Islam taking root in Pacific Islands

SMH sept 07

Islam is taking root in Melanesia, writes Ben Bohane. The question is: will it be a transplanted faith - or can it take on a distinctly Pacific identity?

Those who think the Pacific Islands and Christianity are forever entwined need to think again. Christianity has reached its high-tide mark in the region, and other faiths, including Baha'ism, Buddhism, Jewish cults and traditional beliefs, are making inroads.

But by far the most significant new religious movement in the region is Islam, and nowhere is the growth of Islam more visible than in Melanesia, which has a culture of religious dynamism and experimentation, where kastom (custom) rules, and where cargo cult and Christian movements continue to evolve, blend, mutate, syncretise and spawn new belief systems. Islam can now be added to the mix and its effect on local beliefs, national politics and regional security can no longer be overlooked.

Although there are no official figures and few academic studies, it is believed there have been more than 1000 indigenous converts to Islam in recent years in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. Other Melanesian territories including East Timor, Maluku and West Papua have much older links to Islam, with communities existing there for centuries comprising indigenous and settler Muslims. New Caledonia also has a large number of Muslims who have settled there from all over the Francophone world over the past 100 years ...

mosques are springing up in the outer islands of the archipelago. Chiefs are often the target of proselytising African Muslims, on the often correct assumption that if they convert then their extended families, clans and other islanders are likely to follow suit. Islam is taking root through a curiosity factor, its anti-imperial rhetoric and, most importantly, its similarities to local cultures and belief systems.

First among these similarities is the fact that Islam developed from a tribal Arabic culture and maintains decision-making bodies like Melanesian chiefly councils. The notion of "payback" or "an eye for an eye" is one that resonates strongly in Melanesian tradition. Although Christian influence is strong, Jesus's exhortation to turn the other cheek has not been largely adopted by Melanesians, who are often frustrated that Western law does not compensate victims, unlike traditional Melanesian and Islamic law ...