The two faces of religious identity and pluralism in South and Southeast Asia
by Steve Suwannarat

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows a major regional cleavage. In Indonesia and Malaysia, support for an active role of religion in politics is growing, Singapore favours religious pluralism, including the right to change religion.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The Pew Research Center has released a new report on religious identity and pluralism in some South and Southeast Asian countries, which hot topics in the region.

The US-based think tank, whose research focuses on politics, religion and human rights, conducted a survey among more than 13,000 people in six countries with different religious traditions: Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, Buddhist-majority Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and religiously pluralistic Singapore.

Two seemingly contradictory trends appear, with the relative relevance of religion in public life as the main dividing line

The first is found in two moderate Islamic countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Cambodia; in each, large majorities back a proactive role for the religious leaders in politics, and are in favour of parties committed to enforcing religious rules in public life.

Between 79 and 86 per cent of respondents in these countries consider religion a strong element in their identity and must therefore be protected at every level; this is higher than among religious leaders. Support for religious leaders in active involvement in politics and elections and for a role of religion in government drops instead to 60 per cent.

The other trend, best exemplified by Singapore, sees interfaith coexistence as a positive factor, compatible with local culture and values, and the main basis for political choices so as to avoid ideological cleavages that might be exploited politically.

To varying degrees, Thailand and Sri Lanka belong to this second group as well. In both, religion matters, but changing religion is a personal decision that is not particularly traumatic.

As for religious leaders expressing political views, only 29 to 47 per cent are in favour, while less than 30 per cent consider it appropriate for clerics to engage in active politics.

The report also shows a strong resilience of religious ideals and tradition even where, outwardly, a certain disaffection towards religion appears to exist.

Despite relative tolerance towards other religions, a majority in Indonesia and Malaysia are in favour of making Sharia, Islamic law, the official law of the land, whereas in Buddhist-majority Cambodia and Thailand, people still consider their religion superior to that of others.