Recently I spent several days in Ubud, Bali , attending a conference on the theme of “Islam in Multicultural Asia” organized by the New York-based Asia Society.
Bali is a lush tropical island of immense beauty at the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, and its people are mostly Hindu in a country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
The setting for a conference on Islam in Indonesia was a bold idea. Islam in Asia – particularly in lands east of Pakistan beginning with India – is distinctly different with its demonstrated capacity to adapt or be assimilated into other cultures, in contrast to the Middle Eastern version of Islam with which the West is mostly acquainted and predominantly concerned since 9/11.
If and when there emerges a reformed Islam with Muslims at peace internally and reconciled with the modern world of democracy, science, gender equality and human rights, it will likely be in an Asian setting at some distance from the Middle East .
The conference brought together for free-wheeling and frank discussions on Islam and democracy a group of invited diplomats, government officials, journalists and academics from various Asian countries and the United States .
But the intention of the organizers to tackle the subject of Islam and Muslims went no further than polite observations, and it was readily set aside by American participants for partisan assessment of the Bush administration and its “mishandling” of Asian affairs.
I was left with the distinct impression that any discussion on Islam, however framed, is to be avoided, in particular by Americans supporting Democrats who have persuaded themselves as they seek to persuade others that the problems of the United States with the Arab-Muslim world are mostly the fault of the Bush-Cheney team and its “misadventure” in Iraq.
There is a huge ongoing effort by Americans of liberal-left persuasion in the media and in international gatherings to sell the idea that the world will be repaired, whatever this means, once the Bush administration is replaced by a Democratic one headed by either Barack Hussein Obama or Hillary Clinton. This effort was not disguised in Bali .
Asia is, however, immensely diverse and Asians are not of one mind on any issue. While some Asians may bask in the reflected glory of what many in the West view as the rise of China and India as global powers in the present century, other Asians are wary of how the many quarrels in the region from Afghanistan and Kashmir through Tibet and Burma to the Korean peninsula might be the flashpoints for wider conflicts.
Islam in Asia could ignite war if terrorism promoted by Islamists is not eliminated whether it is in Iraq and the adjoining countries, or in the island nations of Indonesia and the Philippines .
A cautious view of Asia would suggest the continent is situated presently as was Europe at the beginning decade of the last century before it tumbled into a war from which it never fully recovered.
Yet the catastrophic wars of the 20th century eventually pushed the diverse people of Europe to increasingly view themselves as Europeans.
The big question for Asia, regardless of who happens to be the American president, is if her diverse people can view themselves as Asians without tumbling into wars of equally catastrophic consequences as did Europe