Politicising the Ummah: Are Southern Thai Deserters Pawns of Faith?

Politicising the Ummah: Are Southern Thai Deserters Pawns of Faith?

In vying to make sense of the vague motivations behind the recent exodus of Thai Muslims into Malaysia, the notion of the ‘Ummah’ or community must figure prominently, given that it can easily be politicised.


Notwithstanding the contentious debate over their “refugee’’ status, the exodus of the 131 southern Thai Muslims to the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan will be viewed favourably by some traditionalists within Muslim circles, who will see it as following the Prophet’s sunnah (traditions). From a Muslim viewpoint, this is no surprise, considering that the Prophet Muhammad himself embarked upon a divinely inspired migration from his base in Mecca to the city of Medina primarily to escape oppression in the early years of Islam. This has come to be known in Islamic seerah (stories of the Prophet) as the hijra (departure from one’s country), a significant event which marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar more than 1,400 years ago.

Yet an ideologically motivated reading of this historical event, applied to the southern Thai deserters, results in a simplistic and exclusivist worldview which, among other results, can only cause further resentment against Thai Buddhists.

In truth, the hijra as a religious concept is packed with notions of inclusiveness that have regularly been suppressed and silenced intentionally by malicious ideologues, or unwittingly by uncritical religious teachers.

For one thing, it can be argued that the Prophet had successfully integrated two distinct groups of Muslims—the migrant Muhajirins from Mecca and the native Ansars in Medina—without causing much dissent between them.

Indeed, the heterogeneity of these Muslims challenges the misconception promoted by Orientalists that the Muslim world exists as a monolith.

Yet this early Medinan society is far from a mere pluralistic, intra-faith community. Its inter-faith harmony is encapsulated by the terms in the celebrated Constitution of Medina, which governs not only the two diverse Muslim groups, but also members of the Jewish and Christian tribes living there at the time. It is this motley mix of faith communities that qualifies as the first socio-political “Ummah’’ (generally translated as “community’‘) in the Muslim world. The word was even used twice in that Constitution.

Tracing the roots of its etymological origins will reveal certain vagueness. It is speculated that the term was derived from the Arabic word umm which means mother, or perhaps from the verb amma which means “to precede’‘. More scholars in modern times have come to agree that the word is closer in meaning to the Jewish word umetha or the Aramaic word umma, both of which connote sentiments of camaraderie.

Scrutinising it from the theological perspective, the term ummah, as it appears in the Koran, is fraught with multiple meanings, ranging from notions of oneness, to a community of living beings which includes even animals and plants. Despite its hazy origins in these three spheres, the notion of the ummah today is synonymously used to connote the global Muslim community based on strong ties of a divinely sanctioned brotherhood.

In trying to make sense of this development among members of the Muslim diaspora in Europe, French sociologist Olivier Roy theorises that this affinity towards the ummah—a transnational Muslim identity that is outside any cultural or ethnic ties—is closely related to an overpowering sense of moving away from familiar social forms (de-territorialisation) which has followed the waves of globalisation.

A sociological survey of four Muslim-majority countries by Australia-based academic Riaz Hassan suggests that this sense of de-territorialisation is experienced by migrant Muslims in the West, but also by Muslims in Asia and the Middle East. His findings reveal high levels of ummah consciousness among respondents in three (Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan) of the four countries surveyed.

The identity of the ummah may be malleable, Mr Riaz argues, but he draws attention to the perils when it is manipulated, even as he tried to make sense of his survey’s findings.

He suggested the roots of any crisis based on the ummah lies with sordid manifestations of Islam by its followers (religiosity) and not by Muslim teachings (religion).

Reading this critically, it can be argued that this sense of de-territorialisation experienced by groups of indigenous, majority Muslims is a reaction against what they perceive as hegemony emanating from Western centres of power, masked and perhaps disguised as globalisation.

This phenomenon is perhaps eloquently explained by Islamic scholar-activist Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). In his published collection of essays entitled Global Ethic or Global Hegemony?, he argues that global control and dominance perpetrated by a select few in power have resulted in the war in Iraq and conflict between Israel and Palestine. This has impeded chances of a global peace centred on values of human universality.

So how does the existence and metaphor of the ummah figure into the contemporary southern Thailand dilemma? As globalisation seeps into the crevices of Southeast Asia, the same ominous sense of de-territorialisation that has inflicted the Muslim diaspora in Europe may have gripped the southern Thai Muslims.

For one, it can be argued that the grievances suffered by the ethnic Malays in Thailand today are largely a reaction against perceived hegemonic forces of the central Thai government, whose policies of assimilation are seen as insensitive to the needs of this group.

Case in point: Thai-Malay youths in the South today are not officially taught the Malay language in public schools. The ethnic Malay Thais also have to take on a Thai name on top of their Muslim names. Such moves, which systematically deconstruct symbolic facets of the Malay identity, can only create sentiments of de-territorialisation.

Furthermore, accounts of the Malay Pattani Kingdom indicate a long-standing dispute between this advanced community and the Siamese. Thus the Malays’ sense of de-territorialisation is given historical credence in the controversial annexation of their physical territories into the Siamese kingdom, based on the Anglo-Siamese Treaty in 1909.

Intelligence reports reveal a possible political ploy by members of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) to turn this semblance of a modern-day hijra into a humanitarian crisis that could pit the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) against the central Thai government.

It seems highly likely that this “ummatic paradigm’’ has been fashioned into an exclusivist worldview to win support over a thorny political dilemma.

Yet there is still hope for the establishment of a just world, considering that the malleability of the ummah is as much a weakness as its strength.

To counter the construction of an exclusivist ummah in the long run as a means to minimise human conflicts could establish a religious worldview that is centred on universal and moral values. It would be fully in line with the early, inclusive ummah of Prophet Mohammad at Medina, where diverse groups of different faith communities existed together.

Only then can the ummah transcend imagined communal boundaries and embrace all humanity.

Nazry Bahrawi is the managing editor of ‘The Muslim Reader’ magazine published in Singapore.

This article originally published in The Bangkok Post and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.