Book Review: Muslims in east and southeast Asia - From a negotiator’s dairies

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 5 Apr 2023

In an insightful and well-documented book, Sayyed Kassem Al-Masry, a seasoned Egyptian diplomat, shares accounts of negotiating settlements for the grievances of Muslim minorities in east and southeast Asia.


Al-Aqaliyat Al-Mousslema (Muslim Minorities), which was published by Dar Al-Maaref in late 2022, is not an account on the habits and traditions of Muslims in Asia despite the title and the cover carrying pictures of a veiled woman and bearded man.

Nor is it a book that aims to share a heartbreaking documentation of the ordeals that segments of the Muslim minorities of east and southeast Asia had to go through.

It is rather a book that shares the details of a diplomatic intervention of this seasoned Egyptian diplomat, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, to find answers to problems that some Muslim communities in Asia had to face.

The book is packed with his take on the state of affairs for Muslims in Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and China.

It is also rich in details of his diplomatic missions in these four countries in the pursuit of addressing the injustices that parts of these Muslim communities had to go through.

From the onset, Al-Masry makes it very clear that the state of Muslim minorities, who are roughly one third of Muslims all over the world, is not at all one and the same in every one of the countries that they live in across the five continents.

He is also very clear about stating that for the most part the problems faced by the Muslim minorities in parts of the four Asian countries he worked on are mostly ethnic rather than religion based.

This, he argues through his book, is what makes a Muslim community in one part of any of these four countries in a better situation than other Muslim communities elsewhere in the same country. 

Muslims of east and southeast Asia are indigenous inhabitants and not immigrants in their communities, unlike the case for Muslims of Europe or of the Americas, the book explains.

This specificity, ironically, is often the root cause of the problems Muslims face in east and southeast Asia, the book argues.

In many cases, Al-Masry explains, Muslim communities of these Asian countries were originally independent Muslim majority entities (sultanates) in the Middle Ages before they became integrated into bigger non-Muslim majority countries, mostly due to the European colonisation.

He explains that upon the end of the colonial era problems started either due to the wish of parts of these Muslim community to have a self-rule that would allow them to consolidate their “cultural identity” as “Asian Muslims” or to the wish of the new independent states to integrate these communities fully in the dominating national cultural identity.

The conflict between these two wishes had often ended up with shocking atrocities against these segments of Muslim societies.

In most cases these atrocities were acknowledged by the UN relevant bodies that deal with human rights and minorities.

Because of these atrocities, the OIC former secretary general, Ekmaledin Ehsan Oglu, sent Al-Masry on the head of delegations to inspect the problems and offer good offices.

The details of these diplomatic sojourns, including encounters with officials in the respective capitals and the leaders of the troubled Muslim societies are narrated in a way that contextualises the current state of affairs within the historic background.  

Al-Masry manages to make a very interesting read of the specifics of the negotiations and of the drafting of statements and agreements and of the explanations of the regional political complexities and the impact thereof on the support offered either to the concerned Muslim communities or the capitals in question.

He also shares a carefully worded explanation on the reluctance for intervention on the part of big Muslim states, including those in the immediate neighbourhood of the troubled Muslim minorities or those who have a big status at the international political scene.

As expected of a book that carries the name of such a veteran diplomat, there is no harsh blame and no bias – only facts of history and geography which are documented with accounts of political talks and some references to press coverage of particular events, including some of the atrocities that Muslims of Myanmar have been subjected to.

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