Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Nervousness over Afghanistan

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ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Nervousness Over Afghanistan

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore.

In the first weeks after Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks and their repercussions seemed to dominate every waking hour where I live, in Singapore. When my wife and I met friends at a restaurant, our conversation quickly turned to those subjects; our sons, who normally take no interest in the news, not only followed events but asked a lot of questions about what was happening. The two-day break that we took three weeks after the attacks was, therefore, very welcome. We were to go on a short cycling trip in southern Malaysia and spend a night by the seashore, away from television and telephones.

The break not only was refreshing, but it also helped to put events in perspective. In the quiet villages and small towns through which we passed, life was going on as usual. It seemed like an important thing to remember: in the Western media, it is all too easy to see photographs of protest rallies over Washington's moves against Afghanistan and read stories of groups calling for a jihad. It's easy to assume that this represents what is going on throughout predominantly Muslim countries. In reality, people are still going to work, shopping, cooking, eating and worrying about how their children are performing in school.

Regional leaders want it to stay that way. They worry about the fallout from Sept. 11. One thing that certainly sends a shiver through all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is any suggestion that the "war against terrorism" might be extended against other Muslim countries besides Afghanistan. That, they feel, would play into the hands of those who say that the U.S. operation in Afghanistan is an attack on Islam and Muslims in general. Above all, it would be very harmful for Washington to be seen to be targeting states and organizations on Israel's enemies list. Suggestions by pro-Israel figures in the U.S., therefore, that it should go after Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are viewed with alarm and incredulity. Such a campaign might be in Israel's interests, but it would also certainly be in those of Bin Laden's network, which would relish any consequent polarization between Muslim and non-Muslim. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, who have had to grapple with communal conflicts at various times in their modern histories, do not want to see extremist groups handed ammunition by gung ho Westerners.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia in particular, as leaders of predominantly Muslim countries, have sought to impress their concerns upon Western governments. Both strongly criticized the Sept. 11 attacks, but advised the U.S. to be cautious in its response.

Megawati had an early opportunity to present her views directly to President George W. Bush. She had been scheduled to meet him in Washington on Sept. 19 and, despite speculation that her trip might be canceled, it went ahead as planned. Megawati emerged from that meeting with a promise of $400 million in U.S. aid and an American commitment to revive contacts with the Indonesian military to a certain extent. She was no doubt given assurances of Washington's support for the territorial integrity of Indonesia within its current borders.

Back in Indonesia, her government performed a balancing act. It did not come out in support of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, but, without condemning that policy as such, it indicated its unhappiness with aspects of it. Differences between Megawati and Vice President Hamzah Haz were evident. The vice president heads the United Development Party, the second largest of the Muslim parties in the Indonesian parliament, and voiced views that are widely held within them, calling for air strikes to be stopped because they were killing and injuring civilians and destroying mosques. …