Law, Politics and Islam in Myanmar

Upcoming seminar: October 5, 2015, 10.00 a.m. to 11.00 a.m.

Where: Isaac Brown Room (ground floor bld. 55, next to busloop), Clayton Campus, Monash University, Centre of Southeast Asia Studies

Abstract: In the lead up to the Myanmar elections in November 2015, one issue has stood out: the precarious position of Muslims. From the recently enacted four laws that restrict inter-religious marriage, conversion and polygamy, to the disenfranchisement of those who do not hold full citizenship (many of whom are Muslims), opposition towards Islam has become a tool to garner political support. The dominant representation that emerges from these developments is the stereotype that Muslims do not belong in Myanmar. This presentation seeks to unpack recent developments and counter these perceptions by identifying ways in which Muslims in Burma have constructed a ‘Burmese Muslim’ identity.

Mosque in Moulemein, 2015

In this talk I demonstrate that the primary response of Muslims to the resistance they have faced has been to promote a ‘Burmese Muslim’ identity that emphasises the ‘localised’ nature of Islam as a way of reaffirming their sense of belonging to the state. In contrast to the trend of Islamisation around the world since the 1970s, the existence and practises of Muslims in Myanmar primarily demonstrate a deep affiliation to local traditions. In focusing on the lived experiences of Muslims in Myanmar in historical context, I demonstrate the diversity within and among Muslim communities in Myanmar and the efforts Muslim communities have gone to in order to ‘fit in’ to this majority-Buddhist society. In particular, I identify three facets of the Burmese Muslim identity and the ways in which this identity is reiterated and reinforced in response to such challenges. First, Muslims have been active participants in political life in Myanmar as a way of demonstrating their commitment to the state. Second, the debates among the different Muslim communities on Islamic education have primarily affirmed the use of Burmese language. Third, the insistence that Burmese Muslim women should be free to wear traditional Burmese dress is a visible representation of the position of the Islamic community. In each of these ways, Muslims stand out for the remarkable lengths they have gone to in order to affirm their belonging to the Buddhist-majority state. The construction and reinforcement of the idea of a ‘Burmese Muslim’ is therefore key to understanding how Muslims have responded to the resistance they face in Myanmar.