Physically aligned as they are toward Mecca, the daily prayers and lifetime pilgrimages of Muslims around the world--hundreds of millions of spokes of religious practice--surround and sustain the Arabian hub of Islam as religious practice. Yet the demographic center of gravity of the Muslim world could hardly be farther from the Middle East. For it is in the vast arc of Asia, in countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, that the great majority of the world's Muslims live. How, if at all, does this striking difference between ritual focus and social fact affect the outlooks and actions of Asian Muslims? What, roughly, is the balance of militancy and toleration in this Asian context, especially in ethnically and religiously plural societies such as Malaysia? Is it realistic to think that Asian attitudes and behaviors could form the basis for a 21st-century reformation and renaissance of Islam in which the jihadist passions of Al Qaeda and the purist strictures of the House of Saud would be refuted and shunned in favor of intercultural cooperation and liberal democracy? Or has the American-Afghan crisis, on the contrary, ignited a chain reaction of sympathy for Arab (and Pashtun) resentments that will inflame Asian Muslims against unbelievers? Finally, what relevance do these questions have for the people and policies of the United States?
Karim Raslan is one of Southeast Asia's leading public intellectuals. His diverse interests run from constructing fictional plots to restructuring all-too-real bankruptcies. When he is not writing short stories and newspaper commentaries, or appearing on CNN or the BBC, he partners a highly regarded Malaysian law firm, Raslan Loong. His first novel, Desire--the first of four planned volumes about a family of Malay Muslims--will be published next fall. A third collection of his short stories should be out next spring. His syndicated column, "Eye in Asia," appears weekly in newspapers in Malaysia and Singapore, and is often reprinted elsewhere in Asia and Australia. The specialties of his law firm include corporate finance, capital markets, and information technology. He is presently a visiting scholar at Columbia University. When he is not traveling, Mr. Raslan lives in Malaysia.