Why Asian Muslims didn't explode

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-Feb-06 | Author: Karim Raslan| Source: International Herald Tribune

Chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim group, Din Syamsuddin.
JAKARTA, Indonesia Southeast Asian Muslims have not been roiled by a clash of civilizations. Rather, people like me - Western-trained, English-speaking and constantly traveling - have begun to see the subtle differences that fracture our civilizations from within.

Whether we are conservative or liberal, many of us are appalled and angered by the stupidity and insensitivity of the Danish newspaper cartoons. But that doesn't mean we've taken leave of our senses.

I, for one, won't be throwing out my Lego set or my Bang & Olufsen sound system, let alone plotting to unveil a Zionist conspiracy.

I may be a Muslim, but I can tell the difference between a newspaper and a people, a country and a principle.

Even Din Syamsuddin, the head of Indonesia's 30 million strong Muhammadiyah Muslim association (and a firebrand by most accounts), told his followers to remain calm, "I urge Muslims not to overreact and act in a violent and anarchist way because those things are completely against Islamic teachings," he declared.

We generally believe that anger and violence are self-defeating. The region's moderate leaders, like Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, and Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, exemplify this belief. Both men have criticized the cartoons. "The rights of press freedom are not absolute; whatever the faith, we must respect it," President Yudhoyono said.

Still, neither he nor Abdullah has advocated boycotting Danish products or ending relations, although hotheads in both countries have called for such radical steps.

To be sure, there have been some copycat demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, as well as attacks on the Danish and American consulates in Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya.

But the extensive violence and ugly rhetoric we are seeing broadcast from elsewhere in the Muslim world point to differences between the Arab-Muslim heartland and the Indo-Malay periphery.

Yes, we are part of the extended family of believers, the ummah. We cannot help but feel some sense of solidarity with our co-religionists in Damascus, Tehran or Cairo. But the explosiveness of the Arab street doesn't translate, somehow, to the tropics.

Many of us have a growing suspicion that we are culturally different from our Arabic- and Urdu-speaking brethren, perhaps more tolerant and less emotional.

I am reminded of how uncomfortable I felt last year when traveling through Saudi Arabia, surrounded by a people I found disquietingly alien.

For all we share as Muslims, we Southeast Asians don't really know what it's like to inhabit the cultures or politics of the Middle East.

Nor is the West a unitary culture. Europe's fervent secularism reminds me that the nation of the Great Satan, with its crowded churches and Sunday preachers who fill sports stadiums, is actually more like my world than Europe is.

Since Sept. 11, I've accepted certain verities that now I have come to question. Europe was supposed to be the neutral bastion of moderation in the face of a belligerent America. But in fact that Europe is godless and alone.

(Karim Raslan is a lawyer and the author of 'Heroes and Other Stories.')