Religious Intellectuals in Southeast Asia: Post-coloniality, Faith, and State


Single Panel


Session 1
Tue 09:30-11:00 REC A2.14



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During the late colonial and post-colonial periods in Southeast Asia, a number of intellectuals emerged, transcending the classical boundaries of scholarship with their approaches to articulating religious discourse in a more progressive and eclectic manner (Kersten, 2011). Reason, rights, and faith were central to the discourse of these intellectuals, as opposed to ‘secular’ intellectuals who concentrated solely on man and ignored God, or to religious clerics who focused on God but ignored the human element (Bayat, 2007: 85). Southeast Asian intellectuals such as Syed Hussein Alatas, Nurcholis Madjid, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and U Nu paved the way for a more nuanced understanding of how religious discourse intersected with broader socioeconomic and political thought, shedding light on the complex dynamics that shaped the region’s postcolonial identity. Drawing on Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, this panel situates religious intellectualism in a critical perspective, i.e. contextualising it within the socio-political environment in which it emerged and investigating the impact of dominant ideas on societies (Mannheim, 1991). The panel begins with Esra Tiryaki’s paper, which focuses on Syed Hussein Alatas’s sociological reflections from the 1970s to the 1990s, a time when Malaysia’s developmentalism was intertwined with the Islamisation agenda. She highlights how Alatas’s thought offers alternative and autonomous perspectives that challenge established norms in postcolonial Malay-Muslim contexts under state-dominated discourses. The next paper by Ariff Hafizi Radzi takes up this particular moment in Southeast Asia and traces the importation of the notion of dawla madaniyya to Southeast Asia from the Middle East in the 1990s, arguing that dawla madaniyya represents a partial convergence between Islamists and their liberal and secular counterparts, as well as a negotiation between Islam and modernity. The third paper, by Thurein Naing examines the genesis of Political Buddhism in Myanmar through the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) in the 20th century and explores the continuity and the profound impact of the revival of Political Buddhism on Myanmar’s contemporary political landscape. Finally, building on the post-colonial trajectory of religion in Southeast Asia, the final paper by Thao Nghiem delves into the intricate dynamics of religious intellectualism during the second half of the Republic of Vietnam (1963-1975), investigating two distinctive religious groups, namely the Buddhist nationalists and the progressive Catholics, and explores how their aims and visions both converge and clash as to how they sketched out diverse visions of what it meant to be religious in the (post-colonial) national community.