Australia is facing a new regional challenge as its northern neighbours increasingly join a global trend towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam. While this shift in religious orientation does not present a direct threat to Australia – at least for the time being - it is already complicating Australia’s regional relationships. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch and one of the world’s wealthiest men, recently announced his country would adopt strict sharia punishments. These will include whipping, amputation of hands for theft, and stoning to death for illicit sex (such as adultery and homosexuality) and apostasy (abandoning Islam).
The new laws are being introduced in three increasingly strict phases over the coming year. Brunei’s relationship with the US and Australia, under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now being negotiated, is being called into question as a result of the sharia rollout. The TPP would be the world’s largest free trade agreement – and Brunei is a founding member along with Chile, New Zealand and Singapore – but US lawmakers have called for its abandonment [http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/21/us-usa-trade-brunei-idUSBREA4K1A520140521] in response to what they say is a breach of human rights. Australia is also seeking clarification about Brunei’s implementation of sharia.
That said, Australia has, under both Labor and Coalition governments, rarely allowed human rights issues to interfere with its economic interests. Despite the concerns of some legislators, the US is also unlikely to abandon the TPP in response to increasingly strict regional Islam. The shift represents the growing influence of Sunni Islam’s Hanbali school, which provides the theological foundation for salafist Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIL and other jihadi organisations. As a result of increased Saudi education of regional Islamic scholars, and some Saudi financial support, this fundamentalist form of Islam is displacing the regionally previous, more interpretive and contextual Shafi’i school. It also indicates, as an alternative to modernist politics, a stricter Islam’s capacity to act as a wider legal and political vehicle in place of liberal pluralism. This has growing appeal, especially among younger Muslims, who are disenchanted with the West as well as with the perceived moral emptiness of their own societies, especially in relation to corruption. Many younger Muslims also wrestle with reconciling extreme punishment with Islamic notions of justice and fairness. This is constrained, however, by the literalist understanding of Islam effectively allowing no room for interpretation. The shift towards sharia extends beyond Brunei, with similar legislation also passed by the locally dominant Islamic Mandate party (Parti Amanat Se-Islam, PAS) in the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Sharia already applies to all Malaysian Muslims, although primarily in religious and domestic, rather than criminal domains. The national implementation of sharia is the official position of PAS, the largest party in Malaysia’s opposition. The Malaysian department of religious affairs, in the prime minister’s office, also promotes sharia punishments, but has gone slow on implementation. The Malaysian government has thus been able to use the issue to drive a wedge between PAS and its more social-democratic Democratic Action Party allies. Southern Thailand has its own, continuing, version of violent Islamism [http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/409402/army-reviews-security-after-kolok-bombs]. As with other regional jihadis, including from Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, Thai Muslims are believed to be receiving training from the recently proclaimed ISIL "caliphate". In the Philippines, sharia will be implemented in much of the southern island of Mindanao when an autonomy arrangement, agreed to earlier this year, is ratified. Indonesia, too, has seen a rise in fundamentalist Islam, with sharia being established in the previously separatist province of Aceh, as well as in a number of smaller districts. This has been paralleled by a growth of intolerance of, and attacks against, Christians and the Ahmadiya minority Islamic sect, as well as a resurgence of jihadi training [http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asia/416563/indonesia-fears-terror-return-as-fighters-head-to-syria-iraq]. One of Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Prabowo Subianto, has a close relationship with Islamic hardliners. The shift to a more strident regional Islam poses difficult questions for Australia’s diplomatic relations and how it intends to continue to integrate with the region in what it has identified as its Asian Century. The growing trend towards regional Islamic fundamentalism may impact on aspects of trade, such as live cattle exports, and especially finance but, perhaps more importantly, may also serve to highlight how Australia remains the regional “odd one out”. Beyond this, a major and perhaps more deep-seated challenge will be how still largely Eurocentric Australians, many of whom remain uncomfortable with Islam, understand – and react to - this regional religious reorientation.