Interfaith Dialogue and Counter-terrorism in ASEAN

AAYLF delegate from Australia Joshua Saunders examines the role that interfaith dialogues hold in addressing counter-terrorism challenges in the ASEAN region.

October saw the escape of approximately 800 Islamic State-linked detainees in Syria, with at least 50 of these being radicalized Indonesians [1]. The threat of these ISIS militants and their families returning home looms over the ASEAN region, and poses significant concerns to tourism, with many Australians still remembering the heart-breaking Bali bombings of 2002. With ASEAN being a close neighbour to Australia, we have a vested interest in the security of the region – including the threat of terrorism.

Some voices suggest that repatriating those in Syrian prisons may be the most effective solution [2]. This does not, however, address the influence of foreign events on radicalizing those already within ASEAN, with many becoming increasingly sympathetic and emboldened in the terrorist cause after events such as the Syrian prison outbreak.

So, how should ASEAN address the concern of further radicalization through foreign events? One challenge to this is the ASEAN Way. While terrorism is clearly a regional issue, the ASEAN Way emphasises norms of non-interference and sovereignty. This has resulted in the implementation of ‘soft’ counter-terrorism laws, with these weak legal obligations resulting in varying levels of commitment by ASEAN member states [3].

There is a path to circumventing the issues ASEAN Way presents in addressing a regional problem like counter-terrorism, through a community that extends beyond state borders: religion. Religion in South-East Asia predates the existence of most transnational relations, providing people with an identity beyond national or ethnic ties.

This is not necessarily a call for ASEAN-Australian relations to become more religion-based: religion by itself is not a solution. In fact, many of the issues related to radicalization are driven by religious belief itself [4]. It is, however, a call for increased interfaith dialogue within the region. Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity for representatives of different faiths to interact with each other, with the purpose of fostering respect and achieving peace-building goals [5].

Interfaith dialogue has played an important part in the de-radicalization process of individuals. One example of this is the use of interfaith dialogue in the Malukus of Eastern Indonesia, as an attempt to combat religious based violence between Christians and Muslims [6]. During the process of interfaith dialogue, it became apparent that neither group truly understood the belief system of the other, making it difficult to develop the social cohesion necessary for the two communities to coexist [7]. The use of interfaith dialogue provided a forum for those predisposed to political violence to be exposed to opposing perspectives, while maintaining the capacity to voice their own opinions. The opportunity to develop respect for divergent viewpoints in the Malukus has been a key factor in de-escalating violence in the region.

Singapore has made attempts at interfaith dialogue in the past, with the inaugural ‘Faithfully ASEAN’ interfaith program being held in December last year [8]. But the ASEAN-Australia relationship can be more proactive in ensuring that interfaith dialogue is a significant element of counter-terrorism efforts – particularly in prevention through de-radicalization.

Consequently, it is recommended that ASEAN and Australia establish an official annual Interfaith Dialogue Conference, with one of its primary objectives being the issue of counter-terrorism and prevention of ethno-religious conflict in the region. Australia can be an effective strategic partner in this, using our experience with religious pluralism to assist in establishing interfaith dialogue in the conference, with the capacity to act as a neutral third party in facilitating discussion. Sustainable political security for ASEAN-Australia is not simply an issue for governments and law enforcement: the issue requires a more holistic approach that encompasses the pluralism of the ASEAN-Australia community.


  1. Chew, A. (2019). Indonesia on alert as Isis fighters escape Syria to awaken sleeper cells. Retrieved 8 November 2019, from
  2. Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. (2019). Indonesia: Urgent Need for a Policy on Repatriation of Pro-ISIS Nationals from Syria (pp. 1-3). Retrieved from
  3. Seng, T., & Nasu, H. (2016). ASEAN and the development of counter-terrorism law and policy in Southeast Asia. UNSW Law Journal, 39(3), 1219-1238.
  4. Borelli, M. (2017). ASEAN Counter-terrorism Weaknesses. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses , 9 (9), 14-20.
  5. Neufeldt, R. C. 2011. Interfaith Dialogue: Assessing Theories of Change. Peace & Change, 36, 344-72.
  6. Smith Byron, A. (2016). Interfaith Dialogue to De-Radicalize Radicalization: Storytelling as Peacebuilding in Indonesia. Journal Of Living Together, 2-3(1), 92-102.
  7. Bräuchler, B. (2014). Christian-Muslim relations in post-conflict Ambon, Moluccas: Adat, religion, and beyond. In Platzdasch, B. & Saravanamuttu, J. (eds.). (2014). Religious diversity in Muslim-majority states in Southeast Asia: Areas of toleration and conflict. Singapore: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, pp. 154-172.
  8. Yi, S. (2018). Singapore hosts inter-faith leaders from Asean, set to hold an international conference next year. Retrieved 8 November 2019, from

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