Revisiting the Spin of Malaysia and Indonesia as ‘Moderate’ Muslim states

By Farish A. Noor November 2nd, 2009.

It is now ‘moderate’ season once again when the leaders of the developed Western world are on the lookout for moderate Muslim states and leaders to engage in dialogue with as strategic, economic and political allies and partners.

Needless to say, the leaders and governments of the Muslim world are equally pleased with this open invitation, particularly from the White House, and there are plenty of Muslim leaders and governments that are prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of the man who is currently residing in the White House too.

On top of that it ought to be noted that the honour of being anointed as a ‘moderate Muslim’ leader is something that most Muslim leaders today would wish for and cherish above all else, cognisant of the fact that such an anointment would be followed by a blanket support of their own domestic policies at home as well as lashings of economic, political and military support to boot.

During the bad old days of the Bush administration, countries like Thailand and Australia were given the dubious honour of being seen as the closest allies of Washington in Asia. Thailand was given the title of being America’s ‘no.1 non-NATO ally in ASEAN’; while Australia (or rather the Howard government) was dubbed America’s sheriff in Asia- a dubious recognition indeed that merely compounded the image that both states were anti-Muslim and anti-Islam.

Now that the keys of the White House have changed hands and a new American President is scheduled to visit Indonesia in the near future, it would appear that the developed countries of the world are once again on the lookout for ‘moderate Muslim leaders’ to court and cajole. Straight off the bat Malaysia and Indonesia come to mind as the two prime candidates for the top slot of ‘most moderate’ Muslim state in Asia. (While the governments of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore et al must be cursing their luck for not having enough Muslims to make the rankings…)

But before we jump the gun, let us look at both countries – Malaysia and Indonesia – and ask ourselves if they deserve the coveted title of moderate Muslim state in the first place.

Indonesia, it has to be said, has suffered from bad press thanks to the Bali bombings and how the country was presented in the international media following the attacks of 2002. But it is sad and unfair to see how this country, which has had a long record of strife and violence, has not been given the recognition it deserves for its efforts in the long march to democracy and democratisation.

For a start, when talking about the long history of political violence in Indonesia, one needs to situate such discussion in the proper historical context and identify all the agents and actors involved. While it is true that Indonesia has a long record of political violence, let us not forget that much of that violence was sanctioned if not tacitly approved by the international community as well, who are just as guilty of condoning the rise of political gangsterism in Indonesia in the past.

During the violent and bloody counter-communist putsch in 1965 for instance, it was well known that thousands of suspected Communists of the PKI and their sympathisers were summarily wiped out by right-wing religious elements of the Nahdatul Ulama, with the tacit support (or at least non-interference) of the West.

During the violent annexation of East Timor in 1974-75 it was also the governments of the West that turned a blind eye to the violence there on the grounds that East Timor might have become the new ‘Cuba in ASEAN’ and was thus seen as the ‘red threat’ to countries like Australia and ASEAN.

Yet despite three decades of violent and arbitrary dictatorship under Suharto and his generals, Indonesia has developed to become one of the few truly democratic countries in ASEAN today with a press that is freer than most of its neighbours. We should also remember that so many of the reformasi leaders who brought down the government of Suharto and his army were also former student activists who were themselves Islamlist activists and intellectuals, contrary to the stereotypical image of Islam as a religion that works hand in glove with totalitarian forms of governance.

Today Indonesia’s Islamic universities – including the ones I am proud to be associated with – are at the forefront of modern Islamic education and are producing the first Muslim scholars who have developed a rational, objective and critical understanding of religion per se. Yet almost none of these developments feature in the international media that continues instead to harp on the idea of Indonesia being the hotbed of radical Islamist terrorism.

Conversely next door in Malaysia we see a totally different framing of Islam altogether. Malaysia has been seen and cast as a moderate Muslim state and a model state for others to follow, notably by the international media whose own exposure to the living social realities of Malaysia may stop at the poolside of the 5-star hotels in Kuala Lumpur.

Yet a quick survey of the country will give a very different picture of the state of normative Muslim praxis in Malaysia today: This is still the country where book banning is rife and where we have seen embarrassing contradictions such as the banning of the works of Karen Armstrong while the author herself was invited to speak at Islamic conferences in the capital. This is a country with a morality police that has become a law unto themselves; where feminist Muslim organisations like Sisters in Islam are constantly persecuted and demonised and where the space for Muslim thought, expression and social life has been shrinking since the 1970s.

Yet despite these contradictions, Malaysia is cast in a more positive light compared to Indonesia, when it is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the normative Muslim politics of both countries that the normative space for Muslims in Indonesia is infinitely much bigger.

And in terms of the discursive as well as normative-cultural frontiers to Muslim life and praxis in both countries, it is equally clear that the space of Muslim life is still bigger in Indonesia compared to Malaysia. So what gives, and why is Indonesia constantly placed in the dock?

One can only conclude that the negative image of Indonesia has more to do with the selective memory of the Western media that cannot look beyond the historical fact of the Bali bombing to recognise the realities of Indonesia today.

By appropriating Bali as a ‘tragedy for the West’ and positing it as an attack on Australians and other Westerners, the international media as well as the governments of the developed world have not only robbed the Indonesians of their right to grieve for their pain, but have also appropriated Indonesia’s identity and history in the process.

By doing do, they are in peril of overlooking the recent developments in the country that has probably gone through the most expansive and deep democratic revolution ASEAN has seen in ages, and have denied themselves the possibility of working with a truly moderate and democratic ally. That is Indonesia’s loss as well, but the bigger loss will be borne by the governments of the Western world.

  1. #1 by tenaciousB on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 9:33 am

    Indonesia is not a moderate muslim nation, that’s utter rubbish! they are filled with fanatical looneys and the author conveniently forgot the most recent bombing of the jwmarriott in jakarta!

    The author can dream on about indonesia in particular being a relieable ally of the US. Maybe malaysia has a potential once BN is toppled. LOL

  2. #2 by k1980 on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 9:37 am

  3. #3 by taiking on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 10:05 am

    Forget the bali incident? Maybe by the next generation, the incident will somehow appear paler and blurer than it is now. Forgotten by then? No. Not quite possible. Lost of innocent lives is not like losing money. There is no fairness or unfairness to talk about here. Certain actions will suffer certain consequences. The actors must accept those consequences. But not all 200m indonesians were in the act. Ah yes indeed. But their countrymen did act and that was all that mattered. The indons should really blame their misfortune on those of their countrymen who misbehaved.

    On the same issue but in a different context, names like altantuya, beng hock and kugan will never quite vanish. Just like the indonesians, over the bali incident, umno has only itself to blame. Of course umno is far worse. Not everyone in indonesia is bad but all umnoputras are (I am sad to say this) greedy and corrupt and therefore bad.

  4. #4 by BoycottLocalPapers on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 10:21 am

    Good things & bad things about moderate Indonesia & Malaysia:

    (1) The Indonesian government will not stop Muslims from converting to Christianity unlike Malaysian government. However, the Indonesian government did nothing to stop Laskar Jihad from killing the Christians in Maluku Islands. Malaysia should be proud that so far terrorist groups like Laskar Jihad that is influenced by foreigners from Pakistani and Saudi Arabia are not allowed to be formed in Malaysia.

    (2) Christians can use the Arabic word “Allah” in Indonesia (and the Middle East where Arabic is spoken) but not in Malaysia.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 11:24 am

    There is only one label for UMNO-led Malaysia is maintain power by whatever means.

    Najib when from a 1Malaysis strategy, then change to unite-Malay strategy and now he is going for chip-away-the-opposition-to-conquer strategy. Also called the by-pass and go-direct strategy – MCP, intervene in MCA, and now talking directly to Chinese schools..

    He has settled for a plan to MAINTAIN UMNO power and have given up on any sort of grand design – crass-insidious politis – not going for a win but making the other party lose. He can’t win so he is settles for not losing. Its the pinacle of mediocrity and irresponsibility – nothing but low class approach. Principles be damned – its all about holding on to power..

  6. #6 by passerby on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 11:57 am

    Is there such a thing as a moderate muslim? Will a moderate muslim not be considered an apostate if he ignores those extreme verses or interpret them differently? How could one be different if one is still drinking from the same cup? I don’t believe islam in the present form will be able to produce any moderate muslim.

    We see violence everywhere – muslims killing non-muslims and muslims killing fellow muslims all in the name of their religion. Even Turkey cannot escape islamic extremism despite being the first secular modern islamic country.

  7. #7 by OrangRojak on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 12:12 pm

    I think Farish answered his own question. I often have the ‘credit card tourism’ argument with some of my friends. They would go to Malaysia, and sit sipping their g&t at the poolside on the 60th floor of a KL hotel and probably believe someone who told them that Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country. Where would they go in Indonesia? Jakarta? Bali? They wouldn’t go to Indonesia!

    The modern world – what Farish refers to as ‘the West’ – needs the myth of ‘moderate Islam’ as much as the leaders of those countries who might qualify for the label – and want the support it might bring – do. For the leaders of the modern world – wherever their countries are arranged around the circumference of Farish’s compass – the myth of the moderate Muslim is a sticking plaster over an enormous problem for them.

    Which country has taken a respectable stand in its attitudes to a religion which is not content with converting people, but also strives to convert the state? I’m not talking about people like Nick Griffin, who would probably advocate progrom, away from the ears of the press. The problem for many modern nations is that they have a historically ‘cosy’ relationship with another religion. There is no way they can effectively deal with the totalitarian views of some self-identifying Muslims without being labelled as discriminatory – unless they also apply the same attitudes to whatever is the locally-favoured religion.

    The leaders of modern nations around the world are playing a wishing game, keeping their fingers crossed that a brand of popular Islam will emerge that features singing and clapping along to acoustic guitars, a bit of non-gender-discriminatory light hugging, smiling at your enemies, good-humoured advertising campaigns and self-deprecating Muslim comedians. Going to happen or not? Maybe! How long should we wait?

    I don’t want anyone to think I have a rose-tinted view of non-Muslim religions. It seems to me (I’m no expert) that they’ve all been (or are still) involved in atrocities in the past. Let’s not be too quick to forget that George and Tone both claimed that their god told them to bomb Iraq. If that’s not fundamentalist terrorism, then I’m a Chinaman.

    By and large, the totalitarian political ambitions of most other religions were broken long ago. When leaders invoke the names of their gods now, it’s not because they’re intending to lead their congregations to world domination, but because they want people to believe that there’s a reason-trumping excuse for their latest atrocity.

    My wish is that the modern nations would finish the job they started in The Enlightenment and remove all discriminatory laws that place religion above other lifestyle choices. My expectation is that taking away the shelter of a higher allegiance would help restore the balance between the ‘meek’ who just want to practice their religion and be jolly nice neighbours, and the ‘nasty’ who have greater ambitions and are prepared to abuse religion to achieve them.

    That’s what I’d do, if I ruled the world. That’s all for now. Got to empty my son’s nappy.

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 12:50 pm

    Farish is wondering why Western Media cast Malaysia in a more positive light compared to Indonesia, when “the normative-cultural frontiers” “praxis normative/discursive space for Muslims” in Indonesia is infinitely much bigger than Malaysia! So what gives, and why is Indonesia constantly placed in the dock? Farish attributes this to the “selective memory of the Western media that cannot look beyond the historical fact of the Bali bombing to recognise the realities of Indonesia today”.

    Myth or no myth of “Moderate” Islam here, of interest are two things: – The first is whilst bombings terrorist acts occurred from Bali to Mumbai to Manila, some of them allegedly involved are Malaysian homes-grown, who have not committed or successfully committed any of their terrorist acts in Malaysia itself. So no media attention here but this raises the next question – what reasons are there that make Malaysia so blessed in her exemption so far from terrorists’ wrath???

    Consider these: Noordin Mohammad Top, leader of Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah and wanted over a six-year bombing campaign in Indonesia (including attacks on the JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels) that left about 280 people dead was a Malaysian. Dr. Azahari bin Husin (nicknamed the “Demolition Man) believed to be the technical mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing and various other Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist attacks (including one on Australian High Commission in Jakarta in 2004) was also a Malaysian national. Dozens of alleged members of Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, or KMM, a homegrown Islamic extremist group were detained by police in 2001.As recent as May 2009, suspected Malaysian Islamic terrorist leader Mas Selamat was detained under ISA. Philippines authorities are after Malaysian nationals Zulkifli bin Hir (a.k.a. Marwan) allegedly heads the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) and brother Taufik bin Abdul Halim, a.k.a. Dany involved in the 2001 Jakarta Atrium Mall bombing. CNN reporter, Maria Ressa, had quoted unnamed Indian intelligence sources as alleging (don’t know true or not) that one of the gunmen in Mumbai attacks carried Malaysian identity cards. Recent publication by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on 11th December entitled “How the Jemaah Islamiyah Terrorist Network Operates” virtually described Malaysia as a launching pad for JI terrorist bombings and attacks in South East Asia since 1999.

    Back to the question: why do Malaysian terrorists commit/launch terror acts in playgrounds abroad but not here? We have Western embassies here; we have Beach Club area in KL frequented by Westerners; we have icons like the twin towers to make a terrorist statement. Yet no known serious attacks here.

    Is it because all potential terrorists have been tracked by our super efficient Special Branch and incarcerated under ISA? Or terrorists are very happy with this country – that the fundamentalist teachings/norms/beliefs of Abd Al-Wahhab to which they subscribe are well practised and thriving well here or what?

  9. #9 by k1980 on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 1:13 pm

    Five Catholic men were having coffee.

    The first Catholic man: “My son is a priest, when he walks into a room, everyone calls him ‘Father’.”

    The second Catholic man: “My son is a Bishop. When he walks into a room people call him ‘Your Grace'”

    The third Catholic man: “My son is a Cardinal. When he enters a room everyone says ‘Your Eminence’.”

    The fourth Catholic man: “My son is the Pope. When he walks into a room people call him ‘Your Holiness’.”

    The fifth Catholic: “I have a daughter, slim, tall, 38D bust, 24″ waist and 34″ hips. When she walks into a room, people gasp, ‘My God…'”

  10. #10 by limkamput on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 6:09 pm

    Agreed that all religions probably have their chequered past. But this was largely due to the interlink between religion and state power. Religions without “state sponsorship” would be “meek” (to use your word) and this would be ideal for most religions to play their traditional role.

    Your views are consciously aware of the drawbacks of most religions (and probably your own) if religions are allowed to “roam” beyond their traditional boundary. But this is hardly the problem of the world today. Please look around and see for yourself. I think there is only one religion today which is most prevalent in being sponsored by the state to encroach and intrude into areas beyond its traditional roles.

  11. #11 by OrangRojak on Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 7:45 pm

    “there is only one religion today which is most prevalent in being sponsored by the state to encroach and intrude into areas beyond its traditional roles”

    I think this guy with the guitar agrees with you!

  12. #12 by k1980 on Wednesday, 4 November 2009 - 8:02 am

    Now that the great Bolehlanders have sent an astronaut to space, it is time to buy up the whole moon. 1 acre (approximately 43,560 sq ft, or 4,047 sq meters) costs only US $37.50. Then we can introduce the NEP on the moon critters there! Never mind that they are the original tuans and that we are pendatangs

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