Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Global Jihad: Understanding Islam in Asia

[Another unifying factor is religion. Islam serves as something of a glue, a connecting factor between East and West. Many Western observers often miss the fact that Indonesia, with almost 200 million adherents to Islam, has the world's single largest Muslim population. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, each with well over 100 million Muslims, rank second, third, and fourth (though not necessarily in that order). None are in the Middle East. Islam is not the only religious factor holding Asia together. The history of Hinduism reaches deep into Southeast Asia. Indonesia, for example, may be 87 percent Muslim, but its national airline, Garuda, is named for a creature from Hindu mythology. ]

Asia Defined
Greg Cruey

So what is it that makes Asia a unity. The traditional definition of the continent's land mass, for one thing.

Another unifying factor is religion. Islam serves as something of a glue, a connecting factor between East and West. Many Western observers often miss the fact that Indonesia, with almost 200 million adherents to Islam, has the world's single largest Muslim population. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, each with well over 100 million Muslims, rank second, third, and fourth (though not necessarily in that order). None are in the Middle East. When the 75 million Muslims of Iran and the 70 million in Turkey are factored in, and when the Islamic communities in the Philippines, Malaysia and the Arabian Peninsula are included, we discover that the southern edge of Asia is layered with three-quarters of a billion Muslims. Not that Islam is confined to the southern or coastal portions of Asia. The interior and northern reaches of the continent from the Turkey's Anatolian Plateau, across the Caucasus, and through the great steppes to the edge of Mongolia is populated by Turkic Muslims like Russia's Tatars and China's Uighers.

Islam is not the only religious factor holding Asia together. The history of Hinduism reaches deep into Southeast Asia. Indonesia, for example, may be 87 percent Muslim, but its national airline, Garuda, is named for a creature from Hindu mythology. When Hindu-Buddhist thought is looked at in all its forms we find it's basic concepts shaping thought and culture in four of Asia's five regions. It has little impact in West Asia; but many of the gods of China, like Guanyin, are good sen as Buddhists who became bodhisattvas in order to return from the brink of Nirvana and help mankind.

The biggest religious factor defining Asia is perhaps the resistence to Christianity. Until the Post WWII era the inroads of Christian mission in the region were small. A few rice bowl Christians in China, Vietnam, and South India. But that is changing: South Korea has become a nominally Christian nation and Singapore will have a majority Christian population witin a generation.

Then there was, of course, commerce. For centuries China officially ignored commerce as "unproductive" in the Confucian view of life. But at the same time the ceramics and silk of the Song Dynasty were being carried by others to ports as far away as East Africa and the Mediterranean. The same ships that carrried China's porcelian and cloth from Guangzhou and Amoy also transported pepper and nutmeg from Indonesia's Malukus and, after dropping their cargo in Bombay or some Persian Gulf port, returned to China and Malacca with Tea and, later, opium. Those commercial ties date back more than just a few centuries. Sri Vijaya, based on the island of Sumatra, managed a commercial empire that started in 650 AD and lasted over six centuries. But Sri Vijaya was not the earliest such trading empire; Funan, based in the Mekong Delta carried on extensive international trade starting from as early as the First Century AD.

A few countries cross regional boundaries.

China, when taken to include Tibet, spreads itself across four of the five regions. China's densely populated Central Plain is clearly East Asia. But Provinces like Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (home to the Turkic Uigher peoples) are part of Central Asia. China's southwest and far south fit better into the Southeast Asia region. Guangxi Zhuang, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces have large numbers of ethnic minorities closely related to the Thai, Burmese, and Khmer; but based on agricultural patterns and geographic similarities, Southeast Asia could be argued to include much of China's eastern area south of the Yangzi River. Tibet itself, along with those parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces where 60% of all ethnic Tibetans actually live, is arguably better grouped as South Asia with India and Nepal than with any other region.

Similar to China, parts of both India and Bangladesh can arguably be said to be in Southeast Asia: the Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, and Tripura, and Bangladesh's Chittagong Hills area.

The most salient connection, perhaps, of Asia as a whole rest in the minds of Western observers. Asia is unified for Europeans by the fact that Europeans a puzzled by it: it is an enigma. Argentina or Australia we understand because they are, after all, basically European places. They may be on other continents, but they share our realities. But whether it is the lifestyle of nomadic Bediouns of Oman and Yemen or the Zen riddles of Japan and China ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?"), Asia intrigues outsiders. Asia is defined at least in part in the Western mind by our own interest in it, and by the way it puzzles us. Most of the world we understand; Asia we still struggle with...

GoAsia 13/10/2004