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Blog: Portrait Of The Southeast Asian Muslim

Same Islam, Different Colors: a Portrait of the Southeast Asian Muslim

by Jennifer Sawicz, Media Relations Director, Burma Task Force USA

13 June 2016

This Ramadan, it is intriguing to see how Islam is different in Southeast Asia, how it is the same as elsewhere in the world, and what that means for our understanding of the people who live there.

The first thing one notices when looking at pictures of Southeast Asia is how everything seems to have gone from black-and-white to color. Our Western world looks amazingly drab by comparison. Imagine if Hillary Clinton wore fresh flowers in her hair every day, like Aung San Suu Kyi; yet in Burma, it feels normal. This intensity of color is emblematic of Southeast Asian Muslim culture as well. Refusing to believe that “eye-catching” and “immodest” mean the same thing, Southeast Asian Muslimahs wear dresses and hijabs in bright colors and patterns according to local textiles tradition. They even affix jewelry to their hijabs in the form of charms dangling from pins, attached either at the chin (resembling a necklace from far away) or on the side of the head (resembling a hair clip). Rohingya in particular have a love affair with color: they regularly paint their faces with neon cosmetics even when it is not a special occasion. Photographs of the informal schools they’ve set up for their children show each child bedecked in a different color paint, smeared in abstract designs.

Focusing on the image of a colorful Islam, infused with local lore, may be a difficult task for a westerner whose main diet of information about the religion comes from Arab culture and the Gulf. But just as one does not have to be Greek to practice Christianity or of Semitic descent to practice Judaism, it isn’t necessary to Arabize oneself to practice Islam. The debate rages on in some Southeast Asian countries about just how much they should borrow from their Arab ancestors in faith. However, Indonesia in particular has publicly espoused an “Indonesian Islam” – without specifically defining what that is, of course. Libyan Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Aref Ali Nayed, has publicly encouraged Singaporean and other Southeast Asian Muslims to retain their local customs while adhering to the spiritual tenets of Islam.

It is also noteworthy that Southeast Asia is largely exempt from the tide of radicalism washing over some in the Arab world. (Or Europe, or the United States, as evidenced this past weekend.)  The Rohingya again constitute an excellent example. James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, spoke to a group of students of which I was a member in ‘05. When dealing with the topic of countering violent extremism, or C.V.E., he quipped, “Young men shake their fists because they have nothing in them.” I deeply stood by those words for ten years, along with the leaders of non-profits like Heifer International and the Central Asian Institute. But curiously, the Rohingya, despite living in abject poverty and being labelled by the United Nations the world’s most persecuted minority, have rarely turned to violence as a solution. A decentralized and highly ineffective Rohingya militia was active in Rakhine State in the 1990’s, but on the whole their community’s valued peace and would rather be victims than perpetrators. Whispers on the international scene that they are ripe for radicalization have never materialized. They stand in stark contrast not only with ISIS militants (who, it is worth mentioning, are not truly adhering to Islam), but with other marginalized ethnic groups in their own country, Burma, who are taking up arms against the government and mired in decisions about a national cease-fire. Does the rainbow of colors in their clothes mirror a rainbow of peaceful covenant, and rise against the forbidding black & white of extremism elsewhere in the world?

A bastion of devout conservatism in a rapidly secularizing world, the Southeast Asian Muslim community’s nonetheless managed to distance itself from the brand of Islam promoted by their brothers & sisters in the Arab world. They are almost equally loyal to their cultural traditions as they are to the tenets of their faith. Religion does often create political problems in Southeast Asia – in Indonesia, to be a non-Muslim is to receive lesser political rights; in Burma, it is the opposite. But the religion itself nearly belies its conservatism and fervor by being remarkably adaptable. To study the Southeast Asian Muslim is to see an exemplar of faith finding, maintaining, and promoting cultural relevance.

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