25th March 2011
“Southeast Asia’s strategic location between critical Middle Eastern oil fields and the energy-hungry East Asia, along with the rise of radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Asia during the 1990s and their seemingly greater focus on countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, has made Islam in Southeast Asia an issue for international concern.’
MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.388
Witnesses throughout the Muslim world repeatedly argue that while a small but vocal minority of Muslims are violent extremists, the vast majority are moderate, but silent. This argument was made even more strongly in Asia, since, as witnesses in the regions repeatedly pointed out, Islam came to Asia mainly with traders, rather than conquerors. Dr. Dr. Scott B. MacDonald & Dr. Jonathan Lemco, senior consultants for KWR International, Inc. (KWR); a firm specializing in the delivery of research, communications, consulting and advisory services to a wide range of public and private sector clients, however, contend that “Southeast Asia’s strategic location between critical Middle Eastern oil fields and the energy-hungry East Asia, along with the rise of radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Asia during the 1990s and their seemingly greater focus on countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, has made Islam in Southeast Asia an issue for international concern.” (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.388)
Today, Southeast Asia is a home to about third of the world’s Muslim population. According to Turgay “Islamist in South and Southeast Asia today … are stronger than in any other period in recent history.” (Turgay in Patry, 2004, p.138) Islam in Asia has a strong tradition of tolerance. At the same time, a global political revival of Islam has been felt there over the past two decades and has become increasingly important in domestic and foreign affairs, both in established democracies such as Malaysia and in new ones such as Indonesia. There are significant differences that can be noted between the two extremes of the Islamic revivalist movement the first, with the peaceful aims of cultural and spiritual renewal, the other, the transnational terrorist networks. Both of these groups are in their own way political parties seeking greater autonomy for substantially Islamic regions. The latter, often, are armed organizations, while the former are peaceful and willing to operate within the formal political process.
The fact that Islam is experiencing a regional revival is undeniable. Neither is the fact that that although largely social and cultural, it has been accompanied by the rise of radical groups that are distinctly fundamentalist in religious orientation and anti-American in political outlook, embracing Islam as an ideology. Certainly, there are those who feel that in Southeast Asia, Islam is predominantly a destructive force and point to radical Islamic groups, linked to Al Qaeda or similar organizations. Although maintaining minimal bias in writing it is interesting to note that the author makes direct reference to the effect that these groups have on the national interests of the United States. He also expands on this, to claim that “without strong and effective action on the part of the United States and its allies, these radical groups could destabilize the region…”( MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.388) Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiya, Laskar Jihad, Indonesian Mujahidin Council and the Malaysian Military Muslim Group each present a substantial threat to peace and the stability in South East Asia. Most Muslims in Southeast Asia, however, refuse to condone and support the actions of radical Islamic groups, preferring a more moderate path. More radical Islamic groups in Indonesia are peripheral to the mainstream Indonesian Islam, which remains dedicated to the ideal of tolerance. Despite Islam being a political factor throughout the region, it must be emphasized that the majority of Indonesia’s Muslim community have not gravitated toward political Islam, nor do Islamic parties dominate political life in either Indonesia or Malaysia, the two Southeast Asian countries with Muslim majorities and elected governments.
It is true that, in Indonesia alone 87% of the population are Muslims, it is also true that there are confirmed militant Islamic groups in the region. What the figure doesn’t show, according to Fealy, is the very deep doctrinal, geographic, socio-economic and ideological differences that divide this community, he states that, “much of the religious violence in Indonesia is triggered by deeper ethnic, political or socio-economic grievances.” (Fealy, 2003.) MacDonald and Lemco feel that too much Western attention and interference could deepen anti-Western (mainly anti-American) sentiment and possible provide a foundation from which Islamic radicals could gain power (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.388). Fealy agrees that although, “Islam is a major force in Indonesian politics… it is not the determining force.” (Fealy, 2003.) Whether other Muslim nations will use countries like Indonesia as a model remains to be seen.
After Suharto was removed from power, Indonesia’s central political authority was weakened. Coupled with the economic decline that emerged soon afterward the already tense ethnic-religious divisions erupted. Although some groups, classified as radical extremists, existed prior to the fall of the Suharto regime, many new groups emerged soon afterward. Two key radical Islamic groups in Indonesia, Laskar Jihad and the Indonesian Mujahidin Council assisted by the weakening of central authority gained larger followings and certainly more attention from a Western press looking for stories of Islamic extremism. According to Fealy, however, “There has been a de-linking of pietism and Islamism. This would suggest that Indonesian Muslims do not want Islam to play a greater role in the life of the state.” (Fealy, 2003.)
Islamic revivalist activities in the Philippines developed differently due to the long-standing religious frictions present between the Muslims and Christians and their stationing outside what had been termed the Asian miracle. In the Philippines Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword), founded in 1991, has been the group that has gained greatest notoriety. It was alleged that Abu Sayyaf received funding to commence its operation in the early 1990s from Al Qaeda. Other organizations such as Jemaah Islamiya, however, pose a greater threat to the region with an international network that encompasses Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Jemaah Islamiya is the most extensive transnational radical Islamic group in Southeast Asia with the objective of creating an Islamic state by unifying the Muslims of the region. The existence, operations and recruiting practices of Jemaah Islamiya undeniably pose a threat to the government of Singapore, through the possibility of inciting and exploiting anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia and Malaysia by inciting Muslim and non-Muslim tensions in Singapore. (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.391)
MacDonald & Lemco are right in stating that, “the rise of political Islam represents a challenge throughout Southeast Asia.” (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.392) While the idea of social, cultural and moral renewal for societies are positive developments, radicalism is not. Within the region, difficult developmental challenges and rigid political systems have fostered the sense of anxiety and disapproval in youth, workers, and intellectuals. Outside the region, Al Qaeda has helped raise the flag of international war against the corrosive influences of the West and its regional allies. The perceived challenge is that failure to reduce social and economic conditions that motivate radicals will not eliminate Islamic fundamentalism, and that failure to use military power, carefully and fairly, will not remove all the combatants. (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.392) Some analysts have suggested that the current American attitude is reminiscent of the United States government policy during the cold war.
The combination of domestic and external forces has culminated in transforming Southeast Asia into a second front on the American war on terrorism. America’s pursuit toward the elimination of Al Qaeda is changing how the United States and its military allies view Southeast Asia. Ironically, Indonesian Muslim groups tend to be strong supporter of American culture, wealth and influence while at the same time believe that Unites States foreign policy is now aimed at harming Muslim interests worldwide. (MacDonald & Lemco, 2002, p.390) With Islam is on the rise in Southeast Asia (Fealy, 2003), the article provides important insight into the background of various radical Islamic groups as well as providing a broader picture of where these groups fit into the political social structure of the Southeast Asian Region.
Fealy, G., 2003, Understanding Political Islam in Southeast Asia, Asia Society, New York, May 21, 2003, [Online] Accessed: March 6th 2011,
MacDonald, SB & Lemco, J 2002, ‘Political Islam in southeast Asia’, Current History, vol. 101, no. 658, pp. 388-392.
Patry, B., 2004, Exploring Canada’s relations with the countries of the Muslim world, Report to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, House of Commons, Canada, March 2004, Communication Canada Publishing, Ottawa, Canada [Online] Accessed: March 11th 2011,