Just/The Brunei Times - Bandar,Brunei DarussalamSaturday, January 20, 2007
A Summary of the Keynote Speech by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, President, International Movement for a Just World (JUST), Malaysia at the 2007 Regional Outlook Forum organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore on 4th January 2007.
1) Religious extremism is the violation of the balance or equilibrium that is embodied in the religion itself. It is a transgression of the limits set by the religion in the conduct of human affairs. Thus, while it is legitimate in Islam to use force as a last resort in resisting occupation, aggression and oppression, it is a transgression of the limits imposed by the religion in the struggle for justice if one deliberately targets non-combatants or civilians. Similarly, while Islam cherishes modesty as a virtue among men and women, cloistering a woman within the confines of the home, denying her education and the right to work, would be a violation of the balance that the religion seeks in human life.
2) Acts of religious extremism are not alien to modern Southeast Asia. However, most of the time religious extremism is not linked to religious doctrine or practice as such. Its primary causes more often than not can be traced to socio-historical, socio-political or socio-economic factors.
The domestic causes of recent manifestations of religious extremism would be as follows:-
a) The breakdown of law and order and the ensuing political turmoil and economic chaos which sometimes prompts political actors bent on perpetuating, or acquiring, power to manipulate religious sentiments to their advantage. Socio-economic dichotomies between ethnic groups may also lend themselves to overt and covert exploitation by unscrupulous elements who invariably provide a religious gloss to these differences.
b) State policies aimed at enhancing elite power or weakening the political or economic position of a cultural or religious minority which eventually provoke a reaction from the minority concerned. The backlash is often garbed in religio-political rhetoric.
c) An event or episode in history which may have contributed to the alienation of an entire community---alienation which may have been exacerbated by current socio-economic and socio-political circumstances. Religion may serve as a conduit for the articulation of the alienated community's grievances.
d) Bigoted, fanatical interpretations of religious text and tradition that seek to establish a state based upon a particular religion which often creates fear and insecurity among the followers of other religions and the populace as a whole.
e) Aggressive religious proselytisation which provokes the followers of other religions to retaliate with their own belligerent stances leading to religious polarization.
The global environment has also contributed to the growth of religious extremism in the region.
f) The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the continuing suppression of the rights of the Palestinian people within a hegemonic global system that appears to be biased against Muslims have generated a great deal of unhappiness and anger among Muslims everywhere some of which is expressing itself through religious extremism. Southeast Asia is one of those regions where fringe groups within the Muslim community have committed acts of terror.
g) Partly in response to global hegemony in a unipolar world and partly in pursuit of its own dream of a global caliphate, a terror network with the elusive Al-Qaeda as its anchor has emerged espousing an extremist ideology which has no basis in mainstream Islamic thought. The network has a Southeast Asian dimension to it.
h) The terrorism of Muslim fringe groups has encouraged a section of the international media, certain political groups and a number of evangelists from a Christian Zionist background to denigrate Islam and Muslims in general. This tarnishing of the religion and its followers has had some influence upon a small segment of the non-Muslim populace in Southeast Asia who are not averse to employing harsh, vile extremist language against Muslims and their religion especially through the internet. This has led to a deterioration in inter-religious ties in certain countries in the region.
3) In spite of these negative developments, the fact remains that religious extremism is peripheral to the political and social life of Southeast Asia. For a region whose religious diversity is second to none---all the major religions of the world are represented here---Southeast Asia enjoys a remarkable degree of inter-religious harmony. A number of reasons from the past and the present may help to explain this.
a) Religious and cultural diversity has been the hallmark of the region for centuries. It has created an atmosphere which allows an accommodative, inclusive attitude to flourish. Within such an atmosphere, it would be difficult for religious extremism--- or any other form of extremism for that matter--- to become the dominant outlook.
b) The two major religious cum cultural influences upon the region, namely, Islam and Buddhism, have both in their own ways contributed towards the strengthening of this atmosphere of inclusiveness. Islam which spread rapidly through trade and Sufism brought to the fore values such as universalism, moderation and reciprocity while Buddhism's emphasis upon kindness and compassion made acceptance of the other easier.
c) Leadership has also played a role. The political leadership in almost every country in the region has, for the most part, advocated---and practised---moderation and inclusiveness. By the same token, mainstream religious elites whether Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu have seldom if ever adopted an antagonistic attitude towards the religious other.
d) It is because of all this, that 'live and let live' has become the credo of the average Southeast Asian. Even if one does not interact with the religious other because of geography or other reasons, one is very much aware of his presence---and at the very least tolerates his existence.
4) In this regard, it is important to remember that the two worst carnages in modern Southeast Asia ---- carnages which witnessed unimaginable violence---were perpetrated by groups that had very little to do with religion.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, in power from 1975 to 1979, eliminated 1.4 million people in order to create an egalitarian agrarian society. Its leaders like Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan had renounced Buddhism and showed such venom towards all religious practices and institutions.
In Indonesia, the coup of 30 September 1965, it is estimated, led to the massacre of a million human beings. Whether it was engineered by a faction in the Indonesian military or by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the prime movers behind those mass killings were not men of God.
This is why while we are concerned about religious extremism in Southeast Asia we should remain cognizant of the fact that the worst forms of extremism in the region were caused by groups and individuals who to all intents and purposes were divorced from religion.
5) Nonetheless, because religious extremism does exist and is a threat to peace, we should take various steps to combat it.
a) There should be more determined efforts to resolve in a just manner the conflicts in Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand and in various parts of Indonesia which have all fuelled religious extremism in one way or another.
b) Since political turmoil and economic chaos pave the way for extremism in certain situations, both good governance that promotes elite accountability and popular participation in the political process, and the equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities which enhances the dignity of each and every community, are vitally important.
c) Governments in Southeast Asia should also add their voices to the global chorus demanding an end to the US helmed occupation of Iraq and the creation of a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state based upon United Nations Resolutions. They should, at the same time, push for multilateralism as an antidote to unilateralism and global hegemony. If global politics moves in this direction, extremists exploiting religious sentiments will soon discover that they have no constituency.
d) Resolving regional and global conflicts and making domestic and international structures of power and wealth more just and egalitarian may not be enough to curb extremism. There should also be a conscious endeavor to counter extremist interpretations of religion through the propagation of a more enlightened and universal vision of faith in the 21st century. In the case of Islam, the intelligentsia in particular should be mobilized for this mission.
e) More than merely countering extremism, the spiritual worldview and universal moral values which constitute the crux and core of religion should perhaps play a bigger role in shaping the collective consciousness of Southeast Asia's 550 million citizens. Living in harmony with nature and respecting the delicate ecological balance are for instance central to all our religions and yet Southeast Asia as a whole has paid little heed to these perennial principles in its rush to 'develop' and 'progress'. The environmental and ecological crisis that confronts all of us today should force us to pause and ponder. Shouldn't we seek guidance and inspiration once again from that eternal spiritual and moral source that sustains life in all its mystery?