Irecently attended a conference on ‘Muslim Minorities in East Asia’, organised by Dr Yuka Kobayashi of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Dr Jikon Lai of the University of Melbourne, and Dr Samer El-Karanshawy, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies (QFIS), Qatar Foundation. The conference was hosted by the Center for the Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies, in Qatar.
A range of fascinating papers were presented, on Muslims in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, China, Philippines, among other localities in Asia.
The topic of my paper was ‘Localising Islam and the Burmese Muslim Identity’. The abstract for my paper is as follows: While many are extolling the new opportunities and reforms in Myanmar since the political opening in 2011, for many Muslim communities the past seems a more secure and safe place. This chapter begins with a reflection on a Muslim gravesite in Mandalay, which the city council has attempted to demolish on several occasions. It is sites like this that bear witness to the challenges Muslims face, and the way in which the Burmese Muslim identity, an expression of the localised nature of Islam, is reiterated and reinforced in response to such challenges. In this chapter I demonstrate that, rather than ‘Islamising’ local traditions, Islam has been ‘localised’ in Myanmar as a way of reaffirming Muslims’ sense of belonging to the state. In contrast to the trend of Islamisation around the world, the existence and practises of Muslims in Myanmar demonstrate a deep accommodation to local traditions. In this first part of this chapter, I canvassing the diversity within and among Muslim communities in Myanmar and the efforts Muslim communities have gone to in order to fit in. I argue that the construction of a distinct Burmese Muslim identity has served to reinforce their efforts to belong, and has been reiterated and strengthened in times when Muslims have been the targets of violence. I then identify several aspects of this trend of ‘localising Islam’ in comparison to other parts of Southeast Asia, which includes the significance of Muslim political participation; the role of Islamic education and language; and the centrality of Muslim women.