The rise of radical Islam in the Middle East over the past few decades now may be reaching the Far East. This appears along a scale of seriousness from new levels of political concern to the reality of enhanced tensions and violence from west to east along an archipelago of national territories from Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, down the Malaysian peninsula into Indonesia’s Sumatra, Java, and eastern islands, and up into Mindanao in the Philippines. Taken together, indeed with Indonesia alone, these lands hold by far the largest Muslim population in the world.
Malaysia isn’t usually associated with Islamic terrorism. Home to an ethnically-diverse population tending more towards torpor than unrest, Malaysia has had no major Islamic terror attack and no major outbreak of violence in more than forty years.
Political Islamism has a long history in Malaysia. Before independence, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP, now known as PAS) splintered off from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), retaining the latter’s racial aspect, but foregrounding Islam. Over time, that competition pushed UMNO, too, to emphasize Islam more. (About 61 percent of Malaysians are Muslim, almost 90 percent of them Malay or other bumiputera, indigenous groups.)
Islamic finance—the premises of which prohibits riba, or the payment of interest, requires that economic action be grounded in exchanges of actual, not speculative products, and shared profits and losses—is a booming industry worldwide. Few countries have committed greater financial, institutional, and educational support to its development than Malaysia. Launching its first full-fledged Malaysian Islamic bank, Bank Islam, in 1983, today Malaysia boasts the world’s third largest Islamic finance market (only Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s are larger).
Islam came Islam came to China in the seventh century when Muslim envoys in the service of the third Caliph Uthman traveled to Guangzhou (previously Canton) to discuss trade and diplomacy with the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Emperor Gaozong had a mosque erected in their honor, and for the next few hundred years the majority of Muslims in the Chinese empire were sojourners traveling from Arabia and Persia as merchants. It was not until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that Muslims really started to settle permanently in China. The Mongols imported Persians and Central Asians to work as administrators and bureaucrats, while also deploying large embassies to places like Bukhara and Samarkand to facilitate trade and diplomatic relations.
We should be clear: Mindanao is not Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. We cannot approach a province of our longest standing treaty ally the same way we do in Syria or any of the other 18 or so countries to which the ISIS virus as spread.
On 23 May 2017, several hundred militants acting in the name of the Islamic State seized control of a portion of Marawi City, in the southern Philippines, after months of preparation and stockpiling of arms and munitions. The group was led by Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the Islamic extremist Abu Sayyaf Group whom ISIS named its Emir for Southeast Asia. Isnilon Hapilon used ISIS’s extremist ideology to galvanize support amongst several disparate extremist groups, most notably Omar and Abdullah Maute, who founded Dawlah Islamiyah.
The news from Jakarta last April 20 presented a very sad juxtaposition. On the one hand, there was US Vice President Mike Pence, expressing his admiration for Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance and moderation and reassuring Indonesians on behalf of the Trump administration, that the new visa restrictions would not apply to Indonesians. At the same time, the Acting Governor (equivalent of Mayor) of Jakarta, Basuki Cahaya Purnama – commonly known as Ahok – was facing a court in that city on the criminal charge of blaspheming Islam.
Maritime Southeast Asia, the area circumscribed by the Malaysian peninsula, the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines, is vital to US strategic concerns for two primary reasons. First, this region includes the South China Sea where American and Chinese ambitions may be heading toward direct conflict as China continues to press forward with its agenda of extending its reach.