The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia

Editor:       Ishtiaq AhmedThe Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia

ISBN:          9780415602273

Publisher: Routledge

Year:           2011

Price:         £95,00



Reviewed by Nameeta Mathur, Professor, Saginaw Valley State University, USA.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, the editor of The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia and also the author of the book’s introductory chapter, explains that the purpose of the fourteen essays in the collection is to show the increasing role that religion has played in the politics of the contemporary world. The eleven contributors of this edited volume are academicians, mostly professors at universities in Singapore, US, Indonesia, Philippines, and Australia. The authors are in pursuit of a worthy goal, as the politics of religion continues to marginalize, discriminate, and persecute minorities and women in many societies.

Of the fourteen essays, six are especially informative and well-written. Taj Hashmi narrates how Islamic militancy has resurged in Bangladesh because of the people’s quest to escape bad governance, hyperinflation, corruption, illiteracy, and mass poverty. There has been a marked upsurge in Islamist radicalism in post-Suharto Indonesia as well, as explained by Noorhaidi Hasan. But Hasan informs that anti-radical Islamist campaigns by moderate Muslim organizations have strengthened the attempts by the Indonesian government to resist violent discourse and jihadist activism. The author commends the Prosperous Justice Party for moving away from defensive Islamism and seeking compatibility between Islam and democracy. A moderate Muslim stance can also be found in Southern Philippines where, as Raymund Jose G. Quilop writes, some Muslim movements demanding the right to independence from a country strongly influenced by the Catholic Church have now negotiated with the government or are in route for that negotiation away from armed combat. Maznah Mohamad takes us to Malaysia where we learn how Islam has been absorbed into an ethno-cratic state-making and how defending the goals of Islamization has terribly disadvantaged women and non-Muslims. The collusion between the civil courts and the Syariah courts reaffirms Islamic supremacy in Malaysia. Singapore is multi-racial and multi-religious, but unlike Malaysia, protects the diverse religious beliefs as long as they are not prejudicial or threatening to the common good and do no harm to the nation’s sovereignty, unity, and integrity. Eugene K. B. Tan describes how Singapore supports religious rights in a “pragmatic form of secularism,” with an emphasis on religious moderation, sensitivity, and tolerance. Finally, Tahmina Rashid analyzes the unique subject of networking among Pakistani women, such as in transnational cyber networks Al-Huda and Tableeghi Jamat that represent puritanical versions of Islam and endorse the powerlessness of women.

Two essays, authored by Ishtiaq Ahmed, are informative but lack an important investigative lens. Ahmed’s essay on religious nationalism and minorities in Pakistan reviews how Christians and Hindus have been persecuted in Pakistan, particularly under the Blasphemy Law. The author states that extremists are present at all levels of state machinery, including the military, police, and security services. But because the essay does not evaluate public opinion on the Blasphemy Law, one is at a loss to determine if minority persecution is the result of “extremists” or also of a public opinion that supports the Blasphemy Law and hence condones the violence against religious minorities. How massive is the outrage, if it exists, against the clerics and other authoritative figures and institutions that terrorize minorities? Similarly, when reflecting upon the violent crimes committed against women in Pakistan in another essay, there is no explanation from Ahmed as to why the public at large does not speak out against the clerics who arbitrate on Islamic morality, or why honor killing is not simply called murder? Silence is a form of perpetration and one needs to understand the reason and extent of the banality of evil. Why are most ordinary Pakistanis, either at home or in the diaspora, not questioning loudly and in unison the horrific crimes committed against women and minorities in Pakistan? Ahmed’s essays would be more persuasive if there is a serious explanation as to why the numbers of “modernist” Muslims are small.

Five essays, regardless of their informative utility, need more substantive analysis, clarity of purpose, and greater contemporary insight as opposed to an extensive listing of past events. For example, Bilveer Singh states that the highly marginalized Indian population in Malaysia has resisted efforts at Islamization. But what is the impact of the Hindu agitation in Malaysia? And how does India’s foreign policy with Malaysia address the marginalization of Hindus? Singh comments that the Sikh minorities in Southeast Asia support separatist Khalistanis in India. But we do not learn who exactly in the Sikh minorities are supporting separatist Khalistanis and why? Ali Riaz opines that religio-political forces in South Asia have gained further ground after the countries in the region adopted a neo-liberal economic agenda. This grand statement lacks substantive evidence, as does the “global dimension” of religion and politics in South Asia that is hardly analyzed. Tridivesh Singh Maini’s essay on the evolution of the Sikh religion and important political developments in the past that have had a bearing on the relationship between the Sikh community and the two nation-states of India and Pakistan is a mere recounting of historical facts. The purpose is lost further when the author states that the commonalties which Sikhism shares with other faiths of the subcontinent can act as a potential bridge between India and Pakistan but also adds that it would be utopian to believe that faith and philosophy can build bridges while nation-states are at loggerheads with each other. Maini has inexplicably excluded the Sikh Diaspora from the discussion as well. Rajesh Rai argues that Hindutva organizations have established a formidable presence in the South Asian diaspora in the US. But where are the Hinduvta and Hindutva-affiliated diaspora located in the US? Who exactly are its members (Rai only provides a generalized statement that they include professionals and high-skilled workers)? What are the reasons for them joining such a diaspora? There is no primary evidence to explain the provenance, operations, goals, discourses, impediments, methodologies, and relationships of Hinduvta and Hindutva-affiliated diaspora in the US. The author also needs to be more explanatory when using the words Hindu, Hindutva, and Hinduism. Finally, Ishtiaq Ahmed, in yet another essay, is not incorrect in highlighting the widespread discrimination and persecution of Dalits and Adivasis in India. But Ahmed’s discussion on the plight of the Muslims in India as a minority group is lop-sided. For example, Ahmed does not speak to the fact that many Muslims living in India would much prefer to live in India than in Muslim states elsewhere. Ahmed speaks to the Shah Bano case as an opportunity that boosted the cause of Hindu nationalist propaganda. Instead the analysis could refer to how conservative Muslims have destabilized the unity and integrity of India by adhering to their own separate Sharia law. Ahmed talks about the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992 with the concomitant Muslim retaliation as well as the Gujarat massacre and Hindu retribution of 2002. As heinous as these events were, there is no discussion on the immorality of revenge and retribution for both guilty parties. Ahmed’s discussion on ‘Indian Muslims and terrorism’ lacks clarity of purpose: is the point here to discuss how Pakistan promotes terrorism in India or how the Indian police allegedly tortures Muslim youths? And what exactly do we learn about Muslim experiences in Kashmir because of a secular versus Hindu nation-building in India? Rather than emphasize the supposed limitations of India’s secularism, Ahmed could just as well explain the perceived vulnerability on the part of Indian Muslims due to their rejection of the nation’s liberal-secular values and to their demand to be governed by the Sharia law. Indian Muslims are discriminating against themselves in India by doggedly following the words of their clerics and other conservative Muslim forces.

A final problem with the book is the lack of a conclusion, particularly a conclusion that compared and contrasted the information silos of the individual essays. With comparative, concluding remarks, we could learn how the Sikh support for Khalistan in Southeast Asia connects with the organized chaos in Bangladesh or how the status of Hindus in Malaysia compares with the status of Muslims in India. A concluding chapter could integrate the themes and lessons learned from the different essays so that readers could appreciate not only what they read in the individual essays but importantly what they learned about the politics of religion for the region as a whole. Without this comparative evaluation and assessment, and given the shortcomings of some essays, scholars will find the book useful not as required read but perhaps as a reference text.

Suggested citation:

Mathur, Nameeta (2014). Review of “The Politics of Religion in South and Southeast Asia”, by Ishtiaq Ahmed, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.25, Internet file: