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Southeast Asia, Christianity and Islam in

Robbie B. H. Goh
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Southeast Asia, Christianity and Islam in

Christianity and Islam stand in varied relationships to each other in the different countries of Southeast Asia. In some places the relationship between the two religious communities is tense and even confrontational, while elsewhere both communities face common threats from hostile state regimes. For the purposes of this entry, the definition of “Southeast Asia” will follow the membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In order to depict relationships, I will focus on communal life and action, and the discourses, events, and policy matters that influence these, rather than on institutional religions.

Christianity and Islam in the Muslim Nations.

In three of the countries in Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei—Islam is the dominant religion, its dominance established either constitutionally, or effectively by policy, or by sheer demographic weight. In the case of Malaysia, for example, article 3.1 of the constitution declares that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” Similarly for Brunei, the constitution declares that “the official religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Islamic religion: provided that all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony by the persons professing them.” Indonesia’s constitution does not privilege Islam, and like Malaysia’s and Brunei’s constitutions guarantees each person the freedom “to worship and to practice the religion of his choice.”

Freedom of religious practice in Islamic states.

Despite these assurances of freedom of worship in Malaysia and Brunei, and despite the fact that Islam is not constitutionally privileged in Indonesia, the freedom to practice other religions is often curtailed in various ways. The notion of an Islamic state essentially means the Islamization of society and culture, with the corresponding subordination of other religions insofar as they touch on that Islamization. Thus there is effectively a distinction between the existence of a religious institution, and the practices of that religion; while the former is permitted in the name of freedom of religion, the latter are closely scrutinized and acted against where they contravene the notion of the Islamic state. This is true of any of the religions other than Islam that are practiced in these nations, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism (or traditional Chinese beliefs), Sikhism, and Christianity. With Christianity specifically, some of the practices that are curtailed include education or teaching, print or publications, and the institutional governance of Christian institutions such as schools, churches, and seminaries.


In Brunei, for example, it is forbidden to teach aspects of Christianity in any school, while it is compulsory to teach courses on Islam in government schools; private schools also offer these courses on Islam, although it is not compulsory for them to do so. Churches and Christian groups are governed under a “Societies Order” which makes it compulsory to register the society as well as all the names of members, failing which the group can be arrested for unlawful assembly. In Malaysia, mission schools established and run by Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now no longer have control over the appointment of teachers and even principals, which is managed by the Ministry of Education instead. The posting of mainly non-Christian teachers and principals to such schools, together with the prohibition of Christian-based values teaching and other Christian extra-curricular events and activities, means that these schools have effectively lost their distinctive Christian character and are no longer Christian except in name.

In Indonesia, a highly controversial bill was passed in 2003, requiring all schools to provide religious instruction to all their students in the student’s particular religion, and also to build worship facilities for such students on school premises. This grew out of Muslim leaders’ concerns that Muslim students in Christian mission schools were losing their faith while being exposed to Christianity and the danger of conversion. While the bill extended to all schools, its brunt fell on mission schools, since hardly any Christian students attended Muslim schools, while a significant number of Muslim students attended mission schools. In effect it meant that the Christian schools had to hire Muslim religious teachers to teach courses on Islam to Muslim pupils in the school, and also to build mosques or prayer rooms on school premises. Despite opposition from educators and mission schools leading to a parliamentary review, the bill was retained, but with the compromise that the government would leave enforcement to the public—in effect, to social pressure and in extreme cases mob violence from the more militant Muslim pressure groups.


In terms of publishing, one of the long-standing issues affecting the Christian community in Malaysia is the translation of the Bible into Bahasa Melayu and other native languages. In 2003, government censors listed the Bible in Iban (the language of the Iban people found in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak) among thirty-five publications banned for being “detrimental to public peace.” The grounds for the ban was the use of the phrase “Allah Taala” as a translation for “Almighty God,” a phrase which was widely used in Islamic literature and thus held to be potentially confusing to Muslims. The ban was finally lifted after church leaders sought help from then prime minister Abdullah Badawi. The “Allah” controversy refuses to go away, however; in 2010, a Malaysian High Court ruling permitting the use of “Allah” in a Catholic newspaper resulted in a series of arson attacks on churches and other places of worship. The desire on the part of Christians to use “Allah” as a legitimate translation for one of the several different names of God in the Bible, running up against Muslim sentiments that the term is a special denotation of God in Islam, has led to an impasse that has stretched out for years, with no resolution in sight.


An even more fraught issue is evangelism, which for at least the evangelical brands of Christianity is a mandate for all Christians stipulated by the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:19 and elsewhere in the Bible. However, in the Islamic states of Malaysia and Brunei it is illegal to preach or evangelize to Muslims; indeed, the Islamized nature of society in these nations effectively means a discouragement of evangelical Christianity, out of concern that it might give offense to Muslims and encroach upon Islam’s dominant position in society. The current wave of transnational evangelical Christianity, originating in churches and Christian media centers largely in the U.S. and affecting evangelical Christian groups in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, has had a more muted effect in countries like Malaysia and Brunei, where evangelical Christians have had to tone down their evangelical activities. The large-scale and open evangelical rallies, often with big-name international evangelists, the sale or distribution of Christian publications, and other such public activities practiced by evangelical Christians in many other countries are eschewed by evangelicals in Malaysia and Brunei, who have had to rely on more covert manifestations of their evangelical beliefs.

Communal violence and human rights.

Beyond the scrutiny and policing of aspects of Christian praxis in Islamic societies, Muslim–Christian relations have periodically been blighted by communal violence. This is particularly true of Indonesia, where a large and culturally diverse population spread out across thousands of islands has proven tougher to govern (particularly in the post-Suharto era) than the smaller populations and territories of Brunei and Malaysia. Islam in Indonesia also occupies a more ambiguous position than in Malaysia and Brunei, on the one hand denied the status of a state religion, but on the other hand the majority religion with a large following including zealous militant branches. Socioeconomic disparities between different groups and regions have also resulted in greater social instability than in Malaysia and Brunei, with consequences for Muslim–Christian relations as well. In cities and towns, communal violence has often been directed at Chinese churches and individuals, who are easy targets not only because they are non-Muslim but also because of the perception that wealthy Chinese business families have suspect loyalties to the Indonesian nation. In more remote parts of Indonesia, Christian–Muslim violence has been catalyzed by transmigration policies of the 1980s that brought Muslim groups from crowded main islands to the outer islands, in sudden proximity to Christian-majority communities that had long dominated local business and politics. Smaller clashes in the 1990s came to a head in a bloody confrontation between Christians and Muslims in Ambon in Maluku; similar communal violence broke out a while later in Sulawesi.

The Philippines and the “Muslim South.”

The situation in the Muslim nations of Southeast Asia is reversed in the Philippines, the only Christian-majority nation in Asia. Muslims form about 7 percent of the population of the Philippines, and face discrimination in a nation which is overwhelmingly Catholic in its demography, culture, and society. Muslims are underrepresented in Philippine government and the judiciary, and there is little concession to their religion and way of life in a country where being Filipino is associated with being Catholic, and where Catholic groups and leaders influence many aspects of national life, from political elections to festivals, education, and social values. The southern island of Mindanao where the majority of Muslims live is far from the political and economic capital Manila, and has become an isolated and underdeveloped region. In a familiar vicious cycle, this economic isolation breeds resentment that manifests itself in communal violence and separatist struggle, which in turn confirm the region as a political hotspot and deter tourism, investors, and the prospect of amelioration and resolution.

Muslim and Christian Minorities in the Buddhist Nations.

In the predominantly Buddhist nations of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Christianity and Islam often occupy similar positions as marginal and oppressed minority religions.


In Thailand, Muslims are concentrated in the southern provinces that border Malaysia, especially Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—a region that is culturally and economically isolated from the rest of the country—with often violent results. The Muslim and largely Malay-speaking communities in these provinces exist at the cultural and economic periphery of the dominant Buddhist culture and the political and economic center of Bangkok. While the Muslim separatist cause in the Philippines has a greater degree of coherence and a clearer goal of autonomy, the tensions in southern Thailand largely take the form of episodic localized or communal violence for which no group takes particular responsibility, nor are the political goals articulated. Thailand’s Christian community is even smaller than the Muslim one, largely concentrated in urban areas and among tribal minorities like the Karens. Although there are more Buddhist Karens than Christians, the rate of adherence of Christians is significant enough in Buddhist Thailand to associate Karens with Christianity, and thus also to the kinds of insurgency struggles that the Karens in Myanmar are involved in. Thus both Christianity and Islam in Thailand are implicated in sociopolitical marginalization of ethnic groups, and attendant fears of insurgency and separatism.


As in Thailand, Buddhism in Myanmar is also the dominant religion and deeply intertwined with Burmese society and identity. This, together with the repressive regime of the ruling military junta, places both Muslims and Christians in similar positions as marginalized and oppressed communities. Hiring and other preferential practices favor the majority Burmese Buddhists at the expense of religious minorities like Muslims and Christians, while these communities have also borne the brunt of human-rights violations carried out by the military, which have particularly targeted ethnic and religious minorities. Both Islam and Christianity have become the banners for separatist causes in Myanmar, particularly for the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan in western Myanmar, and the hill tribes which have significant Christian groups, such as the Karens and Kachins.

Laos and Vietnam.

Unlike Thailand and Myanmar, Buddhism does not have the same cultural centrality in Laos, due in large part to earlier communist purges of religious groups. Christianity in particular has received very harsh treatment from the Lao government, in part because of the communist state’s battles with Hmong separatists, who were predominantly Christian. Evangelical Christian groups in Laos are kept under strict government scrutiny for activities deemed detrimental to the state. Both the Muslim and Christian communities in Laos are very small, and generally keep a low profile and live within the limitations imposed by the communist state.

The Muslim community in Vietnam is also very small (estimated at just 1 percent of the population, the same as in Laos). While the communist state in Vietnam has oppressed both Muslim and Christian communities in earlier years, more recently these religious minorities have found greater tolerance, albeit within the strictures and limitations imposed on them by the state.


Cambodia deserves separate mention because although, like its neighbors, it is both a Buddhist nation and has had a political history dominated by a leftist regime, since 1993 it has been much more open to religious diversity and freedom of worship than Laos, Myanmar, and perhaps even Vietnam. While the Muslim community is still fairly small (at about 4 percent), there has been a sharp growth in Muslim schools, and in international Islamic influences that have even nurtured a conservative or “fundamentalist” brand of Islam. Christianity, although even smaller than Islam, has been allowed greater freedom in recent years, marked significantly by the operation of foreign churches that have been working collaboratively on social welfare as well as church-building projects.


An avowedly secular state, Singapore manages its multicultural and multi-religious community by allowing freedom of worship but policing potential conflicts between religions very strictly. Its “Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act” makes it a criminal offense to cause ill feelings between different religious groups. In effect, this is an anti-proselytization bill that curbs the activities of groups like the evangelical Christians, at least in respect of people who already profess other religions, although it also covers more defamatory and derogatory kinds of situations in print and public expression. Most of the censures and prosecutions enacted in the name of religious harmony in recent years have involved Christian actions thought to be offensive to Muslims.


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