A wish for happy end to Ramadan and a great eid il ftr to all the Muslim readers of this blog.
The contest between state power and religious freedom is, for those unfamiliar with the expression, as old as the hills.
The struggle between those forces is enlivened significantly when it involves an emerging democracy and a major religion undergoing a crisis of identity.
Indonesia today is a case study of those pressures, and as the story here indicates the Indonesian state has just made its latest move.
I wouldn’t anticipate the issue being resolved any time soon. Western democracies are still arguing about where the lines should be drawn after centuries of heated debate and often bloody conflict.
Furthermore, any “peace” achieved between the state and religion isn’t necessarily healthy. Peace in this context requires a dominance of either cold authoritarianism or theocratic privilege.
Indonesia deserves better than that, so I sincerely hope their bloodless struggle lasts indefinitely.
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I recently asked a dear friend what my next post here should focus on. The reply came to me as a single word – “life”.
Where to start in the context of Southeast Asia, and how to address a concept as vast and as nebulous as life itself?
Perhaps, in the same way that the topic is a single word, the response could also be in single words.
In that vein I remembered Thomas Fuller’s thoughts in the New York Times article here, where he presented life in Southeast Asia through the single word prism of impunity.
Looking at that article again there is still little I disagree with, although the Southeast Asian world he describes has moved on somewhat.
Is impunity still an apt in describing Southeast Asia? Absolutely…but also maybe not universally. Impunity continues to exist in the region, although recent events in Malaysia have shown how far and how quickly political certainties can shift.
Even so, for many Southeast Asians impunity is clearly limited to the earthly world. Many tens of millions of Southeast Asians believe their lives to be subject to the whims of spirits. These spirits usually exist in both this life and the next, so achieving impunity from their wrath requires great dedication. This dedication can be seen in countless mosques, temples, shrines, churches and rituals often unique to the region.
And so, like any half decent political scientist, in the contest between the concepts of legal and political impunity and extreme vulnerability to the whim of spirits I find myself drawn to the concept of power.
Life in Southeast Asia is, to my mind, often a contest of power. To paraphrase the words of Chairman Mao “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, but I wonder if life in Southeast Asia is shaped just as much by spirit power that acts with impunity.
Curiously visitors and locals experience this power differently. A visiting outsider may consider themselves as having impunity against (at least local) sprits, but are aware that they have a life changing vulnerability to other expressions of power. In contrast a local resident may experience and exercise power very differently in the life they enjoy, live or simply endure.
Most fascinating perhaps is to witness how this power relevancy in life switches as Southeast Asians become foreigners and foreigners become Southeast Asians through the magic of migration. Notably too, tourism seems impotent to offer all but an alluring taste of this possible reversal of power for a fragment of their life.
And so that is my take on life in Southeast Asia. I suggest just four words, namely impunity, vulnerability, spirits and power can capture life in the region.
Could any reader capture Southeast Asia in three words? Attempts are welcome.
UPDATE – At the top of this post I referred to a ‘dear friend”. Such is her personality that “dear” should be replaced with “brilliant, wise, funny, adorable, amazing and lovely”. I hope she can forgive me for my initial oversight 😉
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If I had to limit the content of this blog to just one topic, I would be hard pressed to choose between Indonesia’s volcanoes and historical maps of Southeast Asia. I have written previously about Indonesia’s volcanoes here (and elsewhere from memory), so I thought I would take a moment to share my interest in just one set of the fascinating maps that are out there.
I have always believed that when I had made it professionally and was casually wealthy (the day is still quite a way ahead of me!) I would buy the book I have wanted since I first encountered it in my University Library.
Needless to say most Universities have more money than me, and given there are plenty of functioning motor cars available at a cheaper price than I have seen the book quoted online, I will simply continue to dream of buying it.
The book is the Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company. Volume VII: East Asia, Burma to Japan & Supplement. Volume VII is the last of the series, with the others being;
Volume 1 – Atlas Isaak de Graaf (Atlas Amsterdam)
Volume 2 – Java en Madoera (Java and Madura)
Volume 3 – Indische Archipel en Oceanië (Malay Archipelago and Oceania)
Volume 4 – Ceylon
Volume 5 – Afrika (Africa)
Volume 6 – Voor-Indië, Perzië, Arabisch Schiereiland (India, Persia, Arabian Penninsula)
(Volume 7 – Oost-Azië, Birma tot Japan (East Asia, Burma to Japan & supplement))
For reference purposes see the link here.
Of course I would love Volume II & III and ideally the whole set, but the complete set is getting into the price range that would rival the cost of some houses I have lived in. Such is life.
For those interested in the superlative atlas of Indonesian History I point you to the link here, while for those readers simply wanting to browse the maps by appearance there are commercial options such as the one here and free (to view) maps such as the set here.
Some really interesting background reading on the story of these maps is available here.
I hope you find some of the links as compelling as I do.
Disclaimer – I have no connection with or potential benefit from any of the commercial sites to which I link to here, nor do I make any recommendations on purchasing. Links are provided solely for informative reasons.
Putting together a quick post, I decided to return to one of my original interests in Southeast Asia and look again at the region’s Muslim populations.
I am conscious of and seek to respect the ethics around copyright protections, so in this post I will simply insert hyperlinks.
A couple of years later Tom Pepinsky contributed his work to the topic here. I am always fascinated by information presented diferently, and the cartogram in that link prompted me to search for what else might be available.
That led me to the great infographic from The Observer that is reproduced here. One problem I have with presenting that to you dear readers is that it again reinforces the nexus in the public consciousness between Islam and terror. To my mind that says more about the focal points of the Western media and their perception of what is of interest to their readers. That is fair enough from a commercial perspective, but it sells short (no pun intended) the vast number of other intriguing stories on what is happening with Islam in the region.
There is, for example, my recent post here on the dynamics on who is now becoming more and less welcome in Indonesia. There is fascinating work on Islamic education in Myanmar available here, revelations about Asia Islamic Fashion Week here and here, stories on Malaysia’s efforts to become a global hub of Islamic finance here and further cementing of ties between the region and the Middle East with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz sending an invitation to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, inviting him to attend the Arab-Islamic-US summit, set to take place in Riyadh later in May available here.
Again, there is a lot happening, but little that bubbles to the surface of Western media.
The most recent graphic I could find on Southeast Asia’s Muslim population, again from the Pew Research Centre, is available here. The numbers in the graphic look neat are precise, but the true picture is messier, more complicated and much, much more intriguing.
Among the biggest frustrations with this blog is the number of great topics to explore and so little time in which to write about them.
I will as a result quickly flag the possibility that Indonesia is, in a historical sense, in the midst of another national identity crisis. There are two ways a nation state works its way through such doubt, seen in efforts to define both what the country is and what the country is not. In practice, this manifests itself as painting certain social groups as being welcome and unwelcome.
Efforts to make others unwelcome are always more newsworthy, particularly for outsiders seeing Indonesia through the prism of international media.
You can define non-Muslims as being unwelcome neighbours, seen here, but they also need to be the right kind of Muslims or they too are unwelcome, as seen here. Of course there are the unwelcome others that persistently rejected, rightly or wrongly, for their perceived threat to the very fabric of Indonesian society. Chief among these recurring targets of moral panic are drug dealers here and gays as seen here and here.
And who is welcome? Sadly anyone with enough money. Even a strange and seedy tinpot President like the one mentioned here. Sad.