Maritime Asia consists of the Malay Peninsula, the Malay Archipelago, Australia, New Zealand, and the numerous small island nations of the Indo-Pacific Region. A significant contributor to conflict and instability in this strategic territory is religious persecution, and by far the most important driver of this persecution is militant Islamism, whether acting in alliance with a state power or operating through non-state actors and movements.
Although evident across the region, the countries in Maritime Asia exhibiting the most extreme religious repression on account of Islamist ideology are Malaysia and the Maldives (see the country reports). While militant Islamism rarely assumes a violent form in Malaysia, both the federal and state governments impose a rigid Islamic orthodoxy through a system of religious regulation that is among the most far-reaching in the world. An electoral democracy, Malaysia practices an ethno-religious majoritarianism that radically constrains the basic religious freedoms of the Muslim ethnic Malay majority, as well as the mostly Buddhist, Hindu, Christian Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities. Members of the Malay Muslim majority essentially have no religious freedom as the government defines and coercively imposes the kind of Islam they must believe and practice – a particular school of Sunni Islam – making it extremely difficult to convert out of this form of Islam. At the same time, the government ruthlessly enforces a variety of restrictions on the country’s religious and ethnic minorities. Non-Muslims may not refer to God as “Allah” in their publications, and proselytism directed at Malay Muslims by non-Muslims is strictly forbidden and punishable by law. In February 2020, the collapse of a short-lived reform government and a return to hard-line governance diminished any prospect for improvement in the country’s religious freedom conditions. In this climate, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took to Twitter in October 2020 to call on the world’s Muslims to “kill millions of French people” in revenge for the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
The small archipelagic nation of the Maldives, located south of India in the Indian Ocean, is in the grip of both state-imposed Islamic orthodoxy and non-state Islamist extremism. One of the most religiously repressive countries in the world, the Maldives formally mandates that Maldivian citizens must adhere to Sunni Islam and bans any public expression of non-Muslim faith, even by visitors. As the country report reveals, although the nation has made some strides towards democracy and the rule of law since the end of a 30-year dictatorship in 2008, it has largely failed to curb a dangerous rise in jihadist extremism in recent years. Islamists have worked to roll back democratic reforms, and even succeeded in pressuring the Government to shut down the Maldives’ most influential human rights NGO in late 2019.
The dire consequences of Islamism for religious freedom are also visible in several other countries in Maritime Asia. In Indonesia, by far the region’s most populous country and the world’s largest Muslim nation, militant Islamists associated with groups such as the Front for the Defence of Islam, opposed to Indonesia’s official Pancasila ideology of religious tolerance, continued to work with some local government officials to shut down houses of worship operated by religious minority communities. Most dramatically, they joined forces with business and political elites to bring down the Christian and ethnic-Chinese governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname “Ahok,” in 2017. After suffering an electoral defeat and serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy, Ahok was released only in January 2019. In the Catholic-majority Philippines, too, non-state Islamism is fuelling the violent militancy of Abu Sayyaf on the country’s large, Muslim-majority southern island of Mindanao. Meanwhile, the tiny sultanate of Brunei Darussalam has also taken steps during the reporting period to implement a more uncompromising Islamic ideology. In April 2019, Brunei implemented a Sharia Penal Code criminalizing the defamation of the Prophet Mohammad, apostasy, and even proselytizing by non-Muslims among other non-Muslims, and prescribing such punishments as whipping, and death by stoning (see country reports).
At least in some important respects, however, Indonesia departs from the pattern of a deepening Islamisation and radicalisation that prevails today in many Muslim-majority countries, whether in Maritime Asia, Mainland Asia, or elsewhere. Displays of Islamist activity in Indonesia have been matched – especially in the last three years – by a number of positive legal, political, and religious trends. For example, a widely hailed ruling by the Constitutional Court in 2017 extended religious freedom protections and state resources to indigenous spiritual traditions outside the country’s six officially recognized religions. Also, as the country report indicates, the wave of Islamist mobilization that brought down Ahok failed to prevent the election of the country’s moderate president, Joko Widodo, in Indonesia’s April 2019 elections. Indeed, the display of Islamist power in the Ahok affair prompted Indonesian political and religious leaders to bolster the country’s political and cultural traditions of religious tolerance. For example, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest civil society movement and the world’s largest Muslim organization with some 90 million members, is pursuing a national and global campaign to re-contextualise elements of Islamic orthodoxy that have encouraged jihadist extremism and religious intolerance towards non-Muslims. NU even hosted American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jakarta in late October 2020 and expressed a shared commitment to religious freedom and inalienable human rights.
It is also encouraging that many of Maritime Asia’s countries are among the most religiously free and peaceful in the world. These include: the large island nations of Australia and New Zealand; the majority-Christian nations of Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste; and the Pacific micro-states of Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, Nauru, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands (see the country reports). Despite this general picture, these countries have not been without serious challenges, the most notable being the terrorist attack by a white-supremacist Australian national on two mosques during Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, killing 51 people and injuring 40. Additionally, in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the Marshall Islands, the country reports reveal discrimination against Muslim minorities. Australia in particular faces ongoing criticism both for its lack of openness to individuals from around Asia seeking refuge from religious persecution, and for its failure to provide adequate facilities to asylum-seekers.
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