April 27, 2010: Mr. Scott Flower

Islamic Conversion and Radicalization: The Case Study of Papua New Guinea and its Implications

(Washington, D.C.) April 27—The recent growth of conversions to Islam in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not currently a direct threat to security. However, the potential for the radicalization of converts necessitates the monitoring of potentially extreme actors. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Mr. Scott Flower, PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at The Australian National University, discussed the trend of Islamic conversion in PNG and the effects of the conversion process on PNG communities.


After gaining independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea was home to only a handful of individuals who practiced Islam; by the year 2000, this number had only grown to about 500. However, after the events of 9/11, which helped to spread the awareness of Islam through broad media coverage, the Muslim population has grown sharply and today totals around 5,000 individuals.


In PNG, religion is an integral part of people’s way of life. Mr. Flower noted that converts to Islam have fully embraced the religion, following its laws, dress, and dietary restrictions. There are also many similarities between indigenous traditions and Islamic practices which have made conversion to Islam comparatively easy. For individuals experiencing times of moral or cultural crisis within their communities, Mr. Flower explained that Islam provides structure while also providing limited social services and the means to voice grievances—either against other tribes or institutions which are viewed as symbols of Western influence in PNG.


Currently, PNG has been experiencing a growth of conversions to fundamentalist branches of many religions, of which Islam is only one. The number of conversions to fundamentalist Christian religions, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is also on the rise, creating the potential for clashes between members of fundamentalist sects and Muslims. Mr. Flower described an underlying unease within some Christian communities due to the recent growth of Islam which has sparked some acts of violence, such as the burning of mosques.


Given the current environment in PNG, Mr. Flower listed four security issues which may arise in the future. The first is the possibility that Muslims may decide to take up arms to protect or retaliate against Christian groups, some of which have been encouraging the PNG government to ban Islam. Secondly, some individuals see Islam as a way to oppose Western influence in PNG, which is seen as undermining the traditional way of life. Mr. Flower also cited instances where individuals sought conversion to Islam as a means to material gain. Third, some Papua New Guinean individuals view Islam as a tool for violence and sometimes mistakenly approach Muslims in their communities to seek the capability to act out violently. Lastly, domestic conflicts between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors may spill across the border to Indonesia, which has a large, though not radicalized, Muslim population, or inspire foreign radical groups to get involved on the ground in PNG.


While the growth of Islam in PNG does not pose immediate risks to PNG security, Mr. Flower suggests that tendencies toward radicalism and their effects be monitored and understood. Currently, Muslim leaders within PNG are being appropriately vocal in insisting to converts that Islam is a religion of peace. However, the possibility that individuals or community conflicts may have a radicalizing effect on the religion remains. Mr. Flower suggested that the best course of action for regional neighbors and the international community would be to support of the freedom of religion and democracy in PNG.


Scott Flower is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Economics and Government at The Australian National University. His doctoral thesis will provide the first comprehensive examination of Islam in Papua New Guinea, an interdisciplinary study that brings together studies of religious conversion and radicalization. Prior to departing for fieldwork in PNG in 2007, Mr. Flower authored “Muslims in Melanesia: Putting Security Issues in Perspective,” featured in the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2008. He has also written a book chapter entitled, “The History of Terrorism and its Analysis in Melanesia: Implications for Security and Policy,” in Brawley, S (ed), Doomed to Repeat: Terrorism and the Lessons of History (Washington D.C.: New Academia, 2009); and “The Struggle to Establish Islam in PNG (1976-1983),” featured in the Journal of Pacific History(2009).