Southeast Asia Shaken by Rise Of Strict Islam

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 5, 2000

KUALA TERENGGANU, Malaysia In the northeastern Malaysian state of Terengganu, known for its white-sand beaches and offshore oil fields, karaoke bars have been forced to disconnect beer taps and toss out liquor bottles. Unisex hair salons have been told to close. And men and women no longer are allowed to stand in the same supermarket lines lest males witness females purchasing personal hygiene products.

The new rules are part of a crackdown by conservative Islamic politicians who won control of the important industrial province in recent parliamentary elections. They are on a mission to transform largely secular Malaysia--long regarded as a model of multi-ethnic harmony in Southeast Asia--into an Islamic state where alcohol sales, gambling and the public mingling of men and women are outlawed.

"Islam is not just for Arabs," said Nasharudin Matisa, secretary general of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which now governs Terengganu. "It is meant for all people."

Muslim leaders have embarked on a similar quest across Southeast Asia, a region with a long tradition of religious moderation and secular politics. In a trend that is causing increasing worry about regional stability, Islamic fundamentalists are mounting aggressive campaigns for separate states and strict adherence to religious laws.

In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, hundreds of young men dressed in flowing white prayer robes and armed with machetes, who call themselves the Front for the Protection of Islam, have been ransacking bars and beating up prostitutes. In response to the recent violence in the Middle East as well as diplomatic disputes between the U.S. and Indonesian governments, thousands of Muslim activists have held noisy rallies where they have burned Israeli and U.S. flags, and members of the Islamic front have been prowling Indonesian cities at night looking for Jews and Americans, whom they have threatened to kill.

A thousand miles to the east, in the archipelago once known as the Spice Islands, legions of Muslim vigilantes have spent the past 18 months waging a bloody war to drive out the Christian population that has claimed more than 4,000 lives.

On the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Islamic rebels fighting for an independent homeland have engaged in a wave of terror since the spring, setting off dozens of bombs, attacking churches and engaging in firefights with government troops that have resulted in the deaths of more than 250 civilians and soldiers. A government counteroffensive has intensified the fighting, driving as many as 670,000 people--most of them Muslims--from their homes.

Another band of Filipino Muslim separatist guerrillas known as Abu Sayyaf employed a different tactic, kidnapping 20 tourists from a Malaysian diving resort on Easter Sunday. The guerrillas recently released those hostages after receiving more than $15 million in ransom payments from Libya, but they are still holding two others, including an American.

Malaysia has also faced the specter of religious violence. Twenty-nine members of an Islamic sect recently raided an army depot, stealing rocket launchers and taking four hostages--torturing and killing two of them--before surrendering to security forces.

The surge in peaceful Islamic fundamentalism as well as violent extremism is viewed by many government officials, political analysts and diplomats as one of the most serious threats to stability in Southeast Asia, a region whose shipping lanes, low-cost manufacturing and emerging markets make it important to the global economy. In Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous country, the stakes are particularly high: The rise of fundamentalism is threatening to undermine secular traditions as the country tries to embrace democracy after more than three decades of authoritarian rule.

"The growth of radical Islamic movements in the region is very alarming," said a senior Western diplomat in Jakarta. "It's already a major destabilizing force--and it has the potential to become much worse."

Leaders of the Islamic movements in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines insist they operate independently of each other. Intelligence sources generally concur, but note that some of the groups have been trading weapons, particularly the Philippine separatists in Mindanao and the Muslim fighters in the Indonesian Spice Islands, which are now known as the Moluccas.

Intelligence officials also believe that foreign Islamic groups have made inroads in the region, including ones with links to Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, who is accused by the United States of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people. The groups have been quietly providing training, arms and financial assistance to extremist organizations in the region, most notably in Indonesia, they said.

Indonesia also has been warming its ties to Islamic countries that Western governments believe are sponsors of terrorism. Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid visited Iran earlier this year, while the chairman of Indonesia's parliament, Amien Rais, met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein this summer.

"The Middle Eastern groups see Asia as a fertile new ground to promote their extremist agenda," a Western intelligence official said.

Introduced to the western parts of Indonesia and Malaysia by Arab traders in the 13th and 14th centuries, Islam gradually spread eastward across the islands of Borneo and Java all the way to the Philippines. In much of Indonesia, the faith blended with traditional animist beliefs. Although a small group of more orthodox adherents did emerge, the combination of old practices and new religion led to a moderate form of Asian Islam, where women, for instance, were free to work and leave their heads uncovered.

Today, more than 85 percent of Indonesia's 216 million people are Muslim, but it is not officially an Islamic country. To promote national unity, independence leaders insisted in the late 1940s that the country's constitution officially recognize four faiths--Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although Jakarta has a mosque every few blocks and Friday prayers bring many businesses to a halt, its wide boulevards feature neon billboards touting locally brewed Bintang beer. The city has bars open all night, where scantily clad teenage girls gyrate on the dance floor. There are also gambling dens and bordellos.

The fact that such establishments exist and that alcohol is so openly promoted galls Habib Muhammad Rizieq bin Hussein Syihab, a 35-year-old high school teacher who leads the Front for the Protection of Islam. He wants the bars shuttered and the prostitutes jailed. He also wants Islamic law to be imposed on everyone, no matter what their religion.

"We see the lack of morality spreading like an illness," Rizieq said. "It's like malaria. It's not enough to treat those who are ill. We must kill the mosquitoes."

Rizieq claims that his movement has 15 million followers who are ready to do battle against what they believe are evil Western influences in Indonesia's emerging democracy. Political analysts say he probably only has a few thousand machete-wielding men at his command. But the analysts note that his group--like other fundamentalist-minded organizations--has grown markedly in the past two years.

The growth of fundamentalist and extremist movements across the region is the result of unique factors in each country, but there is one common thread: a sense of economic disenfranchisement. The Asian financial crisis caused the standard of living for tens of millions of people to plummet, fueling resentment of the predominantly Christian business elite in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Indonesia, the economic woes were quickly followed by the downfall of Suharto, the dictator who had severely curtailed fundamentalist organizations during his 32-year rules as a threat to his hold on power.

"Now, in the name of democracy, they are coming to the forefront of society," said Azyumardi Azra, head of a state-run Islamic university in Jakarta.

Hard-line religious leaders also are trying to rally support around disaffection with Wahid. A pluralist and moderate who once headed the world's largest Muslim social organization, Wahid has angered fundamentalists with his commitment to keep religion out of politics and his flat rejections of calls to impose Islamic law.

Wahid has said he is trying to strike a balance between the interests of Muslims and minority religious groups. His supporters contend that a majority of Indonesian Muslims do not favor the imposition of Islamic law or other social restrictions.

But Rizieq insists his group will continue its violent attacks until Wahid relents. "It seems that the government is deaf to the interests of Muslims," he said. "So this is our only option."

In the Philippines, Islamic leaders say they have given up trying to get the government's attention. Muslims, who make up just 5 percent of the country's 75 million people, complain they have been mistreated for decades by the predominantly Roman Catholic country. They note that Philippine schools prominently feature Christian symbols and force Muslim students to attend Mass on Fridays. In the business world, Muslim men often have to adopt biblical names and women have to take off their head scarves if they want to get hired.

Muslim leaders also contend that Christian Filipinos have stolen their jobs and land, and that repeated promises of economic development have failed to materialize.

Although Muslim guerrillas have been waging a low-grade separatist battle for decades, the conflict mushroomed into an all-out war earlier this year. Among the reasons for the eruption, officials on both sides say, was President Joseph Estrada's decision to order a military offensive against the independence-minded rebels, who turned out to be better armed and more resolute than the government had expected. The rebels, who acknowledge receiving weapons and training from Libya and other Arab countries, also say they have been emboldened by last year's U.N.-sponsored independence referendum in East Timor.

In Malaysia, unlike in the Philippines and Indonesia, Muslim fundamentalists are pushing their agenda through the political system, which they have done with remarkable success in the past year.

Although the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, known as Pas, advocates the eventual transformation of the country into an Islamic state, it also has pitched itself as a clean-government alternative for Malays who have grown disenchanted with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, particularly his support for the prosecution of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges. It's a message that has resonated with voters: The party tripled its seats in the last parliamentary elections.

"People have become disillusioned with Mahathir," said Mustafa Ali, a senior Pas leader in Terengganu. "They see that the way he governs the country is too authoritarian, that there is too much cronyism."

But the growth of Pas has deeply divided Malaysia, which has long been regarded as a bulwark of political stability in Southeast Asia. In Terengganu, for instance, while Muslims have been attracted to the party's pledges of government reform, ethnic Chinese and other non-Muslims chafe at the prohibitions on alcohol and gambling.

"The government has told me that I can no longer cut a man's hair," said Tan Pek Hua, 32, the owner of the Scissors & Comb unisex hair salon. "What's wrong with a woman cutting a man's hair?"

To respond to the Pas, Mahathir is copying a page from its playbook. He has sought to appeal to Islamic fundamentalists by doing such things as inserting Muslim prayers in his speeches.

"Islam is becoming the defining force in politics in Malaysia and in Indonesia," said a well-placed political analyst in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. "The pluralistic days are over in Southeast Asia."

Keeping Track of Muslim Populations

The percentage of populations in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that are Muslim:

INDONESIA 85%

MALAYSIA 40%

PHILIPPINES 5%

 

SOURCES: World Almanac and news reports