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The Islamization of Thailand

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 22 October 2015


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' verses '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 Thai 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.

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In other provinces, descendents of immigrants from the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Cham from Cambodia, Pakistanis and Indians from South Asia, and the Hui from Yunnan, China 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 in the south. 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 curriculum 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 in Thailand, and there is very little consensus over many issues.

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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'.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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