ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Shadow of Afghan War

The events of September 11 have not only led to the reconfiguration of some aspects of Indonesia's and Malaysia's domestic politics, but also enhanced Malaysia's role as a moderate Islamic state in the global war against international terrorism. But the most enduring impact is at the individual level - Muslims in these two countries are being constantly reminded through many different ways, some unpalatable, of their communal identity and are increasingly being identified as potential 'terrorists'.

The horrific events of September 11 shocked most of the 250 million Malay-speaking Muslims in the Malay world – the riverine-maritime civilisational complex of south-east Asia that includes  Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, southern Philippines and southern Kampuchea.

Most Malay Muslims in this region unanimously agreed that terrorism has no basis in Islam and that traditional Islamic jurisprudence regards all acts of terror as an abomination and crime against humanity. Indonesia and Malaysia, the two largest Muslim countries in south-east Asia, for instance, through their respective leaders, president Megawati and prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, condemned the terrorist acts. Mahathir publicly expressed his condolences for the innocent victims and family members of the attacks.

However, as events began to unfold in the following weeks, especially when the US and its alliance identified, rather inconclusively, at least in the eyes of the Muslim south-east Asian public, that Osama bin Laden was the culprit and decided to carry out the attack on Afghanistan, the reactions among the people became political. The whole focus of attention began to shift rather swiftly to the US’s foreign policy in dealing with terrorism and its decision to attack Afghanistan in order to ‘smoke out’ bin Laden and his supporters.

The political reactions in both Indonesia and Malaysia, inevitably, reflected more of the domestic situation and less of the global concerns. One has only to watch the local TV stations and CNN and see how each side presents the US policy response and military attack on Afghanistan to witness the obvious domestic-global divide.

Among Malaysian Muslims and non-Muslims, the issue of whether or not Malaysia is an ‘Islamic state’ and whose definition of an ‘Islamic state’ matters emerged as the frame within which the public political response was conducted. This is directly related to the fact that in the Malaysian Federal  Constitution, Article 3, it is stated, “Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation”.

The common official interpretation of this constitutional provision has been that, for instance, in all state official functions Islamic rituals and conventions are observed. During a state banquet, only halal food and non-alcoholic beverages are served, and the event begins and ends with Islamic prayers. There has always been a high level of accommodation and tolerance on the part of the non-Muslims. Outside this official realm, other religions are free to practise their rituals.

It is not surprising that before September 11, no Malaysian prime minister has proclaimed, based on the constitutional provision, that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic state’. Obviously, it seems necessary now, at least for a pragmatic and utilitarian reason. So, Mahathir, with support from his multi-ethnic and multi-religion ruling party coalition partners, recently declared that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic state’, indeed a moderate, economically successful and politically stable one.

This immediately put Malaysia on the ‘good side’ of the US’s foreign policy on international terrorism. After all, the US-based large corporations, as a group, are the biggest investors in the Malaysian manufacturing-dependent economy. In the wake of a possibility of US economic sanctions on countries classified as harbouring terrorists, the Malaysian government’s political response was strategic and timely.

The decision to declare Malaysia as an ‘Islamic state’, as a direct consequence of the September 11 attacks, has affected the religious, social and political discourse in the country, both within and outside the government and for those who support or are against Mahathir.

In the local political context, Mahathir’s ‘Islamic state’ claim is aimed at depoliticising and negating any attempt from sections of the Malay-Muslim community to label the US attack on Afghanistan as a universal attack on Muslims or Islam. The call for ‘jihad’ against the US from such sections is considered as unjustified, not appropriate, misplaced, and in fact an extremist-fundamentalist reaction.

This didn’t prevent PAS, the rural-based and increasingly influential Islamic party, and a few thousand of its supporters, from staging a street demonstration in front of the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Some members even donned T-shirts with pictures of Osama bin Laden. The demonstration came soon after the PAS publicly contested Mahathir’s ‘Islamic state’ claim.

Meanwhile, in the local press, various sections of the Malaysian community, non-Muslims included, publicly appealed to the US to stop bombing Afghanistan because the immediate impact, as the world media began to reveal, was on the innocent women and children. They argued that thousands more Afghans would become refugees. Donations worth more than a million ringgits were collected, within a week or so after the start of the bombing of Afghanistan, from the corporate sector, NGOs, school children, and other sections of the multi-ethnic and multi-religion concerned Malaysian public. Volunteers, many of whom were doctors, health and welfare professionals, put down their names as members of the Malaysian humanitarian team to be sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help the refugees.

In Indonesia, there was a clear difference between the governmental ‘political’ response and the public one. Initially, in Washington, president Megawati, after her visit to the White House, declared Indonesia’s support for the US’s plan to declare war on terrorism and Afghanistan. This was partly the result of US’s “with-us or against-us” ultimatum to all Muslim countries and partly, also, because of Indonesia’s present economic dependence on the US, through the IMF and World Bank, to save it from sinking further into an economic abyss.

However, when she came home to Jakarta she was greeted by massive demonstrations by various Muslim groups who did so for different reasons. Some, who supported the war on terrorism, protested the decision to bomb Afghanistan. A few others adopted a more radical position, such as the members of the militant Laskar Jihad (Jihad Army). They were totally against the US, labelled as the ‘devil country’ and anti-Islam. This group declared jihad on the US. There were also those, mainly from the human rights groups, who protested the bombing due to a humanistic concern for the plight of the refugees. After the demonstrations went on for nearly three weeks, in which some people were killed and hundreds injured, Megawati finally relented and publicly protested bombing of Afghanistan.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, at present, the discourses are centred around the mosaic of local politics, which have significant Islamic components. On the one side, it is about how to contain the extremist-fundamentalist Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims, though very small in numbers, from embarking on a campaign to conduct jihad against the ‘evil America’ that would have negative consequences beyond the numerical and political space they occupy.

This perhaps would threaten not only the Malaysian ‘fair dinkum’ sensibilities but also its overall political stability based on the principle of “unity is not uniformity”. It is also about the struggle to win back supporters for the ruling Malay-Muslim party UMNO and to gain more supporters for the opposition Islamic party, PAS. The supporters are from the same pool of the large Malay-Muslim voters in the country. In Indonesia, the political difficulties are already there. This would mean future difficulties in dealings with the IMF and World Bank, which control the country’s economic future.

On the other side, being a champion of the south and a socio-economic model for other Islamic countries, Malaysia is now suddenly being perceived by both friends and foes of the US 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 a mediator role in the present international crisis has definitely enhanced the Malaysian ‘middle range’ diplomatic role.

One of the most significant impacts of September 11 in Malaysia, which hardly received any public attention until the publication of his article ‘Who Hijacked Islam’ in Times (Asian edition) and International Herald Tribune in mid-October, relates to the fate of Anwar Ibrahim, the sacked deputy prime minister. Many observers believed that Anwar had received a lot of sympathy and support from US political leaders (remember the famous Al Gore walkout in the last APEC meeting held in Malaysia) after he was ousted. In the eyes of the US and international media, Mahathir was branded as a dictator who only wanted to hang on to power, his economic policy was criticised and he was personally snubbed while his political opponents led by Anwar were heralded as the leaders of the new political culture in Malaysia. But September 11 changed all this.

Since president George W Bush’s phone call to Mahathir in early October, then Mahathir’s letter to Bush shortly after that, and the Bush-Mahathir meeting in Shanghai before the APEC summit, Mahathir is now being perceived by politicians and business leaders in the US, at least that is the claim being made by the local press, as the ‘shining light’ of moderate Islam. At a recent luncheon in Kuala Lumpur with over 100 US businessmen, Mahathir was given a standing ovation after a question and answer session.

The moot question is will the ever-pragmatic Americans, now blinded by this ‘shining light’, soon forget Anwar? Judging from the content of Anwar’s recent article, it would be very difficult to separate Anwar’s and Mahathir’s opinion on the September 11 attacks, as difficult as separating Coca-Cola from Pepsi-Cola. But Mahathir is the prime minister and Anwar is not. So, it is not too difficult to guess which of the two the highly pragmatic Americans would favour and support at the moment.

Indonesia is not able to play the role that Malaysia is now playing. Its desperate economic situation and internally weakened political position has reduced the once important role it played in the community of Islamic and non-aligned countries. It is indeed sad to watch the present Indonesia, which was once the champion of the non-aligned nations and played a pivotal role in the Bandung Conference of 1955.

In conclusion, one could argue that Megawati and Mahathir may dislike globalisation and its impact on Indonesian and Malaysian social life. But, whether they like it or not, the September 11 event has now become a global one. It has not only reconfigured some aspects of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s domestic politics but also enhanced Malaysia’s role as a moderate Islamic state in the global war against international terrorism.

The more enduring impact of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan is most felt at the individual level in the sense that Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia have certainly become more conscious about being Muslims. They shall be constantly reminded by fellow Muslims and others, in many different ways, some unpalatable, that they are Muslims and that they are different from the rest. As Muslims, they shall be reminded that they are ‘special’ but for the wrong reason, because they are identified as potential ‘terrorists’. This across the board classification or categorisation is not new at all. The infamous ‘white Australian policy’ is an example.

The ‘white Australian policy’ , although it was disbanded officially by Australia in 1970, has now been re-applied informally by the present Australian government. Ironically, it was the Afghans who were first affected by the revival of this policy, when a group of them tried to enter Australia illegally by boat last August and were redirected to smaller islands in the South Pacific.

The new US immigration rule that demands that a Muslim male aged 18 to 45 has to to go through a ‘terrorist screening’ before being allowed entry will certainly have an impact beyond what it is meant for. Probably other western countries would also adopt this rule. Imagine what the consequences would be, not only for the Muslims from Indonesia and Malaysia, but also for Muslims worldwide. Perhaps then, the elaborate international construction, the “clash of civilisations”, would become a reality.



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