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Southeast Asia, Muslim Nationalism in

Farish A. Noor
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Southeast Asia, Muslim Nationalism in

Muslim Politics in Southeast Asia before Modern Nationalism.

Islam’s arrival to Southeast Asia was a lengthy process, though by the thirteenth century Muslim polities were already present in many of the formerly Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the archipelago. Islam’s contribution to the peoples of Southeast Asia came in the form of a new political vocabulary that further expanded the vocabulary of politics that was already introduced after centuries of cultural contact and exchange with South Asia; and the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the pre-Islamic past adapted themselves to the political culture of Islam by taking on new signifiers, such as the concept of the sultanate. Sufism also contributed to the development of Muslim politics in the region as some of the Sūfītarīqahs such as the Naqshbandīya were adopted as “official” tarīqahs by the rulers of kingdoms such as Johor-Riao-Lingga.

Islam also became the religion of politics and power thanks to the manner in which it was spread by Arab and Indian merchants who often married into the ruling families of the archipelago and who later assumed important roles as advisors to the Muslim sultans and rajas of the region: Sheikh Tuan Mashaika, for instance, married the daughter of Rajah Sipad, which led to the formation of the first Muslim community in Sulu, southern Philippines, in the fourteenth century. Similar patterns of top-down conversion through inter-elite marriages contributed to the rise of polities like Malacca, Cirebon, Demak, Pontianak, and others.

With the coming of the first Western explorers, missionaries, and colonizers to the region by the fifteenth century, Islam also served as a marker of collective identity among the Muslims of the region who regarded the Christian Europeans as interlopers and competitors. While some of the weaker Muslim kingdoms such as Malacca, Sulu, and Manila fell into the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese, other Muslim kingdoms such as Aceh (in North Sumatra) rose in their wake, calling upon other Muslim powers like Ottoman Turkey to come to their aid.

Muslim Nationalism as a Reaction to Colonialism.

“Muslim nationalism” is here defined as the conscious effort on the part of Muslims to organize themselves politically with the stated intention of gaining control of the state apparatus and with the long-term view of building a nation-state that reflects the aims and aspirations of the Muslims of that community. It is not necessarily intended to create an Islamic state, which would be a nation-state that is modeled on Islamic understandings of law and power; and not all Muslim nationalists in Southeast Asia felt that an Islamic state was the end-goal of Muslim nationalist politics.

Between the eighteenth to the early twentieth century new Muslim elite groups were created as a result of the colonial encounter: the British, Dutch, and French colonial powers encouraged mass migration from India, China, and other countries in order to facilitate the running of their colonies that were organized by the logic of racialized colonial capitalism. This meant that new urban constituencies were also able to emerge, and this included prominent urban-based scholars, or ulema, like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, and other Muslim intellectual-activists who sought to educate Muslims through the medium of modern religious education in the modern madrasahs they set up.

It was the colonial encounter that provided this new generation of Southeast Asian Muslim activist-intellectuals with the vocabulary and ideas that served as the framework for their Muslim nationalist aspirations: They accepted the reality of colonial rule and adopted modern concepts like the nation-state, citizenship, modern education, and the like but with the aim of fighting for independence from colonial rule instead. By the end of the nineteenth century new Muslim movements and parties were emerging all across the archipelago with the intention of promoting Muslim nationalism and the idea of an independent, postcolonial state where Muslims would be restored to power.


In Java and other parts of the Dutch East Indies Muslim resistance to colonial rule grew stronger toward the end of the nineteenth century. The Muslim peasants’ revolt in Banten (Java) in 1888 occupied the attention of the Dutch colonial army in Java, while the Aceh war of 1873–1912 (North Sumatra) proved to be the costliest conflict in the Dutch colony. It has to be noted that these instances of resistance to Dutch colonial rule were local in character, reflecting the complex ethno-linguistic nature of Indonesia’s plural society. The Javanese, Madurese, Bugis, Minangs, Acehnese, and other groups of Indonesia have always been distinct from one another; but it was Islam that united them by giving them a common religious identity and culture.

Indonesian Muslim mobilization was, however, focused on addressing economic and political realities of the time: in 1911, Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto and Haji Agoes Salim formed the Sarekat Dagang Islam (Islamic Co-operative) movement. The Sarekat Dagang Islam catered exclusively to the interests of Indonesian Muslims and sought to develop the economic and social well-being of Muslims in the East Indies, and within a few years it opened branches in the Malay Peninsula. In 1912, the Muhammadiyah, a modernist and reformist Muslim organization, was founded by Kiyai Hadji Ahmad Dahlan. The conservative-traditionalists Muslims followed suit by forming their own organization, Nahdatul Ulama (NU), in 1926; and the leader was Kyai Hashim Asyari. By the beginning of World War II there were several Indonesian Muslim political and economic associations that were already calling on Indonesian Muslims to unite against Dutch colonial rule.

During the period of the Japanese occupation during World War II, the Japanese army helped to train and arm many of the Muslim nationalists in Indonesia, and formed Japanese-supported militia outfits such as Hizbullah. Consequently when the war ended many of these Indonesian Muslim militias and parties were at the forefront of the struggle against the Dutch, and played a crucial role in Indonesia’s war of independence (1945–1949). In the 1950s and 1960s, however, a series of revolts took place in Java, Sumatra, and the outer island provinces as a result of Muslim movements that wanted Islamic law to be made the law for all Muslims in the country, known as the Darul Islam revolt.

Malaysia and Singapore.

The development of Muslim nationalism in Malaysia followed a trajectory similar to that of Indonesia’s: By the 1930s Muslim organizations had been created across British Malaya calling upon Malayan Muslims to modernize their own system of education and to form economic cooperatives and companies like their counterparts in Java and Sumatra. The centers for Muslim economic and political mobilization were the British Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, where new modern madrasahs and Muslim trading guilds were formed, backed up by a modern vernacular press that published journals, magazines, and newspapers. Singapore was an important cosmopolitan base for all kinds of Muslim mobilization, as it was the transit point for itinerant Muslim merchants and activists from all across Asia. Between the 1900s to the 1930s, Singapore, along with Penang, were among the most active centers of Muslim writing and political mobilization among Malay, Indian, and Arab Muslims in the region; and it was Singapore that served as one of the Southeast Asian bases for the Khilafāt movement that was launched by Mawlana Muhammad Ali Jauhar of India.

Muslim nationalism in British Malaya was not focused entirely on Islamist politics or an Islamic state: Malayan Muslims supported nationalist parties like the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM, the Malay Nationalist Party of Malaya) too. In 1946 Malay-Muslim nationalists from the leftist, nationalist, and Islamist camps gathered to form the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), though UMNO later came to be dominated by the conservative nationalists. Those who were more inclined toward Islamist politics later left UMNO to form their own Islamist parties: in 1948 Malaysia’s first Islamist party––the Hizbul Muslimin––was formed, but banned soon after. Then in 1951 a faction of the UMNO party left and formed the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which was the second Islamist party in Malaysian history.

Muslim nationalism in British Malaya was directed initially at gaining independence for Malaysia. Although PAS was an Islamic party, its ideological leanings have been varied and the party was known for its leftist sympathies during the time of its leader Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy (1956–1969). It later came to be associated with a narrower form of Malay ethno-nationalism during the time of its next leader, Asri Muda (1970–1982). Both UMNO and PAS, however, claimed to be parties that defended the interests of Muslims in Malaysia.


Muslim nationalism in Thailand was shaped by historical factors that affected the identity of Muslims in the four southernmost provinces of the country: Jala, Narathiwat, Satun, and Patani. Historically these provinces were formally Malay kingdoms that were later brought under Thai Buddhist rule with the expansion of Siam, right up to the period of the Thai kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn.

As the Muslims of southern Thailand were Malays who were ethnically different from their Siamese neighbors, Muslim and Malay nationalism went hand-in-hand in southern Thailand. Among the first Malay-Muslim nationalist organisations formed in southern Thailand was the Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Patani (BNPP, National Liberation Front of Patani) that was founded in 1959. The BNPP was a broad-based nationalist movement calling for the liberation of Patani from Thai rule. By the 1960s the tone and tenor of Muslim nationalism in Thailand grew more revolutionary as the Thai Muslim nationalists gained support from other Muslim nationalist and autonomy movements abroad: the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, National Revolutionary Front) was formed in 1963; and later the Pertubuhan Perpaduan Pembebasan Patani (PULO, Patani United Liberation Organisation) was founded in 1968.

It was the apparent failure of movements like the BNPP, BRN, and PULO to win independence or autonomy for the Muslims of southern Thailand that contributed to the radicalization of the Muslim movements there. In the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1979 some of the more Islamist-inclined Muslim nationalists like Wahyuddin Muhammad formed the Islamist Barisan Bersatu Mujahideen Patani (BBMP, United Muhajideen Front of Patani), in 1985.


Muslim nationalism in the Philipines, as in the case of Thailand, developed as a result of the anxieties of religious minority groups who felt themselves excluded from the process of nation-building and governance. Though divided along thirteen ethno-linguistic groups and sub-clans, the one factor that unified the Moros of the Philippines was their Muslim religion and culture, which they felt were under threat due to Spanish (and later American) colonialism and missionary activism. The Muslims of the south Philippines were among those who were never really colonized during both Spanish and later American colonial rule; and were consequently proud of having been able to maintain some sense of ethnic-religious identity and independence. However, after the Philippines had gained its independence the Muslims of the southern island provinces felt that they were not adequately represented in the central government based in Manila, and that the Muslim island provinces had not been given their share of development funding and political representation.

The first Muslim nationalist movements in southern Philippines were ethno-nationalist movements––rather than Islamist ones––that called for better political representation and economic support. In the 1960s hardly any of the Moro-Muslim movements were focused on the goal of creating an Islamic state of any kind. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1969 by left-leaning Muslim leaders like Nur Misuari. During the 1970s the MNLF waged a guerrilla war against the Philippine central government while in other parts of the Philippine archipelago the Philippine Communist Party was likewise engaged in civil conflict. Many of the Moro Muslim nationalists then were still left-leaning activists and in 1980 some of them formed the Moro Revolutionary Organisation (MORO). The failure of groups like the MNLF and MORO to gain an upper hand in the contest against the central government finally led to some of the more Islamist-inclined leaders of the Moro community to seek a more Islamist approach: In 1984 an MNLF leader, the al-Azhar educated Hashim Salamat, broke away from the MNLF to form his own Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

One of the consequences of the emergence of groups like the MILF was the injection of religion into the Moro struggle, as groups like MILF identified themselves as Islamist first, and Moro second. This shaped Muslim and Christian perceptions of each other in the country, and was a factor that also contributed to a more anti-Muslim perspective among right-wing Philippine Catholic nationalist groups.

From Nationalism to Pan-ASEAN Islamism Today.

Muslim nationalism in Southeast Asia began as an effort to educate and empower Muslims across the region in order to prepare them for the struggle for independence and the eventuality of coming to power. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim nationalism was broad based, and not all Muslim nationalists were supportive of Islamist politics or called for the creation of an Islamic state. In other countries like Thailand and the Philippines, Muslim nationalism was also linked to the concerns of a Muslim minority community that felt itself under-represented and at times oppressed by a non-Muslim majority.

From the outset, the development of Muslim nationalism in Southeast Asia was exposed to external influences, the most important being the rise of political Islam in other parts of the world. Events such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the development of Islamist political parties like the Jamat-e Islami in South Asia and the Ikhwān al-Muslimūn in the Arab states, and the Iranian revolution were the catalysts for the further development––and in some cases radicalization––of Muslim nationalism in Southeast Asia.

Muslim nationalism in Southeast Asia has developed in many ways, with Islamists in Indonesia playing a crucial role in the fall of Suharto and the democratization of the country. But at the same time the rise of pan-Southeast Asian movements and organisations such as the ASEAN Muslim Secretariat (AMSEC), hosted by Malaysia’s Islamic party PAS and the emergence of pan-ASEAN terrorist groups such as the Jamāah Islāmīyah also suggests that Muslim nationalism in the region is no longer solely focused on the nation-state, or contained within the boundaries of nations.


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