Seminar on “Alternative Voices in Muslim Southeast Asia: Discourse and Struggles”

The seminar on Alternative Voices in Muslim Southeast Asia: Discourse and Struggles was held on 4 September 2018.


4 September 2018
— The seminar on Alternative Voices in Muslim Southeast Asia: Discourse and Struggles was held on 4 September 2018. Dr Norshahril Saat (Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Indonesian Studies Program) and Dr Azhar Ibrahim (Deputy Head of Department of Malay Studies) were the convenors of the session. The seminar was funded by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). A total of 97 people attended the half-day seminar. The main objective of the seminar is to understand the discourse and struggles of groups promoting progressive discourses. These groups reckon that religious texts have to be interpreted in today’s context. They also urge the conservative religious elites to appreciate Southeast Asia’s multicultural societies. Their engagements with the conservatives usually occur at the discursive level. The seminar asks three central questions: how successful have these voices been able to reverse the trend of rising conservatism? What are the avenues in which the progressives utilise in championing their vision? Have there been any pushback from those in power?

From left to right: Mr Christian Echle, Dr Norshahril Saat, and Dr Azhar Ibrahim (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The seminar began with opening remarks delivered by the two convenors and Mr Christian Echle, Director of KAS. This was followed by the keynote address by Associate Professor Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, Head of the Malay Studies Department NUS. During the keynote, Dr Noor Aisha spoke about the need to move beyond issues of terrorism when discussing about progressive voices. She reckoned that academics look at non-violent extremism, its impact on society, and historical roots. She also highlighted some of the challenges facing progressive voices in Southeast Asia. Generally, she mentioned that the exclusivist voice originated in the 1970s, known as the Islamic revivalist movement.

From left to right: Dina Zaman, Dr Norshahril Saat, Dr Zainal Abidin Bagir, and Dr Siti Ruhaini Dzulhayatin (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Three speakers spoke during for Session 1 entitled “Alternative Voices”. Malaysian columnist Dina Zaman spoke about her works with Iman Foundation to counter radical Muslims (CVE). She also shared her experience promoting progressive views through her fiction and non-fiction works. While she has not been personally targeted, she knew of those who were. Dr Zainal Abidin Bagir, Director of Centre for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University, spoke about efforts to counter the conservative turn in Indonesia. He argued the rise of conservative groups was due to the sentiments of the moment and politicisation of the conservative voices. However, he believed that pluralism is still alive in Indonesia, and the level of intolerance is decreasing. Dr Siti Ruhaini Dzulhayatin, Special Staff to the President of the Republic of Indonesia, spoke about problems related to women, especially discourses on polygamy and women’s role in society. This affected the ways some groups conceptualised syariah laws and even civil laws.

From left to right: Dr Pradana Boy Zulian, Dr Azhar Ibrahim, Dr Mohd Faizal Musa, and Dr Ahmad Suaedy (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Session 2 dealt with “Intra-faith” issues. Dr Pradana Boy spoke about a fatwa on Ahmadiyah by Ulama Council of Indonesia (MUI) and how the declaration of the sect as deviant became narrow after 2005. He discussed the differences between the Lahore Ahmadi and the Ghulam Ahmadi. Dr Mohd Faizal Musa shared the problems facing the Shia community in Malaysia since the fatwa issued in 1996 which declared the group deviant. He was sceptical if the new Malaysian government will change matters. Dr Ahmad Suaedy, a member Ombudsman of the Republic Indonesia, shared some of the challenges and opportunities facing minority groups in Indonesia. The highlighted how certain lines in the constitution gives hope to minority groups of their rights in the country.

The seminar ended with a discussion with the audience.

A total of 97 people attended the half-day seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)