Why you should care
Because Southeast Asia might be the next flash point for extremism.
Standing before his soldiers on Oct. 17, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City liberated from terrorism. It had taken five months, starting with a botched raid on militants who had allied themselves with the Islamic State and culminating in all-out war on the Southeast Asian island. But only a symptom had been killed.
For the Philippines, it took heavy artillery and air strikes, strafing runs by helicopters and a slowly advancing front line in Marawi, at the same time a similar siege was happening in the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Syria. But there’s growing evidence of the spread across Southeast Asia of radical Islamist movements inspired by hard-line ideologies. And one major influence is Salafism, a strict form of Sunni Islam that seeks to restore the faith to an interpretation of Prophet Muhammad’s first teachings — encouraged by Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. And weapons alone won’t win this battle against ideologies.
This society has become more rigid in their way of understanding Islam.
Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, of the Malaysian think tank Islamic Renaissance Front
The emergence of an Islamic State affiliate in the Philippines points to the growing impact of this strain of Islam, at the cost of local versions across Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and even countries like Cambodia, say experts and Muslim leaders. Minorities and even Shia Muslims are increasingly finding themselves targeted. And the relatively harmonious existence between Buddhists, Christians and Muslims that has existed for decades in Southeast Asia is in jeopardy. More rigid and sectarian forms of Islam, historically out of place in Asia, are being promoted with scholarships and charity. And it may lead to further divides between communities — fermenting dissatisfaction with liberal society and potentially providing fresh recruits for a new flash point in global radicalism.
“This society has become more rigid in their way of understanding Islam,” says Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa of Malaysia, who heads the think tank Islamic Renaissance Front.
Of course Islamist insurgencies are not new in Southeast Asia: See southern Thailand and the recent Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. But these were usually characterized as independence movements — especially the long-lasting insurgency in the southern Philippines. Pledging allegiance to a caliphate thousands of miles away is new.
The roots of the problem are different — yet similar — across countries.
In Indonesia, Saudi Arabia has invested more directly since the 1960s in charities and institutions meant to proselytize, says Krithika Varagur, a Jakarta-based writer who studies Salafism in Southeast Asia. Those investments take the form of building mosques, funding preachers and performing missionary activity, not to mention subsidizing generous scholarships and building a tuition-free university system whose flagship is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic in Jakarta. And there has been a return on this investment. She sees an uptick in religious intolerance of minorities, more Sharia-inspired laws and the erosion of local Muslim traditions. “Saudi investments have permanently altered the face of Indonesian Islam by making it more conservative, fundamentalist and intolerant,” says Varagur.
To Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front, the changes in Malaysia are sourced from students returning from Saudi Arabia after studies. “They brought back with them this sectarian attitude,” he says. In the 1980s, he remembers, Malaysian Muslims largely supported the Shiite Iranian Revolution. Now, he hears denouncements of Shias every Friday from clerics who read government-standardized scripts at prayer. He estimates hundreds of officials in the Malaysian government have studied in Saudi Arabia or were influenced by strict Sunni teachings. And he thinks their influence is spreading a divisive type of Islam found more readily in the Middle East. “This is the attitude that will break society apart,” says Musa.
Even in Cambodia, Gulf states have poured in money that is usually attached to development loans. For example, a loan from Kuwait in 2008 of $546 million, mostly for energy and agriculture, included $5 million for new mosques and Islamic schools.
Efforts exist to counter sectarianism within Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Groups like the Islamic Renaissance Front have a stated mission to further “intercultural understanding” and an “inclusive and just Malaysian nation” by reaching out to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “There must be a counter-narrative, and I believe in this narrative. There must be a path of moderation,” says Musa. Other groups like his exist in the region, like the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia and the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy in the Philippines.
And most Salafists aren’t politically inclined like the Islamic State. They follow the laws where they live and focus on practicing their religion privately, says Varagur.
But the risks from the expanding threat of imported strains of Islam amid traditionally moderate variants in Southeast Asia remain. Those risks can engulf entire communities, as the Philippines has discovered.
Marawi — what’s left of it — looks like a town in Syria that dropped out of the sky and landed in a lush lakeside jungle. Bright-colored shops and homes painted in tropical pastels are pockmarked and stained black by fire and explosions. Duterte may have declared victory, but the city still smolders — a reminder to an entire region.