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The author of this brief study on the political aspects of Southeast Asian
Islam is a former State and Defense Department official who originally specialized
in Latin American affairs before turning his attention to Southeast
Asia. Rabasa now works for the RAND Corporation, a think tank with
close links to the American national security community.
The publisher’s target audience is security policy makers. Therefore,
the studies it commissions are part analysis and part policy recommendations,
whereby the former is often reduced to the bare essentials. It must be
said that, in this case, Rabasa has succeeded in presenting a reasonably balanced
picture in the space of a mere 80 pages. Already in his introduction
the author observes that, apart from a sharpening divide between militant
Islam and the West, the antagonism between radicals and moderates within
the Muslim world has increased as well, and that strengthening moderate
and tolerant tendencies within Islam should be supported.
Rabasa sees both external and internal influences contributing to the
rise of Islamic radicalism. In response to the intrusion of western culture, a
heightened sense of Muslim self-awareness has found expression in identity-
driven politics. A further polarizing element in Southeast Asian Islam is
the Arabization process carried out by Wahhabi-inspired movements and
with financial support from the Middle East. Other auxiliary factors to the
formation of transnational networks connecting Muslim radicals are the
Iranian revolution, the Afghan war, disillusion over the lack of progress in
solving the Palestinian issue, and the eruption of ethnic conflicts involving
Muslims in such areas as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir.
Shifting to internal factors, Rabasa identifies different sets of causes
for each Muslim country and Muslim-dominated region in Southeast
Asia. In the case of Indonesia, the vacuum left by an imploding state
structure following Suharto's fall led to a sharpened political competition
in which some saw Islam as a suitable vehicle to power. Malaysia witnessed
increased rivalry between the ruling UMNO coalition and the Pan-
Malay Islamic Party (PAS) for the vote of rural Malays, while in the
Muslim-dominated southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines ...