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The Role of Islam in Contemporary South East Asian Politics

Filed under: Iranian Terrorism, Radical Islam, South East Asia, Terrorism, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 436  August 2000

The Emergence of Radical Islam

The political influence of Islam is increasing in South East Asia. While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc have contributed to the decline of communism as a revolutionary political force in the region, religious and ethnic issues are now assuming renewed and increasing significance. Religious divisions based on Islam have exacerbated ethnic differences, and some religiously-oriented groups are engaging in violent and extreme acts that pose a potentially serious long-term threat to stability in the region.

Arab-Muslim traders first visited the shores of South East Asia as early as the seventh century, and, over the centuries, Sunni Islam flourished to become the established religion in many countries today.

With an Islamic resurgence beginning in the early 1980s, elements of a more radical political Islam have migrated from the Middle East to Asia. If left unchecked, these radical elements could aggravate a number of security and political crises in countries weakened by the consequences of the devastating Asian financial crisis of recent years. The continued growth of radical Islam in the region will depend upon the reactions of the new political leadership which emerged in almost all of the South East Asian “tiger” countries in the late 1990s.

South East Asia is home to the most populous Muslim country in the world – Indonesia. This analysis looks at the current situation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islam is the dominant religion and a growing factor in mainstream political life, as well as the southern Philippines and southern Thailand, where minority Islamic populations are engaged in terror and separatist insurgency.



Indonesia: The Most Populous Muslim Country


Some 90 percent of Indonesia’s 190 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslim, but their politicization under an Islamic banner was largely discouraged under the Suharto regime (1968-1998). The official state ideology of Pancasila, established upon independence, always took precedence, based upon unity, belief in one God, and decision-making through consensus. This ideology is credited with holding Indonesia’s hundreds of ethnic groups together in one pluralistic nation. Islam has long been the only obvious alternative vehicle for mass mobilization and, thus, an implicit threat to security, particularly in regional areas. Periodic outbursts of Muslim protest have occurred, notably during the 1980s in the wake of the 1985 Societies Law, which required all organizations to adopt Pancasila as their primary ideology.

During the 1990s, Suharto sought to negate any shift toward a politicized Islam through symbolic overtures and by coopting leading Muslim figures. The government built mosques, sponsored the haj pilgrimage (to Mecca), and promoted Muslim banks, schools, think-tanks, films, and festivals. The creation of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) headed by Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie in 1990, with the endorsement of Suharto, provided a means of containing Muslim intellectual ferment in the middle class. In practice, the ICMI became more a vehicle for rising through the government apparatus than a serious arena for discussion, and it was criticized as such by Abdurrahman Wahid, then an influential Muslim cleric and scholar.

Toward the end of 1996, a wave of rioting in rural areas saw Muslim crowds attack Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and property belonging to the ethnic Chinese minority. The 1997 election was conducted amidst the worst campaign violence in decades. The unrest was symptomatic of discontent with Indonesia’s growing disparities of wealth, official corruption, the extent of the Suharto family’s vested interests, the affluence of the ethnic Chinese, and Indonesia’s highly restricted form of democracy. The accumulating grievances of significant sections of the Muslim population raised the specter of Islamic fundamentalism and calls to establish an Islamic state. Wahid, a long time supporter of secular democracy, claimed that the riots were in part the result of increasing encounters with radical Middle East-style Islam.

Student protesters, who in their clamor for reforms in the student riots of May 1998 brought on the demise of Suharto, regularly waved posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and lauded the Afghani Taliban generals. However, they were viewed in the broader Indonesian community simply as students craving reform rather than as marshals for radical Islam.



The 1999 Indonesian Elections


Habibie, Suharto’s successor, oversaw the general elections of June 1999 and the presidential elections in October where more than ten Islamic parties competed, a phenomenon that would have been impossible under Suharto’s version of Pancasila. The pre-existing Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP) was “Islamized,” its flag altered to include the Ka’bah which Muslims face during prayer, while its party principle was changed from Pancasila to Islam. The new Crescent and Star party espoused an agenda including the redistribution of wealth away from the ethnic Chinese to the Muslims and strict religious incorporation. The battle for the overwhelming majority of mainstream Muslims was played out between the traditional and modernist streams, essentially a contest between the two rival Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, represented respectively by the National Awakening Party (PKB) of Abdurrahman Wahid and the National Mandate Party (PAN) of Amien Rais.

While both Islamic clerics had solid reformist credentials, Wahid and Rais represented divergent approaches to the political role of Islam. Coming from a paternal lineage of religious leaders, Wahid studied in Cairo and Baghdad and arrived at a secular nationalist view of politics and a traditional approach to Islam. Committed to democratic pluralism in Indonesia rather than an Islamic state, Wahid founded the Forum Demokrasi in 1991 and worked closely with other human rights groups and opposition politicians during the Suharto era, most notably Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the first Indonesian president, Sukarno.

Rais, a Yogjakarta academic, was one of the first major community leaders to speak out against the iniquities of the Suharto regime and to encourage the student-led demonstrations that overthrew Suharto. He espoused the principles of liberal democratic reform as leader of the National Mandate Party, preaching unity and tolerance. However, Rais also had a record of sectarian, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic sentiments. He had appeared at World Muslim Committee for Solidarity (KISDI) rallies, stirring crowds of more than 10,000 against Israel. KISDI was formed at the start of the Palestinian intifada in order to show solidarity with Palestinians, and also emerged as an anti-Chinese, sectarian organization. Another organization courted by Rais in the past is Libya’s Islamic Call Society, funded by Colonel Gaddafi’s Jihad Fund.

The elections also pitted the Islamic parties against other more secular-oriented parties, particularly the incumbent Golkar party fostered by Suharto and under the leadership of Habibie, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) led by the hugely popular Megawati.

Despite a majority vote for the PDI-P in the general elections, the complex series of deals and alliances in the October 1999 presidential elections resulted in the elevation of Abdurrahman Wahid to the leadership, with Megawati as his deputy, thereby witnessing the triumph of far more pragmatic and moderate elements to the nation’s leadership. The two have a long-standing association as critics of the discredited regime of Suharto, and frequently worked together to advance the cause of democratization when prospects for substantial change appeared remote. Even though they headed different parties at the elections – Wahid as an Islamic scholar and charismatic preacher, Megawati carrying on her father Sukarno’s legacy of nationalism – they agree upon the importance of democracy, transparency, and liberty as essential values for the Indonesia of the future. Indeed, the pairing could be said to represent a bridge between political Islam and secular nationalism.

Despite a modest showing in the June national elections, Amien Rais managed to elevate himself to the influential and prestigious position of Chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) – somewhat equivalent to Speaker but made more important by agreed moves to reduce the powers of the presidency. Rais’s success signaled the demise of the precarious unity in opposition between Rais, Wahid, and Megawati prior to the national elections. However, such is the complexity of alliances in Indonesian politics that Rais threw himself behind Wahid’s bid for the presidency, in an Islamic coalition known as the “Axis Force.”



The New Indonesian Government


At this stage, the Indonesian government has strongly reaffirmed tolerant and inclusive forms of Islam. The ethnic and political diversity of the new government revealed one of Wahid’s primary goals – reviving some semblance of unity in the fractured archipelago nation. For the first time, a civilian – former academic Juwono Sudarsono – took the all-important defense portfolio, while one of the toughest jobs went to Marzuki Darusman, head of the National Commission on Human Rights, who became Attorney-General, charged with the huge task of judicial reform. The foreign ministry went to Alwi Shihab, like Wahid, a former Islamic scholar (at Harvard University) and an Islamic liberal.

Wahid himself has been a force for moderation and mutual respect between diverse ethnic and religious groups. He has demonstrated his belief in reconciliation and tolerance across the political spectrum, from dealing respectfully with Indonesia’s Chinese community, and his controversial pledge to overturn the ban on the Communist party, to East Timor, where he traveled in March 2000 to apologize and seek reconciliation with the East Timorese.



Separatist Challenges in Indonesia


One of Wahid’s big tests is handling the troubled region of Aceh. Located on the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh is a staunchly Muslim province that has been a hotbed of separatist activity since Dutch colonial times. In 1976, Hasan di Tiro formed a separatist organization known as Aceh Merdeka (The Free Aceh Movement) to give violent expression to the Acehnese claim for full independence from Indonesian rule. A more radical manifestation of Aceh Merdeka emerged in mid-1990, calling itself the National Liberation Front Aceh Sumatra (GPK-Aceh), formed with the aim of setting up an independent Islamic state in the region. Some Acehnese have used the term jihad to inspire their struggle, but their dispute with Jakarta appears to be more political than ideological.

Serious difficulties have continued in the Moluccas, where bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians on the island of Ambon have left thousands dead and many more displaced persons. Massive reinforcements of troops have quelled some of the unrest, but a long-term solution to the problem remains very much in doubt. An indication of how such clashes can ignite other parts of the nation into religious parochialism was demonstrated in April when several thousand militia men in a self-styled “jihad army” were discovered training at a camp outside Jakarta brandishing daggers, swords, and guns, with the clear intention to fight with their Muslim brethren in Ambon. Wahid ordered the group disarmed, but by June they had managed to spirit themselves and their arms separately to Ambon virtually under the noses of police. The level of violence has since escalated dramatically, prompting the declaration of a civil state of emergency.

President Wahid certainly faces formidable challenges in endeavoring to restore both peace to the restive provinces and economic prosperity to an economy ravaged by structural collapse and the corruption of the Suharto era. The reform process has the potential to destroy the fragile coalition that brought Wahid to power. Wahid’s proposal to confront one of the darkest chapters in Indonesian history, the bloody elimination of the Communist party and its sympathizers in 1965, has prompted hostility from his erstwhile Muslim allies, most notably Amien Rais and the radical Islamic Crescent and Star Party.

Similarly, Wahid’s open preference for the establishment of full relations with Israel – one of his first comments upon assuming the presidency – has provoked some demonstrations by Islamic hard-liners and “go slow” advice from Rais, among others. In November, Wahid told Voice of Israel radio of Indonesia’s need for investment “and you know, the Jewish community everywhere are very active in the commercial lives of the nations we would like to have investments from.” Accordingly, trade and other informal ties are expanding. In May a large delegation of Indonesian businesspeople included a visit to Israel in their Middle Eastern tour, one of whom predicted that trade between the two countries could reach $500 million within three years. Wahid maintains his intention to engage more fully with Jerusalem, but openly admits that “in the short run we’ll have to take into account the reactions in Indonesia.”

Maintaining the support of the military is equally critical for Wahid as it confronts evidence of atrocities in East Timor, Aceh, and other regions, and undergoes a redefinition of its role in national affairs. While the top commanders have backed Wahid up to now, elements of disaffection with the reforms remain. As long as the military appears ineffective and compromised in dealing with provincial upheaval, the possibility remains that its leaders will swing their support behind the more nationalistic Megawati.

However, the watershed developments of Suharto’s fall and the fully democratic election of a reformist government have generated a momentum for reform that will not easily be halted, let alone reversed. Yet there remain two contrasting scenarios for the near future. One is an optimistic view, in which the recent intercommunal breakdown and violence will subside as the economic reforms start to pay dividends. The other sees President Wahid under ever increasing pressure of social and economic breakdown, confronted by his critics in the August session of the National Consultative Assembly and influential figures like Amien Rais throwing his support behind Megawati. Rais’ former organization Muhammadiyah demonstrated the recent hardening of Islamism as a political force in July by dropping Pancasila as its primary ideology in favor of Islam.

In the event of Wahid’s fall from power, there is no obvious alternative that has shown any likelihood of arresting the decline, as the falling value of the rupiah undermines efforts at intercommunal reconciliation. The emergence of democracy in the fractured archipelago nation remains a fragile process.

[Postscript: In mid-August 2000, after this Jerusalem Letter was written, in reaction to mounting domestic criticism President Wahid turned the day-to-day running of the government over to Vice President Megawati. At the same time, former President Suharto, who had stepped down in 1998, was officially charged with corruption.]



Political Islam in Malaysia


Malaysia has experienced a more active record in terms of political Islam, and has been subject to the growth of overtly radical elements for the last two decades. In the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and the trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the major challenge today to the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organization) is the radical agenda of the opposition party, Partai Islam se Malaysia (PAS). PAS has a radical platform, the basis of which is the creation of an Islamic state, and since the Anwar trial it has been able to attract thousands of UMNO members.

The Islamic revivalist movement, popularly known as the Dakwah (literally, “to summon or call”) movement, emerged in Malaysia in the 1970s. One consequence of the Dakwah movement was that Islam came to be highlighted as a pillar of Malay identity. The state was forced to respond to this revivalist movement by giving increasing attention to Islam and the subsequent adoption of an Islamization strategy of its own. The pivotal moment in the institutionalization of the revivalist movement occurred in 1969 at the University of Malaya when the National Association of Muslim Students established a Muslim youth organization named Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), or the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement. ABIM grew to a position of strength in the mid-1970s under the stewardship of student activist Anwar Ibrahim. The year 1969 was also marked by a series of bloody race riots resulting from tensions between ethnic Malays and ethnic Chinese. A younger Dr. Mahathir Mohammed began his political career with such pro-Malay zeal that he was expelled from the party he now leads, and his 1969 book, The Malay Dilemma, which called for political reforms giving Malays privileges over other races, was banned.

The Dakwah movement not only achieved a formidable position in the political sphere, but also transformed Malay thinking and culture. The government felt threatened by the opposition PAS and the student-based Dakwah movement. It decided to approach any Islamic issue in a positive manner, politically and economically. Dakwah groups were coopted and the government embarked on projects such as subsidizing pilgrimages to Mecca and helping to set up the International Islamic University and a think-tank called the Institute of Islamic Thought. Other Islamic-oriented programs were introduced after Anwar Ibrahim joined UMNO in 1982, and by the end of the 1980s more and more of the government’s policies had been “ABIMized.”

As prime minister, Mahathir has sought to coopt the mainstream influence of Islamic thinking and has greatly expanded ties with the international Islamic community, yet he has been a consistent and forthright opponent of Islamism. In 1994, Mahathir moved decisively to ban Al-Arqam, a Sufi sect based on radical Islamic principles and founded in Malaysia in 1968. So great was the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) fear of the sect that the religious affairs ministers of the six ASEAN states at the time met in Malaysia to discuss measures to be taken against it. The day after the ASEAN meeting, Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council issued a decree forbidding the sect from spreading its teachings or running its substantial businesses in Malaysia.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s personal crusade against colonialists, speculators, and Jews has been well publicized. He has portrayed Israelis as Nazis, railed against the material corruption of the West, and blamed “Jewish” speculators such as George Soros for Malaysia’s financial turmoil. During 1999, however, he appeared to tone down his rhetoric in the face of significant challenges to his political future resulting from the decline in the Malaysian economy and the trial of Anwar Ibrahim on charges of corruption. One example of this was his speech to the United Nations in September, where he openly acknowledged Jewish suffering during the “inhuman” Nazi Holocaust.

Mahathir’s dramatic ousting of his heir apparent, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998, has transformed the political opposition in Malaysia, which saw its greatest opportunity to challenge the Mahathir hegemony by riding a wave of popular discontent over cronyism, corruption, and restrictions to democracy and civil liberties. PAS, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, and the new Justice Party headed by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah came together in an uneasy electoral coalition to challenge the ruling party in the 1999 national elections. In the meantime, PAS in particular was flooded with new members and sales of PAS’s twice-weekly newspaper Harakah soared from 65,000 copies before Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest to some 300,000 by election time. In addition, there were thousands of Malaysians who accessed the Internet to obtain the latest information on the Anwar trial, effectively bypassing the state-sponsored media.

A silent participant was, of course, Anwar. However, he is not universally viewed as a beacon of hope. His critics view him as having tried to import an Iranian-style Islamic revolution when he first came to prominence in the 1970s. In the early 1980s he traveled to Teheran to meet with Iran’s newly installed leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. He set about forging links with Islamic movements in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. His choice of Kuala Lumpur’s mosques as a venue from which to launch his “reformasi” campaign was perhaps not coincidental.

In the national election of November 1999, Dr. Mahathir secured his stated aim of a two-thirds majority, but lost ground where it hurt most – in his own Malay heartland in the north. PAS won state-level control of both Kelantan and, for the first time, Terengganu, where it won all eight parliamentary seats; while significant gains were made in Perlis, a heavily Malay state, and Kedah, the home state of Dr. Mahathir himself. Moreover, the election saw PAS emerge as the clear opposition frontrunner, well ahead of its election allies in the Democratic Action Party and the National Justice Party. The governing coalition owed its victory partly to ethnic Chinese voters (who make up 25 percent of the population) who opted for the status quo largely because they feared instability and an opposition alliance that included a party whose stated aim was an Islamic state. The one Chinese-dominated party in the opposition coalition, the Democratic Action Party, did not fare well, losing the seats of both its leader and deputy leader.

Weeks after the elections, the Mahathir government began a wide-ranging crackdown on senior opposition figures, notably Karpal Singh, Anwar Ibrahim’s defense lawyer and an outspoken human rights advocate, and the editor of the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) newspaper Harakah, for an article published about the Anwar trial. The Mahathir government acted to restrict sales of the PAS newspaper to members only, preventing it from competing for greater support. The moves reflected Mahathir’s concerns that both the Anwar issue and the rising popularity of the pro-Islamic PAS may threaten his grip on power.

Malaysia’s future is less precarious than Indonesia’s, despite the weakness of its civil society and the lack of press freedom. Prime Minister Mahathir has been a consistent opponent of Islamism, radical Islamic movements such as Al-Arqam have been sidelined, and Mahathir will continue to sideline those who align themselves too closely with his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. There is the danger that a more conservative UMNO will use Islam for partisan purposes and pick up on the prevailing Islamist sentiment, but, if anything, UMNO has been weakened dramatically by the Anwar episode as has Malaysia by the financial crisis, although on this score a recovery of sorts has been unfolding. The challenge for the future will be the containment of the radical Dakwah movement and UMNO’s ability to head off a groundswell of support for the socially conservative PAS.



The Separatist Struggle in the Southern Philippines


In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, large chunks of the southern island of Mindanao are under the control of Muslim insurgent armies. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) remain locked in a bitter religious-separatist struggle with the central Philippines government. Although a peace agreement with Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was signed in September 1996, the MILF and ASG have categorically rejected it. Both organizations have benefited from a huge flow of arms originating in Afghanistan, as well as training in weapons, explosives, and unconventional warfare.

The Philippines government recognizes the MNLF as representing the Bangsamoro Muslims of Mindanao. Only the MNLF is recognized by the Islamic Conference Organization. The MILF counters this by arguing that in December 1997, over one million Bangsamoro people assembled in Maguindanao’s Da’wah Center and approved a resolution collectively voicing their longing for independence.

The MILF views its cause as a jihad, or holy war, to usher in a system of government based on the Koran. The MILF also declared a jihad against the United States for leading air strikes against Iraq. Clashes between government forces and MILF cadres in Mindanao occur almost daily. The organization grew from 10,855 armed regulars in 1997 to some 15,400 by early 2000, and demands a fully independent Islamic state. The MILF claims its true strength to be a considerably higher figure, with a call-up army of up to 150,000 combatants. While this figure appears somewhat exaggerated, the number of skirmishes and kidnappings during the past year has greatly increased.

Linked to international extremist organizations, Abu Sayyaf (“Father of the Sword” in Arabic) is the most radical of the Philippines’ Muslim terrorist groups and has committed a series of deadly bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings. The small but violent ASG, whose size is estimated at between 100 and 300, has been listed by the U.S. State Department as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations. The group’s overall objective is the establishment of an independent and exclusive Islamic theocratic state in Mindanao. While the larger MILF merely aims for independence, the ASG also espouses violent religious intolerance and the elimination of all Christian influence in Mindanao. It also sees its objectives as part of an integrated effort to assert the global dominance of Islam through armed struggle, with an extreme religious fervor not generally shared by the MILF. The slaying in 1999 of the ASG’s Libyan-trained leader, Abu-bakar Abdurajak Janjalani, in a skirmish with Philippines police, was followed by a wave of destructive bombings throughout the island, which confirmed that the ASG had not withered away as predicted by Philippines authorities. Further proof came in April 2000 with the daring kidnapping of 21 tourists from the Malaysian island of Sipadan, along with the concurrent kidnapping of 50 people (mainly schoolchildren) from the island of Basilan, which resulted in the deaths of six hostages. These incidents served to raise the ASG’s international profile, with the probable aim of enhancing their attractiveness to foreign sponsors of Islamic radicalism.

The outlook for peace and stability in the southern Philippines remains bleak as long as the MILF and ASG exhibit a radical Islamic identity devoid of any willingness to compromise on its basic demands. The international support network fuelling terrorism and ideological battles hinders prospects of accommodation and compromise. The Estrada government recognized the festering secessionist problem in Mindanao by initiating talks with the MILF, but its refusal to accept the MILF’s key demand for an independent Islamic state has been backed up by a willingness to tackle the rebels with force if no peaceful solution can be found. A devastating raid on a key MILF base in February 2000 claimed the lives of up to 300 rebels, and the escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks between the government and the MILF led to the formal abandonment of negotiations in May 2000, only weeks short of the mid-year deadline set by President Estrada for an agreement. In July, government forces captured several MILF camps (complete with cache of arms), including its headquarters, Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao. MILF leader Hashim Salamat fled to Malaysia, but promptly issued calls for an intensified jihad against the government. Now the fear is that the rebels may break up into smaller groups to wage guerrilla warfare, and not just in Mindanao. This prospect was driven home in May when two shopping malls in Manila were targets of bombings by suspected MILF insurgents.



Fundamentalist Violence in Thailand


Islamic fundamentalist violence in Thailand centers on the separatist activities of the Malay-Muslim population in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Since the 1960s, a variety of militant separatist movements have operated in the southern Thai provinces, among them the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), New PULO, Barisan Revolu-si Nationale (BRN), Mujahadeen, the Pattani National Liberation Front (PNLF), and the Socialist National Front (BSN). While these groups have been characterized by different ideological outlooks, all have been motivated by the common desire to carve out an independent Muslim state with Pattani as the center. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, stability in the south was undermined by repeated outbreaks of unrest and civil disturbances associated with the secessionist struggle. Inept and often brutal government responses often stimulated intensified resistance and serious acts of violence.

Despite government moves towards greater regional autonomy, socio-economic development and religious tolerance, political violence and terrorism associated with the Malay-Islamic secessionist struggle in southern Thailand continued into the 1990s. According to Thai intelligence officials, the BRN, PULO, and New PULO have been largely unwilling to coordinate their operational activities, essentially due to their different ideological outlooks and external affiliations. Nevertheless, it does appear that the three organizations agreed to form a tactical alliance in mid-1997 to refocus national attention on the “southern question,” carrying out a series of coordinated attacks aimed at state workers, law enforcement personnel, local government officials, school teachers, and other perceived symbols of Thai Buddhist repression.

Although the 1997 campaign of violence did engender increased attention to the “southern question,” it also dramatically increased pressure on the Malaysian government to step up cross-border cooperation with Thailand. Following the attacks, Malaysian leader Dr. Mahathir launched a campaign against leaders of the Thai insurgents hiding in Malaysia. As a consequence, four core leaders of the movements have been arrested and detained by Thai authorities.

While the terrorist groups in the south appear to be in disarray and lack financial support, the Thai government has shifted its policy from one of encouraging the terrorists to surrender and join the government’s national development program to one of large-scale suppression. As a result, terrorists that had earlier pledged to give themselves up have banded together with their former colleagues to recommence terrorist activities, and have sought outside support from the Middle East. Isolated, low-level incidents have continued to occur, and although the region remains underdeveloped, growth is increasing, helping to ameliorate memories of past inequity and discrimination.



Outside Influences on South East Asia


How do countries like Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia benefit from linkages with Asia? In a geopolitical framework increasingly divided between the West and the rest, it seems that these countries have realized the importance of Asian support, particularly Asian Islamic support, for both economic and ideological purposes. The demand for oil in Asia is critical to sustainable oil prices. Influences behind these expanding links have stemmed from the Iranian revolution and the growth of Middle Eastern economic power since the 1970s.

Iran: The spread of an Islamic ideal and the invocation of Islamic solidarity are clearly among the more important components in Iranian foreign policy. In addition, historically low oil prices and a deteriorating oil infrastructure have driven Iran to look beyond traditional oil markets. In 1997, Iran publicly announced an “Asian tilt” in its foreign policy, primarily with the intention of expanding its markets, breaking the U.S.-led containment policy, and spreading anti-Western views into Asia. Countries traditionally more sympathetic to Western ideals may have been swayed by the Iranian rhetoric. Malaysia and Indonesia showed a willingness to support Iran’s foreign policy goals by joining the Iranian-sponsored D-8 organization of major Islamic states. The Philippines has fallen substantially into line with Iranian policy, denouncing U.S. sanctions against Iran and issuing guidelines to internal security forces to refrain from arresting Iranian and Pakistani citizens suspected of aiding the Abu Sayyaf Group. While Iran continues to pursue its “Look to the East” policy, placing high priority on forging relationships with the ASEAN nations in particular, the growing influence of reformist elements within Iran may ultimately reduce its potency as both an ideological rallying point and a covert source of aid for Islamic fundamentalists in Asia.

Pakistan: A fulcrum around which questions of Islamic radicalism turn, Pakistan has already been the epicenter for three civil wars: in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kashmir. Philippines authorities have referred to strong links between Afghanistan and the Muslims of the southern Philippines, with Pakistan as the intermediary. All three conflicts involve fundamentalist elements, which have been clandestinely fuelled by Pakistan’s religious parties and its military. Because of Pakistan’s growing reputation for exporting radicalism, further instability is likely to encourage extremists to continue to look to Asian hot spots such as Mindanao and Xinjiang in China to export jihad. The military coup in October 1999 which ousted Nawaz Sharif, while changing the constellation of power, has far from eroded the centrality of Islamic militancy.

Afghanistan: Muslim youths from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia were sent to Afghanistan between 1979 and 1992 for training and Afghan Mujahadeen combat operations. These so-called Afghan veterans underwent rigorous paramilitary training and religious indoctrination, and with the successful entry of the Mujahadeen into Kabul in 1992, thousands of volunteer guerrilla fighters literally became “rebels without a cause.” Lacking an outlet for their religious zeal and military enthusiasm, many left Afghanistan to take up the cause in places of Islamic unrest around the world. Many of the Philippines Mujahadeen guerrillas returned to Mindanao in 1993 to recruit Muslim youths for the fledgling ASG, while other Mujahadeen fighters were dispatched to Xinjiang to assist in the local jihad against China.



Future Prospects


Islam in South East Asia has traditionally been a moderating and constructive force. Given the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the region, anything which might convert Islam into a force for the radical and violent revisionism and revanchism it has become in parts of the Middle East clearly has the potential to be dangerous. There is no question of the serious consequences if Middle Eastern-style Islamic radicalism was to take root with the laid back and tolerant Muslims of South East Asia.

Fortunately, there is some cause for optimism about the prospects for constructive and peaceful accommodation between Islam and modernism, best exemplified by the election as president in Indonesia of the pluralistic, inclusive, and moderate Islamic leader, Abdurrahman Wahid. Although he is under serious pressure, Wahid’s survival in power could set an example to other Asian nations, and perhaps even to the Islamic world more generally, that Islam and the modern world can peacefully coexist.

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Dr. Colin Rubenstein is an Associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Honorary Research Associate in Middle East Politics at Monash University in Australia, and Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.