Shorenstein APARC fosters dialogue on Muslim experience in Asia through new book

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Muslim children read the Quran at an Indian madrassa.
Photo credit: 
Vijay Pandey

Over 215 million Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, but despite their number and proximity to record growth and opportunity in greater Asia, their experience has been one of persistent, widespread socioeconomic and political decline. 

A new book, Modes of Engagement: Muslim Minorities in Asia, published by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and distributed through The Brookings Institution, offers leading research on this topic and places it in a geographic perspective. Edited by Rafiq Dossani, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and Professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, the book paves new paths to understanding the paradox of Muslim minorities in Asia. 

Dossani was at Stanford University for nearly fifteen years as a senior research scholar at Shorenstein APARC and as the executive director of the South Asia Initiative, studying the plight of Muslims and higher education in India, among other topics. The book is a result of a seminar series with the book’s contributors.

“Since the 1970s, especially in China, Asia’s growth rate has been unprecedented within Asia’s own history,” Dossani says. Mainstream Asia has seen a rise in job opportunities and income levels, and as a result, an individual ability to accumulate wealth and commit resources to long-term investments, such as education and innovation activities.

However, not all people have found benefit from this modern, economic transformation. Most notably, Muslims have seen a severe decline in their social and political space, as well as a narrowing of their identity.

Analysts find this surprising because history reflects a narrative that says Muslims should have profited along with the rest. “It wasn’t expected that Muslims would lose out in the countries in which they were minorities,” he says.

The volume investigates this puzzle through three case studies: the Philippines, India, and China. In each country, Muslims are at least 5 percent of the population, the largest number being in India. Dossani weaves together common threads that define the Muslim minority experience. Similarities include the impact of state-led ethnic nationalism and forced assimilation. He also writes that Muslims have been unable to use protest to secure any significant, long-term gains.

Given this dire reality, what prospects lie ahead for Muslim minorities? In conversation, Dossani suggests a few policy priorities gathered from the case studies featured in the volume.

Democracy is not the answer

Democracy, a form of governance that is often championed for its equal civic participation, has not facilitated a level playing field for Muslims when theory dictates it should.

“Democracy is not the answer to handling these problems,” says Dossani, emphasizing, “it is a most inadequate answer.”

This situation is evident in the case of India where Muslims have probably done the worst, compared to the Philippines, which also shares a legacy of colonial rule and transition to democracy.

Muslims in India, who have attempted to elevate their interests on the national stage, are stopped by coalition politics. Larger interests of the group can subsume their own, encroached upon further by caste issues, language barriers and other dividing factors. China’s Hui have found a significantly better experience than the Uyghurs, who were separated from mainland China early on and excluded from opportunities afforded there (the Uyghurs reside in a northwest region, Xinjiang). In the case of India, Muslims make up only ten to fifteen percent of the population in almost every state, thus their voice fails to find leverage in the political sphere, and effectively lose out.

Furthermore, democracy is not a panacea when states are vulnerable.

“When you have very weak and fragile states, where intuitions are subject to capture easily, democracy doesn’t work,” Dossani explains. Muslim minorities are unable to gain clout because the majorities, and elites attempting to fill a power vacuum, crowd them out.

Thus, collective interest and concerted efforts on the part of governmental and non-governmental organizations – a larger nexus of individuals working toward common goals – are essential to create momentum and staying power behind Muslim issues.

“You need civil society where it explicitly deals with the issues of minority populations and tries to convince the national government and state governments that improving the lots of minorities should be a national project with commitment to their improvement,” he says.

Development as a way forward

Some national projects were developed to openly address Muslim issues, but this led other internal ethnic and religious groups to ask, “Why are you appeasing the Muslims?”

Especially since 9/11, governments have increasingly come under pressure. Stigmas that narrow Muslim identity into “extremists” and “terrorists” are more progressively shared, making it near impossible for governments to explicitly offer a helping hand to Muslims without domestic backlash. 

But even with the odds against them, Muslim minorities still have a way forward.

In the three countries studied, Muslims have found traces of success, and in other Asian nations such as Sri Lanka and Nepal, there has been considerable accommodation of Muslims. Across all circumstances, “Muslims have done best in countries where the state has focused on education for all,” Dossani says.

Instead of providing ethnic-based aid, governments should focus on resource availability as a main qualifier for assistance. State-sponsored education and health care initiatives that capture the poorest populations help Muslims who inherently fall into this category. 

“Any wise government would say ‘look we want to connect education to development and focus on the poorest, no matter who they are.’ If they do that, Muslims will automatically get their fair share,” he says. The Philippines has already recognized this reality, and begun to implement development projects that naturally include Muslims.

Regime change can also motivate Muslim accommodation, either directly or indirectly, as is likely in the case of India.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Narendra Modi, although said to have an anti-Islamic stance in the past with the Bharatiya Janata Party, may in fact create policies that favor Muslims because it fits in with a grander vision of national growth. 

Referring to Prime Minister Modi, Dossani says, “It’s not clear that he cares about Muslims, but in some ways, he cares about development.

“At some point, any development-conscious person will realize that no country can progress if 15 percent of the country hangs behind.”

Diaspora matters

The swell of migration in the globalized era has made the formation of diaspora communities, dispersed populations outside of country of origin, a common phenomenon. Muslim minorities are a large part of this movement, seeking opportunity and using their ethnic or religious connections to establish a new life elsewhere.

Muslims of Asian origin are located beyond Asia – in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, among other areas. But despite being removed from their native soil, an allegiance and interest in the homeland typically remains.

“Diaspora exists in a very big way,” Dossani explains. Their influence should not be underestimated, both financially and politically. The Muslim diaspora provides an important channel of support that helps struggling Muslim populations.

Remittances from relatives overseas can bring in substantial transfers of money and support to populations that may not otherwise have enough resources, or be supported by the government. For several years now, one of the single largest inflows of money into the Philippines has been from these outside sources. India’s Muslim diaspora has a strong diasporan foundation with codified institutions set-up to organize relations. China’s experience is less documented, Dossani says, although he conjectures that some diasporan support exists, whether formally or informally.

Diaspora organizations, often led and supported by expatriates, appear to be growing worldwide, and can play a crucial role in the formation of Muslims’ global identity and network of support. Neighboring countries with Muslim majorities, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have also offered themselves as diplomatic partners in resolving conflicts over Muslims’ conditions, given their own long histories of addressing them internally.