The Islamization of Thailand
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The Islamization of Thailand

The perceived relative homogeneity of Thai culture and society is being challenged on multiple fronts today. So much has been said about the socio-economic division within Thai society, epitomized by the ‘red’ versus ‘yellow’ shirt movements, and political outcomes over the last decade and a half. However very little is said, publicly anyway, about the growing influence upon society that Thailand’s Muslim population is now projecting at many levels.

The current Muslim population of Thailand is between 5-6%, depending upon which set of statistics you consult. This consists of a number of dispersed ethnic groups throughout the country. About 18% of Thailand’s Muslims live within the Southern provinces of Songkhla, Satun, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, who are primarily of the Malay, Javanese, and Acehnese origins, agricultural based, that practice the ‘Malay’ culture. These groups are domiciled around what was the former Greater Petanni Sultanate that came to being around 9th Century and was annexed by Thailand in 1909 from British influence.

Along the West and East Coasts of the Peninsula across Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Ranong, Nakkon Si Thammarat, and Surat Thani, are a mixture of Sea Gypsy, Thai, somewhat intermarried with the ancestors of Arab and Pakistani traders of the past. These groups were once primarily fisheries and agricultural based. Unlike the Petanni group who still keep a strong ‘Malay’ identity, this group primarily communicate in Thai and have on the whole integrated well with Thai society.

In other provinces, descendents of immigrants from the Rohingya in Burma (Myanmar), the Cham from Cambodia, Pakistanis and Indians from South Asia, and the Hui from Yunnan, China can be fund in Northern Thailand. A group of Muslims from Persia and Arabia engaged in trade and commerce, migrated to the old Ayutthaya Empire, and integrated with the nobility of Thai society at the time, and are still well integrated today. The rest of Thailand’s Muslim population is made up of a growing number of converts from those who have worked overseas.

Most Muslims in Thailand are Sunni following the Shaffie school, although there are a small number of Hanafi, and Shiites around the Thornburi area. Small deviating groups like Al-Arqam, banned in Malaysia, flourish in Thailand.

Military rule tended to repress the Muslims in the South for some years, where Thai authorities liked to scapegoat and blame all Muslims for the troubles there. However Royal patronage of Islam due to the insurgency has given Islam much more exposure. The image of a Muslim as a dark skinned southern ‘khaeg’ has radically changed in Thailand. Consequently there is now much less employment discrimination against Muslims today and a number of Muslims have held high offices in government, police, and the military.

Islamic affairs are coordinated by the Central Islamic Council of Thailand which has five councilors appointed by the King. This body links the Government and Islamic communities, where education, the construction of mosques, pilgrimage to Mecca are assisted.

Under the Central Islamic Council are provincial councils. Today there are 38 provincial Islamic committees nationwide, which govern many local Islamic issues within their respective communities. Many committees operate Islamic schools which teach both the national and Islamic curriculum. There are a number of Ulama who tend to come from a select number of well known families within the various Muslim communities around Thailand. These families often operate private Madrasas (Islamic schools), some teaching both curricula and some teaching only the Islamic curriculum. Some families operate Pondoks, numbering over 1,000, which just teach Islam. This is particularly the case in Nakkon Si Thammarat, where this generational heritage is very strong. The descendents of early teachers are still community leaders like the former ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan.

The traditional Ulama in Thailand have great influence over how Islam is interpreted within their respective communities, where this tends to be a force for fragmentation rather than Ummah cohesion. As a consequence Thai Muslims don’t speak with one unified voice, and there is very little consensus over many issues.

The various Thai Muslim communities are very distinct from each other.

Most Ulama in Thailand have only undertaken Islamic studies at college or university and tend to take a conservative Islamic perspective about social issues. This is even more so in the ‘Deep South’ where issues of Malay language, conflicts between civil and military policy, and ‘outsiders’ have led to the perception that the Central Government in Bangkok is intent on having a ‘war’ with Muslims, through ‘Siamization’.

Thus through the Ulama system and issues of the ‘Deep South’ a very conservative approach to Islam is accepted, with suspicion about anybody bringing ‘outside teachings’.

Muslims in Central Thailand on the other hand, especially around Bangkok, appear to be much more progressive and open to exploring integrative ideas that lead to community evolvement and assimilation with the rest of the Thai community. This is also the case in the young urban population, who are very tolerant and tend not to follow the taboos of their ‘Malay’ counterparts in Malaysia. In Thailand, non-Muslims are welcome into mosques, and it is very common for Muslims and non-Muslims to carry on friendships and dine out together.

There are signs of a deeper Islamization all over Thailand, from the shopping centres where you see many more women wearing Islamic dress, to the landscapes of towns and cities where many new mosques and Islamic schools can be seen springing up. Many Muslim households display Arabic verses of the Al Quran outside their homes. Some of these influences like in Chiang Mai has very old historical roots, however in other places, a very noticeable increase in Muslim presence can be felt with Muslim restaurants appearing to cater for new Muslim settlers in many areas.

From the business perspective, Thailand has become very innovative within the commerce sector through the development of ‘Halal’ tourism, ‘Halal’ hotels and resorts, Islamic banking, Islamic micro-finance, ‘Halal’ housing and condominium projects, as well as food and beverage products. There is a general awareness developing among Muslim entrepreneurs about ethical business opportunities, utilizing the ‘Tawhid’ as an ethical business model.

The ‘deep south’ as it is known by Thais has thriving market and trade economies in the major towns of Petanni, Yala, and Narathiwat. The author on a recent trip through the area found markets open very early and thriving with trade. Entrepreneurship and small business seemed to be very buoyant, even with warnings from various quarters not to go there.

Professor Winai Dahlan, the founder and director of the Halal Science Centre at Chulalongkorn University has developed a complete Halal logistical tracking system and protocols called Hal Q, which has not just been widely accepted by Muslim businesses in Thailand, but has been taken onboard as an industry standard by many multinational food manufacturers in Thailand. In addition, many Arab countries have also adopted this system and come to Thailand for training on Halal logistic management, putting Thailand more than a decade in advance of any system Malaysia has to offer. This has enabled Thailand to become one of the foremost Halal food manufacturers in the region today.

The Islamization of Thailand is being pushed through demographic changes. Muslim parents are having more children than their non-Muslim counterparts today in Thailand, and this is shifting the population balance towards a higher percentage of Muslims. This is particularly so in the rural areas of the ‘deep south’. To some extent this appears to be under the official radar. However some websites now report the Muslim population in Thailand to be as high as 10%.

The growing percentage of Muslim population within Thailand will have a number of effects upon Thai society over the coming years. Just as the South was Thai-ized in the period 1902-1944, now Thailand is being Islamized in a way never seen before.

The Thai-Muslim sense of identity will need accommodation within existing narratives of what is ‘Thainess’ today. “Thainess’ will have to allow some plurality in the future. Although as mentioned before, the younger generation of Muslims see themselves as Thais, it is the small extreme groups that will put pressure for new dualities of ‘Thainess’.

One can see an acknowledgement of this by the Thai army in their signs outside military bases in the south. Signs outside military bases once said, “For Country, Religion, Monarchy, and People”. Now they read “For Country, Religions, Monarchy, and the People”.

However the road to these accommodations will be a rocky one due to the long historical struggle in the south. The conflict is between a number of ‘separatist groups’ and the government. Various interests have painted this as a religious based conflict, especially with the attack upon monks and Buddhists over the last decade. However history shows that this struggle is more about ethnic identity, than Islam, where many leaders of these ‘separatist groups’ have called themselves ‘Bangsa Petanni’, rather than Muslims. Internal interests and outside interests like the United States have tried to widen the perspective of the Southern problems, which thankfully have been rejected by various Thai Governments over the last few years.

The Islamization of Thailand represents just as much of a challenge as the rich and poor divide of Thailand, which has had such a profound influence on the political scene over the last decade. Discussion of the subject has been generally suppressed, except within the higher circles of power. Great changes in Thai society are inevitable in the near future, due to the Islamization of Thailand.