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All Talk, No Action

Muslim radicals in the region have tried to whip up fervour against the United States. But they've had scant success as most Muslims are more concerned about domestic issues

By Dini Djalal and John McBeth/JAKARTA

Issue cover-dated October 25, 2001


HABIB MUHAMAD RIZIEQ is a man bent on waging Islamic holy war against the United States and its allies, but the genial Indonesian cleric--like other Muslim militants in Southeast Asia--is not having much luck recruiting an army to the cause.

The 36-year-old Islamic Defenders Front leader's call for jihad resonates among Indonesia's small, though vocal, band of Muslim extremists, drawing a steady stream of self-styled mujahideen, or holy warriors, from across Java and Sumatra--many in their teens--to his ramshackle headquarters in a poor Jakarta neighbourhood. His anti-Western rhetoric has spooked foreign nationals living in the country and forced the temporary closure of the U.S. and other embassies.

But protests in Indonesia, already wearied by three years of communal and political strife, have drawn only a few hundred hardline adherents and the same pattern is being seen in other Muslim-populated areas. Despite a broad reservoir of anti-U.S. sentiment--often stoked by a hostile media--moderate Islam across Southeast Asia has proven to be surprisingly resistant to extremism in a region struggling to rationalize America's war on terrorism with showing Muslim solidarity.

Many are finding that problems at home are simply more relevant and pressing. Others believe the financial cost of falling out with the U.S. will be too much at a time when their economies are in trouble. And there are some voicing their concerns through democratic channels--notably Thailand's Muslims, who gained new, much-welcomed freedoms under the country's 1997 constitution. (See story on page 18.)

But the danger remains--and Indonesian militants in particular may be counting on it--that a long-drawn-out U.S. campaign will stir up more widespread anti-American sentiment and draw support from those hit the hardest by an economic downturn. Mindful of their large Muslim constituencies, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are hedging their bets and have begun criticizing the strikes against Afghanistan after initially supporting the fight against terrorism.

For the moment, their Muslim populations and those in other countries are, generally, staying in line. In Jakarta, turbaned radicals demanding a boycott of American products are now being greeted with disapproving comments by people worried about how their actions will impact on tourism, investment and Indonesia's shattered economy. "You don't represent me or Islam," shouts a bystander during a recent rally at the well-guarded U.S. embassy.

And though Malaysia recently witnessed the largest anti-U.S. demonstration in its history, it may have been anger at globalization as much as religion that brought the 3,000 protesters into the streets of Kuala Lumpur. As in Indonesia, moderate voices in the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas, have been drowned out in a wave of radical rhetoric designed mainly to score local political points. But analysts dismiss the notion that it will ignite Malaysia's silent majority. Like many of their Indonesian neighbours, they still simply have too much to lose. (See story on page 17.)

Moderates among Thailand's 3 million Muslims are spearheading peaceful protest--a boycott against U.S. and British goods rather than threatening foreign nationals or fist-punching rallies. And in the Philippines, the imagination of the country's 5% Muslim minority is focused on the struggle for a measure of self-rule in the dirt-poor southern provinces--above all Mindanao--and the lack of economic opportunities for Muslims. "Right now I think Muslims are grounded in the problems in their own backyard," says Datu Amilusin Jumaani, secretary-general of the moderate Ulama League of the Philippines. "We have a separate reality to that of Afghans."

Iqbal Siregar, Jakarta chief of the Islamic Youth Movement, or GPI, acknowledges that the general public "doesn't yet fully support our actions." When the GPI asked for volunteers to serve in Afghanistan, only 700 men and women signed up and none are likely ever to get there. But Siregar believes public sentiment against the Americans will change as air strikes continue. "It's not impossible that the public will ultimately sympathize with us, maybe not through demonstrating with us but through funding our organization," he says.

In Indonesia, U.S. policy toward Palestine has long been a point of contention among the country's Muslims. But the resentment has sharpened with the emergence of radical Islam in the past three years. "In better times those groups wouldn't have a chance, but there is a huge number of unemployed, widespread dissatisfaction and no ideology for people to explain themselves in," says Sarwono Kusumaadmadja, a former cabinet minister. "The elite is uncaring and the mosques are increasingly taking care of social problems."

Indeed, what worries many analysts is that the radicals might eventually attract the economically dispossessed. One major obstacle, however, appears to be money, or lack of it, to attract the underprivileged. Even Rizieq's Islamic Defenders Front, whose Islamic underpinnings cloak links to the underworld and the police, operates on a shoestring budget.

But though they find common ground in what has been a decades-long campaign for a Muslim state, or at least the establishment of Islamic law, Indonesia's radicals have never been united and are often sharply divided over doctrinal and other issues. Ultimately, they and others in the region are more preoccupied with local concerns than the plight of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Take the Laskar Jihad, perhaps Indonesia's most militant group. The group's leader, Ja'far Umar Thalib, a veteran of the 1980s Afghan war of resistance against the Soviet occupation, has made himself scarce in recent weeks. When asked why the group was not taking part in the anti-American protests, one of his associates said it was "still internally consolidating its response" towards the U.S. assault on Afghanistan and added that it was wary of inciting violence. Thalib himself has poured scorn on bin Laden's Islamic credentials and says he refused an offer of funds from the Saudi millionaire. He told a press conference on October 16 that: "Religion-wise, bin Laden is empty. He only has followers because he has money." Some analysts believe the Laskar Jihad is keeping a low profile because it fears a military crackdown that would set back its domestic agenda of making inroads into Christian areas.

Hardline activist Eggi Sudjana, who heads the Muslim Workers' Brotherhood, cites economic reasons for his union's silence. He says he doesn't support sweeps against U.S. citizens and interests "because it will do nothing to stop the bombing." Boycotting American goods and attacking U.S. franchises would only lead to job losses for Indonesians, he reasons.

And Philippine Muslims seem even more removed from the issue, for all the attention given to the Abu Sayyaf and its bin Laden connections. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for example, is concentrating on a fresh round of peace talks initiated by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo earlier this year. The talks are backed by the Organization of Islamic Conferences. Shariff Julabbi, a member of the MILF negotiating panel, says getting involved in the Afghanistan issue will only "complicate the matter."

For the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace pact with the government in 1996, the cause for concern is the future of the shaky autonomous administration created as part of the deal on Mindanao. If the central government fails to push development, warns Mohammednur Ajihil, former executive assistant to the head of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, younger Muslims could become disillusioned with peace.

What worries many commentators in Indonesia and Malaysia is the way government and moderate Islamic leaders surrendered the rhetorical high ground to the extremists. After her initial statement in Washington supporting the campaign against terrorism, Megawati only succeeded in angering all sides with her subsequent inaction. Her recent criticism of the U.S. strikes is clearly aimed at domestic consumption.

Like most of Indonesia's political and business elite, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a former aide to ex-President B.J. Habibie, worries about the damage that could be done to the country's national interest. "We can't survive economically without interacting with the international community," she says. "This is a time when she should have showed leadership and acted as a bridge between the Muslims and the West. Indonesia was well placed to do that."

In Malaysia there are also serious concerns about how the field is being left to the extremists. Zainah Anwar, commissioner in the government's Human Rights Commission, worries about the growth of a "reactive, conservative, defensive and potentially dangerous kind of Islam." She says there is little room for dissenting Muslims, and little room for those of other faiths to raise questions. "Very few Muslims even discuss Islam in public, as there is the potential of being accused as an apostate."

Farish Noor, a prominent Malaysian scholar of Islamic affairs, puts it more succinctly. "The move towards religious politics is not like going into a supermarket where you can buy something and if you don't like it you can take it back." he notes. "A religious administration is God's administration and you don't vote God out of power. We have to be very careful where we are going."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 18, 2001

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