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Diversity and Unity in Contemporary Society

by Michael G. Peletz

Ethnic and Religious Diversity

Southeast Asia is a geographically expansive and populous region characterized by fascinating social and cultural variation. Particularly striking to the outside observer is the region’s ethnic and religious diversity. The majority of the countries in this region are home to dozens of different ethnic groups (and in some cases, hundreds), many with their own distinct languages, cultures, and styles of dress. Many of these groups have their own systems of religious belief and practice as well. Groups living in highland areas tend to follow religions involving animistic beliefs and practices, which are based on the idea that spiritual or supernatural powers organize and animate the natural world or material universe. In animistic traditions, plants, animals, and other natural phenomena (mountains, streams, etc.) are assumed to have souls or to be inhabited by spirits. In animistic societies, certain people are believed to have personal qualities or special skills that enable them to communicate with spirits. They may be shamans who go into trance if possessed by spirits, undertake mystical journeys to the world(s) inhabited by spirits, or both. Shamans are ritual specialists, this being an umbrella term that refers to people who specialize in ritual practices of one sort or another and thus includes spirit mediums (like Raseh, from the village of Mentu Tapuh in Sarawak, East Malaysia, who recounts the epic poem, “The Story of Kichapi”), diviners, magicians, sorcerers, witches, and priests.

In contrast to their up-country brethren, people living in lowland areas, where the vast majority of Southeast Asians reside, tend to adhere to one or another of the World Religions (also known as Universal or Great Religions) such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Christianity. In most instances, however, their beliefs and practices incorporate animist and/or other traditions as well and are, thus, examples of syncretic religions (religions that incorporate beliefs and practices from two or more distinct traditions). The doctrines of World Religions are more formal, more systematic, more abstract, and “better able to travel” in the sense that, unlike their animistic counterparts, they are not tied to particular locales.

Some of the World Religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are monotheistic (premised on a belief in a single God); others, like Hinduism, are often described as polytheistic (or pantheistic) because believers orient themselves toward more than one deity (or different deities that are held to be manifestations of a single supreme being or force). Other World Religions, like Buddhism, deny the idea of god altogether. For example, Buddha, who was born in India in the sixth century BCE and proceeded to found the religion that spread hroughout mainland Southeast Asia, and beyond, insisted that he was not divine and rejected the notion that deities or supernatural spirits of any sort exist.

Despite orthodox views on these matters, most Buddhists in Southeast Asia believe in the existence of spirits (known as pi in Thai, and as nat in Burmese) and do in fact make periodic offerings—of flowers, fruit, eggs, tobacco, etc.—to them in order to help insure their assistance and good will. Most Muslims in Southeast Asia also believe in spirits (known by the Arabic-origin word jinn, which is the source of the English-language term “genie”), though at present they are less inclined than Buddhists to seek out their assistance through offerings or sacrifices.

While Southeast Asia’s Buddhist populations tend to be found primarily in lowland areas of mainland countries (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), Muslims live mostly in lowland regions of island Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and the southern Philippines). Muslims make up the vast majority (roughly 88 percent) of the population of Indonesia, which is home to over 234,000,000 people and is by far the most populous Muslim nation in the world. The two other Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia are Malaysia and Brunei. About 55 percent of Malaysia’s population of 25,000,000 is Malay Muslim (most of the others are either Chinese who adhere to religious traditions combining Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, or Indians who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or Christianity). Brunei, a tiny country of less than half a million people, is roughly 67 percent Malay Muslim. All of the other countries in
Southeast Asia have Muslim minorities: Muslims make up about 16 percent of Singapore’s population and about 7 percent of the Philippines’; elsewhere they constitute less than 5 percent of the total population.

Despite Southeast Asia’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity, there are shared values throughout the region. Many of these shared values inform family life, marriage, and divorce.

Family Life, Marriage, and Divorce

Southeast Asians attach great importance to their family lives and as a general rule relationships among family members tend to be highly valued, strong, and enduring. In many Southeast Asian societies, children feel that they can never fully repay their parents for either the“gift of life” or the countless sacrifices they have made to raise them to adulthood. As with bonds between parents and children, relationships among siblings are of tremendous moral and emotional significance and are capable of withstanding a good deal of conflict. To quote a Malay adage about solidarity and quarrelling among siblings, “Water when slashed will not be severed; part a chicken’s feathers and they come right back together.” The idea here is that ties among siblings are characterized by what anthropologist David Schneider (in another context) has referred to as diffuse, enduring solidarity, and are not easily jeopardized or denied.

Southeast Asians generally take it for granted that everyone wants to get married and have children, and that everyone will eventually do so. (This expectation does not pertain to the small minority in Buddhist countries who join monasteries or nunneries, undertake life-long vows of celibacy, and thus forego marriage altogether.) One of the questions commonly put to a stranger in their late teens or early twenties is, “Are you already married?” (emphasis added). If one has never been married, the only acceptable answer is “not yet” (a simple “no” will not do), which acknowledges the legitimacy of the expectation as well as one’s intention to marry. In order to be considered a full (social) adult, one must not only marry but also have (or adopt) children.

In former times, most marriages were arranged by parents or other relatives—or matchmakers—and in many cases husbands and wives had never interacted socially or even seen each other prior to their weddings. Part of the reason for this is that, especially in Islamic areas, standards of propriety discourage unrelated males and females from interacting with one another after the age of eight to ten or so. Arranged marriages are less common at present but many youth still feel that choosing an appropriate spouse is a responsibility that is too important to be left up to the individual. For reasons such as these, they welcome the input and assistance of others.

Most parents regard the weddings of their children (particularly their daughters) as among the greatest joys in life. Wedding ceremonies and accompanying festivities are usually the occasion for large public celebrations. Many people (family members, as well as friends and neighbors) are invited to these celebrations and large numbers of guests are typically fed in the context of lavish feasts.

Islamic law permits men to have up to four wives simultaneously as long as they can deal justly with each wife and provide each of them with adequate material support. Partly because it is very difficult to meet these latter conditions, the vast majority of Muslim men in Southeast Asia and elsewhere have only one wife at any given time. In these and various other respects (such as the basic expectations informing the roles of husbands and wives), Muslim and Christian experiences of the institution of marriage are quite similar.

Divorce is generally seen as unfortunate and is frowned upon, especially if there are children involved; it is also regarded by Muslims as sinful in the eyes of God (Allah). At the same time, most people recognize that some marriages do not turn out as expected and that it may be better for all concerned if a couple seeks a divorce. Islamic law allows men and women alike to obtain a divorce but provides men with far more prerogatives in terminating a marriage. A man need only recite a standardized divorce formula (“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you”) to effect a legally binding, irrevocable divorce. Options such as these are not available to women. However, if a woman has not received financial support from her husband for more than four (in some areas, six) months, or has been seriously mistreated by her husband (or if her husband turns out to be impotent or insane), she may petition the court for a divorce. Most cases brought to Islamic courts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere concern civil matters bearing
on marriage and divorce (as opposed to criminal offenses of one sort or another) and are in fact initiated by women, partly because men need not deal with the courts in order to terminate their marriages.

Islamic Law Concerning Gender and the Body, Food, and Fashion

The majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, approximately 90 percent of the world’s total, belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Most Sunni Muslims adhere to one or another of four different madhhab (schools or traditions of law), each of which developed in and is currently associated with a particular region of the world. The Shafi’i tradition prevails in Southeast Asia.

For the most part, the differences among the major maddhab in Sunni Islam are relatively minor. In some cases, moreover, elements of law from one tradition have been incorporated into one or more of the others, further reducing their distinctiveness. Some such “melding” occurred during the colonial era, when European colonial authorities and Southeast Asian legal specialists sought to resolve certain legal dilemmas by effecting solutions that involved borrowing from a legal tradition in another colonial jurisdiction (such as Pakistan or India). A more general point to note is that even in Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei), the legal systems are overwhelmingly secular, an enduring legacy of the colonial era. It is also important to bear in mind that Islamic law, which generally pertains only to Muslims, tends to be confined to a very limited range of Muslims’ lives and is for the most part restricted to personal status law (including matters of marriage and divorce, sexuality, etc.).

Many of the guidelines of Shafi’i law and the other major schools of Islamic law were fixed in legal text by the tenth century. But this does not mean that present-day Islamic judges (kadi) and others who interpret or administer the law are bound by centuries-old legal conventions or interpretations. In the first place, kadis are enjoined by Islam to render evaluations and judgments based on reasoning by analogy (kias), consensus with fellow legal specialists (ijma), and/or “local custom” (adat). They are, moreover, equipped with various pamphlets and booklets published by the state that provide compilations of relevant enactments and other guidance. Most important, though, Islamic judges have broad powers of discretion, which they use to help ensure that the cases before them are dealt with in ways that are in keeping with their notions of “justice,” “equity,” and “due process” (Indo-Malay keadilan). These notions (like ours) are cultural, as are their (and our) understandings of “fact” and “truth.” Among the more controversial issues in many parts of the Muslim world today are laws and other formal standards bearing on gender, especially female attire and comportment, and interactions including marriage) between Muslims and non-Muslims. There is much debate, for example, concerning standards of modesty pertaining to girls and women, and whether Islam mandates that females cover their hair and faces in public. According to many readings of the Qur’an and other relevant sources, women are enjoined to dress and behave modestly (as are men) but are not required to cover their hair or faces in public settings. That said, in recent decades the wearing of headscarves and other headgear (but not complete veiling of the face) has become commonplace throughout Muslim Southeast Asia, especially in urban areas, which have seen a revival or resurgence of Islam and the adoption of various standards common in the Middle East.

Other controversial issues concern the acceptability from an Islamic point of view of women serving as judges in secular as well as religious courts, and more generally, whether women should be allowed to hold public office. Some “conservative” interpretations of religious laws and other relevant texts hold that Islam prohibits all such possibilities. But many (perhaps most) others disagree. Indeed, recent decades have seen women serving as judges in secular and religious courts in Indonesia and in secular (but not religious) courts in Malaysia. Beginning in 2001, Indonesia had its first female president (Megawati Sukarnoputri), thus joining the slender
ranks of other Muslim countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey) where women have held the highest office in the land. More generally, as in most countries with Muslim majorities (Saudi Arabia is the most prominent exception), Muslim women throughout Southeast Asia enjoy the same rights as men in areas such as voting, holding public office, and driving cars; they are, moreover, well represented in tertiary educational institutions and the professions, though they often encounter “glass ceilings” of the sort familiar to women in the West.

Recent advances in medical and other scientific technologies have raised a host of legal and ethical questions for Islamic theologians and jurists, as have new networks of communication and more encompassing processes of globalization. Some such questions concern the appropriateness for Muslims of contraception and other forms of birth control, blood transfusions,
organ transplants, euthanasia, food additives, and certain types of cosmetics and other products used for the care of the body. These dilemmas have given rise to a spate of authoritative rulings or opinions on specific points of law or dogma, which are known as fatwas. Not generally in dispute, however, are Islamic prohibitions on gambling, pre- and extra-marital sex, as well as the
consumption of alcohol, drugs, and pork. Observance of these prohibitions is an important symbol of being a Muslim, analogous in some ways to the performance of daily prayers and the adoption of certain styles of dress and moral demeanor.

Diversity and Community in Southeast Asian Islam

Western media accounts frequently give the impression that all Muslims share the same values, views, and aspirations, and that they all speak in a single voice. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! There is a great deal of ethnic, socio-economic, and other diversity among Muslims in Southeast Asia (as elsewhere). Such diversity is of considerable significance because it
typically entails divergent life experiences. Divergent life experiences in turn commonly give rise to contrasting views on important issues such as the fundamentals or essence(s) of Islam; their implications for women and gender; the proper place of Islam in the political process and in public life as a whole; and the role that Islam—and Islamic law in particular—should play in processes of modernization and state policies bearing on the future.

One way to approach diversity in Southeast Asian Islam is to examine the major variants (or visions) of Islam in the region in relation to the main institutions, organizations, and groups that help support and reproduce them. The major “carriers” of Islam in Malaysia—to focus for the moment on the country that has sustained a pace of economic development that is probably
second to none in the entire Muslim world—include the following: (1) The ruling political party (known by its acronym UMNO) that has steered the country on an overwhelmingly secular, “pro-development” course since independence from the British in 1957 and has promoted a relatively moderate, progressive, and inclusive Islam; (2) the more “conservative” Islamist political party (PAS), which seeks an expansion of the role of Islamic law and the creation of an Islamic state; (3)
grass-roots organizations and movements of various kinds, some of which encourage one-on-one missionary outreach, communal living, economic self-sufficiency, and emulation of the lifestyle of the Prophet; (4) Islamic religious scholars (‘ulama), who tend to see their role as guardians of sacred texts and traditions, but are in many cases active proponents of change; (5) Muslim feminist organizations (such as Sisters in Islam) that engage in advocacy and lobbying efforts to improve women’s legal options and overall standards of living, and are in some ways similar to Western-style non-governmental organizations NGOs; and (6) “ordinary Muslims,” who are not in the forefront of religious or political developments, but are among the more enduring targets of
resurgents’ cultural cleansing (owing to the animist, Hindu-Buddhist, and Sufi features of their syncretic Islamic beliefs and practices), and who make up the majority of the Muslim population. Just as each of these institutions, organizations, and groups is associated with one or more distinctive (and in some respects mutually contradictory) visions of Islam, so, too, does each
contribute in its own way to the multifaceted nature of Islam in contemporary Malaysia.

Religious landscapes in certain other areas of Muslim Southeast Asia are even more complex. In Indonesia, for example, the range and prominence of national religious organizations (such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah) is far more extensive. So too is the tradition of religious boarding schools (pesantren), many of which promote regionally variable and otherwise distinctive visions of Islam. Contemporary political organizations and movements (some seeking partial autonomy or complete independence for outlying regions, as is the case in the southern Philippines) are also far more varied than Malaysia’s. Feminist groups in Java and other areas of Indonesia, for their part, are highly diverse as well and much more variegated than in Malaysia. Indonesia’s national motto, “unity in diversity,” is nonetheless relevant here, as it is in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. More generally, there are important commonalities among Muslims throughout Southeast Asia that derive from their observance of common rituals, their embodiment of broadly shared values, and their shared identity as Muslims living in an ethnically diverse and rapidly modernizing world.