Trans-Pacific View

Political Islam in Asia: Rhetoric, Reality and the US Presidential Race

Insights from Emile Nakhleh

Political Islam in Asia: Rhetoric, Reality and the US Presidential Race
Credit: Indonesian Muslims via

The Rebalance authors Mercy Kuo and Angie Tang regularly engage subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Dr. Emile Nakhleh – retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer and former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency, Research Professor and Coordinator of National Security Programs at the University of New Mexico, author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World (2009), among numerous other publications, and contributor to LobeLog on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, political Islam, radicalization, and terrorism is the 25th in “The Rebalance Insight Series”.

Briefly compare and contrast political Islam in Asia and the Middle East.

Generally speaking, political Islam and Islamic activism in East and Northeast Asia tend be more tolerant and less dogmatic than Sunni Islam in the Arab heartland and the greater Middle East. As the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia’s brand of Islam over the centuries has tended to focus on commerce, education, and community service. Many Sunni Muslims in Asia adhere to the tolerant Shafi’i School of jurisprudence or mathhab, one of the four “Schools” in Sunni Islam. Unlike Middle Eastern Muslim majority countries, Muslims in Asia – especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines – have had the experience of living and interacting with large minorities or majorities of non-Muslim groups. Furthermore, the demands that some Asian Muslims have voiced in the past decade have focused on equality and autonomy but have not called for regime change or for the imposition of intolerant, radical Muslim ideologies. Nor has the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide been as divisive in Asia as it has been in the Islamic heartland in the Middle East. 

What is the difference between political Islam and radical Islam? 

Political Islam covers the actions of individuals and groups, lawful and unlawful, to change the political, legal, economic, educational, and judicial nature of public policy in their societies according to the activists’ interpretations of Islam. Islamic activism reflects a growing awareness among Muslims of their religious identity as a moral compass of their daily lives and worldview. Political Islam is usually associated with mainstream activism that functions within existing political systems, mostly through elections. It includes Islamic political parties and movements, which have rejected violence and made a strategic shift toward participatory and coalition politics and is highly diverse and complex.

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Radical Islam, on the other hand, adheres to an inclusive, narrow-minded, intolerant Salafi interpretation of Islam. It is usually associated with Sunni Islam and generally has its roots in the Hanbali Salafi Wahhabi ideology that emanates mostly from Saudi Arabia. Radical Islam justifies the use of violence and terrorism against the perceived “near enemies” and “far enemies” of Islam, whether Muslims or non-Muslims (“infidels,” “unbelievers,” or “kuffar”). Al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups are part of radical Islam.

What critical factors and social conditions underpin the process of radicalization? 

The factors contributing to the rise of radicalization include ideology, policy – domestic and foreign – personal experiences, and the new social media. The radical Sunni Salafi Wahhabi ideology has contributed significantly to the radicalization of Muslim youth across the globe. It’s intolerant of other sects of Islam that oppose this interpretation and considers them “apostates” or “unbelievers” and justifies their killing. Domestic conditions and policies include: dictatorship; corruption; repression; poverty and unemployment; and sectarianism. The perceived anti-Islam policies of foreign powers, Western-led wars in Muslim lands, the presence of foreign (“infidel”) troops in some Muslim countries; the escalating American drone strikes against targets in many Muslim countries and the ensuing civilian casualties; the simmering Israel-Palestine conflict, especially in Jerusalem; and Guantanamo have contributed to the radicalization of Muslim youth. Personal experiences such as having a family member getting killed by a drone strike or by the security forces could drive a particular youth to commit a terrorist act. The Internet and the new social media are major contributors to individual radicalization.

Rhetoric versus reality is a leitmotif in U.S. political discourse, particularly as U.S. presidential candidates debate U.S. national security, foreign policy, terrorism, and immigration on the campaign trail. Explain how rhetoric frames reality and its messaging impact at home and abroad.

The political discourse in the current atmosphere of American presidential politics is dominated by the perceived threat of the Islamic State or ISIS, Islamophobia, the rising numbers of Syrian and other refugees from war-torn Muslim countries, and the gathering threat of homegrown potential self-radicalized youth and ensuing acts of terrorism. Some fear that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, might indicate that ISIS is expanding its operations from the local Middle Eastern arena where it’s fighting the “near enemy” to the global arena where it is intent on fighting the “far enemy.” Several Republican presidential candidates are stoking the fear of terrorism on the home front in order to halt the influx of refugees and to keep Muslims out of the United States. The rhetoric of fear is alienating some segments of the Muslim population at home whose leaders argue that terrorism is a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The Muslim community, they correctly maintain, is part and parcel of the American social fabric and should not be targeted by presidential candidates for political gains.

What hard and soft power tools does the next U.S. president need to effectively use to manage U.S. relations with the Muslim world? 

The next U.S. president should use hard power and soft power in fighting terrorism and engaging the Muslim world. The hard power approach should focus on containing IS on the ground and tracking terrorist leaders and organizations. The U.S. military effort, in conjunction with regional allies, should focus on limiting ISIS’ territorial expansion and its resources. The soft power approach should include new messaging, which would simply state that radical jihadists are mass killers and criminals and should be deprived of religious legitimacy. The so-called caliphate is a dead-end enterprise that doesn’t create jobs, provide security, offer useful education, or promise a better future for young Muslims and their families. In the United States, a new partnership should be forged between law enforcement authorities and Muslims communities to prevent radicalization and mass killings, which would keep American society from being divided between “us” and “them.” The recent statement by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announcing the creation of a new “Office for Community Partnerships” is a major step in the right direction. The new OCP intends to “discourage violent extremism and undercut terrorist narratives.”

Mercy A. Kuo is an advisory board member of CHINADebate and was previously director of the Southeast Asia Studies and Strategic Asia Programs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Angie O. Tang is Senior Advisor of Asia Value Advisors, a leading venture philanthropy advisory firm based in Hong Kong.