Regular readers of this blog know that I’m interested in international politics and global strategic issues, among many, many other things (as a reader, I’m a total magpie – and proud of it!). Since the recent unlamented demise of Osama bin Laden, the issues of terrorism and Islamic militancy are back in the news, but sometimes only superficially. Whole areas of the world continue to be ignored by the media, or appear to be on their back burner.
That’s why a book like A Muslim Archipelago: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia, from the National Defense Intelligence College, is so illuminating. It provides both historical perspectives and contemporary insights into the origins and political position of Islam in Indonesia and its various components, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Islam in Indonesia, for example, has assimilated many characteristics of Hindu and animistic beliefs, making it vastly different than the austere Wahabism of Saudi Arabia or the fundamentalism of the Taliban. The book also points out that places like Acheh in Indonesia and the southern region of Thailand were independent Muslim polities until relatively recent times, resulting in a potent blend of religion and regionalism that sometimes explodes into insurrection. America’s own experience with the Moros of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War is only one example – and the Moros are still challenging the Filipino state today.
A Muslim Archipelago is also a lucidly written guide to the bewildering proliferation of militant groups. as in many extremist political movements, factions and splits are common. Jemaah Islamiyeh, Laskar Jundallah, and Laskar Jihad all appear within a few pages of each other in the section on Indonesia, but the book does a good job of differentiating their aims and actions. When (and I’m afraid it’s not “if”) the next flare-up of insurgency or terrorism crops up in Southeast Asia, this book will provide the context within which to explicate the issues and personalities involved.
I hope policy makers and strategists, and political leaders around the world can benefit form the information in this excellent book – it’s in all of our best interests if they do. You can browse through it here or here (where you can also order it as an eBook!), get your own copy here, or find it in a library.