Thu, 18 Dec 2003

Radicalism is the big threat to Asia-Pacific

Don Pathan, The Nation, Asia News Network, Bangkok

Islam and the global war on terrorism continue to dominate discussions among the world's leading security analysts and policy makers and nowhere was this more evidence than in the just-concluded meeting of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP).

But concerns over the rise of China are still very much on the radar screen.

Some see China as an opportunity because of its sheer market size, while others think the growing influence of the communist giant in Southeast Asia will eventually alter the existing balance of power.

For the time being, China is preoccupied with continuing its economic growth while sticky issues like territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been shelved.

Analysts here think a time will come when Beijing plays its sovereignty card over the disputed areas, which are also at Southeast Asia's maritime heartland.

On global security, efforts were made to separate Islam from the global war on terrorism.

But no matter how hard the academics and analysts tried to be politically correct, fingers always pointed to Islamic militancy, a growing problem, according to Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, that is quickly gaining ground at the expense of the U.S.'s misguided policy in Iraq.

In one of the harshest statements issued by the government of the world's most populous Muslim country, Hassan said American's unilateralism was fueling support for terrorism and made the Middle East so much more insecure and vulnerable.

In his keynote address, Hassan said the U.S.-led war has created "emotional vibrations" that makes it easier to gather new recruits.

The allegation drew a strong response from the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Ralph Boyce, who insisted that it was too early to dismiss the "historic effort" in Iraq as a failure.

Both sides, however, appeared to be in agreement that handing over power to Iraqis without reform could mean disaster.

Though the Chatham House Rule prevented what was said in the conference from being made public information, nevertheless on the side of the three-day meeting, participants complained that Muslims with solid Islamic credentials were not doing enough to set the record straight.

In many parts of the Muslim community in the region, civic and political leaders chose to stand back while their communities get caught up in conspiracy theories.

Some say it is a selfish attitude of the political leaders who don't want to be caught up in what they see as a sensitive debate, or be dismissed as a lackey of the West.

Others said there is a genuine belief among the conservative element within Islamic circles that Islam is not compatible with modernity and that the religion already has a unique and comprehensive social-political belief system that can serve as a basis for a modern state.

But one leader with strong Islamic credentials, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization with 50 million followers, rejected the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

"Islam is full of references to the principles of democracy and pluralism, and the importance of human rights," said Marrif, in his keynote delivered to the participants.

He pointed to the principles of nasiha (advice), shura (consultation), ikhtilaf (airing and resolving disagreement), tasamuh (tolerance) and hisbah (public accountability and ombudsmanship).

Maarif said injustice and poverty throughout the world have forced many to seek comfort in their respective religions.

In Indonesia's case, "the uneven process of economic development, and the brutal oppression of dissent by the state, has set the context for radicalization within the community".

Maarif said the challenge is how to address these problems in an appropriate way so that radicalism does not become more attractive to ordinary Muslims.

"The answer lies in what we, the Muslims, do within our own communities, and . . . recognize our own weaknesses," he said.

"We realize that justice, especially in the economic sense, should be established and upheld, because it is justice that serves the foundation for a violence-free society."

For others, said Maarif, it is important to understand that Islam cannot be understood within the context of terrorism.

Maarif said there has to be willingness to move beyond the current impasse in understanding of Muslims and non-Muslims and that Islamic activism should be prepared to move beyond opposition towards implementation.

"It is no longer enough to decry what one is against. The time has come to craft concrete plans to build a bridge between the Muslim world and the rest," Maarif said.

He also called on the rest of the world to move beyond their preoccupation with the notion of Islam as a "threat" or "terror" and begin to understand Islam with all its complexity and plurality.

"Through this willingness to learn about each other in an honest way, a better world should not be too difficult to achieve," Maarif said.