Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 7 2017 05:00AM

On 3 February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a harrowing report on the violence happening against Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. This was based on hundreds of interview conducted in January 2017 among refugee communities that had just crossed the border into Bangladesh. The report is disturbing, and is greater evidence that crimes against humanity are occurring.

The methodology appears careful and thorough. In addition to narrative testimony from recently arrived refugees, the investigators used photographs of physical injuries (only those photographs that they had taken themselves) which were examined by a team of medical professionals. The photographic and narrative evidence was found to line up, supporting allegations of horrendous abuse. Additionally, the report used comparisons of satellite photos from before and after October 2016 to demonstrate the burning or leveling of Muslim-majority villages.

Many of the findings of the report are too graphic and disturbing to be described again here, so I encourage those who are strong enough to read the original report. Some facts worth noting, though, are the 90,000 displaced people--just since October 2016, the 65% of the interviewees who reported killings, and 43% of the interviewees who reported rape on the part of Myanmar security forces. The report also acknowledges that these figures likely underreport the violence occurring, especially sexual violence. I also want to point out that the report states "Influential and respected members of the community, particularly teachers, imams, religious scholars and community leaders were reportedly specifically targeted." This suggests, by targeting religious functionaries, that the security forces were not only attacking the local population, but were specifically trying to undermine the Islamic religion. Additionally, the report found incidental evidence (this was outside its strict mandate) of further restrictions on religious practices, like prayer, wearing of beards, and burial of Muslim dead. Much like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forcing Muslims to eat pork, this appears to be a flagrant sign of genocidal intent (my analysis--not the report's). Finally, the report concludes that "the recent level of violence is unprecedented."

In an interesting twist, there was also big news out of Rakhine today that a Buddhist monastery head in northern Rakhine has been caught with millions of methamphetamine pills. In Indonesia, everyone knows that there is a strong correlation between high levels of local governmental corruption and the local imposition of Islamically-inspired bylaws; might violence against non-Buddhists in Rakhine be a cover for other nefarious activities by non-Muslim leaders?

One of the most stunning things in this context is how ASEAN's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights seems to be falling down on the job. There are no results when one searches their website for Rohingya or Rakhine. The events taking place are unambiguously in violation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by all states (including Myanmar) in 2012. (Find downloadable versions of the Declaration in English and Burmese on the Commission's website.) The press release of the Commission's most recent meeting makes no statement about current events. Much more is needed. I cannot say I am surprised at ASEAN's non-interference, as this is a long-standing characteristic of the body, but I am disappointed. The crimes against humanity in Northern Rakhine seem to me to be a major test case for ASEAN's human rights aspirations. When a case is so flagrant, can the body bring itself to say something?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 08:34AM

While I've been out in the field on research, it has been very hard to post on the blog; many apologies for those hoping for more updates. I hope to add a few things this week to make up for lost time.

I, like so many of my countrymen (including the majority of those who voted), was surprised and perhaps even mildly disappointed about the unexpected win by Donald Trump in the American presidential elections. International commentary has largely focused on related trends in Europe. Many folks have connected the triumph of populism in the US to the triumph of nativism in the UK’s recent EU membership referendum. Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi has happily welcomed comparisons between his political profile and Donald Trump.

Of course while living in Southeast Asia, I have been thinking about leaders in this region who might be seen as analogous to Donald Trump. Here I put forward three possible points of comparison (in inverse order to their leap to national elections).

Over the last year, many commentators have looked at the occasionally foul-mouthed President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as analogous to Trump’s insult-filled campaign. Duterte (somewhat like the American president-elect) enjoys insulting incumbent American president Barack Obama, American diplomatic staff, American foreign policy, and lots of other things. Both Trump and Duterte have had troubles staying on the Pope’s good side. Both men are fairly populist; both have encouraged violence in society to tackle perceived problems; and both have said problematic things about women. Recently, Duterte had a calling from God to tone down his language; it is as yet unclear if president-elect Trump will undergo a similar transformation. Another key difference: Duterte had decades of experience in government, by being the mayor of his hometown, Davao City. (Fun fact: Duterte has been open to the comparison, even while he feels he is just a “small molecule” compared to Trump.)

In the lead-up to election day, as Trump was threatening to reject the election results as rigged (if he lost), I was thinking quite a bit about Indonesian former general, party leader, and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Both Prabowo and Trump have authoritarian tendencies, of course, and I think the term “Oligarchic Populism” could be applied to both. But Prabowo’s intransigent denial of the election results that saw him lose the presidency in 2014 looked to me like a model for the kind of court case and contentious public conflict that could have appeared if Trump followed through on threats to reject any losing outcome. There are also some interesting arguments to be made here about their tortured relationship with the press: certainly both know how to work the media, but Prabowo was supported in the end only by TVOne (owned by another Indonesian oligarch to whom he was politically allied) and called all other media horrendously biased, while Trump seemed to reject the whole media establishment except his personal buddies (most notably Sean Hannity). The comparison really ended on election day, though; Indonesia chose (by a narrower than expected margin) to embrace a different kind of populism in President Joko Widodo, while the American electoral college fell to Trump. There were other differences, too, though. Prabowo was famously good at controlling him temper on the political stage (although not behind the scenes, apparently)—I remember how he had even encouraged Megawati Soekarnoputri to play nice on TV when he was her running mate in 2009. Prabowo’s background in public life and military service, also, was markedly different from Trump’s media and business profile. (Another fun connection: two of Prabowo’s close political allies, Fadli Zon and Setya Novanto, claimed at a political rally in the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 that the Indonesian people like Trump “very much.”)

The most surprising connection, for me, was made by a friend in Thailand several weeks ago, who compared Donald Trump to former prime minister and now famed persona-non-grata Thaksin Shinawatra. (Apparently colleagues at New Mandala had already made this comparisonand more in Thai politics.) In terms of personal résumé, I was struck by the similarities: big-city billionaires who appealed to rural, working-class constituencies to the consternation of other national elites and liberal urban centers. Thaksin was involved in politics longer, certainly, and was unrivalled within his popular Thai Rak Thai Party, but their rise to power was still a bit of a surprise. As many people are fearing from a Trump presidency, when in power he was accused of playing favorites, being capricious, and most dangerously using the state apparatus to benefit his own business empire. His political movement has been so strong and so controversial in Thailand that it has prompted two army coups: both the one against him in 2006 (since which time he has not come back to the country to face pending charges) and the second against his sister (and political heir) in 2014. Let us hope that a Trump presidency in America does not become so very polarizing.

So, is Donald Trump the Thaksin of America? The Prabowo of the United States? Or New York’s own Duterte? I look forward to input from others, either here or on Facebook.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 03:30PM

Last Wednesday through Saturday, the hard-working folks at Project Southeast Asia threw their 5th Southeast Asia Symposium (with the support of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation). This event is unlike many of the academic conferences that I attend, because it includes not only the ivory tower aspects (some of which can be just as abstruse or theoretical as you would find anywhere) but also some very applied sessions, focusing on business or policy or human rights. This year, the conference was augmented by the simultaneous Festival of Southeast Asia in Oxford, which included some great film screenings, a well-curated photo exhibition, and an opening speech by Dr José Ramos-Horta (on which, more later).

A few highlights of my time at the conference are worth mentioning on here. I chaired an interesting panel in the very first session, with three very different approaches to the history of the region (through film, long duree political context, and archeology). There was a great delegation from the Netherlands, with interesting papers from Henk Schulte Nordholt, Gerry van Klinken, Retna Hanani, Ward Barenschot, Zamzam Fauzanafi, Prio Sambodho, Chris Chaplin, and Tom Hoogevorst from KITLV. (Shout-out also to Willem van der Muur and Arnout van der Meer, even though they’re not at KITLV.) I also really enjoyed a panel on society and state in upland (mainland) Southeast Asia (including Oliver Tappe, Guido Sprenger, Ma Jianxiong and Hans Steinmüller). Four Oxford students gamely put up a wide-reaching panel on the idea of ‘heritage’ in the region and its connection to specific policy challenges. Five Malaysian voices spoke on topics of intellectuals and independent thought in Malaysia, and they managed to make up for some of what was not happening on the ground in that country. Sadly, Goenawan Mohammad was too ill to join us for a conversation about modern Indonesian literature, but I still got to chair a lovely session with staff from the Oxford University Press dictionaries, talking about Southeast Asian words in the OED (Danica Salazar) and the new Oxford Global Languages Initiative. Hashim Djojohadikusumo was sharp as anything fielding a very tough Q&A after his keynote speech, but I think Elizabeth Pisani swept everyone off their feet with a beautiful, charming, insightful after dinner plenary speech.

As always, I have to congratulate P.J. Thum and his organizing team, plus all the volunteers (including some amazing Indonesian students willing to do not only gruntwork but also to prepare dance presentations that were a smashing hit). I was delighted to be able to join this conference here in my own backyard. I’m already looking forward to the next time Southeast Asia comes to Oxford in a big way: Euroseas 2017.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 21 2016 11:22PM

As in previous years (2015 2014), I thought it would be good to look over the program for the American Historical Association annual conference (held this year in Atlanta, GA), for traces of Southeast Asia. I have said in the past and I am sure to say again: the AHA is not a great forum for representing the history of Southeast Asia. (We tend to do much better at the Association for Asian Studies, usually held in March.) Still, I think it is very important for Southeast Asian history to be represented at this conference, because it helps experts of other regions know what is happening in our field, reminds them of the importance of Southeast Asian studies in world and comparative contexts, provides a showcase for up-and-coming talent in need of permanent employment, etc etc.

As per usual, this year the most visible Southeast Asian country in the program is Vietnam, with two whole panels (1 2) and four additional papers (1 2 3 4). The only caveat is that both panels and all the papers were about the Vietnam War (almost all of them explicitly from the American perspective), so these can be seen as more American history than Southeast Asian history. There were no papers or panels that invoked Vietnam apart from the war.

In a similar vein, the Philippines did very well this year, with five individual papers. Three of these were about US occupation of the Philippines or US-Philippine relations (1 2 , the third seems to have been pulled in te end from its poster session)—so more American history—and another was on the British and Spanish empires clashing in Manila, but there was one paper on Chinese-Filipinos in the 1920s. Hurray, maybe?

Actually, the country that fared best for getting attention this year was Indonesia, with three individual papers looking at aspects of its history (1 2 , the third again seems to have been pulled in the end from its panel on decolonization), although admittedly one in the context of the Dutch empire. Malaysia got two papers (1 2), including one by my esteemed colleague Nurfadzilah Yahaya who is always great. There was additionally one paper on Chinese nationalism in Southeast Asia.

There were no papers or panels whose titles invoked Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Brunei, or Timor Leste. Oomph.

This does not mean that there were no other papers or panels that raised questions or spoke about Southeast Asia or its constituent communities, of course. Marilyn Young, the famous historian of Vietnam and the Vietnam Wars, was commentator on a panel about military toxins, and there was a whole panel on Zomia, but entirely on the Chinese side of the modern border (surely they spoke across the borders, though, right?). I’m sure some of the more abstract titles could have been hiding some Southeast Asia content, too.

All in all, though, there is little to be proud of here: fifteen papers and two panels across the four days of the conference, not all of them actually materializing, and more than half of them actually about American history that looks towards Southeast Asia. This is roughly on par with 2014, and does not seem to be quite as exciting as 2015. (Admittedly, I could not attend this year, so I don’t know what the feeling on the ground was like.)

Again, I renew my call to colleagues: how can we represent ourselves and our field better at the AHA annual meeting?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 16 2015 09:12AM

On Monday and Tuesday, 14-15 December 2015, I participated in a great workshop at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, on the topic of "Regulating Religion: Normativity and Change at the Intersection of Law and Religion." I felt a bit strange to be in a room full of legal scholars from around the world, because I am not only not a law expert but I am not even a legal historian. All the same, the engagement with legal scholars certainly helped to sharpen my thinking on the idea of regulation and how the state can approach religion.

I think there were two basic questions going on at the conference, although I did not hear anyone classifying the papers in this way. The first question was about how states have approached the idea of religion (protections for religious freedom, Islamic law as a source of positive law, religion as an underlying authority-maker for the state). The second question was about how states have approached religious communities (navigating new faith communities, mediating between religious groups when they disagree, facilitating believers’ use of their own religious beliefs [e.g., personal law]). Unsurprisingly, most papers pulled some from each of these questions.

The paper I presented was on how the Indonesian Ministry of Religion came to understand and engage with religions in the early independence period. I got a fair amount of pushback in informal conversations during these two days about the overall optimistic, even positive, picture of the Ministry’s work that I put forward, but I really believe that in this period the Ministry officials were open to different ideas of what religion could be and how the government might engage with them (supporting various religious communities, and not just trying to funnel everyone into the most orthodox forms of recognized world religions). I believe this because I built up the argument from archival documents about the actions of low- and middle-ranking bureaucrats: lists of belief communities that they found when surveying the archipelago, correspondence between Ministry officials and faith leaders, complaints to local offices, even announcements of how one group truly believed that President Soekarno was the prophet of their new religion. [If you’re interested in these kind of archival documents and some of the zany beliefs that the Ministry encountered in the 1950s, you can see many of the original documents scanned and uploaded on my page.] Thus, I think my paper was more answering the second question, but they idea of categorizing what did and did not count as a religion at the time also plays to the first question.

Some other favorite papers of mine also leaned heavily towards the second question. Clark Lombardi of U Washington thought through how framers of Islamic constitutions actually rig the game as to which interpretations of Islamic law will flourish under those constitutions, thus empowering certain communities/ideas. (Upon deeper reflection, I've been wondering whether my paper is a kind of push-back against Prof Lombardi's ideas-- I show how it actually took upside of a decade for the Indonesian state to decide how it dealt with religion; none of this was rigged by the constitution.) Ben Schonthal of Otago gave a fascinating overview about the relationships of the Sri Lankan versus Thai states to their sangha (Buddhist monastic communities), although he framed this more as a question of constitutionalism. Jaclyn L. Neo (one of our rockstar conference organizers from NUS) explained the way that the Singaporean state much prefers informal mechanisms instead of formal legal methods to deal with its religious communities. Yuksel Sezgin of Syracuse gave a great paper that kind of turned the lens in the opposite direction, showing that religious courts in Greece and Israel were reforming interpretations of Islamic law due to pressure from both other state institutions (other courts) and from society (especially in Israel, where activist NGOs play a key role). Daniel Goh (another rockstar conference organizer) looked at how the Singaporean state has dealt with—or tried desperately to avoid dealing with—the evangelical megachurches that have arisen in the last few decades.

Plenty of other papers were great, but more focused on my first question above (so a bit out of my wheelhouse). The one that I was able to translate most directly into my work was the paper by Arif Jamal (rockstar conference organizer #3) on “What Are We Regulating When We Regulate Religion?” The typology of European secularisms by Silvio Ferrari (from Milan) also stands out for its clarity, although I’m still chewing through how I would react to the British “ideal-type” he put forward. Admittedly, several of the papers on the more theoretical or abstract end of this spectrum went right past me, either because they were over my head or because they were issues that I could pass on. [I wish I could recap all the contributions of the conference, but I’ve got to hop onto a plane for Jakarta in a few minutes.]

I was really impressed, though, that despite landing only very late the night before the conference, I was engaged and learning in every single paper of every single session. The whole enterprise was good to engage with, and especially welcome as a break from the very intense but not academically-edifying exercise of Oxford undergraduate admissions. Many thanks to the organizers and their excellent support staff for bringing me to Singapore and stretching my mind.

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.