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Cross-cultural competence-acquiring critical, useful understanding of an alien culture-encompasses practice in various kinds of involvement with people in the target environment, language proficiency, and regional knowledge. Well informed is well armed in cross-culture contact. Even the most junior soldier today understands that enhanced culture knowledge and capabilities increases the effectiveness of forces supporting readiness in the contemporary operating environment, and knowledge of the status of Muslim communities worldwide will be an on-going priority regardless of the current threat level for a particular country.
We cannot afford to neglect areas that are not experiencing attention-getting conflict at the moment, or those not demanding immediate engagement. Military readiness in cultural competence is the insurance that enhances favorable outcomes and goes hand-in-hand with battle preparedness. A working knowledge of subcultures in a potential area of operation is essential to the planning and execution of any mission.
Islam as a basis for action figures prominently in our current areas of military engagement. It is the religion rightly associated with Arab peoples, although not all Arabs are Muslim adherents. At least 5 percent of Arabs are Jews or Christians, and while the remaining 95 percent of Arabs are Muslim, this population of approximately 300 million people in 25 countries constitutes only 25 percent of the total number of Muslims in the world.
News media reporting has especially centered on the way that the Muslim faith is professed in Iraq and on the Arabian Peninsula. Most of us are familiar with reports on the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and aware that Islam in Saudi Arabia, where the Prophet was born and died, is very conservative. We have read about Somali youth returning to Somalia from the U.S., and we follow al-Qaeda stories wherever they lead us, from Yemen to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. We keep up with the regulation of Muslim female garb in various countries, even to include France, or to reactions to the Danish cartoon representation of the prophet Mohammed.
We search for relevant connections between the role of Islam and events in our own country from the motivations of the detainees at Guantanamo to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas bomber. We debate the advisability of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, trying not to give the appearance of linking religion with terrorist culpability, but also trying to offer all religions the same status and protections that our Constitution decrees.
The status of Islam in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even in India, with its fairly recent high profile bombings in 2006 and 2008 in Mumbai, has received robust news coverage. Less well known among the general public is the history and present status of groups that profess Islam farther east. Muslim communities stretch north and east through Central Asia from Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan, following the Old Silk Road. News reports from these areas are few, not because they are unimportant to the global audience, but because more vivid news overshadows them. And even less well known except to specialists is the history and current status of Muslim communities east and southeast of the Bay of Bengal--in the Far East and Southeast Asia. These societies display a wide disparity not only in strength of numbers but also in the cultural and political positions they occupy in their home countries, and each has its own history.
In the centuries following the death of Mohammad in 632 CE, Islam spread north and east out of the Arabian Peninsula by conquest into empires that had long competed for control of the lucrative trade routes between the Mediterranean and Pacific. This trade has always been a key impetus to the spread of Islam. Although these empires eventually succumbed to conquest, Islam penetrated not just the Middle East, but also west to Africa and Spain, and east to India and island nations in the Pacific. In fact, "[a]s merchants and teachers, Muslims were even more persuasive than they were as soldiers"- especially in the East. (1)
Indonesia and India are home to the greatest concentrations of adherents. Indonesia has a population of more than 240 million people, of whom 85 percent (204 million) profess Islam. Of India's nearly 1.2 billion people, 150 million are Muslim.
The majority of remaining Muslims in the world lives in the Near East, Central Asia, and in the Far East. All countries in the Far East have Muslim populations, even if only transnational groups at present, but the historical and contemporary populations represent unique profiles. In terms of numbers, Islam (mostly Sunni) is the most widely practiced religion in Southeast and Maritime Asia, although adherents account for majorities in only three countries-Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. It is the official religion of Malaysia and Brunei.
The strength of Muslim communities in Far Eastern Asia owes much to topography. In Burma, traders from India populated the western coast of presentday Myanmar, but because the Irrawaddy Valley runs along a north-south axis, as do mountain chains, further eastern settlement was hindered. However, opportunities for trade lured Muslim seamen and mullahs farther south, leading to the establishment of Muslim communities in southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The loop of seafaring trade routes wended through the islands of the Pacific, moving up through the Philippines, and, with waning effect, to Taiwan.
Mainland Muslim Communities
One should keep in mind that many Asian Muslim populationsare, infact, ethnicallymixed. Households denoted as Muslim might represent legacy faith, but it might also be the case that one spouse adopted Islam upon marriage, or both might be converts to the faith. Muslim populations in Southeast Asia are generally diverse and multicultural due to steady migration of peoples along the coasts and intermarriage. Once in a country, there is also a tendency for Muslims to settle in urban areas, even inland cities, because of trade opportunities. This is reinforced by Islamic dietary restrictions which require sanctioned ways to butcher meat, prohibit the consumption of pork, and to allow market preparation of other halal (permitted) foods. As numbers grow, a sense of community develops naturally, which leads to construction of mosques and schools, and creation of formal ties to government.
Islam in Burma
Muslim adherents in Myanmar, which struggles with ethnic tensions, represent only 4 percent of the country's population, where the overwhelming majority religion is Theravada Buddhism mixed with persistent elements of animism (traces of which persist in the Muslim community, too). They are concentrated in Northern Arakan State along the western coast of the Bay of Bengal in five neighboring townships close to the border with Bangladesh. Ethnically, this community is primarily Rohingya, and their language is similar to the Chittagonian spoken across the border in Bangladesh.
Like all minorities in Myanmar who struggle with ethnic tensions, the Rohingya do not enjoy full citizenship. Not only do they suffer human rights violations within their own country, they suffer as well as refugees in Bangladesh and Thailand, countries to which they have fled. At least a half-million has left Myanmar in the last thirty years; the first wave occurred in 1978 during the persecution experienced at the hands of the Myanmar Army during the Nagamin (Dragon King) Operation. At that time, most people fled to Bangladesh, but there are approximately 110,000 in refugee camps along the border with Thailand, too. Indonesian authorities have reported on several occasions in the past two years rescuing Rohingya at sea, …