Muslims don’t study Buddhism enough: An interview with Prof. Imtiyaz Yusuf (Part 2)

The two largest followers of religion in Southeast Asia are Muslims and Buddhists. From around 618 million of its total population, 42 per cent are Muslim and 40 per cent are Buddhist. Twenty-five percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and 38 per cent of the world’s 350 million Buddhists live in Southeast Asia. Yet Muslim-Buddhist interreligious dialogue between the two is rare today. Discussing this issue, CRCS staff member Azis Anwar Fachrudin interviewed Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf, director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at Mahidol University in Thailand. Earning his PhD at Temple University where he studied with Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Professor Yusuf has written numerous encyclopedia entries and journal articles and been a regular columnist for Thai newspapers. Some of his works can be accessed on his academia.edu account. During intersession at CRCS  from May 15 until July 31, Prof. Yusuf is teaching the course Muslim-Buddhist Relations.

This is PART 2Click here to read PART 1 of the interview.

Would you tell us briefly about the history of Muslims in Thailand? The thing that we mostly heard is only about Pattani Muslims.

Let me first tell a little bit about Pattani. The Pattani conflict is basically between orang Siam and orang Melayu. If you go to Pattani today, and I stayed five years in Pattani, they say we are orang Melayu and we are under orang Siam. The conflict was between two kingdoms: the big kingdom of Siam and the Pattani kingdom.

Now, in the historical Siam, there were Muslim immigrants from Persia, India, and parts of Malaysia (Kedah and Perlis). I divide the types of Muslims in Thailand in the following way.

In the deep south (Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat), which was annexed by Siam hundred years ago, they are Malay-speaking Muslims of Southern Thailand. They identify themselves as Malay and they don’t speak Thai. So there are multiple layers in the Pattani conflict: the issue of ethnic identity (Siam and Malay), language (Thai and Malay), and religion. The Pattani problem is basically a problem of two ethno-religious identities.

In the upper south, there are Malay but Thai-speaking Muslims. They were people from Kedah and Perlis who migrated to Thailand for economic reason; no border at that time, and they didn’t have a kingdom. They came into Nakhon Sithammarat, Phuket, Phanga, Krabi, etc.

Up in Bangkok, you have Persians, who have been there for four hundred years, from the time of King Narai (in reign 1633-1656). You have the Cham Muslims, who migrated from the Champa kingdom and they worked as soldiers for King Chulalongkorn (in reign 1868-1910). In Bangkok, there is an area called Makkasan, near the Indonesian embassy, in which there are Makassari Muslims and every year they celebrate the birthday of King Chulalongkorn, because he gave them protection and they are very grateful of him.

There is another area in Bangkok called Kampong Jawa in which there are Javanese. If you want to eat Javanese foods, go there. You know what, one son of Ahmad Dahlan (the founder of Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Indonesian Muslim organizations—ed) lived in Masjid Jawa in this kampong. This man came not as a son of a kyai; he came first as a cleaner of the masjid. Slowly they found out that this man is son of Ahmad Dahlan. He then influenced some of the prominent Thai Muslim businessmen and reformers, one of them is my brother in law, who translated the Quran into Thai.

The Salafiyyah in Thailand—and I’ve written a paper about this—is not that Salafi-Wahhabism. Salafi reformism arrived in Bangkok in 1926 with the arrival of an Indonesian Muslim scholar by the name of Ahmad Wahab, who had studied in Mecca before his return to Indonesia and subsequent exile to Thailand. Ahmad Wahab was exiled to Thailand by the Dutch authorities due to his involvement with the reformist Muhammadiyah movement and its political movement in Sarekat Islam.

In Bangkok, Ahmad Wahab along with like-minded Thai Muslims such as Direk Kulsiriswad and others formed the Ansorusunnah association in 1930s and also Jamiyatul Islam in 1950s. The religious influence of Ahmad Wahab’s reformist activities within Thai Islam extended to the north and south of Thailand within the Thai-speaking Muslims of Chiangmai and Chiangrai in the north and Pak Prayoon in Phatthalung province and Nakorn Sithammarat in the upper South.

In Bangkok there is also the Indian Muslim community, made up of Keralites and Tamils. And they also came at the time of King Chulalongkorn.

Now let’s go up again, to Northeast Thailand. Here you have the Pathan Muslims. They were coming from Afghanistan. They are Hanafi in fiqh. They were warriors, soldiers, brought there by the British. There are a lot of livestock businesses there. Most of the halal industry in Thailand is in the hands of these Pathan Muslims.

Now we go to further north, to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. There you’ll find two types of Muslims. The majority are Chinese Muslims who came from Yunan, southern part of China. They were part of the Kuomintang party and loyal to Sun Yat Sen who fled to Taiwan. When Mao Tse Tung came into rule in China, these Muslims fled first to Burma, and then to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. They are Hanafi in fiqh. And they are the most developed among the Muslim communities in Thailand. The other are Bengalis, who came seeking livelihood and were migrating from Bengal to Burma, then to Thailand.

People often think about Pattani, while only 44 percent of Muslims in Thailand live in Pattani. The rest are spread all over the country. In the last parliament from the 2007 election, we had 23 Muslim members of the parliament and only eleven of them are from Pattani.

Can we say that the Pattani conflict is an insurgency?

It is an insurgency, like in Kashmir, Papua, Palestine; and it’s an ethno-religious conflict. They are nationalists. They want their Malay-Muslim identity to be recognized. There are separatists, but most just want autonomy. The leader of this movement is Haji Sulong who, during the time of Phibunsongkhram, delivered seven demands to the Thai government. Only one of these seven demands is related to religion. The rest are about ethnic identity, language, governorship, administration, and other political demands.

Whenever there is an insurgency like that, and the insurgents are Muslims, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS usually come in taking advantage. Do they come to Thailand?

No, they can’t. Many of the Westerners after 9/11 came searching for terrorists or jihadists in Southern Thailand, they didn’t find anybody. The Pattani Muslims don’t want an Islamic state. They are very clear about this. They say: ours is a nationalist struggle. Read their narrative. Their narrative is about their history of the past Pattani kingdom, not about an Islamic state. The Pattani kingdom had seven females as sultanahs (queens) of Pattani. In an Islamic state, will you have a queen? No.

Moving to the country next to Thailand, I expect there is a similar case as Thailand’s in the case of Myanmar’s Rohingya issue.

On the Rohingya issue, there is, first, an element of racism. The Rohingya people are ethnically Bengalis. They are South Asian like me, not Mongoloid like you. Myanmar is located at the geographic border where Aryan race stops and the Mongoloid begins. Most of the Rohingya people were from the Arakan/Chittagong area which is now part of both Myanmar and Bangladesh. They migrated to Myanmar for economic reason. When they come to Myanmar, they become an economic burden. The local people don’t want outsiders to come.

Earlier there was a state called Arakan. The Arakan state was bordering Chittagong that is part of Bangladesh. There was no border at that time. There was an Arakan Buddhist king and there were Arakan Muslims. They lived together for a long time because there were no borders. Then a Burmese Buddhist king attacked Arakan state and defeated that Arakan Buddhist king. This Arakan Buddhist king then fled to Bengal, to Bangladesh as we call it today. The Bengali people then helped him to win back his throne. The Arakan king was sympathetic to Bengalis. Many Bengalis then migrated to Arakan. And then Arab traders came in. There emerged a new group in Arakan whom we know as Arakan Muslims. Muslims and Buddhists lived side by side. If you go to writings of that period, you’d find that the Buddhist king had an Arabic title. His coin was made in Arabic. He admired the Muslim culture. What happened then is the Burmese king attacked Arakan again and he ended the kingdom.

Then came the British, controlling Arakan. The British rule ended with the independence, from which a problem emerged: Arakan Muslims were under the pressure of the Burmans. The Burmans are the majority race in Burma. They wanted to rule over all ethnic groups in Burma, so they wanted to take control over the Arakan state.

Before independence, the Arakan Muslims at that time thought that if they were under the Burmans, they were going to be oppressed. So Arakan Muslims’ leader talked to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan. There are East Pakistan and West Pakistan. East Pakistan is next to Burma, which is Bangladesh. The Arakan Muslims’ leader said they wanted to migrate to East Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah then talked to General Aung San, the father of Aung San Su Kyi, who was an integrationist like Sukarno. General Aung San said to Ali Jinnah: No, these people don’t need to go to Pakistan; they’re protected under Burma, which will be independent soon. Unfortunately, General Aung San was assassinated before the independence of Burma. The army then took over Myanmar, and they changed the name of Arakan to Rakhine state. They wanted to remove the Buddhist-Muslim historical identity of coexistence.

Myanmar is a hard country. There is always a tension between the Burmans and other ethnic groups. The army made Buddhism as the national identity. They also wanted Rakhine to be Buddhist. The Rakhine people actually don’t like the Burmans. There was a war going on between the Rakhine Buddhist army, which wanted to separate from Myanmar, and the Burman army. Now they have been brainwashed that Arakan state was a Muslim state, which is not true. So they are against the Rohingya. Here comes the identity of Rohingya. The Muslim people start saying we are Arakan Muslims; we are legitimate natives of this land, and we are Rohingya. The word “Rohingya” comes into existence.

So the Burman army declared Rakhine people as the only legitimate inhabitants of the Rakhine state. This led to the rise of Rakhine nationalism against the Rohingya. The Rakhine nationalists started saying to the Rohingya: You are Bengalis. The Burman army divide and rule; they created a conflict between the Arakan Buddhists and the Arakan Muslims. They didn’t give citizenship to the Rohingya.

So, there is an element of racism, the issue of history, and of citizenship legitimacy. 

Can we simplify or summarize that the root of the Pattani and Rohingya problems has more to do with modern nation-state building?

Yeah, very good. They are missed out in the nation-state building. In Pattani, religion is not an issue. In Myanmar, Buddhism is exploited by the Burmese for their racism. Bhikkhu AshinWirathu (the spiritual leader of anti-Muslim movement in Burma—ed.) said: protect the Burmese race from the Rohingyas.

I haven’t told you this: The British brought many Indians to Burma, because Burma was part of the British empire. The British brought Indians to manage the colonial administration. Fifty-four per cent of Rangoon’s (later Yangon) population were Indians. There were two ethnic riots in Burma because of this, in 1930 and 1938, against the Indians. These Indians, among them were Muslims, were traders and owners of textile and farming industries. The Burmans hate the Indians. When Burma came into independence, about 700,000 Indians were told to go back. So, there is this element in the conflict over Rohingya.

What now Wirathu does is that he collectively takes all of them as Muslims, all of them are a threat to Myanmar. All of them: the Rohingyas, the Indian Muslims, the Chinese Muslims, and the Zarbadi (children from intermarriage between the Burmese and the Muslims). This is racism in the name of religion.

It seems that in terms of inclination toward violence, Buddhism is not an exception.

I have a copyrighted term for that. I call it “non-violent extremism”. Monks don’t attack; they don’t engage in violence. They are trained not to be violent. But people like Wirathu can incite others to do violence.

How do the Buddhists justify that? I mean, like in Islam, the concept of jihad can be used to justify violence.

They can’t. They legitimize it on the grounds of nationalism. There is nothing available in the Buddhist tradition to legitimize violence.

King Ashoka, who is recognized as the model of a non-violent Buddhist king, said that he will use violence to protect his land. So defense is legitimate but not promotion of hatred, xenophobia and terrorism that are rooted in related injustice, discrimination and racism towards the other as we see today. In our times, we are witnessing religious nationalist wars which are of different category. My recent article in Thailand’s newspaper The Nation (which has been republished on the CRCS website—ed) talks about nationalism that has now turned religious.

Last question, what would you suggest, particularly for us in Indonesia, to bridge the gap between Muslims and Buddhists?

I like Indonesia very much. As a Muslim I breathe freely in democratic Indonesia. It has a rich culture and it is a leading Muslim democratic country; the largest Muslim country. Indonesia has a role to play: You have to teach in your educational institutions about your historical cultural background, which is Hindu-Buddhist. You should help Muslims in Southeast Asia how to live with other cultures. It is a challenge for you already. You have to promote cultural studies, which talks about cultural configuration of Southeast Asia, and you have to do it through your local knowledges, not Western theories. You need a local social studies developed for Nusantara, for coexistence between Islam and Asian religions and cultures, especially in ASEAN. It will help a lot, and Indonesia has a big responsibility to do that.

One last thing, I met Cak Nun the other day; we were invited, and I spent three hours with him. He told me a very interesting thing; you can put this on your transcript later. I asked the question why Indonesian Muslims don’t know their Hindu-Buddhist cultural background. He said to me: Indonesians are Muslims by adoption, not continuation. Meaning, they have adopted Islam but forgotten their Hindu-Buddhist cultural identity. They have so many Hindu-Buddhist words, but they don’t know the cultural content of them.

Such as?

Such as puasa. What does this word mean? They don’t know. Pesantren is based on the Buddhist model of school; I said this somewhere in my paper. You have sembahyang, surau, langgar—langgar is a Hindu word and it means temple where people go to pray. So, they have adopted Islam, but they stop continuing their own past. This throws you out of the ground. Indonesians have to keep their feet on the soil of Indonesia; soil of Prambanan, soil of Borobudur, soil of Srivijaya.

Back to PART 1 of the interview

3 comments on “Muslims don’t study Buddhism enough: An interview with Prof. Imtiyaz Yusuf (Part 2)

  1. “So, they have adopted Islam, but they stop continuing their own past. This throws you out of the ground. Indonesians have to keep their feet on the soil of Indonesia; soil of Prambanan, soil of Borobudur, soil of Srivijaya.”

    My impression (to be honest, a rather vague one) was that Indonesians are less disconnected from their Hindu-Buddhist heritage than Malaysians. When I visited Borobudur it seemed like the locals were very proud of it whereas in Malaysia all of the pre-Islamic monuments and ruins are ignored or have been deliberately destroyed. I also saw a children’s picture book in Bahasa Indonesia featuring one of the Hindu legends, and we don’t have such things in Malaysia.

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