The periphery of the Lands beyond the Winds As in our previous observations in Chapter 3 (Southeast Asia and Africa) we can certainly claim that in looking at Southeast Asia as a region, we face the same problems that other Asian territories have suffered when being scrutinized through western lenses. What Germans call Schubladendenken (literally “drawer thinking”, which means that every subject is put onto a separate shelf to be looked at on its own) has affected Southeast Asia. In reality it is highly connected part of Asia with old trade linkages spanning the Indian Ocean to East Africa, India and the Middle East, the South China Sea to China and religious networks that extend over regions such as Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe for instance. For a long time, in fact since the colonial era, western academics have rigidly separated the Southeast Asian subcontinent from, say, the Middle East. In German universities this has gone so far that separate schools and faculties have looked at Asian regions isolation. The Arab Orient has been treated as a different entity, just as the Southeast Asian Nusantara region has. These two academically utterly disconnected worlds have only been reattached during the last ten years or so, when it became en vogue to speak of the transnational interconnectedness of Asia. So it is no wonder that Southeast Asia has always been described as being on the periphery of events, especially in terms of Islam, Islamic education, trade and knowledge transfer. Many authors have made a point of saying that the Lands beyond the Winds have been at the receiving end, be it in terms of an Arab-inspired Islamization western-inspired trade through Arab and Indian merchants bringing new ideas, and finally scholars, Sufis and students, who benefited from the schools of thought of other Asian regions, from Central Asia to Northern India to the Middle East, and brought them to peninsular Malaya and the Nusantara belt where they were incorporated into local traditions that were invariably seen as weak, influenced by syncretistic folk beliefs or by the patriarchial system of the local sultanate (kerajaan). Among the authors who represent this approach are Morley, who describes the sporadic contacts between the Middle East and the receiving Southeast Asia before Islamization, van Leur, who writes about eleventh-century Arabs who
called at ports in the Malay archipelago, Roff, who discusses the role of Arab scholars in influencing and educating the future administrative and entrepreneurial classes of Malaya, and numerous others like Andaya and Andaya, Means, Mutalib or Bajouned,1 who make this case for contemporary Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. According to them, the Muslim parts of ASEAN, primarily Indonesia and Malaysia and also Brunei and the Muslim borderlands of Thailand and the southern Philippines, developed and received an intellectual impetus through sending students to Al-Azhar in Cairo, through increased trade after the opening of the Suez Canal, and through student exchanges during the so-called Islamic resurgence, kebangkitan Islam, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even security analysts like Abuza2 still cling to the perception of Arab imports that come at least from the wastelands of Pakistan and Afghanistan into Southeast Asia, spreading a perception of Islam that had so far been alien to the Sufi-inspired locals and their understanding of local tradition (adat). While arguing that perceptions of an early one-sided knowledge transfer to the “Islamic periphery” from the Arab heartlands are just as mythic in the early stages as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I intend to emphasize this point for the last twenty years or so. Arguing that a tremendous shift has taken place in the relationship between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, I propose that the quickly growing Tiger economies of Malaysia and Singapore, and new concepts of value-imbued modernization such as former Premier Mahathir’s Malaysian Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020) and Islam Hadhari of the Badawi administration (2003-9) have done much to reverse the trend: – Southeast Asia is no longer at the “receiving end”. But there are mixed signals. The legacy of the stagnant Mubarak regime in Egypt – which was overthrown in February 2011 after public protests – and the fast-growing Gulf region represent different approaches which nevertheless have several things in common with their Southeast Asian counterparts. I have earlier argued for a similar development in a state-protected business environment where businessmen-politicians close to the government make profits thanks to preferential treatment – at the same time there are new opportunities in the two regions as a result of new business approaches like Islamic banking – of which Malaysia is a major hub – and in other fields like the marketing of halal food products, in telecommunications, tourism, shared political and security concerns, in new or revived organizational linkages as between ASEAN and the OIC and numerous others. Flows between the two regions have thus been considerable and grow stronger by the day. But instead of arguing on the basis of the methodologically rather vague transnationalism, I would like to argue on the basis of transnational networks of “imagined communities”, the “spaces” that are interconnected and allow people, ideas, goods, etc. to travel in both directions. Khoo Boo Teik has described these flows in detail even though he may have missed the theoretical aspects of a networking narrative in his analysis.3 In this chapter I want to focus on both the geopolitical and the spatial arrangements that have made closer contacts between the Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern regions increasingly possible after they had been overshadowed by the Cold War divide for around forty
years. I want to describe the quest for the travelling imagined communities to turn into networked communities which acquire multiple forms – not only through shared understandings of Islam but also through cross-cultural engagement, networks, politics and trade as well as the interconnection between networks and spaces.