In Thailand’s deep south, a region on the Malaysian border that is infamous for harbouring a decades-long violent separatist insurgency, a Chinese Muslim called Hu Ya Feng was reading Immanuel Kant. It was not for leisure. The German philosopher is required reading in the mandatory Peace Studies programme assigned to all students at Fatoni University.
“This is a very unique programme,” the tall, smiling student from Shandong told me. “I wanted to study in Thailand because it’s a beautiful country, and it’s much closer to my family than a university in the Middle East.” He was in his fourth year, studying Islamic law and Arabic at the university in Pattani province, which attracts students from places such as Cambodia, France and Papua New Guinea.
Founded in 2004, Fatoni University has an idyllic campus, with wide lawns and neatly paved roads. At its heart is an imposing white building, whose facade is inlaid with screens and inset with arches, capped with a gold dome. When I visited in July 2017, clusters of students lounged on the grounds under the hot sun, eating sticks of satay and ice cream in coconut shells.
The university is run by Thailand’s most prominent fundamentalist Salafi Muslim, Ismail Lutfi Japakiya. Over the past thirty years, Lutfi has almost singlehandedly reshaped the religious landscape of the region by spreading Salafism, an austere strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. About a fifth of Muslims in the region are now Salafis, according to Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, an independent group that monitors conflict in southern Thailand.
With a slim, unwrinkled face, Lutfi looked younger than his 68 years when we met on campus. He wore rimless glasses and an ankle-length white tunic with a matching white cap. “The key to solving the problems of our region is what I call the peace way,” he told me, with the defensive air of someone used to having to explain himself. “That is what all our students study.”