The late renowned Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra had unlimited optimism about Southeast Asia's position as the future of Islam.
“Indonesia and Malaysia today and in the future have great potential to become the centre of world civilisation. Various indicators bolster this optimism …The main prerequisite [of the revival of Islamic civilisation] is political stability”. This quote comes from the late Azyumardi Azra in his article “Kebangkitan Peradaban, Memperkuat Optimisme Muslim Asia Tenggara” (The awakening of civilisation, strengthening optimism of Southeast Asian Muslims), which Kompas published posthumously on 19 September 2022, a day after Azra’s death on 18 September.
Azra was supposed to present the ideas in this article at the annual meeting of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) on the general theme “Kosmopolitan Islam: Mengilham Kebangkitan, Meneroka Masa Depan” (Cosmopolitan Islam: Inspiring Awakening, Exploring the Future) in Selangor, Malaysia.
The above quote is only one of many from Azra that shows his optimism about the future of Islam in the region, particularly if it is compared to Islam in the Middle East. He was one of the most consistent spokespersons for that deep optimism. In the Kompas piece, Azra quoted a document, Voices from Asia: Promoting Political Participation as an Alternative for Extremism, which mentioned that even Muslims in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region have lost hope, given their socio-political conditions. WANA has been marred by long conflict and could not be expected to become a place where Muslims could establish the future of Islamic civilisation.
Azyumardi Azra was active in promoting Indonesian Islam and Southeast Asian Islam, in general, to the world. His view was that the future of Islam is in Southeast Asia. It is not surprising that many Indonesian Muslims dubbed him, as Ahmad Syafii Maarif did, “juru bicara Islam Indonesia kepada dunia internasional” (spokesperson for Indonesian Islam to the international community). Another scholar named Azra the “Ambassador of Indonesian Islam to the West” (“Duta Islam Indonesia ke Dunia Barat”).
Azra was certainly not the first scholar or Muslim figure who predicted that the future of Islamic civilisation would be in Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani-American scholar and academic mentor of prominent Muslim intellectuals Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) and Ahmad Syafii Maarif (1935-2022), was also optimistic about the future of Islam in Indonesia and Turkey.
During his visit to Jakarta from 15-17 August 1985, Rahman had a long conversation with Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, where the former said that he was “very pessimistic about the state of intellectual debate in the Muslim world in general but saw two exceptions that gave reason for hope: Indonesia and Turkey”. Van Bruinessen related in a 2012 article that Rahman was “convinced that if there were to be a renaissance of the Muslim intellectual tradition, it would begin in those countries”.
One of the factors for this optimism, as van Bruinessen stated in a 2014 article, is that Rahman thought the conditions in Indonesia and Turkey “favoured the development of sophisticated Muslim intellectual thought”.
The line of this optimistic view can be traced back to Islamic scholar Marshall G. S. Hodgson who wrote in 1974 that “the triumph of Islam [in Java] was so complete”, refuting American anthropologist Clifford Geertz who argued that beneath the surface, the religion of people in Java was not Islam. Thus, Hodgson, Rahman, and Azra represent the optimistic perspective of the future of Islamic civilisation in Southeast Asia.
Compared to many parts of the Middle East and South Asia, the practice of Islam in Southeast Asia is certainly more peaceful, less conflictual, more democratic, and more tolerant of diversity. However, Islam in this region is not without problems. One possible measure of the strength of Islamic civilisation is how a majority Muslim community treats religious minorities. Albeit sporadically, discrimination or even violence against religious minorities in Indonesia has occurred several times in recent years. Most cases involve forcible closings of prayer spaces or evictions of minority religious families from a bigger community or village, often with little concrete action by the authorities to help those affected.
Compared to many parts of the Middle East and South Asia, the practice of Islam in Southeast Asia is certainly more peaceful, less conflictual, more democratic, and more tolerant of diversity.
The so-called “monument of intolerance” in Transito, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB), related to the displacement of what some perceive as a heretical sect, Ahmadiyya, is still there. Around 300 Ahmadis have been living in Transito, historically a place of transit for migrants from NTB to other provinces in Indonesia. The Ahmadis have been in Transito since 2006 after being attacked and displaced from their villages and homes elsewhere. A smaller case of displacement concerning the Shi’ite community in Puspa Agro Sidoarjo in East Java has not been completely resolved.
More generally, in other parts of Southeast Asia, the prohibition or obstruction of religious minorities from building houses of worship or practising their beliefs has occasionally occurred. As elaborated in publications such as Religious Pluralism in Indonesia: Threats and Opportunities for Democracy and Contentious Belonging: The Place of Minorities in Indonesia, religious and ethnic minorities have also faced challenges in obtaining full citizenship and religious rights. These cases of discrimination may dampen optimism that Islamic civilisation can thrive in the region.
Indeed, the “smiling Islam” or “flowery Islam” (Islam warna-warni / Islam yang berbunga-bunga) as promoted by Azyumardi Azra can flourish only if religious minorities can feel at home living side-by-side with majority Muslim populations in Southeast Asia. Azra’s optimism can be seen as mostly related to freedom of thought, where Southeast Asia provides fertile ground for the growth of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and sophisticated religious thinking.
Ahmad Najib Burhani is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.