George W. Bush insists that nations who do not support the “war against terrorism” are themselves terrorists: Muslim leaders in Southeast Asia have their own reasons to take the ‘ultimatum’ seriously. Already suffering huge political and economic difficulties because of the East Asian crisis, both Indonesian and Malaysian regimes now have to contend with the growing ‘Islamist’ tendency in domestic politics, and a resurgence of Islam among their Muslim population.
Such Islamic fervour is most visible in Indonesia, where Muslims have largely regained the sense of Islamic identity that the authorities had tried to dilute during the Pancasila era introduced by former president Suharto Recent reactions to events unfolding in other parts of the Muslim world suggest that Muslims there are waking up after decades of confusion. Muslim groups are almost completely united in their opposition to any policy that supports the west’s current war against Muslims.
Jakarta, for example, has been the scene of large anti-US demonstrations, with large crowds of young people waving Palestinian flags and posters of Usama bin Ladin at the British and American embassies. But, in the clearest indication yet of anger against US policies, civil-action groups emerged months before September 11, sometimes visiting hotels to warn American nationals to leave or be forced to leave.
The Islamic Youth Movement, one of the many emerging ‘action-oriented’ groups that are recruiting volunteers for Afghanistan, did not mince words. “If one Afghan is hurt or killed we’ll boycott American goods,” said its commander, Handrian Syah. “If two, we’ll search for Americans living in Indonesia. If three, we’ll take the life of the American ambassador here. If more, we’ll destroy the American embassy.” Said a spokesman for Laskar Jihad: “We’ll see how big the American military operations against Afghanistan are - the bigger their action, the bigger our reaction.” Western expatriates have begun to leave Indonesia; as we go to press, efforts are under way to evacuate all Americans.
To date tens of thousands of Muslim youths have reportedly signed up for the jihad in Afghanistan. The Indonesian government has warned that it will revoke the citizenships of those who serve against the US in Afghanistan, but few are taking this seriously. In a country ravaged by decades of economic plunder and now on the verge of breaking up, citizenship is the last thing that most people care to protect.
Like Pakistan’s Musharraf, president Megawati Sukarnoputri decided to do her bidding early. Within days of September 11 she rushed to meet Bush in the White House, an ‘honour’ that Mahathir of Malaysia has been trying to wrangle since early this year. Although Megawati flew back to Jakarta with promises of aid (US$630 million in total) from the US, this ‘achievement’ now threatens to become a liability.
The more established Muslim organisations have been vocal against any attempt by Jakarta to sing the American tune; even so-called ‘moderate’ Islamic organisations have voiced their disapproval of pro-US policies. All have warned the government against becoming a US puppet, with parliamentary speaker Amien Rais calling for jihad.
Anti-US sentiment is also felt in other parts of the Malay archipelago, not least in Malaysia, where Islamists have become a dominant force in the opposition since the beginning of the reformasi movement. Religious and political divisions in Malaysia, which has a non-Muslim population of 40 percent, have widened, partly because of the west’s anti-Islam propaganda.
The non-Muslim press and media are having a field day, demonising Muslims as “terrorists” and “extremists”. Their aim is of course the Islamic party, PAS, as well as other local Islamist groups. It appeared to have the intended effect, when the Democratic Action Party, a Chinese-dominated party in the opposition’s Alternative Front, withdrew from the coalition citing disagreement with PAS’s long-term aim of establishing an Islamic State.
But fears of non-Muslims drifting further from PAS have not prevented the party leaders from proclaiming their support for the Afghans. Nik Abdul-Aziz, its supreme head, has called on Muslims to help defend Muslims in Afghanistan. PAS’s stand was confirmed on October 8 when Fadzil Noor, its president, called Americans war criminals.
While Megawati basked in the glory of rubbing shoulders with her western mentors, Mahathir prided himself on a telephone-call from Bush, who is supposed to have assured Mahathir that the Americans are against “terrorism”, not Islam. The Malaysian regime had panicked when the US listed the country as one of those harbouring ‘terrorists’, an allegation that the regime now denies, although a few weeks ago it had been fighting so-called local “Islamic militants”.
After the strikes on October 8, Mahathir – who is eager to put his West-bashing image behind him – immediately acted as spokesman for the US: “The US stand is very clear. They are against what they believe are terrorist hubs,” he said. He issued a warning: “We will not tolerate anyone who supports violence and will act against these irresponsible people or anyone who backs terrorism.”
Although there have been no large-scale anti-US protests in Malaysia, the US embassy has taken precautionary measures. Within hours of the attack on Kabul on October 8, the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur came under heavy security, and policemen patrolled areas with American residents.
Western nationals, in particular Americans, are feeling the pressure as a result of their governments’ policies. Muslims in this region have a long history of loyalty to Islam. Thousands travelled to Afghanistan during the1980s; many were martyred there. Malaysian Muslims have been described as soft-spoken and a people of few words. They may well prove to be even more when it comes to rising in defence of their Muslim brothers thousands of miles away.