Understanding Muslim Minorities in Asia - The Inter-relationship of Socio-economic Status, Identity, and Politics


The objective of this seminar series is to explain the forces and factors behind the persistent decline in the social, political, and economic status of many Muslim minorities in Asia—including in China, India, the Philippines, and Thailand. Along with the socio-economic decline is a narrowing of identity among citizens who are Muslims to often a purely religious identity. This contrasts with the more pluralistic identity that reflects their real heterogeneity by class, gender, and other socio-economic characteristics.

That the social and political decline is persistent and long-term has been noted by scholars and, more recently, acknowledged in the official reports of some countries. However, the process and time period of change is generally not well understood. Its linkage to identity narrowing has also not been explored. Meanwhile, the combination of socio-economic decline, often accompanied by political marginalization and physical ghettoization, has been devastating for the Muslim communities in these countries. The net result is a peculiar social and cultural stasis and lack of social mobility among the vast majority of Muslims at a time when social structures, cultural conventions, and established hierarchies are being overturned at an unprecedented rate by Asia’s continuing economic growth.

As may be expected, the variation in contexts across countries is considerable, making the search for common themes an interesting and important research problem. For example, in China, the growth of Muslim religious identity has been, in part, possible because of a slow relaxation in expression allowed by the state, driven in part by China’s keenness to engage diplomatically with Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries as part of its energy security strategies. The result is that one of the two main Muslim groups, the Hui, who are geographically dispersed and closer in some ethnic markers, such as language, with the majority Han population, have emerged over the past two decades as “Muslim Chinese” or, even, “Muslim Han,” with freedom to practice their faith. Many of them play important ambassadorial roles for China overseas. Thus, their political and social capital has increased, even while their relative economic status has not. By contrast, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, who are viewed as “non-Chinese Muslims,” suffer considerable suppression of their religious identity and greater losses in economic and political power as a result. Yet for both groups, religious identity matters more than it did earlier and plays a role in submerging other identities that they may prefer to adopt.

By contrast, in India, the concentration of religious identity among Muslims is accompanied by a general decline in socio-economic and political power. In some ways similar to China’s Uyghurs, one group, the Muslims of Kashmir—incidentally, also from a politically sensitive border region, have seen the most dramatic declines in socio-economic and political power, largely due to state repression. The rest of India’s Muslim population also suffers from state repression on a wide range of issues, such as protection of their properties and language. But, they suffer to a significantly lesser degree than Muslim Kashmiris owing to their voting power (despite efforts to gerrymander or otherwise take away their powers) and the country’s democratic tradition. Even so, the decline in their socio-economic status is marked. Unlike the Hui of mainland China, the political power of the Muslims of India has also declined.  

The seminar series will explore these issues with four speakers to cover key areas of interest in Asia, namely, China, India, and Southeast Asia. Each speaker will cover one or more countries within the broad theme of Muslim identity, economic status, and political power.

Co-sponsored by The South Asia Initiative