January 17, 2015

From the Archives: Green Moon Rising: Islam Is Spreading In Melanesia (Pacific Magazine 2007)

Pacific Magazine > Magazine > June 29, 2007 
Cover Story
Green Moon Rising
Islam Is Spreading In Melanesia
By Words and Photos by Ben Bohane, Port Vila

Much of the funding for the Hohola mosque in Port Moresby comes from Malaysian and Saudi sources.

For Mohammed “Sambo” Seddiq, a Ni-Vanuatu Muslim who provided land and a small building that houses Vanuatu’s first mosque, conversion to Islam didn’t happen overnight. 

Sitting on a prayer mat inside the green-painted house in Mele village that from the exterior looks like any other house in the community, Seddiq tells me it was a process that happened over many years, beginning with a sense of curiosity, until he felt that “Allah had truly called me” and it was time to change his life.

“I was a Pentecostal Christian before, with the Neil Thomas Mission, but I didn’t feel in control of my life and I had a problem with alcohol,” he says openly. “Islam is straight forward and disciplined and this is what I needed to be a better person in the eyes of Allah. You know, the Bible is only full of stories, but I found that the Qur’an gives direction to life.”

He was first exposed to the faith when one of his relatives, John Henry Nabanga, had returned from India in 1978 where he had been sent for Bible studies and scriptural translations but instead came home converted to Islam. 

Seddiq watched how Islam had transformed John “Hussein” Nabanga into an honorable and generous man and the way his extended family began to embrace it through his personal example. In 1992, the Mele mosque was opened and each Friday since then, the dozen or two local Muslims who live in the capital Port Vila can be found at prayers in the stark room, unadorned except for a curtain screening off the women and a large clock with a picture of Mecca on it. 

Today, there are between 100 and 200 ni-Vanuatu converts to Islam. Mosques are now springing up in the outer islands of the archipelago, such as in the islands of Malekula and Tanna. Chiefs are often the target of proselytizing efforts on the often correct assumption that if they convert then their extended families, clans and other islanders will also likely convert. 

Of course, it is not just Vanuatu witnessing the phenomenon — throughout the Pacific Islands, Islam is on the rise and an umma (Islamic community) is being established in every country of the region. 

Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion and the Pacific is proving no exception: indeed it seems to be actively targeted by Malaysian and Saudi-funded organizations, with oversight coming from within the established umma in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In many instances, African Muslim missionaries are being deployed in the belief that Pacific Islanders will naturally respond better to the efforts of fellow black missionaries.

Nowhere is the growth of Islam more palpable than in Melanesia, which has a culture of religious dynamism and experimentation, where kastom, cargo cult and Christian movements continue to evolve, blend, mutate, syncretise and spawn new belief systems. Now Islam can be added to the mix and its effect on traditional kastom, national politics and regional security can no longer be overlooked.

Although there are no official figures and few academic studies, it is believed there has been thousands of indigenous converts to Islam in recent years in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji alone. New Caledonia also has a large, but unknown number of Muslims who have settled there from all over the Francophone world over the past 100 years. 

It was while cruising PNG’s rugged highlands highway two years ago and noticing the increasing number of bush mosques springing up, that first prompted me to ask: why is Islam becoming a serious religious alternative for Pacific Islanders? 

My first instinct was to dismiss it, thinking: “nah — Islam is never going to take hold in a region which is based on pig culture.” But perhaps I’m wrong. 

There are indeed cultural parallels. First among these may be the fact that Islam developed from a tribal Arabic culture also and maintains decision-making bodies (shurias) that are similar, in their social organization and un-hierarchical nature, to Melanesian chiefly councils.

The notion of “payback” is one that resonates strongly in both Melanesian and Islamic tradition, ie the notion of “eye for an eye.” Although Christian influence is strong, Jesus’ example of “turning the other cheek” has not, it must be said, been largely adopted by Melanesians. 

One of the widespread frustrations among islanders to Western law stems from the fact that Western law does not compensate the victim, unlike traditional Melanesian and Islamic law. Polygamy and gender separation (such as Men’s Houses and Women’s Houses in Melanesia) are part of both Pacific and Islamic culture. Seddiq in Vanuatu even suggests that since his people traditionally sat on mats on the floor, mosques feel more natural to them than sitting in Church pews. 

Part of the problem Western observers have in understanding the region is that they tend to have a secular outlook and place primacy of their analysis on the role of the State (issues of good governance, corruption, service delivery, unemployment etc) when in fact the world view of Melanesians today is virtually the opposite – their daily lives remain governed by kastom and religious obligations and subsistence agriculture. They place little emphasis on the role of the State since it is an introduced concept, heavily centralized in the capital cities and usually has little impact on the daily lives of islanders living in rural and remote areas.

Scott Flower, a PhD student at the Crawford School of Pacific Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, is one of the few to take the growth of Islam in Melanesia seriously, with a regional view.

“Melanesian people generally do not comprehend or desire the separation of religion and the State. The centrality of religion in their daily life is very important,” he says, suggesting an inherent feeling towards living in a theocratic State; whether it is in kastom, Christianity or Islam.

Flower argues that Muslim communities in each country will continue to grow in size and number because, like Christianity, Islam and its associated organizations provide islanders with public goods (such as health and education), a moral and spiritual system, and access to other global networks and opportunities, prestige and alternative paths to social and political power.

“In general, conversions from traditional religions to Christianity in Melanesia were not only for theological and spiritual reasons but for practical purposes as well. It is unlikely that the attraction to Islam in this way will be any different,” he says.

Already, an Islamic school in Oro province in PNG is attracting children from neighboring villages happy for any schooling. 

I have met families from poor squatter settlements in Port Moresby, Port Vila and other urban centers who are sending their children away to madrassas (Islamic schools) overseas in Malaysia, Yemen, Fiji, and Saudi Arabia “because they will have better opportunities there,” they tell me. 

When the deadly Solomons tsunami crashed through Gizo and Western Province killing 53 people and displacing thousands of villagers, the international Muslim Aid organization quickly dispatched medical teams and supplies for the affected areas and islanders embraced this aid as much as any other. It is believed to be the first time a major Islamic charity has offered assistance to a Pacific country following a natural disaster. 

The process to become a Muslim is in itself simple, compared to other faiths: one needs only to have made the decision definitively in your mind and recite the basic tenet of the faith three times (“There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet”), in the company of fellow Muslims, to be accepted into the faith. 

Foreign and local missionaries alike often suggest that what they offer is not conversion, but reversion–that is, by embracing Islam islanders are reverting back to kastom and ancestral ways. It is clever marketing, but slightly disingenuous. When I discussed this notion with Seddiq in Vanuatu and Yaqub Amaki from the PNG Muslim Association at the Hohola mosque in Port Moresby, both conceded that eventually Islam has primacy and there was little kastom that would survive.

The foundations of much Melanesian kastom relating to pigs, beetlenut chewing, kava drinking, ancestral worship as well as dancing related to courtship or ancestral/ nature worship is not halal ( therefore tabu) for those who truly embrace Islam. This prompts the question: what kastom is left? Can Pacific kastom find a place within orthodox Islamic interpretation?

This question goes to the heart of one of the central questions facing Islam globally–how can Islam separate its faith and philosophy from Arabic cultural practices?

Those interested in preserving Melanesian kastom see Islam as potentially a damaging cultural force, rather than a security one. Professor Kirk Hoffman, one of the founders of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre puts it bluntly: “The growth of Islam will destroy Melanesian kastom in perhaps the same way that strict Christian missionaries did 100 or 200 years ago.”

There is also the issue of Pacific Islanders not being fully aware of the whole breadth and range of Islam to choose from, from the very tolerant, mystical Sufi tradition, to orthodox Sunni and Shia beliefs, to militant *******-ism, to explicitly non-violent sects of Islam such as the Ahmadiyyah, founded in 1889, who believe “there can only ever be a jihad of the heart” and who are deemed heretical by other Muslims for believing that a Sufi-inspired Indian prophet named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was “the last prophet,” not Mohammed. 

Often persecuted in their own Muslim countries, some of Ahmadiyyah’s 100 million followers worldwide are ironically seeking sanctuary in Christian countries, including the Pacific. There is already a strong community in Kimbe, PNG and in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Unlike other Islamic groups, the Ahmadiyyah seem much more transparent with their activities, with information on its Australian and Pacific activities available on its website www.ahmadiyya.org.au.

Given that Islam is on the rise anyway, perhaps it is in the interests of Pacific governments to actively encourage the input of non-violent Islamic groups like the Ahmadiyyas in their local Muslim communities as one of the seeds of Pacific Islam. 

Islam can offer a range of benefits to island communities in terms of local service delivery and access to global finance for development (through such organizations as the Islamic Development Bank). 

As the Islamic world comes in contact with Pacific culture, so too is it important for Pacific island communities to have a better understanding of the range of Islam—particularly those drawn to the faith—and the likely impact it will have on their societies. Seddiq in the Mele mosque points out that in Vanuatu, unlike other Pacific Islands, Islam was established by “its own sons,” not foreign missionaries, so that it will always maintain a local flavor.

“Islam here is homegrown, so we can control it. Other countries have foreign missionaries but what happens when they leave? Better that we send our children overseas to study and come back with good degrees than having to rely on overseas missionaries coming here.”

Right now, 28 Muslims from Vanuatu are studying in Islamic colleges overseas: in Fiji, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. Given that it is the smallest country in Melanesia, it is likely that at any one time hundreds of Pacific Muslims are studying overseas in madrassas throughout the Islamic world. 

Already a debate is well underway at the Hohola mosque in PNG’s capital Port Moresby on what kind of Islam is most suitable for this part of the world. 

Regular inter-faith dialogues with members of PNG’s Roman Catholic, Anglican, Bahai and Buddhist clergy are also a cause for optimism that dialogue is in progress and communal tensions can be kept in check.

One rainy Friday I attended prayers at the Hohola mosque and was welcomed in with all the hospitality that Muslims are famous for.

The Imam, brother Mikail Abdul Aziz from Nigeria, was away, so I met the acting Imam, Khaled, a Bougainvillean who is the most senior Papua New Guinean Muslim. Khaled comes across as thoughtful and easy-going. He jokes about how his wife has remained a committed Christian who occasionally likes to argue with him on religious matters, but that ultimately it has not affected their personal relationship…why shouldn’t that be something of a metaphor for the wider community, he seems to imply?

Given that much of the funding for the Hohola mosque has come from Saudi and Malaysian sources, that its’ Imam is a Nigerian steeped in *******-ism, (the most puritanical of Muslim ideology which Osama bin Laden also subscribes to) and that all copies of the Holy Qur’an on their shelf have been printed in Saudi Arabia and follow *******-ist interpretations…I feel compelled to ask if this is the most appropriate form of Islam for PNG and the region?

Yaqub Amaki, a Sepik River man who is General Secretary for the PNG Muslim Association replies: “I can say that we have already had some very robust discussions on this issue. Some of us think that a more moderate interpretation, found in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, will be more appropriate for the umma here. We are still finding our way here and while there are no real divisions in Islam, there are different paths and we need to be open to debate. 

“Since the Saudis and Malaysians were here in the beginning to assist us, it is only natural that we should follow their lead, but I am confident that Islam here will gradually take on a more PNG style over time.”

The question of funding for Islam in Australia and the Pacific has become a prickly one at times. In January this year a minor spat broke out between the Australian government and the Saudi government following claims that the Saudi Embassy in Canberra was funding unidentified Islamic groups to pay wages for at least 20 Imams in mosques around Australia.

The Saudi government refused to identify the groups and Canberra disputed claims that all the recipients getting Saudi cash had been vetted by Australia’s Foreign Affairs and Trade, as is required.

Numerous Pacific Island Muslims I have spoken to have said that they receive financial support and other assistance from the Saudi Embassy in Canberra, believing that the mission has diplomatic responsibility and religious oversight for the Pacific Islands as well. Saudi diplomats have visited numerous Pacific Island communities and help channel scholarship funds for students who want to study abroad, often with the assistance of the Islamic Development Bank.

Pacific Magazine approached an information officer at the Saudi Embassy in Canberra recently to ask for an official outline of its assistance to Pacific Island communities, but was told flatly, “the Saudi Government does not provide any help to the Pacific Islands – go and talk to the Malaysians and Indonesians. Further questions were not responded to. Although the range of assistance is likely to be for non-controversial purposes such as mosque-building and education in the islands, it is this lack of transparency that concerns some observers.

Meanwhile a Pacific Imam training course is available for Australians and Pacific Islanders to undergo at the Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A Malaysian organization called RISEAP (Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of South East Asia and the Pacific) has already funded dozens, maybe hundreds, of Pacific Island Muslims to do the intensive three-month course there. 

Whether Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are in competition for the souls of Pacific Islander Muslims, or are actually working together in co-ordination is hard to tell at this stage. 

The Security Question
While Islam is being quietly and peacefully absorbed into central and eastern Melanesian nations and most parts of the Pacific, the same cannot be said for those in western Melanesia, particularly those under Indonesian control. Here, jihadi groups flourish and sectarian conflict periodically explodes, such as in Ambon and the Molluku islands, where more than 10,000 people died in sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims in the late 1990s. Locals accuse sections of the Indonesian military of deliberately sparking the conflict in a divide and rule tactic, afraid the once-united community of these islands wanted to break-away from Indonesia after the fall of Suharto.

In West Papua, the OPM (Free West Papua Movement) has for years warned that militant groups such as JI and Laskar Jihad are operating there to suppress the independence movement as well as springboarding across unpatrolled borders into neighboring PNG, Australia and other Pacific Islands.

OPM Commander John Koknak claims there are more than a dozen jihad training camps across West Papua, many of them close the border with PNG and Australia.

An increasing number of bush mosques have sprouted in Papua New Guinea’s highlands region in recent years.

“I have been warning Australia and PNG for some time, but they prefer to trust the Generals in Jakarta” Koknak told me from his base in PNG. “You know, militant Islam in the Pacific is nothing new: JI is using the same networks as the Libyan Mataban groups who came here in the 1980s to set up cells and support Pacific liberation groups.”

Commander Koknak’s assessment is supported by “Robert,” a Papua New Guinean Defense Force intelligence operative with responsibility for PNG’s border, who complained to me recently that infiltration by militant groups and people smugglers is going on regularly across PNG’s unmonitored 800km border with Indonesia, which he described as “the gateway for terrorists into the Pacific.”

“The Australians and Americans keep focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, but they should be concentrating on their own backyard here in the Pacific instead.” Other Pacific leaders are more skeptical of the threat of terrorism, like former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Sir Geoffrey Henry.

“Terrorism is not part of our world, it doesn’t matter what anybody else says,” Sir Geoffrey told ABC radio in a 2003 interview, complaining that a regional police conference had taken the threat of terrorism as its top theme that year.

“They’re all wrong. The fact of the matter is we are free of terrorism.”

If we discount the sectarian fighting in the Melanesian territories of Indonesia, it is true that the Pacific has so far not witnessed any Islamic-inspired terrorist incidents and local Islamic communities in the Pacific generally live in peace within the broader community. All Pacific nations have enshrined “freedom of religion” within their Constitutions.

But that has not stopped periodic alerts and the possibility of small Pacific states acting as unwitting springboards for militant Islamic groups.

Two of the September 11 hijackers lived in Fiji for several months immediately prior to flying on to U.S. for their mission. 

In August 2002 American Samoa put a blanket ban on visits by Muslim visitors from 23 countries, following the closure of the American consulate there because of a terrorist threat. Apparently two unidentified men “of Middle Eastern appearance” had been seen photographing the consulate and concerns were raised about the visit by Sheik Abdul Majid, director of the Islamic Institute of the South Pacific (based in the Fijian capital Suva) along with a Saudi official from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Sheik Majid claimed the visit was part of a tour of Islamic communities in the Pacific, but soon after, in February 2003 the Sudanese-born cleric was expelled from Fiji on the grounds that he was a security threat.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission had also raised concern for the umma in PNG, following an arsonist attack on the main mosque in Port Moresby in November 2002. The attack may have been inspired by comments made by PNG’s then Deputy Prime Minister that PNG’s Constitution should be changed to allow for the banning of “violent religions,” which many took as a reference to Islam. Muslims have also been periodically attacked in the highlands of PNG, including one incident in Mt Hagen when a mob turned on a group of local and foreign Muslims, which required police to intervene and fire shots into the air before escorting the Muslims to their homes in neighboring Chimbu province.

In the Solomon Islands, Radio SIBC reported in July 2005 claims made by the countries’ Finance Minister Peter Boyers, that Islamic militants from Indonesia had tried recruiting young Solomon Islanders for training camps in Indonesia. 

The Minister said that Solomon Islands Muslim groups were against radical Islam and refused the request, something supported by Felix Narasia of the Islamic Society of Solomon Islands. Narasia said the Islamic Society denounces any recruitment of Solomon Island youth for such purposes, saying such contacts were “illegal” and outside the Islamic 
Society of Solomon Islands.

Then late last year came the intriguing story of Wolfgang Bohringer and his Slovenian girlfriend, who sailed into Kiribati’s Fanning island in 2005 to set up a flight training school on this remote island close to U.S. territory.

Suspicions arose over his motives, prompting Kiribati officials and the FBI to investigate, but when Bohringer got wind of it, he sailed off, leaving his girlfriend behind.

How worried should we be about Islamic terrorism in the Pacific? Scott Flower at the ANU: “While the more alarmist government and media scenarios of terrorist threats in the Pacific are undoubtedly inflated, the other perspective of a completely benign security environment is also likely to be incorrect.”

While there have been some assessments done on threats to Australia and the U.S. from the region, Flower points out how little study has been done on the potential for domestic conflict within Melanesia as Islam grows. He warns of Muslim groups taking security into their own hands if they face repeated persecution in PNG, particularly in the volatile highlands. 

In the Solomons, a situation has developed where the Ahmadiyyas have focused their proselytizing efforts on Guadalcanal island while orthodox Sunni organizations have targeted Malaita islanders. Several former Malaitan Eagle Force militants have reportedly converted to Islam and there is a danger that the on-going ethnic tension between Guadalcanal and Malaita (which caused civil war in the late 1990s and prompted the Australian-led RAMSI intervention) could become exacerbated by religious differences, too. 

Clearly there are some warning signs there, but any threats to the Pacific are more likely to come from foreign militants using the cover of local Islamic communities, rather than from indigenous Pacific Muslims themselves. As these local Muslim communities grow, it will be in their interests to identify those among them who are straying from Mohammed’s message of peace, and to “out” militants among them whose actions will only rebound badly on local communities. 

Regional Pacific and Australian governments also need to become more nuanced in their approach to dealing with Islam and to better understand the link between conflict and kastom, cargo cult and new religious movements generally, in Melanesia. Too much emphasis on “the State” and not enough on understanding the complex daily spirit worlds of Pacific Islanders risks misunderstanding their real hopes and aspirations.