Religious extremism poses threat to ASEAN’s growth

« Religious extremism poses threat to ASEAN’s growth » by Gwen Robinson and Simon Roughneen, 14/12/2017, Nikkei Asian Review

Aided by social media, hardliners gain mainstream support

The Dec. 2 event marked a year since an estimated half-million people clamored in the rain for the arrest of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the then-governor of Jakarta. Since then, Purnama, a Protestant of Chinese descent nicknamed Ahok, lost the gubernatorial election and was sentenced to two years in jail on the same blasphemy charges that brought massive crowds onto Jakarta’s streets late last year.

The episode raised concerns around the world that Indonesia’s relatively tolerant variant of Islam — and its secular democracy — was under attack. And it was a startling display of the strength of Islamist groups in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Among the organizers were the Islamic Defenders Front, known as FPI, and the Islamic Ummah Forum.

Those groups do not claim affiliation with the al-Qaida-linked militants who killed 202 people in Bali in 2002, nor the estimated 1,150 Indonesians who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the so-called Islamic State. But the government has been sufficiently alarmed to ban the local wing of Hizbut Tahrir, another Islamist movement involved in the anti-Ahok protests — and which hopes to establish a caliphate.

Across Asia, the rise of hard-line religious movements is fueling a macho form of nationalism and creating dangerous new fault lines in communities. Beyond Indonesia with its numerous Islamist groups are Myanmar’s zealous Buddhist organizations, which have stoked anti-Muslim sentiment to deadly effect. Bangladesh has seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalists including Hefazat-e-Islam, while Sri Lanka has Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Sinhalese Buddhist group.

Such groups number in the dozens across Asia — fundamentalist Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus who are adding new fuel on what are sometimes ancient ethnic conflicts. Some boast memberships that run into the hundreds of thousands, powered by zealous social media campaigns, community support programs and effective fundraising operations. The donations, often tiny amounts collected from poor followers, become a source of support for hard-line leaders.

Analysts warn that such ethno-religious chauvinism represents the biggest threat to the economic growth the region has enjoyed in recent years — and to the dream of greater cohesion over trade and economic issues. « Rapid economic growth over the past three decades has raised standards of living across much of Asia, but left marginal areas, like Mindanao in the Philippines and Rakhine State in Myanmar, untouched and therefore comparatively worse off, » said Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. « It is perhaps no coincidence that these areas are afflicted by violent conflict. »

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