To the Editor:
I wish that I could share Joshua Kurlantzick’s sanguine view of the campaign against Islamists in Southeast Asia, but developments in the region make it impossible for me to do so [“Where the War on Terror is Succeeding,” May].
Mr. Kurlantzick writes that “Southeast Asia is proving to be a model for the ‘long war’ against Islamist terror.” And indeed, there have been laudable successes against specific terrorist targets in Indonesia and the Philippines (though not, as Mr. Kurlantzick concedes, in increasingly bloody southern Thailand). But stamping out the suicide bombers and head-choppers of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf should be seen as the “short war”; the long war is countering the ideology of Islamism, and this campaign in Southeast Asia has not been a success but an apparent failure.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, JI’s “spiritual” head, Abu Bakar Bashir, is now free after a slap-on-the-wrist 26-month sentence for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings. He is back to preaching hatred toward unbelievers, and is reportedly considering a (long-shot) run for the presidency of the country in 2009. Last year, the puritanical Justice and Prosperity party, the local offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, nearly passed a bill in parliament that would have outlawed mini-skirts and public displays of affection deemed to be Islamically inappropriate.
Mr. Kurlantzick points out that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. have increased in Indonesia thanks to aid efforts after the 2004 tsunami. This may be factually correct, but it ignores a broader trend. In 1999/ 2000, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 75 percent of Indonesians held a favorable view of the United States. Last year, that number stood at 30 percent. It took only a year for nearly a third of the good will generated by the post-tsunami effort to dissipate.
Meanwhile, another recent poll shows that 17 percent of Indonesians strongly back the imposition of shari’a—a low number compared with results in Pakistan and Egypt, but still shockingly high in a country where a generation ago Islamism was thought to have been diminished to the point of extinction. Islamists empowered by regional autonomy have established shari’a to varying degrees in dozens of towns, cities, and districts across the archipelago. Islamists in the region of Aceh, in particular, deploy Taliban-style vice squads and revel in public floggings. In parts of Java, women who are found outdoors after dark without a male relative are arrested; those found with lipstick in their handbags can be charged as prostitutes. The local Ahmadiyya Muslims, a moderate sect whose treatment everywhere is a measure of Muslim tolerance, are a community under siege. As in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the government has stood by as mobs have sacked their mosques. Many Christians face similar intimidation.
In keeping with his focus on the fight against terror, Mr. Kurlantzick ignores the situation in Malaysia. Although terrorists are not active there—like Malaysian microchips and palm oil, they tend to be exported—Islamists are thriving. Shari’a courts have increasingly asserted their authority over the country’s beleaguered minorities. The secular supreme court recently deemed inadmissible a Muslim-born woman’s ten-year quest to embrace Christianity. In another celebrated case, a practicing Hindu mother was forcibly separated from her husband and young child and packed off to a religious re-education camp after mullahs ruled that she was, in fact, a Muslim.
The real issue, in the end, is how we measure the health of Muslim societies. The number of terrorists in shallow graves or behind bars is only one metric, albeit an important one. There are other, more reliable indicators of hope: rising hemlines and visible hairlines, Israeli backpackers in flea markets, conference invitations for figures like Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Daniel Pipes, rising profits for local breweries (where they exist), and dwindling demand for combustible effigies of Uncle Sam.
By these measures, Southeast Asia’s problem with Islamism is indeed less glaring than what we see in the Middle East and Pakistan. But things are also unquestionably worse than they were a generation ago, when the headscarf was rare and the writings of Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi were familiar only to the tiniest fringe. As a social, cultural, and political movement, Islamism is growing rather than fading. It will take much more than sacks of rice hauled off U.S. aircraft carriers or the occasional arrest of a terrorist kingpin to change the situation.
Joshua Kurlantzick writes:
Sadanand Dhume, an acute observer of Southeast Asia, makes several important points. He correctly observes that America’s image has not turned the corner in the region, and he notes several developments of concern in Malaysia, which is indeed a key ally in the war on terror. But he fails to recognize either the strength of what he calls “short-term successes,” which in fact have important long-term consequences, or the relative weakness of some of the disturbing cultural trends that he outlines.
Our “laudable successes” in the war on terror in Southeast Asia are not just isolated episodes, as Mr. Dhume suggests. Most nations in the region, with the bloody and bungled exception of Thailand, have seen great progress in recent years against the Islamists. In June, Indonesia captured the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiah’s military wing. At roughly the same time, it nabbed the man believed to be JI’s operational head and acting spiritual leader. Zachary Abuza, a specialist in Southeast Asian affairs at Simmons College (and hardly one to make rosy predictions), has declared that Indonesia has “neutralize[d] JI as [an] immediate threat.” According to Kenneth Conboy, another Southeast Asia scholar, JI has been hurt to the point of having to abandon its region-wide network.
Such operations have a broader impact in the region. They demonstrate to would-be terrorist recruits how prepared the state is to act against them; they boost public confidence in government and make citizens more willing to stand up to extremists; and they encourage Muslim protest groups to resolve their grievances in the cultural-political arena, not by recourse to terror.
Mr. Dhume puts too much weight on what he sees as the spread of Islamism. Aceh has historically been one of the more devout places in Southeast Asia, and it stands quite apart from the rest of the region, which has tended to be more moderate. In Java, there is little evidence that Islamism today holds more sway than it did in the late 1990’s, when the upheaval of the Asian financial crisis and the chaos of democratization in Indonesia allowed Islamist groups to make significant inroads. Mr. Dhume mentions the intimidation of Christians in Indonesia, but things have actually progressed in recent years. Recall the brutal Muslim-Christian bloodletting in parts of Indonesia like the Molucca Islands in the late 1990’s and early years of this decade. Likewise, there was more intimidation of minority sects six years ago than there is today.
The ultimate test of any ideology’s power is its ability to convert its appeal into political strength. The salient fact is that, cultural inroads notwithstanding, the Islamists in Southeast Asia continually fail to gain political power—the kind of power that, once institutionalized, can then perpetuate Islamism. Indonesia’s Justice and Prosperity party failed in its effort to pass legislation imposing a restrictive dress code. The country’s Islamic parties are barely more influential than they were when the nation was founded, and its leading Islamic organizations remain moderate groups with large memberships. In Malaysia, the Islamic opposition party has weakened since the late 1990’s; in the southern Philippines, a peace process sponsored by Manila has blunted the emergence of any radical Islamist political party. Without formal political power, Southeast Asian Islamists will remain a distinct minority.