UCSB South/Southeast Workshop

Question 1: What is the role of religion in social change?

Muhamad Ali

I will discuss why and how religious institutions in contemporary Indonesia  (such as the Muhammadiyah, the Nahdlatul Ulama, and the various Muslim youth  associations) have developed and transformed civil society in Indonesia. The  reasons I will explore are the power of belief, moral dedication, controlling  force, internal mechanisms for addressing and solving problems, and the  multi-interpretability and flexibility of religion and its exposure to changing  circumstances. Civil society is transformed by these religious factors in  various ways, including diversification of organization and network, constant  movement of ideas and peoples, flexibility of means or technology, multiple  solutions of shared problems, and check and balances of the public. In  discussing these, I will discuss how some localized Arabic terms such as adala,  amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, and jihad exemplified the transformative role of  religious institution in Indonesia’s civil society.


What transformative role have religious institutions played in civil society?

1. Religious institutions provide practical belief in the sacred authority: god,  text, and role model that offer ideals of goodness, justice, prosperity, and  harmony transforms the way civil society emerged and develops addressing socio,  economic, cultural, even political problems  (e.g. khairat, adala, salam, taqwa,  maqasid shari’a, musawa)

2. They offer moral dedication and often sincere, voluntary, independent  commitment to change family and society particularly without the state (e.g.  taghyir, amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, khaira umma, ikhlas)

3. They serve as a unifying and dividing force: homogenizing/controlling and  diversification/liberating   (e.g ukhuwwa, rahmat li al-alamin, ikhtilaf, farh)

4. They develop internal mechanisms of addressing socio-political problems and  solving them (e.g shura, bahs al-masail, ijtihad, jihad, da’wa, tarbiyya, amal  bi al-ihsan)

5. Multi-interpretability and flexibility of religion and its exposure to  socio-political contexts allow necessary check and balances (movement and  countermovement) when violent (un) civil expressions and hegemonizing state  emerge (e.g. tawassuth/umma wasatha, tasamuh)

Elizabeth Collins

What transformative role have religious institutions played in civil society?In answering this question, I take as my time frame the post-colonial era of globalization, by which I refer to the emergence of a world order based on the establishment of international financial institutions—the IMF, World Bank., etc.—and an ideology of “development” through which the most powerful Western nations have implemented policies drawing less developed nations into a web of political and economic relations of domination. In response international civil society organizations, along with national and local NGOs, have been established to ethically restrain the abuse of power by states and to protest economic policies that exploit and/or violate the rights of the poor and minority groups in less developed countries. At the same time transnational religious movements have emerged in response to exploitation of the poor by local elites or corporations based in the West and the political hegemony of Western nations. In Southeast Asia these include Liberation Theology in the Philippines and East Timor; the Buddhist protest movement in Vietnam in response to the American War, Engaged Buddhism and its role in environmental protests in Thailand, and non-violent protests by Burmese monks against the military regime in Burma; and transnational Islamist movements in Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and among the Muslims of the southern Philippines. Finally the spread of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity in the Philippines, Singapore and throughout the region can be viewed as an accommodation to the new world order by lower middle class and marginal groups who find support in a religious community that teaches values supporting success in a capitalist economy and has ties to powerful interests in the United States.


These transnational religious movements have challenged established religious institutions and had a significant role in transforming political institutions, most evidently in the democratization of the Philippines and Indonesia. They have also impacted the societies of Southeast Asian nations in diverse ways, including experiments in Indonesia with the implementation of syariah, which most particularly affects women and religious minorities, and efforts to formalize zakat and make its use transparent. In Thailand the official Buddhist Sangha is challenged by the reformist puritanism of Sante Asoke, efforts to reestablish lineages of ordained nuns, a movement supporting recognition of mai chi, the marketing strategies of the Dhammakaya movement, and the actions of monks engaged in environmental and development projects. In the Philippines the Catholic Church is challenged by the rising popularity of the charismatic El Shaddai movement and Pentecostal evangelism.


Do religious institutions play a positive role in supporting humanitarian activities?


Religious organizations in Southeast Asia have a long history of humanitarian engagement. The movement known as Engaged Buddhism has roots in the social work of Tich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Savrodaya movement in Sri Lanka, and the writings of the esteemed Thai monk Buddhadasa, who inspired the actions of development and environmental monks. Engaged Buddhism is grounded in a new interpretation of Buddhism, which the Sri Lankan teacher-monk Walpola Rahula expresses in this way: “The Buddha did not take life out of the context of its social and economic background; he looked at it as a whole, in all its social, economic, and political aspects” (What the Buddha Taught, 1974). In Indonesia Muhammadiyah is known for the schools and hospitals it has built, and there are many Islamic NGOs associated with Nahdhatul Ulama. Established religious organizations and reform activists compete in delivering humanitarian aid. Islamist groups that follow the model of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were at the forefront of those responding to the tsunami in Aceh, and they regularly provide aid to those affected by flooding in Jakarta. However, aid to the poor and victims of natural disasters becomes a source of conflict when it is intended or perceived as intended to win converts from one religion to another. In Indonesia aggressive Christian evangelizing in Muslims majority areas is resisted, sometimes violently, by Muslim organizations. In Cambodia Christian evangelization associated with humanitarian aid is resented by the Buddhist Sangha.


How does the changing political climate influence the work of faith-based organizations?


Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the potential of religion to mobilize people politically has been of concern to governments throughout Southeast Asia. The support of religious leaders and institutions played a crucial role in people power movements that brought down Marcos and Suharto. In Burma religion provides almost the only venue for protest against the military junta. In Vietnam and Laos the Communist Party has attempted to assimilate Buddhism under State control and minority religious communities are treated with suspicion. However, in Indonesia democratic reforms have opened new opportunities for political engagement and significantly reduced the appeal of political Islam. As a result mainstream religious institutions have stepped  back from political engagement and returned to a more traditional role in supporting local community well being and civic projects, like school building and provision of medical care.How is the work of faith-based organizations influencing the political climate?One disturbing consequence of the politicization of religion throughout the region is that increasingly conflict with political, economic, and ethnic roots is perceived to be based on religious identity: Muslims versus Christians in Indonesia; Buddhists versus Muslims in southern Thailand and the Philippines; Muslims versus Hindus in Malaysia. Because of the political salience of religion and more aggressive efforts to convert people to another religion or radicalize adherents of a mainstream religion, there is an urgent need for governments to establish clear policies on conversion and what constitutes freedom of religion. They also need to establish educational programs that inculcate religious tolerance. Governments alone cannot succeed in reducing religious tensions. Grassroots programs supported by religious institutions are needed. Throughout Southeast Asia faith-based organizations could do much more to reduce tensions between people of different faiths.



As a framework for assessing the potential impact of a religious movement, I like to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion and the hermeneutics of the sacred to the message of movements and use an agency / structure analysis to see how the message is spread. The hermeneutics of suspicion reveals the underlying political, economic and psychological dynamics of the movement. The hermeneutics of the sacred explores how the movement meets the need of followers for moral redemption and an ethical compass. The structure / agency approach shows how ideas developed in one context are taken up and reinterpreted by individual agents who apply them to local concerns and identifies the institutional structures through which new ideas are spread, such as schools, the press, or underground networks. To take one example briefly: Pentecostal Christianity arose in the United States at the beginning of the 20th c. and spread among lower middle-class mixed-race congregations. The movement spread first to Latin American through televangelism and U.S. foreign policy (the Contra War), then to Africa and now to Asia, among newly urbanized people and marginal groups with aspirations to enter the middle class. Pentecostal Christianity has especially appealed to women who hoped to resist the anomie of the urban underclass. In predominantly Catholic countries the evangelical-missionary couple that leads a local congregation provides a more applicable model of marriage and family in contrast to celibate Catholic clergy. Marginal groups may see Pentecostal or Evangelical Christianity as a way of winning the protection of the United States. The way in which the message is directed at local concerns can be illustrated by a Pentecostal service with a mixed race Chinese and Tamil congregation that I observed in Kuala Lumpur. The theme of the sermon was the power of teamwork. The preacher explained that the original team was the trinity and the first thing that Jesus did in his ministry was to form a team of twelve apostles.


Lamia Karim

Heavenly Desires: Intersections of Class and Sexuality Among Women of the Tabligh Ja’maat in Bangladesh


The Tabligh Ja’maat is a global missionary movement that traces its origins to 1920s colonial India. A pietist movement in orientation, the Tabligh Ja’maat seeks to create Khilafat through non-violent means, that is, by invitation to nominal Muslims to return to the fold. This paper analyzes a small group of women belonging to the Ja’maat and their induction into the Tabligh Ja’maat ideology. Based on interviews and analysis of the sermons (boyans) addressing women, the paper focuses on how women are disciplined and regulated by the Ja'maat mosque leadership toward the creation of an Islamic nation and subjects. I focus on the following questions: (a) why do women join this movement; (b) how do women organize themselves as leaders and followers within the movement; (c) how has globalization affected gender politics within the movement; and (d) to what extent has the movement transformed itself from a pietist movement to a political movement? The paper places the Tabligh Ja’maat movement within the larger discourse of globalization of Islam, and raises important questions about the role of the female Muslim subject in the 21st century.

Katherine Marshall

Religion and global civil society in a South and Southeast Asia context  The focus for the Berkley Center and WFDD has been on the roles that the many religious and faith institutions play in various development arenas: development meaning social change but also specific social services and approaches. Health, education, social safety nets, community approaches and organizations, and changing gender roles are leading topics.


First we explored Southeast Asia, with a consultation in Phnom Penh in December 2009. We are currently reviewing South and Central Asia, with a Dhaka, Bangladesh consultation January 10-11, 2010. The reviews involve background research, interviews with leading practitioners, and consultation meetings that bring together small groups of practitioners to explore emerging issues and common trends. Where next is a live question: how can we support networks of practitioners and help fill gaps in knowledge? The reviews underscore what is obvious and well understood: the enormous diversity and reach of religious ideas, institutions, and leadership across many domains. Common threads of issues include tensions around the rather fuzzy boundaries of proselytizing, tensions in some places in refining the place of the state vis a vis civil society and specifically institutions with religious links, and coordination challenges, on a large scale. The latter echoes a central concern within international development circles about fragmentation and overlap in the increasingly complex development world and the imperative need for better coordination. Where does religion fit in that picture? Knowledge gaps are large and include poor "faith literacy" in public policy communities and faith "blinders" that exclude from analysis and engagement many faith communities. There are tensions also around understandings of human rights and responsibilities, with gender roles a particular focus. The role of Islam in the region is a focal issue, too often in the negative aspects of links to terrorism and instability.  Roles of transnational institutions are changing and deserve particular focus. The "faith links" are often rather complex, witness the Aga Khan Development Network, the Gulen Movement, WCRP, Soka Gokkai, and the Red Cross and Crescent as examples of organizations active across the region with both religious and secular facets. In reflecting on global civil society and religion, we might some areas of common ground (disaster relief, Aceh example as a case, trafficking) and apparent disconnect (striking absence of faith communities in integrity alliances, witness Bangkok November 2010 IACC) and tension (orphan care, reproductive health care and rights).


Questions on my mind include:

(a) how is religion understood and addressed by policy-makers in different sectors?

(b) how are the various development dimensions of religion (especially education and health) evolving in a modernizing context?

(c) how are the numerous religious bodies engaging on ethical challenges, including corruption, citizen responsibilities, and economic governance;

(d) what are various religious roles in addressing gender issues including boy preference, trafficking in women, and domestic violence? and

(e) what are specific experiences and cases where religious institutions and leaders are engaging in conflict resolution, reconciliation, and constructive post conflict approaches.  A recurring question from various quarters is: what are good examples of partnerships involving faith institutions, and what are the emerging lessons? What is "best practice" in interfaith experience?


—  Katherine Marshall Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs World Faiths Development Dialogue