Southeast Asia

Moderate Muslims and the Iraq War

Moderate Muslim cultures of Southeast Asia are reacting to the US-led "War on Terror" and the military invasion of Iraq. For 250 Million Malay-speaking Muslims, this has meant readjusting their view of the World – and a change of domestic power balances.

By Amri Baharuddin Shamsul

photo: AP
Malaysian Muslim students protest against the Gulf war in Kuala Lumpur

​​Never before in Islam's history have actions by a single dominant world power caused the religion and its community worldwide such agony. It is difficult to come to terms with the aggressive behavior of the USA.

Most Muslims in Southeast Asia agree that Islam regards all acts of terror as an abomination and that this applies to the crimes of the September 11 events as well as to the violent acts of Saddam Hussein. But they also expected reactions to be more civilized and not to mimic terrorist brutality.

Indonesia's government on the defensive

It was in tune with the general sentiment of Malay Muslims, that President Megawati of Indonesia and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed condemmed the Iraq war und expressed their condolences for the innocent victims. Such political reactions, however, reflect the domestic situation, which is quite different in the two countries.

While President Megawati's government seems to be on the defensive, Prime Minister Mahathir took advantage of the events to consolidate the power of his Umno party.

Initially, President Megawati supported the US administration. After a visit to the White House, she had expressed herself in favor of waging war on terrorism. This included invading Iraq. Her position was partly the result of the USA's "with-us or against-us" ultimatum to all Muslim countries and partly the consequence of Indonesia's dependence on the USA as the dominant nation in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

However, when the president came home to Jakarta, she was greeted by massive demonstrations with various motivations. Some Muslims, who supported war on terrorism, protested the decision to bomb Iraq.

A few others adopted a more radical position, such as the members of the militant Laskar Jihad (which literally means Jihad Army). They were totally against the USA, which they consider to be the "devil country" embarked on a religious crusade in Afghanistan and Iraq. This group even declared jihad on the USA.

Humanistic concern about the war

Finally, there were also human rights groups who agitated against the war out of deep humanistic concern.

All seemed to agree that Megawati should withdraw her veiled support of US war on Iraq. As demonstrations became more violent, the Indonesian military and police had their hands full in trying to quell the dissent.

In three weeks of rallies, some lives were lost and some hundred persons injured. The president finally relented and announced publicly Indonesia's protest of the Iraq war. Once more, her leadership seemed weak and indecisive.

As head of the Malaysian government, Prime Minister Mahathir could deal with the issues much more elegantly. In spite of being an outspoken critic of globalization and of having confronted Washington on various occasions in the past, he did not antagonize the super power again.

Rather, he raised his country's standing in the USA by emphasizing that Malaysia was a moderate, economic successful and politically stable "Islamic state".

Religious pluralism of the constitution

In doing so, Mahathir made political use of Article 3 of the Malaysian Constitution which states that "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation." This clause had not drawn much attention in the past.

Its main consequence had been the observance of Islamic rituals and conventions at official state functions. For instance, only halal food and non-alcoholic beverages are served during a state banquet and the event begins and ends with Islamic prayers. Non-Muslim participants have to observe. Otherwise, there was always a high level of accommodation and tolerance of other religions in daily life.

No head of government would ever have thought of emphasizing the term "Islamic state" before September 11, 2001 – not least because such a statement might have hurt the feelings of religious minorities and would have contradicted the official slogan of unity not meaning uniformity.

In the local context, Mahathir's emphasis of the "Islamic state" was aimed at thwarting attempts from some sections of the Malay-Muslim community to label the US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq as a universal crusade against Islam.

Indeed, the rural-based and increasingly influential Islamic party (Parti Islam) contested Mahathir's definition of an "Islamic state" and staged rallies protesting against the USA.

Mahatir's intelligent tactics

Some demonstrators were seen wearing T-Shirts with Saddam's portrait. Parti Islam competes with the "United Malay National Organisation" (UMNO) at elections. Mahathir's statements on the war in Iraq meant that this Party could not accuse the government of toeing Washington's line. Protests against the war were not automatically protests against him.

Indeed, various sections of the Malaysian community, non-Muslims included, were publicly appealing to the US to stop the Iraq war because the immediate impact was on the innocent women and children. They argued that thousands more Iraqis would become refugees and the human situation is turning into an inhuman one.

To demonstrate the deep concern, donations were collected after the bombing of Iraq began. Volunteers, many of whom were doctors and other health and welfare professionals, came forward to put down their names as members of the Malaysian humanitarian team to be sent to Iraq or its neighbouring countries to help the refugees.

One of the most significant impacts of the September 11 event and Iraq war in Malaysia relates to the fate of Anwar Ibrahim, the sacked Deputy Prime Minister who is facing legal charges of corruption and sodomy.

The "Shining light" of moderate Islam

Anwar is still trying to draw attention to his fate. He published an article in the International Herald Tribune with the title "Who Hijacked Islam?" However, the views on September 11 and the Iraq war he expressed were similar to those of the Malaysian government.

International interest in Anwar has waned. On the other hand, Mahathir's reputation has improved dramatically. After all, he is in friendly contact with President George W. Bush. Mahathir had become the "shining light" of moderate Islam who could expect standing ovations from American businessmen.

Internationally, Malaysia is perceived by both friends and foes as representing the desired ‘Islamic middle path' nation that could mediate between the extremes, especially in the present crisis. The fact that the Iranian leaders (read Shiite leaders) recently proposed that Malaysia (read a Sunni ‘Islamic state') should assume such a role has definitely enhanced the country's diplomatic standing.

In this regard, Indonesia is not able to play the role that Malaysia is currently playing because of her desperate economic situation and internally weakened political position that in turn reduced the once important role it has played in the community of Islamic and non-aligned countries.

It is indeed sad to watch present Indonesia who was once the champion of the Non-Aligned nations, especially of her pivotal role in the Bandung Conference of 1955. Recent global politics have made every Muslim in Malaysia and Indonesia more conscious about being a Muslim – for wrong reasons.

They are identified as potential terrorists or sympathizers of Saddam Hussein. This reminds one of similar classifications which were applied in the past. For instance, Australia only allowed white people to immigrate up to 1970.

Although this policy was disbanded officially, it is being re-applied informally by the present government in Canberra. Just as before, this policy upsets Asians, many of whom would like to move to Australia for economic reasons.

"Terrorist Screening" for Muslims

The new immigration rules imposed by the USA have a similar effect. They demand that Muslims from the age of 18 to 45 must go through a "terrorist screening" before being allowed entry into the USA. This will certainly have an impact on what "being a Muslim" means globally.

This policy breeds resentment – and will do so even more if copied by other Western Nations. Such an elaborate international construction might contribute to making the so far only imagined "clash of civilizations" become a reality.

Amri Baharuddin Shamsul

This article originally appeared in Development and Cooperation 03/2004

Prof. Dr. Amri Baharuddin Shamsul teaches Social Anthropology. He is Director of the "Institute of the Malay World and Civilization" (ATMA) and of the recently established "Institute of Occidental Studies" (IKON) of the National University of Malaysia.

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