Anyone who's traveled in Malaysia and Indonesia can testify to the friendly, open-minded character of most of the citizens. Every nation has a legend, and in Malaysia there's one an American traveler might encounter it. It goes something like this:
"We have made it. We beat colonialism, we beat nationalism, we beat war, we beat poverty, we beat the Asian crisis ... let's show you around and make money together."
In Indonesia, there's a less obvious directionality than one might notice among the Malaysians, and an American encounters more of a sort of national theme of delight and wonder:
"You American, you have come so far... we admire you. Here's our beautiful country, we're pleased you like it, we want to share it some more... so let's get to know each other."
This is my own impression, and just an impression, derived from many encounters there over six years, but I think it expresses what many westerners experience when we have the intriguing adventure of being in Southeast Asia among its generally friendly Malaysians and Indonesians.
And amazingly, they are Muslims.
Not like the angry Muslims you might meet in a politically correct university town or see on the news demonstrating somewhere overseas. Nor the more low-key, often industrious Muslims you might meet working at a convenience store in the U.S. They are Southeast Asian Muslims.
V.S. Naipaul, in his two books, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, described how non-Arab Muslims are quite different in character and ranking from Arab Muslims. The Arabs often consider non-Arab Muslims as ‘converted peoples' and regard them as less pure of faith than themselves in their tribal Arab sensibilities. All non-Arab Muslims are perpetual second-raters in the eyes of Arab purists, who seem to actually believe that their bloodlines give them a leg up in the kingdom of God, a special communion with virtue, due to their racial proximity to the culture of Mecca. This is one reason why any non-Arab Muslim - whether Indian, or Iranian or Bosnian, is often viewed as less than Muslim. In fact, Arabs have often openly said that they consider the Indonesian Muslims ‘savages.'
This permanent inability to reach the inner circle of virtuous Islamitude is often a source of friction for the non-Arab Muslims themselves. Naipaul harshly portrayed the confusion and resentment of the Pakistani and Iranian ‘converted peoples, but he was far less harsh on the Malay and Indonesian Muslims. He's a harsh writer with an unforgiving eye for his subjects but he actually seemed to have some respect for them.
Part of the reason he seemed to cite is their cultural straddle between the Arab Muslim world and the East Asian world, where the powerful Sino-culture of China dominates. The Chinese cultural influence in Southeast Asia encourages people to be industrious, practical and self-reliant and to respect authority for its own sake, over any religious or ideological justification. It also values success and ‘face' as much as it abhors failure. With the pull of the Arab religious (and at least latently racist) culture on one side, and the other pull of the great Far Eastern Sino-culture, the Southeast Asian Muslim seems to strive hard to reach a balance, doing it by connecting with people.
Amidst all this discussion about the gentleness of Southeast Asian Islam, the region is not immune to sparks of Wahbabi-influenced extremism. It does exist, as this Investors Business Daily editorial shows, but it’s basically an effort to alter the gentle nature of Southeast Asian Islam into the fierce desert tribal sensibilities of the Wahhabi. The most recent court acquittal of Indonesian terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir is the case before many eyes, but it’s far from the mainstream in Indonesia. Bashir’s terror is really part of a war effort to alter Indonesia from a secular democratic state to a malevolent new Shari'a state. Indonesia’s court deserves nothing but disgust, but not all Indonesians – nor even the Indonesian state - should be blamed for the travesty of justice. The blame belongs to the street mobs and the anti-American elites, not the vast majority of Indonesians who continue to have interest in connecting with the rest of the world
The tug of different cultures and the urge to connect to them is one reason why Southeast Asians are so friendly with everyone - Americans, Arabs, Europeans, Africans, Australians. We can easily see its relation to ourselves, but what's perhaps more significant is its growing influence in the Arab states.
In the Arab world, which has been tossed around in the turmoil of war these past years, Arab Muslims have had to confront many failures in their culture. That's why we continuously see the strange Arab cheering for 9/11 coupled with the strange denial that Arabs did it at all because 9/11 was the work of George Bush. It's an atmosphere of defeat and failure and wounded pride.
In the middle of this, there is a sign of hope. Southeast Asian merchants and traders are starting to appear in Arab lands, and their entrepreneurial example, along with all their new cultural influences derived from Chinese culture and their own easygoing native cultures, is starting to draw Arab Muslim fascination. Southeast Asians are friendly and interested in connections. They are not hung up on rage against America - they'd rather make money off America by trading with it. They blame no one, and make no exalted racial claims. Their Islam is a tolerant one, and they observe it devoutly.
All of this must be extremely fascinating to Arabs who watch them roll in, and many Southeast Asian entrepreneurs are making inroads into Arab culture, spreading the Southeast Asian approach and its culture of success.
For the Arabs, this has to be extremely attractive, and not surprisingly, they are being drawn to it, ignoring their old prejudices. For the rest of us, this is good news because Southeast Asia's example for Islamic nations, which they've never seen before, is a good one. If the trend sinks in very deep, it's very good news for the Arab cultures and Arab Islam which might just start adapting a far more tolerant line toward outsiders and itself, too.
A.M. Mora y Leon has covered Latin America extensively for American Thinker.