HAS the Islamic movement ‘IS’ chosen Mindanao’s city of Marawi as a ‘second front’ in its war on secularism, electoral democracy and the West?
IS would restore the religious and temporal leadership of a reunited Muslim world, and re-impose on it a unitary state governed by ‘sharia,’ or Islamic law.
This vision of a Muslim restoration is the motive power of the insurgent movement roiling North Africa and the Arab world, as well as the immigrant slums of Paris and London. Now the movement seems to be trying to implant itself among the Muslim communities of Southeast Asia.
Already IS, or the Islamic State, founded in 2014, has proclaimed a ‘caliphate’ that for the moment is limited to Iran, Iraq and the countries of the Levant, or the Eastern Mediterranean.
A Muslim restoration
IS rejects all that the West regards as modern. It looks back to the time the Islamic countries were the heartland of both a
political empire and a religious community that stretched from India in the east to Spain in the west—and whose wealth, population, culture and learning—notably in the physical sciences—were the instruction of the world.
So why has the Muslim world fallen so far behind the brash and brilliant West?
Recession of glory
Bernard Lewis, the Princeton University historian of the Arab peoples, offers a view of why in the modern era the Muslim world has lagged behind the other cultural regions.
Lewis notes that even during Islam’s glorious period—from the seventh to the tenth century of the current era—Muslim civilization showed little curiosity about other nations, other cultures, other peoples.
Muslim society attached little significance to secular events that were to shape the course of world history: occasions such as the discovery of America; the Protestant Reformation that challenged hierarchy and wealth in the Roman Church institution; and the succession of European inventions that set off the Industrial Revolution.
Ultimately—in this view—the Muslim world was left hopelessly behind by the cumulative adaptations to a changing world of the modernizing West. Repeatedly, Muslim militaries were humiliated by their Western enemies; and successive efforts by authoritarian Muslim leaders at forcible modernization failed more often than succeeded.
Among these Muslim modernizers, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) is the best known and arguably the most successful. Ataturk was the Ottoman Empire’s frontline hero of World War I, defeating the Australians at Gallipoli. He then led Turkey’s war of independence and became the first President of a free republic.
The changes Ataturk imposed on Turkish society were as sweeping as those of Japan’s Meiji Restoration of the 1860s. Modernization at the time being synonymous with Westernization, Ataturk brought down Islamic practices and observances one after the other.
He abolished the Ottoman caliphate that had ruled the mainstream (‘Sunni’) Muslim countries from Istanbul since 1417. In its place, he proclaimed a secular Constitution; closed down the religious schools, and gave political and social rights to women.
‘Costumes of modernization’
Ataturk even replaced the empire’s Arabic script with the Latin one. And enjoining the Turks to take up the “costumes of modernization,” he campaigned against the wearing of the fez—the brimless hat that was the national headdress—and forced men and women to wear Western dress.
Ataturk is celebrated as the “Father of the Turks,” and Turkey is regarded as a model of modernization for the Muslim world. Yet close to a century since the Ataturk reforms, Islam in Turkey remains resistant to secularism; it still plays a key—if often hidden—public role.
The whos, whys and wherefores of the failed Istanbul coup of July 2016 remain largely unknown; but the venture seems to have involved Ataturk’s ideological heirs in the Turkish officer corps.
In the coup’s aftermath, the ruling AKP party seems intent on restoring Islam’s preeminent public role in a new Constitution. Turkish muezzins are now allowed to make the melodious Arabic call to prayer.
Force for mass nationalism
In Southeast Asia, Islam had arrived as early as the ninth century—borne by Arab seafarers plying the long-distance Spice Trade. Islam’s arch rival—militant Christianity—spread via the Sword and the Cross, but with little success, except in the Philippine archipelago.
To Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, Islam came as a variety of ‘Sufism’—the ascetic and mystic branch of Sunni Islam preached by wandering missionaries and teachers, and renowned for the beauty of its songs and its poetry.
In Southeast Asia, Sufism grew a kind of Islam that merged easily with both the animism of the indigenous Malays and Hinduism-Buddhism from India. Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country.
Under Dutch rule, Islam became the most effective means of organizing the nascent Indonesian nationalism. But even then, secular politicians like the nationalist Sukarno feared Islam’s potential as a rallying call, and built religious tolerance into the Indonesian Constitution.
The wave of political nationalism that after World War II set free the colonial countries also secularized their societies and privatized religion—particularly in multiracial societies like Indonesia, Malaysia, India—and the United States itself. Only in the Muslim world does religion continue to have a large public role.
Arguing from the experience of the European religious wars of the 15th-16th centuries, secularists urge the state to favor no religion over another. Nor should government in their view allow religion to become part of state affairs or of public education.
The result has been a spate of runaway secularism—of societies loosening their moral bonds—with the United States as its prime example. Even among Western Europeans, criticism is common of America as “a civilization without culture”; as “materially advanced but soulless and artificial”; and “as technologically complex but without the spirituality of the rooted cultures of ‘authentic’ peoples.’ ”
Pop culture’s siren song
But the siren song of the global “pop” culture that America best represents is sweet and enticing. Its spread generates new wants, new demands, new ambitions. So, it is not enough that Muslims should resist Westernization. Each in its own way, every Muslim community must deal with the secular State.
Some militants see “terrorism” as an effective method of getting the world’s attention. Others are trying to reconcile secularism and Muslim law through the agency of local autonomy.
In Indonesia, sharia law already applies in some local jurisdictions—notably in the conservative North Sumatra state of Aceh. But current occurrences—notably the two-year prison sentence for blasphemy of the Christian, ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta—are raising widespread concern. Foreign Policy magazine (February 2017) reports “the Indonesian center (as) shaken and frightened.”