New Book by American Jewish Committee, Australia /Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Examines Role of Islam in Asia

November 6, 2001

November 6, 2001 -  NEW YORK -- Transaction Publishers has released a timely new book developed by the American Jewish Committee and the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council that examines the role and influence of Islam in Asia. The book, Islam in Asia: Changing Political Realities, is an anthology of articles compiled under the auspices of AJC and its Australian partner agency, AIJAC. Jason Isaacson, director of AJC’s Office of Government and International Affairs and its Asia and Pacific Rim Institute, and Dr. Colin Rubenstein, executive director of AIJAC, are the book’s co-editors.

The book examines the role of Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Southern Philippines, and Southern Thailand. The Indonesia and Malaysia chapters were written by Dr. Greg Barton, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Deakin University. Chapters on the Phillipines and Thailand were written by Dr. Peter Chalk, a policy analyst with the Rand Corporation and previously a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Queensland.

“The dearth of research into Islam’s reach and impact in Asia – and into the recent rise of radical movements in a region with a tradition of moderation – is in itself a cause for concern,” said Mr. Isaacson. “This study is a serious and overdue attempt to meet the needs of the public policy community internationally for further understanding of Islamic movements in Southeast Asia.”

Among the study’s key findings:

-- In Indonesia, “the potential for Islam…to make a positive contribution to Indonesian society, specifically to the growth of civil society and democracy, greatly outweighs its potential to make a negative contribution.” While former President Abdulrrahman Wahid, “a democrat and liberal” who had headed a moderate Islamic grassroots organization, appeared poised to offer Indonesians “a stable and reformist government,” Wahid’s sudden ouster last July poses new challenges for Indonesian politics and society. The prominence of Islamist figures at the heart of power and radical Islamic groups like Laskar Jihad represent formidable factors the nation confronts.

-- Despite the fact that Malaysian Islam is often perceived as “anti-liberal, anti-Western and even intolerant…the prospects for social and political change in Malaysia depend very much upon Islam, in particular upon liberal Islamic leaders and a fresh alternative vision of the way in which Islam can contribute to Malaysian society.” The inroads of the opposition Islamist PAS party are a fundamental challenge to the government of Dr. Mahathir.

-- In the Philippines, the threat posed by Islamic Moro groups such as the MILF and Abu Sayyaf – which kidnap and terrorize natives and foreigners – “is far greater than that which ever eventuated from the [nationalist] MNLF.” Moreover, both economic conditions and agitation by foreign militants have contributed to these Islamic movements to the extent that “there may be little hope of successfully resolving the present insurgency in the Southern Philippines” in the short and medium term.

-- The long-term future of Islamic separatist groups in Southern Thailand “appears highly questionable.” Further, an end to this insurgency will depend on a “concerted effort to promote economic investment and infrastructure development” in Thailand’s Malay regions, and on continued cooperation in counter-insurgency between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Islam in Asia explores how negative intervention from movements outside the region has contributed to radicalism in Southeast Asia.

“Iran’s continuing Asian tilt and a major effort by several Middle Eastern countries to build strong commercial and political links with Asia could have the effect of neutralizing government attempts at controlling radicalism. There is no question of the serious consequences if Middle Eastern-style Islamic radicalism were to take root among the laid-back and tolerant Muslims of East Asia,” concludes Islam in Asia.

“One cannot really understand events in Southeast Asia without appreciating the importance of Islamic identity and the parties, leaders and institutions associated with it,” said Dr. Rubenstein. “The interest of Australia, of the U.S., and of AIJAC and the American Jewish Committee, is in a peaceful, stable, democratic and prosperous Southeast Asia. I believe that this timely volume offers the chance to understand and work with the local Islamic forces that can contribute to bringing this about.”

Islam in Asia: Changing Political Realities can be purchased from AJC for $24.95 by sending an e-mail to or calling 212-751-4000, ext. 366.

Contact: Kenneth Bandler (212) 891-6771

        Lisa Fingeret Roth (212) 891-1385

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