I came across this story recently in The Halal Journal, a Malaysian magazine that focuses on various aspects of "halalness" (primarily with regard to halal food, but also on Islamic finance, environmentalism, etc.). Reuters published the story in late September, but this was the first time I came across the article.
I have mixed emotions about this idea of translating the works of Malay Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc., into English. It's not that the works of the Malay Muslims shouldn't be translated; I think that the ummah would benefit if more works on Islam worldwide were translated into numerous languages, including but not limited to English. Ideas such as Islam Hadhari deserve a wider audience than just the greater Malay community here in SE Asia.
However, what worries me are the motives these foundations and governments have in doing these self-funded translations. The article claims "Arab radicalism," but that's an extremely weak argument in my book. Islam <> "Arab radicalism." Moreover, I'm also concerned about other aspects of the translations: Who chooses what is to be translated and what are the criterion for those choices? (Don't tell me there won't be an agenda in the selection of what should be translated, especially when government funding is involved.) How accurate will the translations be? Will these be MEMRI-style hachet jobs? I'm extremely, extremely leery of non-Muslims being involved in this type of work.
Western governments and institutions, eager to dilute what they see as Arab radicalism, are actively encouraging the translation of works by Malay-speaking Muslims from across Southeast Asia. Drawn to the region's history of pluralism and its recent experience with democracy, supporters say Islamic thought from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand has a lot to offer the modern world -- if only language were not a barrier. But some experts say the traditions of Islam, its heart and head rooted in the Arab Middle East, and the insular nature of the approximately 234 million Malay Muslims themselves, could blunt the effort's impact.
"There is very progressive thought in Indonesia, but it doesn't get out," said Robin Bush, of the U.S.-based Asia Foundation, which helped launch the budding translation movement. The perception is Southeast Asia is much more complex, historically and culturally" than the Arab world, said Bush, deputy head of the Asia Foundation's Indonesia office.
Funding for the effort has also come from such organizations as the Ford Foundation, with additional support from Western embassies.
"Too much of the Islamic tradition derives from the Middle East, from so many centuries ago," said Lily Zakiyah Munir, a Jakarta-based intellectual promoting Malay Muslim writings. We want to show the relevance of contemporary (religious) issues ... and promote the humanitarian side of the religion," she said.
Few Malay-Muslims write in English or Arabic and even fewer Muslims outside the region know the Malay languages. Later plans call for translations directly into Arabic. Among those produced so far are "Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective," by Syafiq Hasym, and "Indonesia, Islam, and Democracy," by Azyumardi Azra. Both books are said to highlight modernist elements in Southeast Asian Islam: the relatively prominent role for women in public life; and general support for democratic norms and practices.
Proponents also say Islam's history of gradual spread throughout the region, by commercial interests and cultural advance rather than battle, makes it an effective counterweight to the traditions of the tumultuous Arab world.
"Indonesia is a moderate Muslim country and these views can be very helpful in contrast to the militant voice of Arab Muslims today," said a diplomat from one Western country that helped fund the translations.
But Vali Nasr, an expert on contemporary Islam at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterrey, California, said such works were unlikely to find acceptance among Arab Muslims. "Arabs are perfectly happy to export their ideas, but they are not very good at importing," he said by telephone.
What's more, important developments in Southeast Asian Muslim societies, such as the advance of pluralistic democracy, were never seen as universal prescriptions.
"Indonesia and Malaysia have their own form of Islam that is much more integrated into the globalized world, but it was only for local consumption. They don't claim to be a spokesman for Islam, and the Arabs don't want them. It's not a linguistic problem," Nasr said.