The tragedy unfolding in East Timor is all the more painful to witness because those responsible are supposedly Muslim. Muslims are used to being persecuted and subjected to genocide. From Palestine to Bosnia to Kashmir, from the Caucasus to India to parts of Africa, to Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, Muslims have become accustomed to the treatment that the Timorese are now suffering. We are, in a sense, resigned to it; it is our lot in a world dominated by a civilization whose ‘values’ are diametrically contrary to those of Islam, and in which Muslims are open targets for all who choose to show their hatred. We are angry when such incidents occur, but not surprised. Killing Muslims is what our enemies do, after all - it’s what we expect. But seeing other Muslims, our own people, people who are supposed to be like us, inflicting such carnage on other people is a far greater shock, and all the more painful.
In this case, though, we should not be so surprised. What the Timorese people are suffering now is not unprecedented. The brutality of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 is well-known. Perhaps 200,000 of the region’s 700,000 people were killed or died as a result of the invasion, Timorese resistance to it, and disease and famine. These were on top of the numbers killed under Portuguese rule, and in fighting between Timorese groups as the Portuguese prepared to leave. Thousands more died each year as Timorese resistance to Indonesian rule continued. Nor has East Timor been the only area under Indonesian rule to see what its government and army are capable of. The Muslims of Aceh-Sumatra have also been subjected to appalling treatment, as have numerous other peoples. The difference is that news of the suffering of the Acehnese seldom makes CNN or the western newspapers.
Indonesia is often described as the world’s most populous Muslim country. It is also often held up as an example of moderate, friendly Islam, an Islam which is non-political, syncretic and culturally-oriented, in contrast to ‘fundamentalist’, political Islam found elsewhere. But Indonesia is not an Islamic state. It is not even a ‘Muslim country’. It is a
Javanese-dominated empire which emerged from the bowels of Dutch imperialism, and whose ruling Elite has all the arrogance of such imperialists. Nothing could be further from Islam than the tribalism and nationalism now being seen in East Timor, and broadcast around the world as ‘Muslims killing Christians’. What we are seeing is supposed-Muslims falling prey to the collective social and moral diseases that have scarred western history, from the near-extermination of native Americans and the aboriginals of Australia, to the anti-semitism of Europe (which culminated in the ‘holocaust’) and the ultra-nationalism of the Serbs.
Islam is an open-minded, compassionate creed. It has always welcomed and accommodated the different cultural traditions of the peoples who adopted its Divinely-ordained moral and social framework, and protected non-Muslim minorities, including Jews and non-orthodox Christians who flocked to Muslim lands to avoid persecution. People like the Catholics of East Timor would find peace and harmony in the rule of the region’s predominantly-Muslim people if that rule were based on Islam, and in time would probably, peacefully and of their own choice, become Muslim themselves. The fact that even Muslims, such as those of Aceh-Sumatra, are struggling against the abuses of the Indonesian government is proof that these crimes have nothing to do with Islam.
Western ‘peace-keepers’ can be expected to enter East Timor soon, to try to ‘restore order’. Australia, New Zealand and other countries in the region have indicated their willingness to contribute troops, provided that the US also makes a commitment. The US would prefer an regional international body, such as ASEAN, to take the lead. One way or another, some degree of international involvement is almost inevitable given that the Timorese are Christians. (The Acehnese Muslims, of course, know better than to expect anything.)
The irony is that the disorder that these ‘peacekeepers’ will be trying to quell has been created by singularly ‘western’ behaviour, based on nationalist norms that the west has taken great efforts to teach the rest of the world. Meanwhile, they themselves are engaged in inflicting similar suffering on Muslim parts of the world to prevent the rise of Islam.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999