Muslim Intellectuals in Thailand: Exercises in Reform and Moderation.

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Author: Raymond Scupin
Date: Nov. 2021
Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,114 words
Lexile Measure: 1440L

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Muslim discourse in Thailand including sensationalist and essentialist conceptions have been circulating widely since the outbreak of violence in South Thailand in 2004. However, Islamic discourse in Thailand is heterogeneous. Islamic reform movements have been contesting the more militant forms of discourse for years. Various Muslim intellectuals operating in early and more contemporary forms of the public sphere have been effective leaders of these reformist campaigns and have had an enormous influence on the Muslim communities in Thailand.

Keywords: Islamic reform, Thailand, public sphere, Muslim intellectuals.

As is well-known, violence erupted dramatically in South Thailand on 4 January 2004 when over a hundred Muslim insurgents raided an arms depot of the 4th Army Engineers in Narathiwat province. Since that day, there have been over 6,500 deaths of both Buddhists and Muslims as a result of this insurgency (Scupin and Joll 2020, p. 114). A substantial amount of literature in the fields of history, anthropology, political science, international relations and religious studies has been produced on the insurgency (Thanet 2004, 2007; Askew 2007, 2009; Chaiwat 2009; Funston 2008; Jerryson 2009, 2011; Liow 2004, 2007; McCargo 2006, 2008, 2009; Yusuf and Schmidt 2006; Scupin 2013), within which there is consensus that the conflict in South Thailand is primarily an ethnic conflict between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists rather than a religiously inspired form of terrorism.

Despite this scholarly consensus, the tragic episodes and forms of Muslim activism and Islamic discourse in South Thailand tend to reinforce Huntington's essentialist thesis regarding inevitable conflicts of different cultural and religious traditions (Huntington 1996). Yet, many anthropologists and scholars who have conducted fieldwork in the Muslim regions have observed much more nuanced and diverse post-Orientalist representations of Islamic discourse and political activities within the public sphere--the networks or social spaces within media that enable different voices to express information and various points of view (Anderson 2021, p. 101; Habermas 1996, p. 360). This essay--based on ethnographic research, interviews and discussions with Muslim reformist intellectuals in Thailand-demonstrates that the public sphere consists of many different expressions of Islamic discourse, some of which are overwhelmed by the sensationalist and essentialized accounts of Muslim activism within the media.

Islam in Thailand

Approximately four million citizens in Thailand, or 5.8 per cent of the country's sixty-nine million citizens, profess the Islamic faith, which makes Muslims the largest religious minority in Theravada Buddhist Thailand (Scupin and Joll 2020, p. 101). Muslims in Thailand comprise two broad self-defined categories: 'Malay Muslims', who speak the Malay language and reside primarily in a number of provinces in South Thailand bordering Malaysia, and 'Thai Muslims' or followers of Islam, who reside in Central, Northern and Northeast Thailand. Malay Muslims of South Thailand make up over 70 per cent of the population in that region. In contrast, Thai Muslims of Central and Northern Thailand reside as smaller ethnic and religious minorities in those regions. Historically, Muslims of South Thailand resided in a cultural region imbued with a MalayIndonesian Islamic political and religious cultural ethos, whereas the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A688815142