Jihad Archipelago

December 1, 2004 Topic: Society Regions: Southeast AsiaAsia Tags: MuslimYugoslavia

Jihad Archipelago

Mini Teaser: The battle for the soul of Islam in Southeast Asia is underway. Americans may not be interested in the outcome. But the outcome is interested in us.

by Author(s): Greg Sheridan

It's always perplexing in Washington, as in most Westerncapitals, that when one attends a seminar about Islam, it isgenerally focused on the Middle East, with perhaps an occasionalnod to Pakistan and the Islamic bomb.

Indonesia, the most populous Islamic nation in the world, seldomrates a mention. There are 200 million Indonesian Muslims (out of atotal Indonesian population of 230 million), more than can be foundon the entire Arabian peninsula and many more than live in the nexttwo most populous Muslim states, India and Pakistan. Yet Arabdisdain for the peoples of the region (charging, for example, thatthey don't even speak Arabic, the language of the Prophet), adisdain generously reciprocated by Southeast Asians for the Arabworld, has kept Southeast Asian Muslims on the margin of Muslimdebate and out of Western consciousness. That low profile has beengreatly to the benefit of the stability and independent evolutionof Islam in Southeast Asia. But this is set to change, both becauseof the increasing economic and strategic strength of Southeast Asiaand the spread of Islamist terrorism.

There is today a life and death struggle under way in Indonesiaand its Southeast Asian neighbors over who owns Islam, a contestthat is almost as important as any political battle facing theinternational community. In many ways it is a conflict ofglobalization, though not in the usual sense. For in this battlethe interests of the West lie overwhelmingly in the triumph of thelocal, the ethnocentrically particular and the traditional--againstthe interests promoted by global communications technology and thespread of internationalist ideas.

In Indonesia, as in much of Southeast Asia, the central struggleis between local Islam, which is characteristically tolerant,moderate, syncretic and pluralist, and globalist Islam emanatingfrom the Middle East, which is paranoid, intolerant, extremist andviscerally hostile to the United States and the larger West. Themost important manifestation of this clash of ideas are theactivities of Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in Southeast Asia,pre-eminent among them Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah (JI),responsible for the terrorist bombing in Bali in 2002 that killedmore than 200 civilians.

But the deeper difficulty lies in the interaction betweenterrorist groups and their sympathizers on the one hand andemerging mainstream political Islam on the other. These two strandsof Islamic thought share a disturbing amount of common ideologicalground. This means that extremists, despite the fact that the vastmajority of Indonesians rejects their violent methods, can have aprofound, perhaps decisive, influence on the development ofIndonesian politics.

Similar struggles of different intensity are underway in theMuslim communities of Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand,Singapore and Brunei, and in the smaller scattered Muslimcommunities of the region. While there's no need to panic yet,Western policymakers must understand that there is a long, bitterfight ahead.

Surveying the Region

Malaysia is generally the most Islamically conservativeSoutheast Asian society of any consequence. Only about a tenth thesize of Indonesia, its recently retired long-term leader, MahathirMohamad, made a career of baiting and lambasting the West. Butalthough much that Mahathir said was offensive, particularly hisweird remarks about Jews controlling the world, he was at heart anopponent of Islamic extremism.

The key fault line in Malaysia is racial, but the racial and thereligious overlap. The majority Malay population is Islamic, butChinese and Indians, overwhelmingly not Islamic, together make upnearly 40 percent of the population. Mahathir's government pursueda policy of "affirmative action" for the Malays, the bumiputras("sons of the soil"), who are not as wealthy as the Chinese. Theminority races in Malaysia thus feel a permanent sense of grievancebecause government policies discriminate against them. However, atthe same time as he railed against the West, Mahathir pursuedsensible pro-growth policies very friendly to Western investment.As a result, the Malaysian economy has grown strongly now for twoand a half decades. Chinese and Indians have felt that even in theface of official discrimination, there is room for them to getahead. It has been a classic case of a larger pie making everyone alittle fatter.

That is not to say political Islam has been quiet. RehmanRashid, in his scintillating memoir, Malaysian Journey, recountsthat the 1979 Iranian revolution had an electrifying effect onyoung Malays, convincing them that Islam had a political destiny.But as the squalid reality of Iran under the ayatollahs becameclear, Malays turned against the Iranian model. The Chinese andIndian minorities, of course, were terrified of it.

Malaysian Islam took a different path and so did its dominantpolitical party, the United Malays National Organization.Mahathir's rebarbative anti-Western rhetoric obscured the noveltyand importance of the experiment he was undertaking in Malaysia. Bylinking traditional Islamic piety with East Asian economicdynamism, Islam became a friend of economic modernization, and viceversa. It may not have worked perfectly, but it was better thananything else then on offer in the Islamic world, with the possibleexception of Turkey.

Mahathir fused ethnic identity, religious allegiance and usefulregional imperatives. The 1980s and 1990s, up until the 1997regional economic crisis, were good times for Southeast Asianeconomies. Mahathir called his policy "Look East" and exhorted hiscountrymen to "learn from Japan." Under Mahathir, Malaysia boomed.Now Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other Malaysian cities are solidlymiddle class, with everything that implies for social and politicalstability.

For a time it looked as though a fundamentalist Islamic party,PAS, would challenge the ruling coalition, especially afterMahathir fell out with and jailed his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.But the 9/11 attacks further discredited Islamic extremism. At themost recent elections early in 2004, Mahathir's successor, AbdullahBadawi, a more moderate leader who has dropped most of Mahathir'santi-Western posturing, won a large victory over PAS.

Malaysia is thus one of very few predominantly Muslim nations inthe world to succeed at widespread economic development and toexperience the consequent development of a middle class and thesocial stability that results. It has spawned some terrorists,including leading JI figures. But it has been ruthless in interninghome-grown extremists and cooperates well with the United Statesand other governments on counter-terrorism. The government stillfinds plenty on which to criticize the United States. But it issurely preferable to have a government that criticizes the UnitedStates but produces a strong, stable society, than one that praisesthe United States but cannot handle the challenge of extremism.

Sadly, the Philippines falls into the latter category. ThePhilippines is the strangest nation in Southeast Asia and the onewith the strongest Islamic extremist movement. It is predominantlyCatholic (though with strong mystical influences) and more Americanthan anywhere else in the region. Hispanic in political culture, itis schizophrenic at many levels of national identity.

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