The Challenge of South East Asian Muslims
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world today. Unlike other Muslim countries, Islam did not come by force to the Malay peoples. They were influenced first by Muslim Arab traders, principally from the Hadrami region of Yemen. In fact, the Malays were once Hindus. You can still find a remnant of this on the island of Bali, where Hindu temples abound. There was a time when India’s reach dominated much of South East Asia. But eventually this region turned to Buddhism and Islam, and later Christianity in the Philippines. Generally speaking the non-Malay peoples turned to Buddhism, and the Malay peoples to Islam and Christianity.
The spread of Islam among the Malay peoples was gradual. Very likely if the Spanish had not come to the Philippines in the 15th century, Islam would have eventually spread from the southern island of Mindanao to the rest of the islands in the archipelago. But God had a different plan, and the Philippines became the first Christian country in Asia.
From the outset, the arrival of the Spanish created tension with the Muslim peoples in the south, and there has been continual warfare between Christians and Muslims in this region for the last four hundred years. Across the way, in Indonesia and Malaysia, the coming of the Dutch and British who colonized these areas became another source of tension. Christianity became viewed as a tool of colonial control and oppression. The result of this was a strengthening of Islam in the hearts and minds of many nominal Malay Muslims. In fact, it can be justifiably argued that Islam really didn’t became the mainstream faith of the Malays until the 20th century. This process has continued and intensified, even manifesting itself in the spread of radical Islamic extremism throughout the region.
While this was happening, another significant development took place hundreds of miles away that would have a huge impact on the region. Communists took over China and forced the removal of all Christian missionaries. Many of these redeployed to reach the diaspora Chinese in South East Asia. The result of this was a powerful Christian movement which continues to this day. God has used these believers in an incredible way, especially in Indonesia. Thousands of Muslims have come to faith in Christ because of their witness. The attacks on Indonesian Chinese churches in 2010, where hundreds were destroyed, was in part a conversion of two significant realities: Militant Islam is on the rise, but so is the growth of the church. These two trends in juxtaposition are what is happening all over the Muslim world. We can expect to see this more and more as we approach the finish line in fulfilling the Great Commission. It’s right out of Matthew 24.