority but the intentions of a small but malign and ruthless minority within the world of Islam. If such things were to happen, it would be their doing, not that of the peaceable majority.

Thinking about this issue, and reflecting upon my own role and failings, led me to draw the simple contrast between what I then called “gentle” and “ungentle” Islam. And to call into question the prevailing view, or even cliché, that Southeast Asian Islam was uniformly and overwhelmingly, and for specific historical reasons also inherently, “gentle”.

I outlined that view in a series of terse, numbered points, which I now reproduce here.

Islam: Gentle and Ungentle

1.   The Flood Enquiry posed the question of how the rise of Jema’ah Islamiyah specifically, and others in that same aliran of the new radical Islam in parts of Southeast Asia, could have slipped past the notice of Australia’s intelligence organisations.

2.   The intelligence network’s and the academic/scholarly community’s interest in, approach to and understandings of Southeast Asian Islam are distinct and different. Far from identical, they tend to run in parallel, with limited connections and “cross-overs” between the two. But the same question may be asked of Australia’s academic experts who research and write about Southeast Asian Islam.

3.   This is a question I have posed to and of myself. Did I misjudge the situation, in whole or part, and if so why and where?

4.   My intensive work on radical political Islam in Kelantan, Malaysia began with and is based on work first done in the field in 1967-1969. By the time I returned seriously to this work in the early 1980s, the radical new political Islamism (inspired by the Palestinian and similar struggles, the petroleum crisis of 1973, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all interacting with and intensifying internal Malaysian developments) was already well advanced. It was evident not just in the rise of Anwar Ibrahim’s ABIM: Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia movement but also in the seizure, by extremely and narrowly committed people of a similar “Islamist” and “shari’ah-minded” background, of control of Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS: Parti Islam SeMalaysia. By the early 1980s they wrested party control from an earlier generation of “national/nationalist-Islamists” who, since the 1920s and 1930s, had looked to Indonesia rather than the Middle East for their model and inspiration.  Culturally these earlier activists were “Nusantaranists”, not “Arabisers”; politically they were radical national populists of Islamic sensibilities, not “clericalist” [or ”ulama-ist”] Muslim scripturalists.

5.   Under the new leaders (quite inappropriately dubbed by some as the party’s “young Turks”), PAS became an avowedly Islamist and ulama-led party. The new leaders made their first electoral challenge to the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional in 1986. This was in many ways an unsuccessful, even bitterly disappointing, exercise. In Bachok district where I followed the election, and where earlier my work had been based, the leading PAS alim and political personality, Ustadz Haji Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, though successful elsewhere in his contest for a seat in the state legislature, was surprisingly defeated in his bid for the Bachok seat in the Federal Parliament/Dewan Rakyat.

6.   At the time the young PAS activists in Bachok told me that they had learned their lesson. In the older style of campaigning PAS, commanding the informal networks of local Malay society and its cultural idioms, had often been able to “out-organise”, “out-mobilise” and “out-campaign” the UMNO in the electoral contest “on the ground”. Now, it was modern techniques and technologies like those possessed by the UMNO that mattered, they said: data bases, computers, tracking individual voters electronically, not only, as before, via informal personal visits. They would not be “caught short” again in the same way, they said.

7.   At that time I remember thinking that so much of this “brave new high-tech” talk seemed of a piece with the familiar old Malay angan-angan, dreamy unrealistic aspirations and even fantasies of success and control. But, I further mused, the time would come when they, or a succeeding cohort of young PAS activists, would catch up, in large part if not entirely, with all these new technical skills and practical “modernity competences”. When they did, and if the trajectory of developments was one that would increase their sense of sociocultural isolation from the mainstream and intensify their political bitterness, the result would, in time, become explosive.

8.   By the year 2002, impelled by global political developments (especially in the Middle East) and by those of a local and regional nature as well (including, in Malaysia, the “Reformasi Saga”, Anwar Ibrahim’s rise and fall, the successes of PAS in the 1999 elections, the stalemate between UMNO and PAS on the issue of an Islamic state, and such odd manifestations as the al-Ma’unah “Grik Tragedy”), that point had just about been reached. There had already been talk of movements such as Kumpulan Miltan/Mujahidin Malaysia and the like whose key operatives were placed under preventive detention.  Then came Bali.

9.   Did, I and we must now ask ourselves, did Bali and what as shorthand that name now signifies come out of a clear blue sky?  I think not.

10.  Before the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games I can recall being approached, and I think other academics with regional knowledge were too, by security consultants enquiring about my knowledge of certain shadowy Southeast Asian Islamist groups. Similarly, I clearly remember an approach by a producer for a major investigative television programme. What, I was asked, did I know about a certain pan-regional Islamic group, spreading in parts of Southeast Asia but linked to a worldwide network of radical, even militant, Islamist activists operating around a Middle Eastern and West/Central Asian hub? Some people, it seems, had sniffed a scent, glimpsed a small surface part of a largely submerged and hidden picture.

11.  In reply, all one could say to such people was that, while one could believe that such groups might well exist and be developing, one had no personal knowledge of them oneself. And that, unless and until one did, it was probably unwise, even irresponsible, to start putting round and playing up such stories. Once some hard facts came to hand, that might be a different matter, but meanwhile …

12.  Meanwhile, one continued to urge what was then, and still remains, the only responsible line (one that even certain prominent conservative and neo-conservative commentators now subscribe to and have made their own new orthodoxy); that Islam is not a monolith but diverse, pluralistic; that it is a mistake to see “real Islam” as residing only in and represented only by the more radical elements and militant streams in that “faith community” and civilisation; and that the sensible, prudent and also principled option was to engage genuinely, in the best ways possible, with the modern, liberal, pluralistic and inclusive elements within Islam [while being scrupulously careful not to compromise or discredit them, in many of their coreligionists’ eyes, with the force and enthusiasm of our embrace of them].

13.  That was a legitimate position, and the only one that might be taken from a state of complete ignorance about the details of the new militant movements and tendencies, those of the broad “al-Qa’edah family”, that were beginning to proliferate in the region. But what was the source of that ignorance?

14.  Here the difference between the approach of the intelligence organisations, analysts and their local operatives and those of the academic scholars is important. The former had a need and are obliged to learn, find out, become knowledgeable about such groups. As for the academics, I can speak only for myself. Increasingly, over the years, whenever I have found and felt myself coming close to these subterranean elements, I have pulled away: partly, I suppose, out of a kind of self-protective prudence that Daniel Pearl might have done well to possess in greater measure than he did; but more out of a sense of ethical disquiet, that I simply couldn’t engage in conversations in which I had people tell me things, worrying things, that it was not in their interest to tell; and also a disquiet, both personal and scholarly, at the thought of what effect the possession of such knowledge (should such people, despite our mutual discomfort speak to me of these things) might have for me. I can remember a number of such occasions, engaged in conversation on the fringes of radical Islamist events, from which I recoiled (and remain glad that I did). The only way, I found, to study the new radical Islamism (rather than the radical Islamists) was to look instead at how they saw and positioned their modern liberal counterparts and adversaries, and how those on the modern/liberal Muslim side saw and responded to them.

15.  All this still seems to me now to make perfect sense, to be perfectly honourable. But in addition to these considerations, something else, too, was, I believe going on, exerting an influence, among the academic experts and commentators.

16.  I am in no position to pass judgement on the question whether, in certain military, security, defence and diplomatic circles a “pro-Indonesia lobby” was at work, or perhaps more accurately a certain “pro-Indonesian mindset” in play. Among academics concerned with Indonesia I think there was, quite understandably and properly, a pro-Indonesian attitude. The whole field of modern Indonesian Studies in Australia owes its existence to people —— Herb Feith, Jamie Mackie, John Legge and their successors —— who have long sustained, and been persuasive voices for, such constructive, reasonable, positive (rather than unreasonable, negative) views of Indonesian society, culture and civilisation.

17.  Yet this attitude, this constructive “pro-Indonesia mindset”, has given rise, I believe, to a problematic and powerful offspring: an idea or “myth”, we might say (in the technical anthropological sense, not of an “untruth” but of a persuasive mobilising idea or “charter” for a certain direction or course of action); the “myth” or doctrine of “gentle Islam” in Indonesia and Nusantara more generally.

18.  Yes, Islam in Southeast Asia is different. It is Islam in a Malayo-Indonesian rather than an Arabo-Middle Eastern cultural mould or idiom. It is an Islam of slow, incremental, usually gradualist, often almost osmotic cultural absorption, rather than born of the dramatic spread of a “governmentalist” Islam as a self-confident, “triumphalist” success story throughout the Middle East and Maghreb in the century after the Prophet’s death. It is an Islam that is diverse, between and also within given regions and districts. It is an Islam many of whose aspects and manifestations, and certainly its regionally ascendant or paradigmatic forms, have often been “gentle”, accommodating, pluralistic, syncretistic, inclusive in that sense.

19.  But the dominant trends or paradigmatic forms have not been the entire story, the total picture. There are now, and historically have very often if not always been, other forms of Islamic culture, politics and social action in the region. It only stands to reason that there should be, as is clear when one thinks of Indonesian [and Nusantaran] Islam on a continuum from, say, Aceh or Banten or Jolo at one end and Bali on the other.

20.  The single, most important and obvious truth about Islam in Southeast Asia is that its spread in the region, and in Indonesia as a major specific instance, has been uneven: uneven both in its intensity and its extensiveness, in the depths to which it has taken root and in the breadth of its geographical expansion.

21.  Accordingly, much of Islam in Southeast Asia does correspond to and positively exemplify the picture encouraged by the “myth” or image of “gentle Islam”. But, because of the unevenness of the spread of Islamisation in the classical, early modern and modern periods —— as well as of the unevenness of the effects of that new “cultural colonisation” of Southeast Asia which now offers “Arabisation” as the only genuine and proper form of “Islamisation” —— this is not the total picture.

22.  There are many entrenched pockets and expanding new seed-beds and nurseries of “ungentle Islam” in Indonesia and throughout the region. There, where its forms are not benign —— where militant, scripturally “strict constructionist” Islam sees “gentle Islam” and those it finds ways of “accommodating” and accepting as the “enemy”, as a treacherous compromise, empty gesture or deceptive posturing —— the implications of stringent “rectificationist”,(*) culturally Arabising Islam have been decidedly “ungentle”. It is not only wrong but foolish, a disservice, to avert our attention from these focal points and breeding grounds of “ungentle Islam”, or to minimise scholarly, official or public awareness of the significance of the implications of their existence.

23.  Too many of us in the academic world, and many of those who may sometimes listen to us in “official circles” and among the general public, have, I fear, been misled, fatefully, by our often mistaking of the part, the dominant part, for and presenting it as the whole; by our commitment to, by our having been so easily beguiled by, and by our propagation of the powerful idea of Indonesian and Southeast Asian Islam as, essentially and overwhelmingly, even exclusively, “gentle Islam”.

(*) Note: To clarify on the day what I intended by the possibly obscure term “rectificationist”, I provided (since a number of regional participants were attending that conference) the following amplification, with certain key ideas and expressions in Malay/Indonesian(?):

What do I mean by “rectificationist”, apa maksudnya, apa saya maksudkan?

By “rectificationist” I have in mind a certain trend and “mindset” or attitude, satu aliran dan sikap yang tertentu, which is determined to “correct” everything deemed imperfect, in need of correction, yang hendak “membetulkan” semua;

that regards every action or practice that differs slightly from their own as deviationist, heretical or defective/inauthentic, yang anggap setiap perbuatan dan semua amalan yang “berlainan”/”berbeda” sedikit daripada amalan, perbuatan, tradisi ataupun pendekatan gulungan sendiri sebagai amalan/perbuatan yang “menyeleweng”, “karut”, atau “songsang”;

that regards any and all such actions and practices as defective, as pseudo-authentic, as deficient, not fully adequate, yang anggap bahawa semua amalan yang sedemikian adalah amalan yang “semu”, yang syaratnya “tak cukup”, sifatnya “tidak memadai”;

and which accordingly warrants urgent “correction”, needs to be made complete and brought into line not only by advice and encouragement but using political power, by recourse to coercive measures and even force if need be, dan oleh itu patut “dibetulkan” dengan segera, harus disempurnakan bukan melalui nasihat dan galakan sahaja malah dengan menggunakan kuasa politik, kekerasan lagipun secara terpaksa.

An Afterword

In both my more recently written introduction and in my comments originally offered at the conference in 2004, I mention the approaches and enquiries made by people who had an odd sense that “some trouble might be brewing” within the Islamic world of Southeast Asia or staged from there, and who sought some confirmation of their fears.

Of all those approaches, one stands out in memory.

As I recall it, the event must have occurred in the months, perhaps year, preceding the World Trade Center attack in New York of September 2001.

A “roving” academic and writer, a USA citizen who had long been working in the Philippines, came to Sydney in a state of great agitation asking to meet with Southeast Asian specialists and experts.

A colleague hurriedly arranged a meeting at UNSW, late on a Friday as I recall, of a small group of Southeast Asianists.

The visitor was agitated and imploring. He wanted to be heard and taken seriously. He had been looking at those who had been involved in, and at what had subsequently become known about, the so–called Bojinka Plot.

Those involved in this plot, involving Ramzy Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed among others (and funded by Hambali and Osama bin Laden), had in 1995 planted bombs in public places, in an aeroplane, had sought to assassinate the Pope, and had planned to bring down simultaneously with timed bombs no less than twelve USA commercial aircraft on trans-Pacific and Pacific regional flights.

Our visitor had been following this information, piecing it together, looking at it closely and following up some leads that it suggested.

He had seen, and drawn the lines that connected, a few dots. Not all of them, perhaps, but quite a few.

And he was convinced that “something big was about to happen”. He wanted people to listen, to hear, hear him out, and give credence to what he was saying, to his improbable, indeed credulity-defying, warning.

And what did we do?

We listened.

And questioned him.

And thought it over.

And we came, or at least I did, to the conclusion that everything that he said constituted a pattern (or a hard-to-figure fragment of one). It made up not so much a full picture but a part, a glimpse, of —— if it were true —— a terribly disturbing picture.

But the conclusion to which our visitor sought to lead us was not one that was absolutely demonstrated. It was merely, and in some indeterminate measure, “probabilistic”: a suggestion, a tantalisingly incomplete line of leaping but plausible inductions. But what was the likelihood that it was true?

What made it hard to believe was that the story it suggested was simply too fantastic to accept calmly. The problem lay not within the man’s story but outside it: in what more it pointed to and asked you to accept. If you accepted it, you had to accept so much more, and even more improbable.

What the man said made sense in its own terms. You could not reject it “out of hand” on internal evidence. It all “hung together” with admirable consistency. (But so, too, one remembers, do paranoid fantasies …).

The problem about believing it was that, if you were to accept what he was saying, then you had to accept so much more than just that. The implications were truly astounding. To accept them required you to think the most amazing things.

And it would require you to go around, as this man was doing, asking people to believe the seemingly preposterous, the imagination–stretching, the outright unbelievable. That is how what had been suggested came across. It was simply beyond ordinary, everyday reality, and challenged one’s own very personal groundings within that common-sense world.

So, since the implications and consequences of giving credence to his analysis were so mind-boggling, it was simply easier (and, to his earth-bound academic listeners, seemingly more responsible, too!) just to put his story aside and cling to ordinary, mundane, graspable reality.

We were scholars, we felt. We might have read The Day of the Jackal, but that was not the world in which we lived. Nor was it a world, or a way of being in it, about which (in between marking all those awful student essays) we might sensibly make professional judgements.

So we all listened politely to the man, shook our heads, and went home. It was just too bizarre to be believed, especially late on a Friday afternoon.

Some months later, the World Trade Center was hit.  In retrospect, I believe this man had “been onto something”.

He did not have the whole frightening picture. But he had figured out some part of it.

Yet he did not have enough of it to convince a small group of sceptical, and very “ordinary-reality-grounded”, academics.

The fact that, awkwardly and with great discomfort, we dismissed this man and his story still troubles me.

A final word

Finally, back to the beginning.

“Ungentle” Islam arises from an insistence upon “supersessionism”, strictly interpreted and restrictively construed, and from the “rage against history” that, especially in modern times, it may generate among some of the devout and faithful.

Part 1 of this series is available here and Part 2, here.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.  He has been researching and writing about the politics of resurgent and militant Islam, in Southeast Asia and globally, for half a century. His first major investigation of these matters was based upon a two-year village-base anthropological study of the sources of popular support for, and the political success of, the Islamist political party PAS in Kelantan, Malaysia from 1967 to 1969. This research is summarized in his book Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 1978.