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US Attacks on Afghanistan Put Strains on SE Asian Governments - 2001-10-11

Anti-American protests have been held in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and in the southern Philippines. And Islamic politicians in Malaysia have condemned the U.S. led attacks against targets in Afghanistan.

Violent protests have rocked Jakarta and other Indonesian cities daily since the air strikes against Taleban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan began late Sunday. The protesters want an end to the U.S. led attacks and they want Jakarta to cut diplomatic ties with Washington.

In a Muslim-dominated city in the southern Philippines, Marawi, protesters burned Americans flags and a picture of President Bush. And in Malaysia, the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party called on the United Nations to declare the United States a terrorist state.

These expressions of dissent against their own governments and the United States come from Muslim activists, many of whom are drawn to a militant fundamentalist version of Islam. But Islamic scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina says their anger really has roots in the region's social, political and economic conditions. "In general, the period of tense crisis has been when the political rights have been denied. ... There you find then that Islam provides some kind of justification that, yes, unjust rule should not be accepted. One should not accept persecution," he said.

Professor Sachedina, himself a Muslim from Tanzania, teaches religion at the University of Virginia and has travelled extensively to Malaysia and Indonesia.

"It doesn't begin initially with Muslims taking Islamic books in their hands and saying that 'this is what we have been told to do.' Rather, what happens is that you act out the responses that are necessary in the political and social reality, and then say, 'well, wait a minute. Let's look at our sources. What are we taught by the prophet? What is there in the prophet's paradigm that we can then retrieve today?' And then they find that, yes, the prophet has said that keeping quiet when injustices happen is almost participating with the injustices," he said.

A specialist on Philippine Muslims, Eric Gutierrez, agrees that religion is not the main factor that prompts young people to join militant Islamic groups. Mr. Gutierrez, who is with the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila and lives in London, says if the Philippine government wants to get rid of the Abu Sayyaf, a group that has kidnapped people and has reported links to the al-Qaida terrorist network, it must look beyond just a military solution.

"How come they are able to recruit members? How come they are able to hide in those communities when the military is after them? How come they're able to lie low for a few months if there's a military campaign only to reemerge later? ... Because if it's just purely a military solution that will be applied, they might wipe out the present leadership of the Abu Sayyaf, but the steady supply of young recruits, with no potential future, no education, nothing that they can really hang on to, those leaders who are killed or caught will just be replaced by a fresh bunch of recruits," he said.

Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University, Zakaria Ahmad, says Muslim militants claim to take action in the name of God, and that has a certain appeal to some people. But he says most Muslims in Southeast Asia are not militant.

"Islam is a religion of peace," he said. "So, when people commit these activities, then they obviously do it much more for political cause. Of course, they say it's all in the name of religion. So, in this case, you can find that terrorism is basically condemned by most Muslims. And I think that has been the attitude of the political leadership you find in most countries in Southeast Asia. But this is a very difficult and complex debate."

Professor Ahmad, a Muslim from Singapore, points out that Southeast Asian Muslims are mostly Sunni, not Shia, and he says they are generally quite observant of Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Professor Sachedina says Southeast Asian Muslims generally practice the Shafii version of Islam, which is similar to the practice in Egypt and Jordan. And he describes them as mellow and tolerant in their approach.

"For example, the right of a woman to dictate in her contractual agreement in a marriage a provision that if my husband negotiates a second wife, then I have a right to initiate divorce. It's not accepted, for example, by the Hanafi Muslims that is in Pakistan and other places where Hanafi Muslims are prominently present. Whereas in Shafii system there is a tolerance of what we call, a right of woman is recognized that she can dictate, for example, the right to initiate the divorce, which is denied in other schools of thought," he said.

Professor Sachedina says Islam in Southeast Asia sometimes takes on a mysticism with local customs and characteristics. For example, he says the birthday of the prophet, Mohammad, often includes celebrations and music that blend Asian themes with Muslim religious observances.