How Faith Matters: Al-Mubarak Muslim Community and Sustainable Development - A Case Study from Udon Thani Province of Isan Region of Thailand
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This research investigated the role of faith in the development of Al-Mubarak Community, a minority Muslim community sited in a majority Buddhist village setting in Isan, the Northeastern region of the Kingdom of Thailand. It aimed to inform public policy processes and practices that support minority faith communities in Thai civil society, with a focus on inter-generational management of local environmental issues. The project used Participatory Action Research (PAR) principles and qualitative methods including, interviews, focus group discussions, transect walks, field observations and research journals. Ninety-nine community members participated, 76 Muslim members of Al-Mubarak Community and 23 Buddhist neighbours, from diverse backgrounds representing women, men, and male youth across the three generations of settlement, from several countries of origin, and with differing occupations and socio-economic status. Many had lived and worked together in the community since its inception 25 years earlier. The findings showed since its establishment in 1995, Al-Mubarak Community has evolved to be a thriving Muslim community nested within a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and predominantly Buddhist community setting. Muslim and Buddhist neighbours consistently affirmed the close, respectful, and harmonious relationships that characterised “their” community, in contrast to inter-religious group tensions and conflict in other communities in the broader Southeast Asian region and the Southern Provinces of Thailand, in particular. Many Muslim participants held that Al-Mubarak Community was not just a community for Muslims, but also for other people of different faiths and backgrounds who could contribute to, and benefit from, the growth of this community. Buddhist participants noted that Al-Mubarak Community was a significant community for the Isan region, as a model where Muslims and their neighbours could live and learn together forever. Discussion of findings was framed within 11 Thai cultural constructs acts of Watthanatham khwām ngīep - the culture of silence, Khaojai børibot kān Ptisamphanth - understanding the setting for daily interactions, Khwām cheūaman nai ton-ēng - self-reliance, Pheūoenbān – sense of neighbourhood with its three component features: Khunkhā rūam - shared values, Waineūacheūajai – trust and Phønsawan – gifts, Phūseūpthøt – the successors, Panhā Singwaētløm - environmental issues, as well as Pheūnthī poēt samrap phūying - an open space for women and Dunlayaphāp – a balanced approach for development - to give rich local texture and nuance for fuller understandings, not included in Western or mainstream development perspectives. The major future research recommendation and intention is to complete the action planning, implementation and evaluation phases of the original proposed research plan, unavoidably truncated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A wealth of community data has now been collected to be used as the basis of these next steps for collaborative decision-making on community action priorities and community strategies for engaging with specific issues facing the community. There is will and solidarity in the community for this. A range of further policy and practice research recommendations are likely to arise from this for engagements within the community and with community stakeholders and local government. Future research should also focus on future women’s leadership and engagement roles in Muslim community development, and faith and inter-faith relationships in developing and sustaining Pheūoenbān - a sense of neighbourhood. The Thai construct of Pheūoenbān, sharing and caring, should be essential to Thailand's development policy and practice socially, economically, politically, and spiritually. A further contribution is the use of local, Thai, cultural constructs as lens into fuller understanding of the findings, e.g., Watthanatham khwām ngīep, the role of silence in Thai social interaction and its influence on academic inquiry in this project. These findings show Al-Mubarak Community as a successful, intentional minority Muslim community in a Buddhist majority village setting applying their faith values at the core of their community’s development. Key features contributing to this successful journey, appear to be early leadership and planning, significant roles for women, and especially the role intermarriage between the communities has played in creating the harmonious inter-faith relationship. The strength of Muslim women’s leadership was an unusual finding in terms of other Muslim Thai and international communities and deserves future research focus for that reason. Research into how this level of leadership developed in this community within the broader social setting of Thailand’s highly gendered and patriarchal/militaristic governance systems could also produce critical insights for future sustainable community policy development. Given global, regional and national Islamophobia and religious tensions, this study shows a positive faith-based model can promote understanding and the creation of sustainable inter-faith community living.