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The Fluid Terrain of Islamism in Southeast Asia

Joseph Chinyong Liow


There are two contending schools of thought regarding the rise of Islamism in Southeast Asia. [1] The first perpetuates the alarmist narrative that Islamist extremists and terrorists have come to dominate the political terrain of Muslim Southeast Asia since September 11, 2001. According to this school of thought, Muslims in Southeast Asia are increasingly embracing extremist religious interpretations that are largely militant in character. [2] The second school of thought challenges this narrative. For example, one scholar recently argued that Muslim leaders in Southeast Asia are marrying Islam to economic development and democracy in an increasingly effective fashion. [3]As a result, extremism—in particular violent jihad—appears to be on a downward trend in Southeast Asia.

Although in many ways polar opposites, both schools of thought identify key trends that should inform an analysis of Islamism in contemporary Southeast Asia. This essay analyzes these trends—exploring both the rising conservatism of Southeast Asian Muslim communities as an expression of religious piety and the persistent threat posed by terrorism claiming religious justification. The essay stresses the need to properly appreciate the role global and local conditions play in framing our understanding of how Islamism is influencing political and security dynamics in Southeast Asia.

This analysis proceeds by first examining trends in religiosity among Southeast Asian Muslims as well as the impact of the forces of transnational Islam. The next section then investigates these trends in terms of the configurations of politics and conflict in Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines. The essay concludes with an exploration of trends and policy implications.

Terrorism, Heightened Religiosity, and Transnational Islam in Southeast Asia

Most analysts agree that the threat of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia has been significantly reduced. With improved operational and intelligence capacities, Indonesian authorities have crippled the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network. A clear indication of this progress has been the relative silence in Poso, which formerly served as a major theater for JI activities in Indonesia. JI religious leaders are believed to have fled Poso, and operational units have been dismantled. Most observers have determined that JI’s capabilities have been drastically reduced and the organization’s leadership decapitated. Not only are senior figures in custody, but financial and administrative channels have also been disrupted. In addition, public reaction to the group’s tactics and the death toll of Muslims from attacks in Indonesia have produced divisions within JI.

Notwithstanding the weakening of...

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[1] Islamism, or political Islam, can be defined as the move to ascribe to Islam a greater role in the organization of society and politics (possibly with the formation of an Islamic state as its ultimate goal).

[2] See Bilveer Singh, The Talibanization of Southeast Asia: Losing the War on Terror to Islamist Extremists (Westport: Praeger, 2007). Much of Singh’s analysis is based on the regional terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah’s (JI) supposed continued activism in the region as part of al Qaeda’s global jihad.

[3] See John T. Sidel, The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment, Policy Studies, no. 37 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Washington, 2007).