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East Asia Comes Under Special Scrutiny in War on Terrorism - 2001-12-22

The September 11 attacks focused world attention on terrorism carried out by radical Islamic fundamentalists. The war against terrorism is concentrated in Afghanistan, but law enforcement officials around the world are searching for anyone tied to the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. Because they have large Muslim populations, the countries of East Asia have come under special scrutiny.

More than half the world's Muslims live east of Karachi, Pakistan.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. The populations of Malaysia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim, and large numbers of Muslims live in China, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Burma.

Governments in East Asia have tried to keep Islamic fundamentalism from establishing a strong political foothold. But in recent years, there have been increasing pressures for stricter observance of Muslim practices, and tensions have been growing between moderate Muslims and fundamentalist groups.

Southeast Asia specialist James Clad, with Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Washington, says many Asian countries have to balance their desire to cooperate in the U.S.-led war on terrorism with their need to maintain domestic stability. "The difficulty is that in lining up with the United States, or any global effort to combat terrorism, each country has to weigh into the calculation other factors besides improving its own domestic security," he says. "Some of the countries have large Islamic populations in which various small fringe minorities that are very voluble are enjoying this moment of the spotlight, and are calling for all kinds of extreme responses to what they wish to see as an American attack on Islam, which is nothing of the sort."

After the United States and Britain began their air attacks against terrorist and Taleban targets in Afghanistan in October, there were almost daily protests in the streets of several Indonesian cities. But Indonesia experts say the number of militant Islamic extremists there is relatively small.

Former Indonesian President Suharto enforced an atmosphere of religious and ethnic harmony, and limited the spread of Islamic extremism during his 32-year rule. But since his ouster in 1998, sectarian and separatist violence has increased, and much of it involves militant Muslim groups.

The government is deploying extra police and soldiers to several areas, including Aceh, the Molukus and central Sulawesi. The most recent fighting in Sulawesi erupted, according to Christian groups, after the arrival of fighters from the militant Islamic group Laskar Jihad.

The serious downturn in Indonesia's economy and a resulting rise in unemployment have provided a fertile atmosphere for extremist groups seeking new recruits. Yet Islamic scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, at the University of Virginia, says militant groups are finding some of their strongest support from among educated youth. "We used to profile fundamentalists as less educated people, as masses. Quite the contrary," he says. "What we are discovering is that university educated people are finding militancy and their expression of militancy through religion. And it's very powerfully organizing itself."

One Indonesian group, Darul Islam, which means "House of Islam", claims to have ties with followers of Osama bin Laden and says it has trained foreign volunteers in using weapons and explosives. But the Indonesian government has denied the existence of training camps.

Muslims in the Philippines are concentrated in the southern part of the country, where there has been an independence movement. In recent years, the main Muslim organizations have negotiated with the government in Manila. But a radical group, Abu Sayyaf, has continued its revolt, and regularly stages terrorist acts, including kidnappings.

Philippine officials believe Abu Sayyaf has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, and the United States put it on the list of groups whose assets were frozen because of such ties. Former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Palmer, a specialist on Southeast Asia, dismisses the significance of Abu Sayyaf's foreign links, and says it is a home-grown phenomenon. "I think it goes without saying that extremist radical Islamic groups, such as that of Osama bin Laden, would seek contact with any local groups that would accept their money, would accept a connection," he says. "My sense, however, is that the radicals Abu Sayyaf, however you wish to define them, are very much focused on the domestic scene there. They're interested in local power. They're interested in increased autonomy for Muslim areas of the south. And their problems are fundamentally with the government in Manila."

Hundreds of Muslims from several East Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and China, have gone to Afghanistan, volunteering to fight alongside the Taleban. A U.S. State Department official said in Beijing recently that some Chinese nationals, apparently Muslims from the western region of Xinjiang, were captured in Afghanistan.

China has supported the international anti-terror campaign, and has used it to seek sympathy for its own crackdown on separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang. They have been blamed for a series of bombings and attacks on police stations.

A Xinjiang specialist, Dru Gladney, at the University of Hawaii, says China has not used the global anti-terror campaign to crack down on all Chinese Muslims, or on other separatist groups. "Some people have linked China's crackdown on terrorism to its concerns with Tibet and with Taiwan as a separatist region," he says. "You know, there's not much distinction in China between a terrorist and a separatist. But so far, I think interestingly enough, China has gone to great lengths not to raise the Taiwan or Tibet issue, and is trying to treat the Uighur case as quite unique. And the Foreign Ministry has tried to speak out more specifically to say they are cracking down on separatists and Muslim extremists, and not on Islam."

A visiting professor from Singapore, Zakaria Ahmad, at Ohio University, says most Muslims in Asia understand that terrorists commit their violence really for political reasons, even though they say it is in the name of religion. After all, says Professor Ahmad, himself a Muslim, Islam is a religion of peace. "When some of these militants, when they propagate their activities, or do things, which are very militant, in the name of God, you know they say that this is basically part of a holy war, it has a certain appeal, I think to some people," he says. "And, actually, they can easily sway opinion in some fashion, in some parts of Southeast Asia. But I think, in general, I think Muslims in Southeast Asia, I think, are much more sober, and don't want to create those kinds of problems that those militants do."

And, Professor Ahmad says, most Asian Muslims condemn the terrorist acts by extremists.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001