- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Introduction: Civic Platforms or Radical Springboards?

Robert W. Hefner

The essays by Ann Marie Murphy and Bridget Welsh in this issue are products of the third year of a project by The National Bureau of Asian Research on Islamic education and professional associations in Southeast Asia. The first two years of the project (2004–06) were dedicated to examining the varieties and socio-political impact of Islamic education in five Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. [1] The research encountered three broad trends: first, Islamic education is booming across the region; second, the dominant doctrinal and theological currents in Islamic education are not politically radical but instead are moderate or moderately conservative; and, third, the primary influence on the reshaping of Islamic education has been not politics but rather the desire of parents, students, and educators that Islamic schooling should provide practical and vocational education as well as religious instruction. Although Cambodia’s Islamic schools have come under the influence of Saudi-influenced Salafiyyah reformism, and although a few dozen radical institutions can be found among Indonesia’s 47,000 Islamic schools, the trends in Islamic education across the region are broadly pragmatic and modernizing in orientation.

Building on the first two years of research, the project’s third year (2006–07) focused on the relationship between Islamic education and professional associations in Southeast Asia’s two large Muslim-majority countries: Malaysia (60% Muslim) and Indonesia (87.8% Muslim). The project focused on these countries because of their considerable influence in Southeast Asia and the broader Muslim world. There was also, however, a comparative policy and analytic background to the research aims of the project’s third year. In Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine in the 1990s, the growing influence of Islamist groupings with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in professional associations raised questions as to whether these associations—long regarded as critical segments in civil society—constitute a force for democratization or, alternately, have become sites for Islamist challenges to Middle Eastern regimes. The two options are, of course, by no means mutually exclusive. Some analysts have suggested that Islamist participation in professional associations tends to have a moderating effect on Islamist political aspirations; others, however, cite examples like Palestine’s Hamas to suggest there is no single political-cultural outcome. [2] All sides in this discussion agree, however, that the movement of individuals with ties to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the more important developments in state-society relations over the past twenty years. [3]

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[1] For discussions of this research, see Robert W. Hefner, ed., Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, forthcoming 2008); and Azyumardi Azra, Dina Afrianty, and Robert W. Hefner, "Madrasa and Pesantren: Nationalist Ideals and Islamic Education in Indonesia,” in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, eds. Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 172–98.

[2] See Janine A. Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); and Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Mobilizing Islam:Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[3] For a recent article to this effect, see Peter W. Moore and Bassel F. Salloukh, "Struggles under Authoritarianism: Regimes, States, and Professional Associations in the Arab World,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 39 (2007): 53–76.