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Asian Leaders Confront the Clash Between Terrorism, Religion - 2002-10-22

After bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines in the past two weeks, leaders in the region are trying to come to grips with the fact that catastrophic terrorism has spread to Southeast Asia and what it means for religious and communal tolerance.

It has been nearly a year since Singapore first raised the alarm that international terrorism had established a foothold in Southeast Asia. The government announced it had uncovered a plot by Islamic extremists to attack Western and public installations. It said the plot was the work of Jemaah Islamiah, an ally of the al-Qaida network, and an advocate the creation of an Islamic state in the region.

No one was more surprised than Singapore's religious leaders. The secretary of the Islamic Religious Council, Syed Haroon Aljunied, says until then, no one had ever heard of Jemaah Islamiah. Mr. Haroon says religious leaders were even more concerned when it was discovered that none of the Singaporeans detained in the plot had received religious training as children. "All this group of Muslims who were arrested, who are associated with them, none of them came from religious schooling and a lot of them mentioned that they emptied a vacuum, the religious vacuum that they have," he says.

Mr. Haroon says those detained had only embraced Islam as adults. He says religious leaders for some time have been worried about the low level of religious education among Muslim youth here.

Officials say 96 percent of Singapore's Muslim students study at state schools, which are secular, and receive religious schooling after hours. Because religious schooling is optional, 60 percent receive no religious training. They believe these individuals are the most likely to develop extremist views if later in life they come under the influence of charismatic teachers.

The director of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association, Zhulkiflee Haji Ismail, says the revelations of the past year have distressed moderate Muslims in Singapore. "We are not people who like to take the limelight, but usually the limelights are being turned on the radical people so their views are being aired more often than ours," he says. "And it's sad that even the media do not check with us."

Mr. Zhulkiflee blames the media for focusing primarily on extremists. But he says mainstream religious leaders must also work to correct those who teach views that run counter to the peaceful message of Islam.

A researcher with Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Kumar Ramakrishna, says there is a tradition of tolerance in Southeast Asia because it is where people successfully blended traditional religious elements with modernity. "Most southeast Asian Muslims are still very much moderate," he says. "Having said that, the picture is not static. There is a discernible process of radicalization going on among Southeast Asian Muslims."

Professor Ramakrishna says some of this radicalization is due to external influences. One is the growth of conservative religious schools financed by Middle Eastern money during the oil boom of the 1970s. Another influence was the Iranian revolution, which he says reinforced the faith of Muslims and led many to return to their roots.

More recently, he says young men who fought the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan came home in the 1990s with more fundamentalist views. He adds that the information revolution also spread knowledge about religious conflicts within the region as well as in other parts of the world.

A researcher with Singapore's Institute of International Affairs, Irene Ng, says this trend is cause for concern because the region is home to 20 percent, or one-quarter billion, of the world's Muslims. "There has been a trend towards radical Islam which is a major challenge facing this region, and is that much more difficult for us to handle because if you try and go after Muslim terrorists you have to be careful not to cause the moderates to feel defensive and to feel under siege, which would radicalize them," she says. Ms. Ng says mainstream Muslims must be convinced that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam.

Nevertheless, many leaders, like Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Tony Tan, believe a rigorous response is necessary from government. "It's not a matter of doing something today and hoping that that's enough. You have to work at this relentlessly in order to keep the terrorists on the run, to prevent them from grouping and carrying out their plans," he says. "It's unpleasant, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of our resources, but it is the only way."

Mr. Tan says the region must be prepared for a long, hard struggle. For, he says, it will take many years to counter what he calls the deep-seated ideology that permits individuals to believe there is nothing wrong with killing innocent people in order to further their goals.