August 08, 2007

Pacific: The spread of Islam in Melanesia

For several years Melanesia has witnessed a phenomenon all but ignored by the international community; amongst the Pacific islands the diffusion of Islam has obtained highly successful results and in every country in the region an Umma, Islamic community, has been founded.

Valentina Moniga (08 August 2007)

The term Melanesia indicates the region that extends for the western side of the Western Pacific to the sea of Arafura which touches the northern and north-eastern coasts of Australia. The islands belonging to the area are: he Bismark archepelego, the Fiji Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, the Maluku Islands, the Solomon Islandsm the Torres Strait Islands, Vanuatu and Palau Islands. Nauru, Timor, Flores Islands and Sumba are not entirely part of the region.

Islam is the religion that diffuses itself faster than any other and this tendency has been confirmed in the Pacific. Islamic organisations from Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are actively promoting Islam in the region and are actively involved in creating numerous Umma in Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. The level of diffusion is unparalleled throughout the world. The Melanesian culture is characterised by religious dynamacy and a tendency to experiment: the concept of Kastom (the traditional social model, also tied to magic) and the Christian movements continue to evolve, mix, change and create new beliefs. Now even Islam can be added to this mix and its effect on Kastom, on national politics, and regional security will have to be monitored very carefully. It is estimated that thousands of natives have chosen to convert to Islam in the states of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji alone. In New Caledonia there is a consistent presence of Islamic communities that have appeared following migratory flows from the Francophile world over the last 100 years.

Parallels and cultural differences
There are numerous point that link the Islamic culture to that of the Pacific. First and foremost the fact that Islam developed from the Arab tribal culture and maintains decisional bodies (shura) that, in the social organisation and in their non hierarchical nature, are similar to the chief’s councils in Melanesia. Even the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ is common to both cultures, while Jesus’ example of ‘turning the other cheek’ had never been taken into consideration by the Melanesians despite the strong Christian influence throughout the region. Western law has never been fully accepted in that it does not, as opposed to Islamic and Pacific traditions, offer compensation to the victim. Polygamy and the division of the sexes, such as separate structures for men and women, are other common points. In addition given that the Melanesian population is used to sitting on the ground the mosque results as being a more natural environment than a church. Westerners tend to be more secular and give greater importance to the role of the State, give greater importance to corruption and unemployment, while a Melanesian’s view of life tends to be based on the principals of Kastom, religious obligations, and agriculture. Little emphasis is placed on the role of the State in as much as it is a concept of recent implementation and only really of interest in the major cities. It can be deduced that in this region there is no great concept of the separation between religion and state. It is clear that the Muslim communities continue to augment in number, as happens with Christian organisations the Islamic counterparts supply medical assistance, schooling, morals and religion, and access to global networks capable of facilitating political and social goals.

The conversion to Christianity has also been guided by practical considerations and the very same in happening with Islam. The violent tsunami that struck the Solomon Islands last April demonstrated the presence of Islamic organisations, the International Muslim Aid Organisation acted swiftly in supplying medicines and aid to the most damaged areas and, as is obvious, this was greatly appreciated. Another factor that has facilitated the penetration of Islam as opposed to other religions consists in the fact that the process of becoming a Muslim is easy: to be accepted all that is asked for is to take a conscious decision and to recite, three times, the basic dogma of the religion in the presence of other members of the faith. Missionaries believe that this is not a conversion but an invitation to come closer to ancestral traditions. It is in any case difficult to understand how Islam can separate religion and philosophy from the practices of Islamic culture. Those interested in preserving Kastom are sceptical and believe that the rise of Islam risks damaging local traditions in the same way Christianity did during the past century. It is important to underline that these Pacific islands are not entirely knowledgeable of the ‘varieties’ of Islam which range from the most tolerant to militant Salafism. Islam is spreading rapidly and thus it is in the interests of these nations to encourage the penetration of non violent groups.

Financing local communities
Last January controversy broke out between Australia and Saudi Arabia over the suspicion that the Saudi Embassy in Canberra had financed around twenty Imam in Australia. Riyadh categorically refuse to identify the groups even though Canberra’s version of the facts was supported by witnesses amongst the local Muslim community. The Saudi diplomats have conducted a number of visits to the Pacific communities and have placed a lot of attention on financing international students, allowing them to study abroad, through the assistance of the Islamic Development Bank. The Saudi refusal to respond to the Australian demands has underlined a lack of transparency, something that is cause for concern. At the same time a training program entitled Pacific Islam Training Course, available to Australians and those living on the islands, has been made available at the Islamic University of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and, from what is understood, there have been numerous inscriptions. It remain to be seen exactly if Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are competing or cooperating.

The question of security
Generally speaking a peaceful form Islam has been absorbed in eastern Melanesia, however, in the western part and in particular in the area under the control of Indonesia a certain level of disorder has been noted. These areas host violent groups and there are periodic outbreaks of violence, as happened in Ambon in the Maluku Archipelago where, at the end of the nineties, more than 10.000 dies in clashes between Christians and Muslims. The local population accused the Government of being responsible and of promoting a policy that obstacles integration between the two communities. The Government’s position is based upon the fear that these territories are seeking independence from Indonesia. In West Papua, that is the Indonesian part of New Guinea, the Free West Papua Movement has for years sustained that some groups, such as the JI and the Laskar Jihad, are involved in subversive activities aimed at suppressing independence movements. In addition to this they are accused of attempting to extend their activities to neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea, Australia, and other Pacific islands.

It is also feared that numerous training camps have been set up in West Papua where the militant Islamic groups have had a foothold for a long time. All considered, apart from public disorder in Indonesia, it has to be evidenced that in the rest of the Pacific no violence has been notes, in addition the Muslim communities live in harmony with the rest of the population. All of the nations in question provide for religious freedom in their constitutions. There is the risk that these countries are taken advantage of by violent groups. The November 2002 arson attack on the mosque in Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, raised concerns. The cause of the incident may well have been the declaration of the Deputy Prime Minister who claimed that the constitution needed to be revised in order to include an article which banned violent religions, something a number of individual consider Islam to be. Whilst the Muslim population suffers attacks from time to time in 2005 a group of Indonesian militants were accused of recruiting inhabitants of the Salomon Islands and training them in camps in Indonesia.

Far from encouraging signals in regards to the spread of Islam are arriving from the Pacific: if on the one hand pacific movements are being formed the opposite is also true and vigilance is required. It would appear that the danger lies with foreigners rather than inside the local communities. The local communities should, in their own interests, make an effort to accept the peaceful message of Islam while being wary of the violent currents. Local governments will have to understand that placed too much emphasis on the role of the State will not permit the freedom of the daily spirituality typical of the Pacific islands. There is also the issue that while Australia and the USA are concentrating on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan they are not following what is taking place much nearer to home.


Tavurvur said...

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