Preaching the Peace

A fundamentalist cleric’s crusade against extremism

11 October 2018
Ismail Lutfi Japakiya has reshaped the religious landscape of Thailand’s deep south.
guillaume payen / anadolu agency / getty images

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.

Krithika Varagur is an American journalist based in Indonesia.