The Strategic Influence Of ‘Moderate Islam’:  Seeking Geopolitical Soft Power – Analysis

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A critical view of the various moderate Islam projects put forth by Muslim-majority states reveals the interplay between piety, domestic politics, and geopolitical developments. Singaporean Muslims need to discern an interpretation of Islam that best fits Singapore’s multi-cultural, multi-religious landscape.

Until the mid-to late-20th century, “being Muslim” markers were more restricted to categories such as schools of jurisprudence or theology. However, global developments over centuries have altered how Muslims characterise their Muslimness. Various actors – from reformists to extremists, states to non-government organisations – impress upon their own characterisation. Currently, the global conversation surrounding definitions of being Muslim centres on what it means to be a “moderate Muslim”.

Saudi Arabia and Moderate Islam 

The export of Wahhabism by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been a matter of discussion and debate for decades. Interest surrounding Saudi’s religious transnationalism revolved around whether Wahhabism contributed to religious conservatism, revivalism, and extremism outside of Saudi Arabia and whether this was a factor contributing to the resurgence of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

It was argued that Wahhabism had been instrumentalised to blunt the influence of Pan-Arabism in the 1960s, when Egypt was Saudi’s regional rival, and later to counter the export of Khomeini’s revolutionism after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These phases in Saudi’s religious transnationalism left a marked aversion for democratic politics and a tendency for excommunicating Muslims with theological differences – particularly Shi’is and Sufis – within Wahhabism and even Salafism, more broadly.

Under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia is shifting to a new paradigm of religious transnationalism, “renovating and repurposing” institutions such as the Muslim World League (MWL), which was founded in 1962 and instrumental in exporting Wahhabism but now under the purview of MBS’ hand-picked Secretary General Mohammad Al-Issa.  The MWL now propagates ideas of interfaith harmony, co-existence, and tolerance and is the centrepiece of a revised Saudi religious transnationalism.

These ideas were markedly different from Wahhabism’s rigid and exclusivist discourse. The product of this transformation is the proposal of a Saudi Islam that was “moderate” in the sense of openness toward Western cultural presence and investment in Saudi Arabia, even if it meant ‘decadent’ concerts not too far away from Mecca and Madinah. After all, MBS had a broader vision for Saudi Arabia’s future that depended economically on the country’s ability to create, develop, and cultivate a broad portfolio of investments heavily focused on growing Asian economies.

Versions of Moderate Islam

Saudi Arabia was neither the first nor the only Muslim country to venture into the global tapestry of so-called moderate versions of Islam. In Islam and the Arab Revolutions: The Ulama between Democracy and Autocracy, Senior Lecturer at Oxford University, Dr Usaama al-Azami, argued that other Gulf monarchies, particularly the UAE and Qatar, had created entire stables of religious scholars that had become aspects of their broader regional and geopolitical strategies, not just in the Middle East. 

In Rivals in the Gulf: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the Qatar-UAE Contest Over the Arab Spring and the Gulf Crisis, David Warren explained the differences between the versions of Islam championed by Abdullah Bin Bayyah and the late Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who were backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, respectively. 

These differences of jurisprudence, of peace versus revolution, centred around the domestic and foreign political interests of UAE and Qatar. As with Saudi Arabia, the UAE preferred a “moderate Islam” that would not ride on the groundswell of revolutionary sentiments during the Arab Spring, whereas Qatar wished to be a beacon for these voices to jostle itself into becoming a geopolitical player. 

The similarities of these versions of moderate Islam shone from outside the Middle East region – all these versions of moderate Islam were anti-militant jihadism, projecting the image of allying with the West, essential to boost confidence for direct foreign investments. These newer projects of moderate Islam added to a list of Muslim states with their own historical traditions of Islam that have been recognised as moderate and inclusive, including Egypt and Morocco – both traditional centres of Islamic scholarship – as well as Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Moderate Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia

Malaysia’s Islamisation, beginning in the 1980s, had produced similar versions of moderate Islam, including Islam Hadhari by former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s vision for Malaysia Madani. In Indonesia, Muslim organisations proposed their understanding of what moderate Islam should look like for Indonesia, like Nahdlatul Ulama’s (NU) Islam Nusantara, Muhammadiyah’s Islam Berkemajuan (Progressive Islam), and the Indonesian Ulama Council’s (MUI) Islam Wasatiyyah (Moderate Islam). 

At their core, there is very little to differentiate between these models of moderate Islam – they all propose that Islam should fit the political, social, cultural, temporal, and spatial contexts of their respective societies, implying the preservation of universal values and rejecting exclusivism, extremism, and violence. Nevertheless, Malaysia’s state-driven projects of moderate Islam and the versions of moderate Islam proposed by Indonesian Muslim mass organisations (ORMAS) were birthed, respectively, from Malaysia’s need to include Islam in its national political discourse and the contestation among Indonesian Muslim ORMAS for the “market share” of defining Islam for Indonesians. 

The Singapore Muslim Identity

The various models of Islam proposed by Muslim-majority countries, which are also centres of Islamic learning, demonstrate that Islam continues to be the product of interpretation by its adherents in any given local socio-political context. States have just as important a role as religious elites in defining Islam within their realm of influence. 

Singaporean Muslims are keenly aware of the need to develop an interpretation and praxis of Islam suitable for the Singaporean context, as demonstrated by MUIS’ initiation of the Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI) project in 2003. MUIS also introduced the Postgraduate Certificate in Islam in Contemporary Societies (PCICS) in 2017, a full-time year-long programme to guide returning Singaporean graduates of Islamic studies in contextualising what they have learnt overseas, which helped to characterise the Singaporean Muslim identity further. 

The development of Singapore’s Islamic college would be a further step to ensure the endurance of a rigorous Singaporean “school” of inclusivist and moderate Islam that would be resilient against the constantly shifting sands of geopolitics in the Middle East and a model for plural societies.

  • About the authors: Dr Mohamed Bin Ali and Muhammad Haziq Bin Jani are Senior Fellow and Senior Analyst, respectively, with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Dr. Mohamed Bin Ali

Dr. Mohamed Bin Ali is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Senior Associate Member of the Fatwa Committee of Singapore.

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